All traditional forms of medicine have viewed the body, plants, and the seasons through an elemental lens. But what do I mean by an elemental lens? Essentially it is the belief that we are all made up of four basic elements: water, air, fire, and earth. Each of these elements has different qualities.
Understanding Elemental Qualities:
Fire is hot and drying, and water is cool and moistening. Earth is stable and dense, and air is light and changeable. When we witness these qualities within the human body or within a plant, we can attribute them to the elements.
Recognizing Elemental Balance in Individuals:
A person who is very light in frame, moves quickly, has an erratic personality, and dry skin could be said to have a lot of air in their physical and mental makeup. Of course, we are all made up of all the elements, and are also influenced by the seasons, the climate we live in, what food we have been eating; therefore, we are never one element, and that can change over time. It is important not to get stuck in type casting. However, understanding the qualities of the elements can be a tool to help us see the patterns in illness and physicality on a deeper level than a doctor who is taught to treat the disease, and often will not go below the symptoms to discover the pattern and person below the sore throat or urinary tract infection.
Elemental Imbalances and Symptoms:
In fact each symptom can also correspond or have an elemental imbalance at its core. Heat on the skin and rashes are indicative of a fire imbalance, while water retention could be seen as an excess or slow-moving water imbalance.
Herbal Energetics and Elemental Healing:
Learning how to sense the elements within plants can help us understand how to balance and harmonize elemental disturbances within the body, or illness.
Some plants have a high water content, such as aloe vera or slippery elm. These plants embody the qualities of being cooling and moistening, and when applied topically or internally to the body, they can help soothe fire imbalances.
Herbal Energetics in Practice:
In herbalism, this understanding of the qualities of plants is known as herbal energetics. Herbal energetics doesn't tend to be a focus of most conventional herbal medicine degrees, and this is a shame, as many students are missing out on the nuances and subtleties of plants. No two nervine (nervous system herbal action) herbs are the same. Take chamomile and damiana, for example. Both of these herbs are known to be relaxing for the nervous system and to reduce anxiety. However, on an energetic or elemental level, these herbs are completely different.
Chamomile's Cooling Effect:
Chamomile is bitter tasting and aromatic with a small percentage
of soothing and moistening qualities. This means that chamomile has an overall cooling and
calming effect on the body, making it especially good for cramping and bloating in the digestive tract.
Damiana's Warming Nature:
Damiana, on the other hand, is pungent, aromatic, and warming, mildly circulatory stimulating. Damiana has more of an affinity with the fire element and has an overall warming and mildly stimulating effect on the nervous system. It's a herb that is well-suited for taking to a social occasion so you can be relaxed and warm, ready to be the life of the party and not shy at all.
The Importance of Herbal Education:
These nuances of herbs are often missed in a classroom where there is not proper time spent or any emphasis on the herbal energetic and elemental side of plants and humans. We need to develop sensory awareness. How do you learn to recognize and identify the elements and herbal energetics within plants and people? Well, the first step is to start developing your senses: touch, smell, sight, and sound.
The Role of Organoleptic Tools:
In herbalism, our senses are known as our organoleptic tools and are how people throughout human history have worked out the medicinal uses and actions of plants.
Reconnecting with Nature;
Before there was Google or even books, people were even more connected and knowledgeable about the uses of plants and how to incorporate them into food and medicine. In today's ultra-connected, technology-savvy world, we have forgotten how to listen and feel plants. We need to recultivate that awareness and start to practice tasting and smelling different herbs.
Embracing Intuition and Connection:
This art requires us to see each person and plant with fresh eyes, really listening and observing them with presence. If we are running our mind dialogue and diagnosing from a textbook, we are not really treating their unique pattern in that moment; we are only masking symptoms. Can you embody the elements and observe what you are sensing rather than relying on what you have been told? Herbalism, in its essence, connects us back to our intuition and power. True herbalism, that is. A real teacher of herbalism will empower their student to never need a book again but to feel free in the forest and garden, to trust their instincts and handmade creations.
Returning to Basics;
At the end of the day, herbalism is really a simple art. It is one that grounds us and connects us back to the elements and nature. We need to remember and come back to basics.