The foundation for experiencing and understanding herbal energetics and human constitutions is to learn to speak with the natural world (including plants and the human body) through our senses (which is what they’re there for, after all). Thus, one of the most important practices of the aspiring or practicing herbalist is to thoroughly awaken, engage and refine the senses.
Of the Earth: Original Speech and the Senses
by Kiva Rose Hardin
“All we have to believe with is our senses, the tools we use to perceive the world: our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted. And even if we do not believe, then still we cannot travel in any other way than the road our senses show us; and we must walk that road to the end.”
Original speech was never words. The language of primal being and the living earth speaks in a soft brush of fur against our bare skin, flows on wild melodies for our ears to hear, blossoms into a rich sweetness on our tongues, fades into a thousand shades of green in the forest canopy, envelopes us in the heady musk of an orchid. Words are shorthand, symbols for the real world. – Don’t mistake me, words have beauty and power, but only so far as they evoke the sensory web in which we live. Abstractions, concepts without root in the flesh and blood of earthly existence are but stillborn shadows of the inspirited organism that is our planet. The healer cannot afford to play pretend with big words and heady ideas, our work is in the achingly physical planes of skin, root, bone, leaf, heart, petiole, uterus, stamen, belly. This is our territory, our haven, our speech and most of all, our home.
As humans, we are intended to reside in our bodies and in our connections to the land, each other, the all. Our senses are not meant to be just half of the equation, with the other half cerebral hyperbole and mental loops. Our senses and our honed awareness of them are the entirety of being. Indeed, if we do not live wholly in our bodies, we do not wholly live. Our minds exist, not outside of the senses, but as a processing center for sensation, so that we might further refine and hone our awareness, our capacity to feel and our ability to respond to those feelings.
Our ancestors, as indigenous peoples of planet earth and full participants in the natural world, knew well how to listen to the land. They heard and understood the language of river, otter, rock, dragonfly and flower. In the age of industrial civilization we speak of these people and those days as if they were long gone. As if, in fact, it all might have been a myth, a fanciful fairy story to begin with. After all, old women do love to embellish stories by the fire, and men are well known for their exaggerated tales, so perhaps life has always been this burdensome and boring and we humans have always been this cut off from the magic and mystery. Perhaps we never did speak to plants, and we really are as crazy as our neighbors (who catch us whispering compliments to Dandelions) suppose we are. This insistent and insidious whisper of doubt stems from our fear and our imagined separation from the natural world, including ourselves. And despite the many stories to the contrary, it is not magic and the realm of Faery that have faded from our world, but we humans who have closed ourselves into the vast corridors of our minds and turned our backs on the innate enchantment to which we are each born.
3 Steps to ReLearning Original Language
1. Surrender to the Senses
The first step is to forget words, and the best and most natural way to do this is to give ourselves over to our senses. Step away from your computer, wander out of the house into the forest or garden or into your lover’s arms. Immerse yourself in the experience as if it was the first time you’d ever smelled dew-wet grass at dawn, or kissed the inside of your husband’s wrist, where the pulse pounds beneath your lips. Give yourself up to it as if it were the final time. As if this whisper of indian summer wind lilting through the elms that line your road is the last sound you’ll ever hear.
Now, start with five minutes each day, spend that entire time without words in your head. But don’t space out or float away from your body, stay firmly rooted in the here and now, ground yourself in your senses. If you can’t manage it any other way, choose five minutes of eating. Eat very slowly, don’t analyze the food. Notice it, savor it, and if it’s not worth savoring, get something else to eat. Give yourself over to instinctual experience of touch, taste, scent, sound and sight.
Integrate this into your daily life, even when it’s painful or unpleasant. If you burn your finger on the stove or your toes are cramped by your too small shoes, pay attention and respond rather than blocking or numbing it. Feel it, explore it, live inside it until you recognize the feeling’s fingerprint upon your senses.
If this is hard, persist. If it’s easy, delight in it. Don’t trivialize or rush the process. Don’t imagine for a moment you already know how to do this, no matter your age, your experience, your education. This is important, this is the primary way in which the natural world speaks to us, and it is the only way in which to learn the most vital aspects of a healer’s practice.
Don’t worry about translating every sensation into meaning, that comes later, and will only inhibit the process at this point. For now, simply cultivate a mammalian awareness and child-like presence. Notice. Embrace. Savor.
2. Inhabit your body.
One might think that surrendering to sensation would be identical to inhabiting the body, but I have seen and experienced the phenomenon of entering the body or immersing the self in sensation just long enough to experience incredible pleasure or crushing pain, but otherwise habitually abandoning the body to its automatic processes with little notice on our part.
To inhabit the body is to consciously and completely attend to breath, play, pain, dream, bliss. It is to stretch and wriggle into every crevice and corridor, filling our skin with our selves. It is to finally realize that our skin IS our selves. We are not merely souls trapped in flesh, but rather animated, inspirited matter in the form dancing, crying, loving humans.
Many of us may wish our bodies were younger, more toned, smaller, lithe or less scarred – and yet, our bodies are both home and, hopefully, an expression of our own character, a lined map of the lives we have lived. The more fully we inhabit our bodies, the more our bodies will reflect our authentic selves, from the sparkle of the eye to the gesture of eager hands to the balance and confidence with which we move. There is no other body for our beings, just as there is no other planet for our people. We are here and nowhere else. The journey to loving and valuing our body, perceived flaws and all, may be long and arduous indeed, but we begin with accepting that it is who we are and by inhabiting it as completely as is possible.
Consciousness resides in the entirety of the body. Practice centering your awareness somewhere besides you head. Let your index finger or left calf or your belly become the primary conduit for consciousness for a little while. Every day, send you awareness to different parts of your body and allow them to wake up, to feel and sense fully. When you’ve learned to expand yourself into all parts of your body, try holding your consciousness within the whole body at the same time. Understand that the idea that your awareness is only in your head is culturally indoctrinated lie, because in fact, we humans and all animals, lived inside the entirety of our bodies not just one extremity.
3. Engage the Present
Once we’re finally at home in our bodies, we often find ourselves living more intensely from moment to moment, deeply aware of the soft sweep of our clothing against our skin, of the morning light on our faces, of the bitter yet rich bite of the day’s first cup of coffee, of the pulse of breath as it flows from and to us. This brings us into the present, into each second of the day. There’s no more numbed out hours where we forget we’re anything but lumps of tissue in front of the TV or thumbs pounding away at video game controllers or clever brains solving complex networking problems from a cubicle.
In the vital, precious present moment, we immerse ourselves into our original wild nature, and feel the pull of the forest from outside our doors. We remember how to hear the plants speaking to us, the earth calling our names, all through the connecting threads of our senses and the presence that allows us to hear and understand.
Utilizing your heightened sensory awareness, notice whenever you start to pull yourself from the present. Even (or especially) when the stress of marital strife, sick kids or a bad job triggers the desire to escape into fantasy or convenient distraction, bring yourself back. For many, the simplest way to to maintain presence is to engage in a sensorily rich and informative practice, such as gardening, dancing or gathering medicinal plants or cooking. Such activities require the respect of remaining in the moment and noticing each nuance.
Whenever your mind threatens to overflow with an endless train of words or barrage of useless images, bring yourself back to the now. Go outside and below the nearest tree or with whatever bit of wildness you can find. Don’t banish the words, just let them fade away in the face of the immediacy of tactile experience. Press your fingers to rough bark, or lay your face against smooth green leaves, or immerse your body in moving water. Give yourself back to the embrace of the moment, to the original speech that flows between us and the earth.
To remember, to open the senses fully, to bring ourselves back into fellowship with place can take time, practice and great intent. For most of us, it means emerging from many years and generations of isolation and sensory deprivation. As difficult and confusing as this process of re-awakening can be, it’s also incredibly rewarding and pleasurable as we re-learn the almost lost language of our ancestors, of our more than human kin and the earth itself. For we who are healers and shamans, as the medicine people of an increasingly industrial age, this is the work of a lifetime. The more we can give ourselves back to sensory immersion in the natural world, the easier it will be to hear the plants and animals, the land itself, speaking to us. Likewise, we will better know what herbs are best in specific situations, what each person most needs to be whole and healed, and where our individual place in the great mystery lies. When we return to our senses, we awaken to the knowledge that the whole world is singing, that there is meaning and magic in every moment and thread of life, and that we are a part of it all. We remember that all of life speaks the same intense, sensory language, and then we too, begin listening and speaking within the wild dialogue of taste and touch, song, scent and sight.
All Pics (c)2009 Kiva Rose Hardin except Loba by Woodstove (c) 2009 Jesse Wolf Hardin