Archive for the ‘Energetics’ Category

Tuesday was International Women’s Day so I thought I’d mark the occasion by paying homage to a woman who I have always found to be a great inspiration, medieval polymath Hidegard Von Bingen.

Hildegard von Bingen was born in 1098, the tenth child of a noble family. She was sickly from birth and was offered to the church as a tithe when she was eight years old. She experienced visions from a young age and remains one of the most notable figures of the Medieval period for her work as a healer, herbalist, philosopher, author, counselor, visionary, linguist, naturalist, poet and composer. She wrote numerous works including two on health and healing and even invented her own alphabet. She became an abbess and founded two nunneries and, despite her continued ill health, lived to be 81 years old.

Hidegard receiving a vision and dictating it to her secretary.

She never formally studied the healing arts so it is likely that much of her knowledge came from the traditional folk wisdom of the monastery and the local people as well as from her divine visions. She possessed an acute sense of observation that enabled her to study and understand the natural world which she wrote about in detail in her book Physica, an exploration of the healing properties of different plants, elements, minerals, animals and birds as well as in Causae et Curae, causes and cures, which looks more closely at different illnesses and treatments, mainly involving plant remedies. Much of her advice is practical and down to earth, counseling people to lead a better life, eat a balanced diet and get sufficient rest and many of her plant remedies have been validated by years of use and the rigors of modern medicine. She does include some more exotic remedies including precious stones or animals such as whales, lions and vultures which I can’t imagine would have been accessible to the average German citizen!

Her system was based on the humoral medicine of Ancient Greece and she spoke of the four qualities, heat, dryness, moistness and cold and their corresponding elements fire, air, water and earth. These gave rise to the four humours and their corresponding personality types. The aim of healing was to balance the four elements which had become disturbed through inherited factors or lifestyle.

In Causes and Cures she wrote of the elements, “They consist of two kinds, upper and lower. The upper are celestial and the lower terrestrial. The things that live in the upper ones are impalpable and are made of fire and air; those that are more in the lower are palpable, formed bodies and consist of water and mud. For spirits are fiery and airy but man is watery and muddy. When God created man, the mud from which he was formed was stuck together with water and God put a fiery and airy breath of life into that form.” The herbs themselves also have elemental correspondences and will benefit certain personalities accordingly. Herbs that, ‘grow from air’ are considered easy to digest and full of happiness, provoking cheerful states of mind in all who eat them.

Some of her recommended plant remedies are very familiar to us today as she speaks of the soothing and healing properties of calendula, chamomile and aloe vera. Others however are quite different, she recommends St John’s Wort as being useful only for animal fodder and uses primrose, rue and fennel as anti-depressants. This may be because the forms of depression suffered in medieval times were quite different from those of today. She also discouraged the use of Arnica believing it caused a person to ‘burn lustily with love’ for the next person touched by the herb. In Physica Hildegard writes of the importance of balancing the body with the use of hot and cold herbs. “If all herbs were hot and none cold they would cause difficulty to the user. If all were cold and none hot they would provide an imbalance in people since hot things oppose cold and cold things resist hot. Certain herbs have within them either the power of the strongest aromas or the harshest of the most bitter aromas. Whence they suppress and hold in contempt many ills which evil spirits make.”

She encourages the use of herbs in one’s daily diet as well as medicinally to strengthen the system and gives advice on how to achieve a balanced diet. She encourages the use of oats, which are hot in nature, for those who are already well, stating that they bring a ‘cheerful mind and a pure, clear intellect.’ She also recommends hemp believing it to be easy to digest and able to diminish bad humours. However she goes on to warn that “if one who is weak in the head, and has a vacant brain eats hemp it easily affects his head. It does no harm in one who has a healthy head and full brain.” Her favourite grain is spelt but interestingly she cautions against the refining of wheat saying, “Whosoever cooks wheat without the entire grain, or wheat not ground in the mill, it is as if he eats another food, for this wheat furnishes neither correct blood nor healthy flesh but more mucus, it is scarcely digested.” I wonder then, what she would make of baking practices in today’s world!

I’d love to hear who are your most inspiring women are too.


Ed: Bowie, Fiona and Davies, Oliver – Hildegard of Bingen: An Anthology – SPCK 1995

Maddocks, Fiona – Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age – Review 2002

Hildegard von Bingen, and Throop, Priscilla – Physica – Inner Traditions Bear and Co 1998

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

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Everything exists because everything depends. This philosophy was drummed into me by my Buddhist meditation teachers and I think I’ll be forever understanding it in new and deeper ways. If we consider closely, we can see that all things can only exist in dependence with other factors. The table can only exist because there was a tree and a carpenter. The carpenter can only exist because of the air he breathes and the food he consumes. The vegetables he eats only exist because of the soil which also depends upon the bacteria and breakdown of other plants and once living beings. And so on and so on.

Over the past few years, this philosophy has become central to my understanding of health and the healing powers of plants. We can see it working on very simplistic levels, i.e. eating poor quality food leads to compromised health, but also in more subtle ways that are to do with our relationships to the plants and ourselves.

Bee depends on flowers, flowers depend on bee.

We all have our own individual ways of looking at the world, our own genetic make up, our own physical and mental strengths and weaknesses and we all perceive the plants we use for medicine in slightly different ways. Each plant is also unique, even if it is from a particular species, and so when we take medicines, the result is always about a meeting between ourselves with the herbs.

This understanding runs counter to Western biomedical understandings in which the body is seen as a machine and the drugs as the tools to alter or fix it. Results must be precise, repeatable and measurable or they are discounted. In my understanding however, herbal medicine can never really fit this pattern, though many have tried to make it, because it doesn’t allow for the uniqueness of people and plants and the relationship that occurs between the two. Even if you and I suffer from the same disease and take the same herbs, our healing will be different. That is because plants aren’t drugs (even if some popular books and T.V. shows use that terminology to appeal to a wider audience!). In fact, plants are unique and remarkable living beings, just as we are and it does well to approach them with the respect and reverence that this understanding incurs.

Depending on innumerable factors.

Just as we all have discernible personalities, yet feel ourselves to have many facets, the plants too are able to surprise us. Often a group of people will have a general consensus about a friend of theirs, agreeing that ‘she is serious and practical’ for example. There’ll always be someone however who says, ‘Really? I find her very amusing, she has a great sense of humour!’ That’s because these qualities are dynamic, they depend, it’s impossible for a relationship to be static as things are always in a state of change. And so it is with plants. When you do herb tastings with a group of people most will agree on the major effects but there will always be some variation. This is because we are entering into a dynamic relationship with another being, so what we feel won’t just depend on whether they are hot or cold, moist or astringent etc, but what is going on for us too. That’s what makes healing with herbs so exciting, the same plant can offer many possibilities when you spend time really getting to know it. It turns from acquaintance to deep and most darling friend.

I only exist because I depend. Thanks Bramble.

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How did the rose ever open its heart
And give to the world all of its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light against its being,
Otherwise we all remain too frightened.

Rose Bathed in Light

The subtleties of Rose as a medicine are one of the divine mysteries of herbalism. I’ve been noticing for a while that nary a patient escapes one of our clinics without a glug of Rose tincture added to their formula. My aromatherapy friends also seem to be in a Rose induced reverie at present and it appears to be a common acknowledgement for just about everyone that, ‘they need some Rose.’ When a herbalist told me recently that she’d ripped up her herb garden (oh the horror!) and now grows only roses, I knew there must be something in the air.

Most modern herbalists think of Rose in terms of a cooling astringent and use it appropriately, to dry congestion, tone tissues and calm inflammation. However it has many other properties, being anti-viral, aromatic, cardiotonic and hepatic, which make it a valuable medicine. It promotes bile flow and is a decongestant and protective of the liver and is great for calming allergies. Matthew Wood writes, “The rosaceae are primary remedies for reducing autoimmune heat and irritation.” It is also of particular benefit in regulating the menstrual cycle. The Rose hip also has many uses but I’ll save those for another post when they are in season.

Most of us agree on the fact that the medicine of Rose is a subtle one, about more than its actions and physiological effects. Though it is an antidepressant and mild sedative, it’s effects on the emotions are more whole, more multi-faceted, than either of these terms imply. In The Yoga of Herbs it states, ‘Rose is a well known flower of love and devotion… The lotus of the heart is a rose.’ The Rose has been exhalted throughout human history in many cultures for it’s beauty, exquisite perfume and the symbolism of it’s petals and thorns which refelect the tenderness and pain of earthly experience. It’s as though something of this tradition has leaked into our collective unconscious and continues to grow there, imbuing the Rose with even more grace and power.

I decided to ask some of my clinic supervisors their thoughts on the benefits of Rose and I got some interesting responses. Ed Berger put it nicely when he said, ‘The use of rose in a herbal mixture imparts a quality of the heart that cannot be explained by its constituents alone, the effect is aromatic, subtle and energetic, requiring minimal dosage for great effect.’

Sarah Furey makes a beautiful Rose flower remedy as well as using the tincture. She says, ‘ Rose is known to work on the heart and the heart chakra. I see its healing properties as giving peace at a time of grieving – with love and strength throughout the whole body. It will help heal a broken heart and allow one to explore these emotions of sadness with strength. It is also a valuable nerve relaxant and will reduce anxiety and lift the spirits.’

Another of my teachers said that, ‘every woman needs a little Rose.’ Whilst I think this is beautiful, I have to say that I believe men can benefit from taking Rose just as much as women, and the fact that we think they don’t, is part of the problem. Perhaps they need a different facet of it’s healing energies, but who among us would not benefit from nurturing, from care, from softening our world weary hearts?

                    Rosa Canina – The Wild Dog Rose. Helping to open the heart to the Divine in all things.

Kiva Rose’s wonderful insights into the properties and healing actions of her namesake have helped me to appreciate whole new dimensions to this subtle yet powerful medicine. She writes, ‘The underlying property of Rose is one of fluids/energy/blood movement and regulation, which explains many of seemingly disparate effects on the different organs and tissues of the body. It has an innate intelligence that gives it the ability to adjust the flow of the body’s varying energies and substances. It can calm heart palpitations, eliminate liver pains, reduce nervous tension or lessen menstrual cramps all depending on what the body needs. Traditional Western Herbalism and Ayurveda generally see the Rose as cooling while TCM usually describes it as warming, and I think this has much to do with what properties the varying traditions ascribe to hot or cold. The reduction in inflammation is certainly part of the reason is is thought of as cooling, and the moving properties have to do with the warming aspect.’

The energetics of rose may seem confusing at first because, as Kiva explains above, it been considered both cooling and warming in different traditions. She, and many other other herbalists, consider it to be drying but in my own experience I have found it to have the potential to be both drying and moistening. The difference will depend on what type of roses are used and how long they are macerated in alcohol for. A tincture macerated for the usual two to four weeks will be quite astringent and drying as the tannins have all been extracted from the petals. However a tincture made from highly aromatic roses and left to macerate in the alcohol for only a day, will capture the delicious taste of the volatile oils but not the tannins and will therefore be much more moistening.

Regular use of the tincture of Rose is highly recommended for those who are grieving, distraught or recovering from abuse. I am now using it for people who have experienced deep trauma sometime in the past which hasn’t properly healed yet.

One of my favourite ways to take Rose is in teas and I’ve written before about my adoration of Rose and cardamom tea. Some other lovely combinations are:

Hug in a Mug: For when you need a bit of nurturing. Equal parts Rose, Avena and Linden blossom with half a teaspoon of honey.
Aphrodisiac Blend: For when you need a bit of spice. 1 part Rose to 1/2 part each Cardamom and Cinnamon.
Tea for a Broken Heart: Equal parts Rose, Hawthorn Blossom and Heartsease (Viola tricolour).
Turkish Delight Tea: Yummy and heart warming. 1 part Rose to 2 parts Orange peel.
Cup o’ love: 1 part Rose to 1/2 part each Cardamon and Cacao powder, sweetened with honey.

Time for Tea

Rose is also wonderful as an infused honey, especially made with fresh petals as you don’t have to strain them out and can just eat the whole thing as it is. This also makes a lovely soothing remedy for sore throats. Kiva Rose recommends a diluted Rose infused vinegar for treating sunburn as it’s cooling, soothing and astringent. I also love rose infused vinegar in a simple salad dressing as it transforms a few veggies into something decadent and delicious. Debs did a lovely post on making rose infused vinegar which you can read here.

I think Rose is of particular benefit to us in the West at this time because so many people feel alienated, lonely, rushed and lacking in direction. In our society, where acquisition is seen as the bench mark for a successful life, the benefits of learning to stop, open our hearts and see the divine in all things are immeasurable.

In opening the heart, Rose allows for greater compassion and love for others but, in doing so, helps us be gentler with ourselves too. Learning to love cannot exclude ourself and must, in fact, begin with ourself every time. That doesn’t mean it is self-indulgence, it cannot exclude others either, but until we love ourselves, the love we give and receive will always be conditional, it will always need something from the other to fill the void that we have refused to fill ourselves. We think we need to be worthy, to pass some kind of test to deserve love but that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what love is.

Somewhere beyond the the interplay of the experience of pleasure and pain lies true freedom, and the deepest experience of love. A love that cannot be given or received, but one that resides within us throughout the inevitably shifting conditions of our lives. In allowing the heart to open to all its experiences we can become servants to love and living testimonies to its power in our lives.

As only Rumi can say it;
Love is an ocean without shores, you have to learn to bear it.

The Yoga of Herbs – Drs David Frawley and Vasant Lad
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism – Matthew Wood
Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine – Thomas Bartram
The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine – Brigitte Mars
Articles by Kiva Rose available on herbmentor.com

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Herbal energetics can seem fairly complex and impenetrable at first glance and its certainly one of those topics you know you’ll be understanding at deeper and deeper levels for the rest of your life.

Herbal energetics are practiced mostly with a view to returning the body and mind to a state of balance or homeostasis. The energetic spectrum doesn’t consist of two extremes and a centre point however. Balance is not static but rather a flowing and continually shifting principle which requires adjusting through a process of deep observation as well as a good dose of common sense.

This is a process we engage in naturally, for example as the weather turns colder we tend to increase our intake of warming foods and spices. Energetics are part of our innate wisdom and, of course, the innate wisdom of nature. Spring brings us herbal cleansers to purify the body and mind of winter accumulations. Autumn brings us root vegetables and herbal root medicines, strengthening and earthing us for the harder months ahead. Striving for equilibrium is inherent in nature, the pendulum can never swing too far one way or the other before she seeks to readdress the balance.

Herbal energetics are about observing where body tissues or systems and mental or emotional patterns are out of balance and thinking about how we can either pacify or stimulate a corresponding action to return us to harmony. Mostly we look at the two extremes of the polarity to understand the spectrum we are observing such as hot and cold, dry or moist, dense or light etc. This can become quite complex when we apply it to individuals whose body’s display myriad different functions and tendencies.

Thats why its helpful to start with a basic understanding of the elements. All traditional energetic models that I am aware of such as those of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and Western Herbalism begin by looking at the different elements that are manifest in all life. In the Western Tradition these are earth, air, fire and water.

The best way to start developing an understanding of the elements is to observe the world around us. Go outside, turn your attention to how the elements can be perceived around you.

Kneel down, touch the earth, what are its qualities? Heavy? Nutritive? Dense? What else?

Stand up and observe the qualities inherent in the air. Feel its potential to move quickly in any direction, to spin, to whirl. How does it seem to you? Light, free, ungrounded?

Find a stream or river and place your hands in it. Feel the flow of the water that never stops but rather moulds itself around objects in its path, soft yet relentless in its ceaseless progression towards the sea.

Turn your face to the sun, how do you perceive the element of fire? Think how the addition of fire enables the transformation of each of the other elements, solid to liquid to gas – earth to water to air. From warmth to blistering heat, fire transmutes but out of balance it can destroy.

Now think about what happens when any two of these elements are in combination. When fire and water meet what are the properties of the steam that results? When earth and water come together, what happens? A small amount of water will moisten and soften the earth but too much will result in sticky, clogging mud. How might we see these tendencies in the body?

Each of the elements is necessary for life to exist, they seem separate yet really they can only be in a state of interdependence, no one without the others.

When you feel you have a good grasp of the qualities represented by the different elements start thinking about people who might be archetypical of each one. Describe them or draw them as caricatures, what ailments would they be likely to suffer from?

Finally you can start to think of people you know and try to discern how the elements can express themselves through subtle ways in people. Which balance of elements might be present in someone’s condition? Are they full of phlegm or sticky mucus like the meeting of earth and water? Are they jittery, ungrounded and unable to sit still like the buffeting air? Try to see where elements may be in or out of balance in the people around you.

In this way we can start to work our way in towards a deeper observation of the body’s energetics before we progress to the study of herbal energetics and how they can aid us in restoring balance. We begin to weave strands of inspiration that will flow together to create a web of understanding of the exquisite complexities and ultimate simplicities of the world around us.

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