09 November, 2007

Spirituality and Plants

Every blade of grass has its Angel
that bends over it and whispers:
“Grow, grow.”
The Talmud

What we do in botany is fact-find, analyze and classify. A botanist, a paid botanist, that is, finds facts, analyzes and classifies; or the botanist writes about such fact finding, analyzing and classifying. We have seen it weekly, as we named and classified the gymnosperms and angiosperms, dicots and monocots. Reflecting on all this botanizing, I am drawn to Thomas Moore’s thought: “As we approach nature as fact finders, analysts, and classifiers, we tend to lose sight of the story we are living, the myth that gives shape to our very investigations.”

The purpose behind a botany class, especially in the context of this institution, needs to remain in the forefront of our work especially as we progress toward the end of the term when you take your tests and move on to consider plants, specifically parts of plants, as the healing agents in your practice. You will be challenged, with every bit as much pressure as a modern day molecular cell biologist, to remember there is a whole plant behind what you are using – you have the same trap of compartmentalization to avoid in your day-to-day activities. You may call it healing, but you may find yourself considering it “work” as well. You may call a prescription “herbal” and know that it is not concocted in a chemist’s lab and does not line the pockets of a plurality of pharmaceutical industrialists. But will you maintain your connection to the plant itself?

In the culture of my family, farmers all to this very generation, botany was the premier science for several centuries – my Grandfather, though only a share-cropping farmer, knew the Latin names of the plants on his farm – not only his crops, but the weeds as well. And he knew those plants in ways that confound many of us today.

What Is Lacking Conventionally?

Still, knowledge of botany was not enough. For all his knowledge, common sense and willingness to learn new things, he still was a participant in the destruction of the mid-western plains in the first third of the 20th century. Even in their genesis, industrial farming practices created the dust-bowls of the nineteen-thirties through the wholesale destruction of the ecosystems of the Great Plains of America. This occurred on much the same scale we see the rampant destruction of the tropical rain forests today. The destruction in both ecosystems came from people unable or unwilling to see the long term effects of their behavior and was simply a search for a way to make some money. I don’t know the whole story behind the destruction of the rain forest, but in the case of the Mid-western Plains it was simply small farmers trying to make more money from their own land holdings egged on by a government and the enthralled institutions and universities paid from that government who were the complete and total idiotic embodiment of arrogant disregard for the future – it was stupidity, not conspiracy. Certainly not at the level of the common farmer. One cannot be angry with a mother and father wishing to feed their family; not that I condone the economics and politics that created – and creates still – the dependencies that nurture this tragedy.

So we won’t go there. Among dissected plant parts and notes stained with plant juices, I don’t want to lose site of Thomas Moore’s dynamic conclusion, in The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life: “One of the great challenges we face as we develop technology and expand scientific knowledge is to preserve nature as a source of spirituality.”

Honestly, it comes back to the old saying, “When you are up to your hips in alligators, it’s hard to remember your purpose was to drain the swamp.”

Healing Plants

Not only are plants the major source of more than one pharmacopoeia, of food and clothing, something more is there in how we relate to plants. Only in recent years have researchers made discoveries that demonstrate somewhat the extent plants play in our lives, beyond mere fodder for industry or food for ourselves and the economy.

At long last, in this “modern” time, the healing dimensions of people-plant relationships are being explored across many disciplines in the science world of our culture. At the People-Plant Council at Virginia Tech, Dr. Diane Relf co-ordinates between researchers at many different institutions approaching plants and the impact they have on our lives over a wide range of disciplines, socially, psychologically, and economically as related to our physical and emotional well-being. The overall context of this research only hints at our spiritual connection to the plants in the world around us, especially in terms of a soul-involved ecology. University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Kaplan asserts that his studies prove that, “Nature is not just ‘nice’… it is a vital ingredient in healthy human functioning.” Wait! Read that again!

The impact of plants on our lives in a purely economic context has been extensively covered – in terms of clothing, food and economic raw material. Botany has been defined as: “a. the study of plant life b. the study of the properties and life phenomena exhibited by a plant, plant type, or plant group and c. plant life.” Flowers have been torn apart in order to count stamens and pistils, families of flowers, genus and species have all been identified, classified and labeled. But in all of this, the underlying point hinted at by research from Texas A & M that shows simply looking at a plant can reduce stress, fear and anger – lowering blood pressure and muscle tension, isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

In another study, prison inmates in cells with windows overlooking greenery needed less medical care and reported fewer symptoms of stress, such as headaches. Hence, lack of consideration to the plants that grace the walkway to our homes or our offices, the plants we all will meet day after day, especially in all the circumstances and challenges faced by all of us through the woof and warp of our human existence, is entirely unacceptable. How can you, healers in this world fail to focus on our place within the context of this world? If not here, where?

It is proven and accepted fact in the real estate market, that communities with greenbelts and homes with attractive landscaping demand a higher market value than communities and homes absent these features. Research now shows that plants and green spaces have the following distinct roles in community development:

- providing a more livable environment by controlling physical factors such as noise, temperature and pollution
- create a community image – perceived as positive by outsiders and residents alike, for example, evidence exists that areas redolent with greenery are less likely to have graffiti marking
- create opportunities for the community to work together

These factors translate directly into tangible economic and social benefits including reduced crime, the aforementioned higher property values and increased business and social interaction in greened communities and neighborhoods. Psychological studies have shown that “the most important factors in neighborhood satisfaction were the availability of nearby trees, well-landscaped grounds, places for taking walks…” these factors “…were significantly related to the sense of community”.

We need to leap beyond the simple consideration of nature as only an example of the material world and bridge the concept that nature can be the fundamental opening to a spiritual world . Noting that mountains, rivers and ecological systems, and, indeed, many plants, have lifetimes that well exceed even the longest living human being, we can acknowledge the brevity of our own lives. Upon this basis we can glimpse our own mortality and observe the immense proportions life encompasses. This, then, can be a basis for building a spiritual life.

A Spiritual Life?

For all the asphalt and concrete of our civilization, we are beings from gardens, from nature. All the evidence above points to an underlying connection with plants and greenery that our society’s predisposition for building skyscrapers and asphalt parking lots attempts to belie. Research is underway to help us better understand this connection as a cellular memory captured in our evolution as an upright walking hominid. But that this connection exists can no longer be the subject of speculation. It is “real” as declared by modern Western science and it is measurable. We are on the threshold of a new era in Western thought; although it would be best not to hold your breath in anticipation of universal acceptance of these postulates – you wouldn’t look good in that shade of blue. There is a long road ahead. While some of us can see that any answer that does not include a spiritual element is no answer at all, remember that Galileo first postulated the round earth back a few years ago and I’ve met people in my lifetime that were willing to prove to me that the world HAD to be flat. No, I’m not THAT old.

And this is merely the beginning of it. This hints only at a spirituality connected with plants. What do we think about a spirituality IN the plant? Do we think of a plant having an innate spirituality that is its very own?

In his book, “The Healing Energies of Trees”, Patrice Bouchardon, notes “All of the indigenous peoples of the world have built up cultures and social structures framed around their concepts of nature, concepts woven from their direct experience of the natural world. They draw from the world about them those things they need to sustain life, to feed and to heal the body and to build the beliefs that nourish the soul. From this inexhaustible resource come their concepts of life and inspiration for healing and religious practices.” Even the Chinese tradition originated through a shamanistic association with trees and other plants, though as an actual, separate healing methodology it is no longer included in your Traditional Chinese Medicine studies. It is now a separate body of knowledge that needs exploration.

Our Uncharted Journey

The problem faced in presenting this information and asking you to make this leap is that one cannot chart a journey for you. Our society abounds with restrictions and chains to ensure the conformity of us all – often, it is only at the expense of struggle a with the risk of ridicule that we venture into a world where spirituality – and plants – can be regarded as more than a fringe element with only a fringe value. But as written in Man and Superman, by George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” To enter through this door, we need to drop our “reasonableness” and rely on some other knowledge – a knowledge I believe is inner and ever present no matter where you were born or in what year. I think it is a deep cellular knowledge that persists underneath our culturing and posturing for mass-consumption.

In Plant Spirit Medicine, Eliot Cowan writes, “Modern life opens a path not to the soul but to the shopping mall and the force of growth has been diverted onto this path. The result is economic growth – the rapid conversion of Nature into toxic junk. This is what we call the ‘gross national product’ and unless it gets grosser every year, our ‘economy’ founders. There is a word for out-of-control growth: cancer. Cancer continues to spread in our bodies and on the earth because, like trees, we must have growth. The only way out is to rediscover that material growth is a youthful phase that prepares the way for real growth into elderhood.”

Examine how our lives and the plants of our lives are intertwined. Grasp for a moment that many of us know the price of a gallon of gasoline – or know the cost of a favorite sandwich from the corner deli, yet cannot put a price on a rose that smells divine, or a night scented jasmine conjuring dreams with us in our sleep, or the price we would pay for more oxygen if our city had no plants. What would life be completely devoid of plants? Not worth living – certainly not for very long.

An Indian Myth Pre-visions Modern Paleobotany

The Snohomish Indians, living in what we call the state of Washington, had a myth they passed from generation to generation dating back deeply into their past. The myth told of the animals getting together and saying among themselves that they felt the time had come for all the animals to join together in a pact to destroy all of the human race. “They have abused us and used us for their own selfish prosperity without regard to our needs and wants – we should just get rid of them all.” And most animals were pretty eager to get on with the project, but an older, wiser animal spoke up and said, “No wait, we should go the really Old Ones and ask for their opinion on what to do with the humans.” And so all the animals agreed to ask the really Old Ones to decide the course of action; they went to the plants.

The underlying knowledge of the myth that ascribes to plants the sobriquet of the “Old Ones” gives pause for reflection. Even ancient cultures understood that plants came before animals and prepared the way for animals to live on this planet. The really Old Ones told the animals that they must allow the humans to live so that the plants and animals could teach the humans how to live with nature and not to exploit the earth or the other inhabitants. Patient fellows, those Old Ones, patient still. I suppose when you’re really old, it’s just natural to embody that virtue.

By now it is common knowledge, because you’ve heard me say it and you’ve read it throughout our material, that ancient earth’s atmosphere was toxic for mammals. The arrival of green plants created the change that cleared the air for the advent of animals and, at the same time, provided food for the animals to eat and the food chain we recognize today was established. It is so sad to see so much evolution end up in fast food chains proliferating across the world. The Snohomish myth so accurately delineates the time line for life on this planet it is allows for some conjecture.

Your Own Relationship With Plants

At this juncture, students who would progress, must create their own relationship with plants. I believe that simply having a relationship with the Latin binomial names, just having a basic understanding of the cellular membrane and all that is studied as a part of botany is not enough. While it is an introduction to the plants that gives a sense of “knowing” plants, it still leaves us with only a compartmentalized relationship to plants and it does not satisfy our soul or allow us a more sacred union with other forms of life. A licensed acupuncturist who has no relationship to the plants in his garden is arguably no more “natural” than the biogeneticist who supplanted the genes in the engineered corn that turned up in Taco Bell taco shells.

But how can we teach the relationship to these plants I cherish? What mechanism triggers affinity? What actions delineate understanding, because in my world, actions speak louder than words?

So we can start right here. It’s an old saying that “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow,” and we can use that as the basis on which to begin. Go to the plant. Look at it. What does it really look like? Is the stem thick or slender? Could you call the leaves entire or are they serrated? Why would they look like that? How are they arranged? Does that mean something to you? Can you smell the plant? Do you recognize that smell? What is the texture of the leaves? What does that mean to you? Is the stem woody or smooth? Has secondary growth begun or is it all primary growth? Through the physical appearance of the plant, what is indicated to you how this plant might be useful or what kind of action it may have on your body? Do you discern a feeling from the plant? Be with the plant.

This is the avenue I believe that must be taken in making a connection to what I am calling a “whole plant” – we can talk until we are exhausted from talking, we can think until our brain aches from over-thinking – and we will have still missed the point. The only way I know to make the connection to plants that cements a relationship to plants is to actually do something about the relationship to plants – practice having a relationship with plants. To this end, I have prepared the walking meditation exercise and the adaptation of questions from Plant Spirit Medicine for you.

However, it is not enough to read the material and claim you understand it. Although much of this essay leans toward being overly cerebral, this cannot be a cerebral exercise. Our societal training tends to take us that direction and it is difficult to resist. If you think your way through the exercises, you miss the point – and still, even with that warning, a good many of you will make ill-fated attempts to think the exercise through.

Practice is what is essential. Practice being aware; “being aware” is practice itself. Our society attempts to circumvent this practice. It is no surprise that our popular culture disdains depth and understanding. It is no mistake that this is the same culture that embraces youth and tries to deny aging as if enlightenment itself could be short-cut and bottled and sold – or at least revealed in the deft cuts of a skilled plastic surgeon. It seems as though anything can be sacrificed in order to have an “event” rather than endure a “process”. And yet, that is the whole: the relationship I seek to have and I seek to share with you now, is a process of development that you must have between yourself and plants, if you will have it at all.

Eliot Cowan talks of experience and knowledge of the paths of life. He continues, “The same thing holds true for someone who wants to learn the medicine of plants: there is no substitute for experience. This medicine comes from intimacy with living plants. Just as no one would think of trying to make babies with a character in a novel, no one should think of trying to make medicine with a plant in a book… ”

The Force That Heals

Consider: Is not true that the same force which heals also the same force that goes by the name of “love”? Isn’t it that which impels us to practice medicine is the same force that impels some of us to garden? Isn’t this the force that implores us call home to ask a loved one how their day is going and the same force that impels one to pick the rose to breath the ameliorating and angelic aroma deep into one’s senses?

Could you walk into the garden and lay with the plant that will heal you? Will you permit yourself to sit near the grass that can make your child whole again? Will you allow your senses to delight in the smells of the shrub that can allow your mother some more years as a hale and whole person? Why not? Too busy to be whole? Too frantic to heal? Or more honestly, afraid… ??

Some people believe that gardens are about plants but that’s simply not true. Gardens are all about people. Just as “place” is measurable in space and time, one can measure the ground and the life of plants, but at that stage it is only an ecosystem, and probably not a sustainable one at that. There is no garden without a person. Gardens are all about people. There is something from the heart that must be present.

The force that heals is love. It is present throughout the Universe. How will you touch it or let it touch you? Where does it flow through your life, your days? In music? In meditation? In the garden?

It isn’t just nice, it’s essential for all of us to allow love to touch us. In every way we can.

A Walking Meditation

(Do this prior to our next class. Be prepared to discuss your experience with it. Be prepared to repeat parts of this meditation.)

This exercise will help you observe yourself when you go for a walk in a wooded area (i.e. a street lined with trees or a park – the more trees the better). The state of mind in which you walk will condition the experiences you have. We often walk through nature with the same attitude we use to muscle our way through the supermarket. The mind is going over what we did yesterday or just now and planning what we will do tomorrow. Our present slips by unnoticed.

First come into the present moment. Listen to your own breathing, feel the earth beneath your feet and get the sense of how you are balanced.

Listen to how your mind is organizing your walk: “I won’t go that way, it seems dull and uninteresting… I want to avoid those jocks making so much noise, so I won’t go that way…”

We are always giving ourselves instructions, imposing limits and forbidding things, when the joy of life is to release ourselves from limitations. When you surprise yourself by doing this, don’t judge yourself, just smile. Then carry on; invite yourself again into the present. You might find you must do this frequently for awhile. You might find you don’t have to for awhile, then find you have to again. Don’t judge yourself. Just smile. Feel the earth. Sense your balance.

As you become more comfortable being here, move towards relying less on your seeing and become more aware of sounds, smells, tactile experiences and even tastes. Especially as regards the vegetation around you. Grass underfoot, leaf against cheek, cool/warm breeze through the branches of a nearby tree. Was that bird talking to you? Crunch of twig underfoot. Even if “civilization” imposes upon you, a car’s honking, sirens in the distance, allow it to pass without judgement as well from your thoughts. The present is exactly what it is – “right now.” This is your present, your reality: you must begin where you are because you can begin nowhere else.

At some point then, begin to open your awareness to the presence of energy outside your own. To describe it to you is self-defeating, my experience of energy might not be your experience – if I tell you mine, you might miss yours while you attempt to duplicate mine. So turn all your receptors outward toward the living greenery around you. Consciously allow all your senses – even a sense of which you may not have been aware up to this very second - to “listen.”

This may not be a one “walk” experience, in fact, should not be. You may not sense any awareness of energy in your first attempt – even if you do, repetition will invariably bless you with greater rewards. I would allow that should any kind of expansion of awareness be achieved, that expansion itself tends to draw one back again and again. Anything that feels good bears repeating.

On your first attempt at this, do not attach yourself so much to one plant at the expense of the others. Try to feel the jumbly interconnectedness of the plant world – it is very different from the animal world. Open yourself to the possibility that there might be plant “thoughts,” plant “awareness.”

On subsequent walks, “adopt” a plant that seems to draw you to itself – or to a plant you feel an affinity towards. In class, we will use the several different trees in The Learning Garden. You will be asked to chose one to “meditate” on, or “with.” You will be asked to relate your experience through some written questions. This is not to intimidate, but to inspire and expand you. It is only necessary that you be open to the experience.

Do this, please, more than once before our next meeting.


1 comment:

  1. Hi David, thanks for your wonderful essay about the essence of living in companionship with plants. It is a gentle manifesto that speaks to my intellect and my heart. It was great fun meeting you high up in an orange balloon last weekend - I'll send you a photo of the two of us with Joan~ have a wonderful day with your hands in the soil, cheers, Debra