Preamble: The Sensory Continuum in Herbal Energetics
Before you can even begin to understand energetic terms like stimulating and relaxing, cooling and heating, moistening and drying, you need to realize that we are not speaking in terms of dichotomous polarities. Rather that viewing different herbs and herbal actions as opposites, realize they are actually dynamic continuums.
A continuum is “a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct.” according to the dictionary. Still, this kind of continuum implies a straight line, and reality is more like a color wheel or musical scale, more like a spiral with many layers.
So understand, you’re not looking at neat little boxes defined by precise terms that can be cross-referenced in a textbook. You’re looking at energetic patterns, directions and tendencies as interpreted by a manic herbalist’s typing fingers. I’m not here to give you a system, not even a “natural system”, I’m providing you with a set of tools and perspectives to help you get down on your belly and taste and see and smell and engage with the complex and magical people we call herbs.
Herbs are rarely pure embodiments of one action or end of the spectrum. Just go ahead and accept that an herb can be both astringent and demulcent, stimulating and relaxing, even hot and cold, all at once. It’ll all be much easier if you can allow yourself that kind of flexibility of thinking. In fact, not only can they be, they almost inevitably are a blend of actions and tendencies. Because just as with humans and life in general, the polarities of black and white are a limiting illusion.
Reality, for people and plant, is much more complex and beautiful and disturbing and breath-taking. A thousand shades of colors and subtleties of sound, one layered on the other and woven together in an intricate knot-work and weave that ties us all together in the web of life.
This concept of shifting from seeing everything as blocks (packed with categorized info) to seeing a wheel of color and song (flowing with wisdom and sensory magic) spiraling in on itself will be an essential part of “getting” energetics on a gut-deep level.
We’re not looking for static categories or pre-determined equations, we’re observing patterns and experiencing the tendencies of living, intelligent beings and how they interact with our bodies. And as much as we herbalists like to dabble and blather on, this isn’t a science experiment or discourse, it’s a dance.
Primary Tendencies In Herbal Energetics: Stimulant & Relaxant
Tthe typical definition of stimulate is something like “to encourage or cause increased activity in a state or process”. In vitalist herbalism, as defined by Paul Bergner and the Physiomedicalists of the early 1900’s, it is “the increase of vital expression in a tissue or organ”.
Let’s be clear, this is not just cocaine, methamphetamines, and sugary beverages marketed under names like Monster and Rock Star. Stimulating herbs are not simply substances or plants that make you feel jittery, superman-strong and oh so clever. As appealing as that kind of nervous system rush can be, the common use of the word stimulant gives many herbal students and practitioners a total brain-block when it comes to the herbal action by the same name.
Stimulation is “the increase of vital expression in a tissue or organ”, this can manifest as the local pain and inflammation following some kind of trauma as the body focuses its anima –the vital healing force– to the part of the body most needing blood, nutrients and attention at the moment. It may occur as many seemingly unpleasant “disease” symptoms as an expression of attempted or ongoing healing. It also happens in more potentially pleasant situations such
There are many different ways in which herbs qualify as stimulants. Some stimulate a specific function or organ system, including those herbs that stimulate the nervous system and/or metabolism to some degree, like Sassafras, Coffee or Chocolate. Bitters, eg., Oregon Grape Root, Goldenseal or Gentian are also an example of herbs that increase the function of a particular organ system, as they cause the flow of gastric juices. Many warming, spicy herbs fall under this heading, including the archetypal warming circulatory stimulants of early American medicine, such as Cayenne, Juniper and Garlic.
Relax is usually defined as “to make or become less tense or tight”, in part from the Latin lax, literally “to make loose”. In vitalist herbalism this means to lessen tension that causes obstruction or constriction of the vital force in the body. In other words, it is to loosen the tissues or organ in a way that allows the vital force to flow more freely.
In pop culture the term Relaxant is often immediately taken to mean “sedatives” or some substance that calms the nervous system and makes a person feel sleepy, stoned or mellow. This can indeed be the case, because excess tension in the body certainly has the capability to make one feel overwrought or wound too tightly, and the proper relaxant herb can remedy that very efficiently.
Paul Bergner rightly points out that those herbs considered to be primarily relaxant are almost invariably cooling in energy, such as Burdock, Pleurisy Root and Elder flowers. Many overt relaxants, especially strongly aromatic herbs, are by nature antispasmodic in action, since spasms are nearly always caused by some kind of tension or constriction. A few examples of this are Black or Western Cohosh, Wild Cherry and Valerian.
The majority of relaxants are also stimulating (do remember what I said about spectrums and continuums above and don’t start twitching just yet). This is often because when excess tension in the body is relaxed, it allows an increase in the amount of vital force that is able to flow through organ or tissue and restore needed vitality.
So, if you have a rubber band wrapped around your wrist, and it cuts off the circulation to your hand, your blood flow and vital force is constricted by the obstruction (the rubber band), eventually resulting in a cold, numb, seemingly lifeless limb. When you take the rubber band off, and thus relax the constriction placed on the wrist, you will then experience an increase in blood flow and general stimulation of the vital force to the hand. This increase is often painful and certainly noticeable, and provides a very visceral, if not necessarily recommended, experience of relaxation resulting in stimulation.
As a side note, all nerve tonics, those nervines that work to rebuild the strength and resiliency of the nervous system, are both relaxing and stimulating. They generally work by relaxing any constriction or tension in the nervous system while directly the vital force to that area to provide the nervous system with the energy and nourishment necessary to healing and healthy function. When selected specifically for the individual, this tends to result in a feeling of calm well-being and increased energy/stamina. Milky Oats, Vervain and Skullcap all belong in this class.
So you see, Relaxation and Stimulation do NOT act as opposites in energetic herbalism. They are complimentary and often overlapping tendencies. For example, go find someone you really like, a lot. Now kiss them, intensely and for a long time. Now come back. So probably, you feel relaxed and kinda gooey inside with a general disinclination to think, type or form complete sentences. If not, go back and try again. You also likely feel a bit tingly, very IN your body with somewhat heightened senses and a feeling of energetic movement/buzziness. Your body has been relaxed and stimulated simultaneously, both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems engaged and ready to go, a state generally very conducive to positive romantic encounters.
If you don’t have anyone to kiss at the moment, try this alternate experience from jim mcdonald: “Hold your hands with your fingers like claws, put them on your head, and scratch vigorously. Ahhh… definitely stimulating, but also relaxing because it relieves any underlying tension that may have been inhibiting good circulation to your noggin.”
Keep doing it until you get it. Try noticing what foods, activities, interactions, herbs, music and other types of experiences cause you to feel more relaxed or more stimulated and some of both. Notice how that feels to you, whether it’s pleasurable or disturbing or simply curious. If you have a hard time figuring out what you’re feeling, just keep at it, without pressuring yourself to put words to it. Enhancing and refining sensory awareness is a fundamental practice for any good healer, but its importance multiplies exponentially for those working towards an energetic approach.
Resources & References:
Paul Bergners Notes on Actions and Energetics
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood
The Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood
Medical Herbalism by David Hoffmann
All photos (c) 2009 Kiva Rose & Jesse Wolf Hardin