You’re on your own

When I started this blog, I figured it would be limited to more specifically herbal topics. But the more I think and write about working with plants, the more I find it impossible to draw a clear line between that and other aspects of life. It’s all interconnected. And I think that a big part of what has drawn me to learn about herbal medicine is that it has implications for my whole life.

I think it’s important to explore these implications.

I don’t know how broadly applicable the implications I see will be for other people’s lives. But I know I’m not alone in thinking about these things because I read blogs. Besides, I swear at least 60% of what I write here is to help me get it straight in my own head! I am humbled that other people have seen value in some of it. But if you don’t, you can always just chalk me up as a little “woo,” as many of my work colleagues have done, and no hard feelings. So without futher ado…

Here be monsters.

Here be monsters.

I wrote before about the new normal. I feel that if the world today had a slogan, it would be “you’re on your own.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, but it is scary. We are off the map, people. Uncharted waters. Here there be monsters.

Now, this is just my interpretation but to me the world looks…how shall I say? Totally batshit crazy. Deranged. Diseased. I won’t belabor this point because I’m sure you can supply your own examples, but everything seems to be the opposite of what it should be. The levels of hate and rage and fearfulness are extreme. We have political parties that are literally based on nothing but mutual hatred, where belonging to the right hate-club is more important than any policies that club may endorse or enact. Slavery is flourishing at unpredented levels. Little kids get raped every day. There is a seeming absence of reason everywhere I look. Everyone is at least a little sick–and many of us very sick–because we have poisoned our food and water sources and our air.  Quoth Dr. Venkman, “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!”

I think of myself as a cynical optimist, because no matter how crappy things get for me I always somehow expect them to get better. But it’s true I don’t have much faith in people (for reasons listed above) and I don’t trust in luck or “The Secret” or positive thinking to save my bacon. I have received help from benevolence much, much more powerful than I (which granted isn’t saying much), and I am grateful and adoring for that and hopeful that more help will be forthcoming, but I try hard to earn it rather than taking it for granted.

I’m not a disaster prepper because something in my gut tells me that none of that will actually do us any good. (I mean I can’t say why. On paper, it seems like not a bad idea, but I just can’t quite buy into it. I do think everyone should have an emergency preparedness kit for their family but I admit I don’t have one because I have no place to store it.)

I’m not an atheist nor a materialist (ha! as if) but I also don’t believe in a Christian-style apocalypse. I think we might already be living the apocalypse, and to me it looks more like the Kali Yuga than Armageddon. But people have thought the world was ending before, and it didn’t, so I agree with Gordon when he says:

“With a long enough timeframe, your ideas about how god and the universe works are shown to be ridiculously small and tribal. There is something almost infantile in the hubristic notion of holding opinions about How Things Work.”

But even if the world isn’t ending, it’s always possible that one of them is. I just don’t have a better explanation for the madness.

I know people who think the opposite. They believe we are at the vanguard of a new awakening. They see evidence all around that people are becoming more spiritually aware, treating each other with greater kindness and love. Some believe angels will literally intervene to save us, even to the point of disabling nuclear bombs if anyone should launch one. (I don’t understand why the angels wouldn’t have done this for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or why they aren’t intervening to protect the millions of people currently being subjected to slavery, genocide, and any of a hundred dirty little wars that never make it onto CNN.) But I get that it’s possible for two people to look at the same evidence and interpret it differently. That’s the nature of phenomena. I’d be happy to find out I’m wrong. But in that case someone’s gonna have some ‘splainin’ to do.

So what now?

Dr Seuss

Who knows? This is the scary part. Nothing in history gives us an analogue for how to deal with the new normal. In the past, there would be a community that would prescribe the right actions to take, and give meaning to what was happening. Now there is nobody who can make this make sense. Your priest doesn’t know, your pastor doesn’t know, your doctor doesn’t know, your government doesn’t know, your guru doesn’t know (probably), your mom sure doesn’t know. Our elders might be the best ones to ask, but Western society has decided they are valueless trash to be hidden away since we can’t legally turn them into Soylent Green.

This is what I mean when I say you’re on your own. In the US we enjoyed a brief golden age of the government actually caring about its citizens’ well-being more than it did about corporate dollars, but now if you’ve got a health problem or you’re poor (say it with me) you’re on your own. (If that’s not 100% true yet, we are headed there fast.)

Meanwhile it has been commented that because job loyalty just makes you that much more likely to be downsized, if you want to make much money, or even if you just want to have enough to pay off your crushing student loan debt, you’re on your own there too. Everybody should have one or more side jobs just as a buffer and apparently, the necessary ingredient for success is “hustle.” I find it a propos that “hustle” has connotations of confidence scams, cheating, prostitution, and (the worst of the lot) hurry. These are all Things That I Am Really Bad At. Ok, some I haven’t tried. But I know I’d be bad at them. You’ll notice that integrity, ethics, and compassion don’t figure on the list of things you need for business success.

Take another look at that Dr. Seuss quote. He says, “you know what you know.” It’s also going to be essential to know what you don’t know. Academia and higher education is in a state of meltdown right now. You might not see it from outside the environs of a university, I don’t know, but it’s happening (that’s another rant for another time). Science is in a weird place right now because on the one hand, it’s held up as the new religion, but on the other hand there is a small but vocal minority that dismisses everything that comes from “mainstream science.” (These people don’t all share the same agenda; some of them are just ignorant bumpkins who think that Obama and “science” are somehow in league to deprive them of their God-given right to pollute, others are worried that scientists are fools who can’t see that they are all just pawns of our extraterrestrial lizard overlords.)

Meanwhile, there is a knowledge-filtering effect that seems to get exponentially stronger every year, enabled by the internet and social media. If you have ever used Facebook, you are probably aware that it uses algorithms to determine what shows up in your news feed. It depends in part upon which friends you’ve interacted with, but also who has paid for your attention, and there are probably many other factors such as research on how to make you feel sad. After a while, you can end up seeing infinite baby pictures from the same three people while your other hundred friends seem mysteriously inactive. The same thing happens with iTunes. The more you have listened to a song, the more it will come up when you set random playback. There is nothing random about it! And the more a song comes up on shuffle, the more it comes up on shuffle. So in the end, once you’ve gotten to where you’re just hearing the same 20 songs over and over again, you have to select songs manually which defeats the entire purpose of having a random setting. My point is, everyone is striving to show you more of what they think you want to see, based on what you wanted to see before. Now if you are also doing your own filtering by choosing to only associate with people who agree with what you already think, then the Kali Yuga is gonna hit you like a ton of bricks. Again I’m going to quote Gordon here because I just couldn’t say it better and also I don’t want to pretend I’m the first person to have thought about this stuff:

“If you have enough time to only consume stuff you agree with and then even more time to overreact to anything that slightly deviates from it then, humbly, you need to look at how you are spending your incarnation.”

On the other hand, I think that subjective personal experience, which has been eclipsed as a valid epistemological relationship to the world by objectivist materialism, is going to have a resurgence. I’ve often remarked that nobody believes in ghosts until they see one. I’ve been seeing, hearing, and interacting with them since I was three. Sometimes people smirk at me and tell me “Ghosts don’t exist,” and I just have to laugh at them because what the hell would they know about it? To me that’s like saying I don’t believe in bacteria because I’ve never seen one.

I am not saying that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. Only informed opinions are valid, and even then they’re just opinions. That unfortunate outgrowth of postmodernism trivializes the essential truth of subjective experience. Nor am I saying that you shouldn’t question the voices in your head, whether it be your id or an angel. Unverified Personal Gnosis is, after all, unverified. You absolutely should and must investigate and reason and critique. My favorite thing about Buddhism is that the Buddha said (I’m paraphrasing), “Don’t take my word for any of this–try it and see for yourself.” Once you’ve investigated, tried, reasoned–then, and only then, you know what you know, and it will stand you in good stead.

We need to be beyond flexible. We need to be antifragile. In situations like this there will be opportunities, and some will make friends with the monsters and flourish. We need to invest in relationships because we will depend on those of like mind. I am reminded of an article by Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen, about early medieval (“dark ages”) Germanic and Scandinavian “animal style” art. I’m going to quote from the abstract and then break it down. (Bear with me, I’ll try to keep it short.)

“The ambiguous quality of the art is suggested to be present on a perceptual level, but also on a compositional (structural) and iconographic level.  Psychological (and neurological) processes involved in the perception of ambiguous figures and their effects are presented:  Gestalt formation, unconscious processing, subliminal perception, motivated perception, and changed states of consciousness.  It is suggested that this art instigated, or at least referred to such processes.  In addition, on a semiotic level, the art is suggested to contain information-condensation (“hyper-texts”), cryptic information, and to have had other semiotic functions.”

This art style is most frequently seen on elaborate brooches that are only found in wealthy adult women’s burials (AD 5th-8th centuries). The brooches involve twisty knotwork and hidden animals and faces, and based on psychological studies of how people make sense of ambiguous imagery (Rorschach blots, for example) the authors argue that the hidden pictures are best perceived when one is in a light hypnotic state. But also that looking at the images can be used to instigate such a mental state. Certain people find it easier to slip into such light trances, and therefore any information which might have been encoded on the brooches–for example, traditional stories or images of gods–what they call “hyper-texts”–would be easier for these trance-able people to “read.” Since the brooches belonged to women, most likely women were the ones interpreting their imagery. Now although we often think that people who are easily hypnotized are weak and/or gullible, Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen cite psychological research that shows that the “hypnotically talented” (that’s the actual term by the way) in fact usually have a stronger sense of self and are less likely to be duped than others. Specifically they are people good at understanding things in their entirety and in context, intuition, subliminal perception, ability to recognize patterns one has been trained or preconditioned to spot, and using altered states of consciousness such as trance. These are mental/personality characteristics that help to make one a savvy character, and savvy was essential for survival, let alone success, in the chaotic shifting societies of the early middle ages. So to sum up, the most intuitive women who were best at perceiving and correctly interpreting subtle and ambiguous information were the ones who were most likely to to become wealthy and powerful and have lots of bling.

A Scandinavian animal-style brooch.

A Scandinavian animal-style brooch. There are faces and critters all over this thing. Can you see them?

This analysis keeps coming to mind because I think we are in another period when these same personality characteristics are going to come in really handy. A strong sense of self, an ability to cope with ambiguity and to see the unseen, then to put it all in context and know how to apply it on the fly? Yeah, I’d say that’s going to be crucial. You better start believing in ghosts, because you’re going to need to see them.

So the fact that our community myths and rules are crumbling will be liberating for some. Remember that, because that’s the up side to being on your own. As the good Dr. Seuss notes, “YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.”

Back to the implications of herbal medicine, one is that for me, it’s a way to break free from knowledge filtering. It shows me alternative views on healing and illness (here one has to be careful not to just soak up what’s on the internet because those cutesy little infographics on Pinterest are mostly BS or at best, hideously oversimplified–knowledge filtering at its finest).

The way I practice herbal medicine is resistance to a reductionist-materialist metaphysical paradigm and to those who want me to drink the Kool-Aid and believe there’s nothing I can do to heal myself. (Ghandi, and following himMartin Luther King, Jr., were at pains to point out to us that believing the lies of an immoral system is tantamount to complicity.)

Getting to know the shapes and colors of the herbs, to distinguish them from surrounding plants or deceptively similar ones, to read their signatures, helps me practice my intuition and pattern recognition. Their diversity helps keep me on my toes, and at the same time, simply trying to keep this knowledge alive and understand where and how to apply it also keeps me on my toes in a different way.

Working with plants keeps me surrounded by beauty, which I think is very important when everything seems to be going pear-shaped. Of course I don’t mean just superficial beauty, but the kind that you feel nourishes your soul and makes you feel connected to the divine.

One can even use the plants to induce altered states of consciousness, though altered states can be achieved in other ways too. I get information about herbs to use in my dreams. I don’t know how it works, I just know I will sometimes be strongly urged to seek one out. Second sight runs in my family, but let me tell you–practice beats natural talent any day. The plants help me practice.

This is why herbalism matters so much to me. Because I’ll never be good at hustle, but the plants are helping me to be better at insight–and that, I dare say, is indispensable when you’re on your own.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s