Sword of Damocles, Buttcheek of Saturn...

I remember watching a John Lennon documentary once as a teenager. There was film of some young transients who had just sort of camped out outside of John and Yoko's house.

The Lennonos decided to invite the young men inside for something to eat.

Around the table one of them told John that he'd always felt a certain song John had written, was written for him. And John politely said, "Not really," adding that if anything, he might write a song for Yoko, or one based on his own personal experience... but it was impossible that he had written one for a young man he had never met.

The young man looked somewhat crushed as he rectified his cognitive dissonance. You could tell he really believed he had tapped into some kind of spiritualized rock n' roll mojo.

Anyway.

I don't think we are karmically connected by any measure, but Stephen Fry has just written a blog post which sums up my life since Summer Solstice almost perfectly:

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn

August is almost over, and August is always like this -- the monsters (in my case, deadlines, ungraceful beasts of hard tedious work) come home to roost. And despite my attempts to go find inane things to do to distract myself, the work must be done. And you know how monsters are. They always attract friends.

I've been quiet on here but I've got lots of material about Lammas in my notes.

More after Labor day. LABOR. Ugh.

For your viewing enjoyment, here is the last third of the episode of Blackadder that I always think of when I get into these situations (which is often) -- in which E. Blackadder must re-create the entire first dictionary of the English language, on pain of death, by morning:


The Longest Day, The Shortest Night: Summer Solstice

Kunthisurya A couple of days ago, the woman who, with her husband, is doing the work of exploring the divine male and female at our mystery school asked me:

"What should I be concentrating on for Summer Solstice?"

I gave her an off-the-cuff drill:

This is the height of the male (solar) force, which draws most strongly upon the expression of female fertility to bring creation to the surface.

It is the zenith of what started as the romantic Beltaine energies. No longer wild, it is focused, and no shadows are cast. The Sun pulls straight upward while the Earth arches toward it accordingly. It seems like surrender, but actually the two hold each other in balance (an even, powerful balance of attraction; not quite the thrall of Beltaine) and see each other most clearly. To draw a metaphor, the mystery lover of Beltaine is now your known partner and most powerful ally.

The Sun brings the Earth to the peak of its industry; but, as with all things cresting, the high point of a cycle heralds its inevitable decline. And as the power of the Sun begins to wane and the days get shorter, the Yin grows and Earth produces her nourishing harvest.

We move so much to the surface of ourselves at midsummer. Every nerve, every sense, seems to be electrified. And as any straight channel will demonstrate, it is the time to receive and give pure, unadulterated and efficient energy because there are no twists and turns to slow or otherwise shift the flow.

This is the definition of what happens at high noon on the day of the Summer Solstice: Become a battery and charge up when the getting's good!

Meditating on Darkness at Summer Solstice

That's pretty much what I told her. But here's what I didn't:

Everyone talks about Summer Solstice as the longest day. Well, it's also the shortest night. That brief night is a vigil in itself, a trembling wait for a day of glory and light.

But what happens to nights after the solstice, at that very fine turning point of energies -- is also very important.

My theory is this: You receive the height of Yang energies at Summer Solstice. These energies are so Yang, they have the ability to penetrate to deepest Yin. This means that you receive the seed of light to sustain you through the greatest darkness -- Winter Solstice. That very first night after Summer Solstice, that night when darkness takes over just tick more... should be given just as much meditation and contemplation because it is the first night, the first expression of Yin, that will anchor and nourish that Yang.

In non-Chinese terms: The first night after the Solstice sets the tone for how well you feed the fire that will carry you through another year, much of it in cold and darkness, until the warmth of the sun begins to grow again. What kind of fuel will you use? How often will you need to stoke the flame? Will you be a good steward of your energies so that they are available to you when you need them most?

As quickly as our attention is given to expansion and heightened activity (Yang, the Sun, the Summer Solstice), in an instant it must shift to conservation (Yin, the Earth, the harvest and eventual sustenance through slumber).

But Why Listen to Me When Hrithik and Aishwarya Can Show You?

But gee, you know, simulacra is the way to reach the masses these days, isn't it? So here's a music video of sorts which kind of illustrates my point. It's from the film Jodhaa-Akbar, whose absolutely gorgeous (you guys: GORGEOUS) soundtrack by the incomparable A. R. Rahman has had me obsessed for months. In fact I bought the soundtrack before ever seeing the film, and I still think that in some ways the movie does not do justice to the music!

I won't spoil the film by giving too many details, but know that you must get over the fact that the pair in this clip are probably two of the most beautiful people on the planet before you can absorb any other meaning.

But in light of Summer Solstice, notice how Emperor Akbar "brings" light into Princess Jodhaa's room -- literally filling it with the rays of the Sun. Of course, it was his event to plan. But the point is, he brings the light that penetrates the feminine space. After a slow build of romance throughout the film, this is the point where they finally see each other for who they are and acknowledge their mutual power -- Yang and Yin.

The display of chemistry is pretty vivid here and the device used by the filmmakers to highlight the strength of this pair's trance-like attraction is that glorious day suddenly becomes night. In absorbing the sight and energy of each other, they exhaust the daylight. And here's the mystery of Summer Solstice: watch as Akbar lights the candle and brings Jodhaa's night-time (Yin) self to life.

Or, don't think at all and just enjoy this stunning clip with its beautiful, beautiful music. Make sure your speakers are turned up. Much, much better yet: plug in your headphones to really appreciate the song. Happy Litha everyone.


P.S. A fine English translation of the song from the Urdu is found here; scroll down. Devotional picture at the top of the post is of Queen Kunthi summoning Lord Surya, the Sun god.

"The very minute bids thee ope thine ear"

Seachange

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong.
Hark! Now I hear them -- Ding-dong, bell.

-- Ariel's song, Act I, Scene II, Shakespeare's The Tempest

Seems like all I really was doing was waiting for love

Bulkherbs2 I'm sitting on the floor in San Jose Airport, having just finished a week at my school's annual herbal seminar. This was my third and final one, and it was a stressful week of monitored herbal clinic and the usual group dynamics psychodrama exacerbated by the pressure to perform. Gratefully, I had friends around me to whom I could show my own weaknesses and for whom I hope I provided support in kind.

On the way to the airport I began a sort of free-association whine with my long-suffering buddy Pam about all my going-away angst -- a feeling of incompleteness, naive expectations that weren't met, my own foolish illusions, what in the world the future might hold, anticipating missing my friends, and wondering if I'd ever be back to this beautiful place.

"You're saying pretty much all the same things you said when we left for the airport last year," Pam pointed out. "You're pretty much in exactly the same place."

Oh fer Christ's sake. Let's hear it for progress!

I'm still processing a lot about this week, which in effect was the culmination of about three years of study at East West. But I do want to share with you the following, which is an e-mail I sent my fellow herbalist friend Tom about what happened the day I landed in California. I think it sums up the whole experience.

-----------------------------

Hey love --

Got in this afternoon and met up with my girls. We were waiting for the last of our party and decided to go into Santa Cruz to hang out. My friend Pam had a stuffy head and lingering cough from a bug she got three weeks ago. I said "Maybe you need some Minor Bupleurum" and we thought we could stop in at Michael's clinic to buy a bottle.

I called him to alert him we might come in. He told us to come on by and sit in on him doing an intake. A chance to watch the master in action -- Hurrah!

But then his 3 p.m. canceled. So he decided to make my friend the intake and I became the student clinician. "Fine, I can handle this," I thought, mostly because I had no choice.

So he did the intake and asked a few questions, then did some acupuncture on her. How awesome it was for me to know some of the points by heart! (They were easy ones though.)

Then he had to do a phone intake and left me to come up with assessment and treatment principle.

I was a mess at first but finally came up with Six Gentlemen plus magnolia bud, platycodon and some damp-draining herbs. Pam gave fine suggestions from the slab, stuck with needles as she was and without the benefit of a book to boot -- sign of a fine herbalist.

Michael came back in after 30 min or so and asked what my result was. I started to report my assessment: "Lung Qi deficiency, Spleen Qi deficiency with damp, corroborated by pulse and tongue..."...

He said, "No, you have to state your assessment in terms of her complaints, not what you THINK her TCM assessment is. It has to be 'sinus congestion due to...' or 'rundown energy due to...' etc." OK, so I tried again. He asked why I chose these patterns. I began to explain my proposed etiology, knowing her previous history of illness.

He interrupted me again and said, "Did you look in the books?" I said "Yes, but they didn't have the same patterns so I went on my own." Again I began to tell him my ideas about how she came to manifest these symptoms while he looked in the books under related patterns, which turned up the EXACT SAME ASSESSMENT as my original one.

"Lung Qi deficiency, Spleen Qi deficiency --" he began.

So I looked up at him and I said impatiently, "But Michael, I just SAID that!"

And his face fell and he said "I'm just trying to show you how to use the books; you'll need them one day, you know."

Extractpowders Not wanting to waste any more time on my impertinence, he asked me my proposed formula and I told him... he said it was perfect and what he really wanted to hear was that I'd choose to use magnolia bud in there somewhere. He un-stuck Pam and sent us off to the pharmacy to mix up powder.

My tail was between my legs as I slunk out of the treatment room.

After he finished with his next client he came out to the waiting room where we were gathered to say thank you and goodbye. He saw the pained look on my face and said:

"You did a great job. You're ready. But stop being so defensive. You don't have to be right all the time. It stands in the way of your learning.
You are a student now and you should enjoy this time of your life."

Sound familiar, Tom?

xoxo

---------------

Fast forward 10 days later to today.

Feeling sad and disconnected (as well as empowered, oddly) when I got to the airport, I realized that I'd left my still-hot cappuccino at the curbside check-in when I was already halfway through the TSA line. Geez -- what else could go wrong? I threw my head back and looked at the ceiling in exasperation when some very comforting recognizable muzak came on. Huh.

A few minutes later at the newsagents I looked for the mindless comfort of non-herbal, non-medical tabloid dreck. Lugging my carry-ons, I ambled slowly to the right, scanning all the celebrity 'news' headlines I'd missed in my week of media deprivation. Then came summer hemlines, outdoor entertaining, Bob Dylan on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Before I knew it I was at paperbacks and a hefty tome jumped out at me: "The Rainbow" by D.H. Lawrence -- one of my favorite books in college and one whose passages I remembered spontaneously when I met Michael Tierra and was reminded of why I'm on this path at all.

I bought "The Rainbow." I'm going to re-read it. It's my second copy, about half the size and a quarter of the weight of the copy I bought in college almost 15 years ago. I don't think it's any accident that the Universe sends you your favorite music and literature in swift succession just when you're feeling disappointed and free-falling in a small California airport.

No need to be afraid, Ursula Brangwen. It's real love. It's real.             


How many goddesses can you find in this post?

Last night in Experiential Anatomy class, a friend I hadn't seen in years said she enjoyed my blog.

Between two schools, two nights of classes per week and two jobs, I'd almost forgotten I had a blog! So here are some short(ish) updates:

Full Circle

The friend I mention above, Beatrice, was there from the moment I set foot on this path of studying herbalism. We spent many hours in class together, camping, driving, talking, eating in those days, and she showed me much generosity, both material and intellectual.

I can still remember one night when we sat in her van outside my apartment after school one day. I was trying to figure out where I was going with my future career, hopefully, in herbalism. I said, "I want to do something in herbalism that no one's ever done before! I don't know what it is, but it has to be different."

Beatrice sighed. "Oh, that's just your ego talking. When you get older you won't be so motivated by that."

I tell you, that moment has stuck with me all these years. Any time I feel the urge to be 'different' coming from some superficial ego place, I hear those words. It's made me a better student, a better herbalist, and hopefully, a better teacher in those rare instances when I might have some wisdom to impart to others.

She finished her course of study at our school before me, and went on to develop her career. When my school decided to offer an Asian bodywork program, she decided to go for it and expand her already formidable healing toolbox. How poetic it is now that she should return just as my long butt-in-seat academic journey nears its end. It seems a very auspicious omen indeed.

Hawaii and the 'goddess'

Lugh and I went on our (so far) annual trip to Hawaii last month. It was an odd sojourn, partly because it was so uncharacteristically cold (low 70s) on Oahu. Sweater weather, really, especially at night. I'd known this was going to be a working trip before going, and that I'd likely be stuck in the hotel most of the time, but I'd have appreciated at least the option of going out and snorkeling!

The one day we really had a chance to get any swimming in, it was still cool and windy. The waves at Waimanalo beach were wild. After eating pineapple and watermelon on the sand with my friends, I stripped down to my swimsuit and made my gradual entry into the water. My friend WaiWai appeared at my side.

We talked for awhile as we watched the waves trounce other swimmers. I'm no swimmer; she, on the other hand, was on the swim team in school. We are both Aquarians -- the air sign that carries the water of enlightenment. "That's the thing," I said. "We want to be able to carry the water and control how it flows. But we aren't comfortable being swept away by it." Of course in this sense I meant water in its broader aspect as the symbol for those often uncontrollable tides of emotion and dream. I think WaiWai agreed.

She taught me to dive under the large waves that day, flattening myself to the sand as the wave rolled over me. A useful tool indeed, in and out of the water.

We also talked about the old Hawaiian man who gave her her Hawaiian name. She told me he used to rub aloe on her shoulders, telling her how good it was for her skin. I asked if perhaps he didn't also just want to touch her. She said it wasn't unlikely.

"You know what the Sanskrit is for aloe, don't you?" I asked her. She didn't. "It's kumari," I said. "Kumari means 'goddess.'" It gave a new angle to her experience. "I have a big aloe in a pot on my doorstep," she said. "Maybe you are getting this piece of information about aloe so you can connect with it and the divine feminine more," I offered.

I may have been only half right.

That evening we were scheduled to go to a concert. It had been an overcast day at the beach and I was slathered with 70-SPF sunscreen. But after a few hours of resting in my hotel room, I started to get an itchy heat rash (along with a runny nose, headache and sore throat... Wind Damp invasion alternating between Hot and Cold). I asked WaiWai to bring me a few stalks of the 'goddess' when she picked me up for the concert. I put them in the mini-fridge and we departed for the show. Returning late from the concert feeling awful and exhausted, I went straight to bed.

The next morning I slit one cool aloe stalk down the middle, giving thanks. I told Lugh about my conversation with WaiWai as he drew the demulcent side of the plant over my shoulder, back, chest and face. It seemed a holy experience somehow.

"Wow, I wish you could see this," he said, as he smoothed the plant over my back. "The red bumps are going down instantly!" I'm convinced now that the best way to use the 'goddess' plant is to have it applied by a man who thinks you are a goddess, as well!

All Work and No Play Make Herbis Orbis a Very Dull (insert Homer Simpson drooling sound here)

I'm finished with the tedium and rigors of (acupressure) point location class, but that has been replaced by the aforementioned anatomy class. Which, so far, isn't anywhere near as maddening, though the tests are still challenging. This is joined by a shiatsu class and weekly 'client' intakes.

Meanwhile, I've got my big East West seminar experience coming up in a few short weeks, for which I am woefully unprepared. Basically we'll have three days of monitored clinic 'testing' where we interview, assess and formulate herbal preparations for various patients. Having fallen behind on other deadlines for work for the school, I will not be able to cram much studying in before I find myself amidst the California redwoods once more, feeling I don't know my own butt from a hole in the ground.

"But haven't you been working in clinic for the past several months?" you may ask. Well, yes, but not with Chinese herbs or patents, which I'll need to know. Suffice it to say, I'm going to rely on the books I'll bring and hope for a talented clinic partner.

And if I don't 'pass' -- well, there's always next year.

Or clown school.

Circling Beltaine

Unbelievably, I'm staring right into the wild eyes of Mayday again, which this year I will spend with my group here in the Midwest. Sometimes I wonder if anything could top the gentle magic of my Beltaine spent last year in the redwood forest, but I have no doubt it will be wonderful in its own way. It always is.

Beltaine is that incredible time of wild blooming desire -- desire on all levels. As I approach May in a much more subdued, introspective way this year, I wonder if I am just so full of desires for all aspects of my life that I'm having trouble focusing; or if the flowers and fruits of last year's desires have depleted and exhausted me so much that I need to lie fallow for a year.

We shall see what blessings the season brings. I submit to the tide, but I acknowledge that this time around, I am not bending to the wild hunt; I am Persephone emerging from my mysterious, dark time with Hades, rushing reborn into the strong, garlanded arms of a goddess who loves me even so.


Finding an herbal ally, daemon and/or genius

The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_Caravaggio A couple of weeks ago, this video of Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert was making its rounds on Twitter. In it, Gilbert discusses the idea of how the creativity of artists was perceived in the world of classical antiquity.

In short, artists didn't take all the credit for creating some incredible piece of work; transcendent artistic expressions were believed to be the fruit of a collaboration between the human artist and his or her assigned supernatural helper spirit, a daemon (as it was called by the ancient Greeks), or genius (as it was called by the Romans).

Gilbert says of the ancient Greeks and Romans,

People did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was a divine attendant spirit who came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.

By the time the Renaissance rolled around -- regarded as the rebirth of the art and spirit of classical antiquity, ironically -- the human being was placed at the center of the universe and artists themselves became known as 'geniuses', signaling a shift toward the belief that creativity was indeed a singularly human phenomenon.

I shared this video with my friend @theogeer of Autumn Twilight. I mentioned that I had felt rushed in clinic the previous evening and complained that I wasn't quite sure I had adequately helped my new client. I joked that I sure could have used the aid of an 'herbal genius.'

Theo said:

I wonder about that idea of an herbal genius. Lots of practitioners, particularly of native or isolated traditions have a plant ally of some sort. Carlos Casteneda famously detailed the development of his alliance with peyote, and the Curanderos and Brujos of Mexico and Central America have a well known alliance with mint, which they use for everything. Maybe what you need is to find a plant ally to guide you in your work?

Now, when you live with one foot in the magickal world as Theo and I do, synchronicities are not only frequent but also consciousness-shifting. Those few lines of his above focused my mind on the events of the previous night at the clinic:

I was concluding a follow-up appointment when my teacher and herb clinic director, Althea Northage-Orr, popped her head in the room and politely asked me to hurry up; an unscheduled client decided to come at the last minute and she wanted me to take the case. I wrapped up my intake and ran to the pharmacy to tweak my follow-up client's herbal formula.

His formula originally contained white peony root, also known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as bai shao. I took the bottle of tincture down from the shelf. It had about a finger-width left at the bottom. I looked at the golden liquid and said to it (silently): "Nope. A woman is going to come in today who will need you." I put the bottle back on the shelf and subbed another Yin-building tonic into this man's formula.

Sure enough, my next case was a lovely woman dealing with exhaustion and family hardships at just the time she was beginning menopause, among other complaints. The white peony, which I had always considered a very feminine, softening, building herb, was among the medicinals indicated for her symptoms. I was happy to drain the last of the bai shao into her formula and mentioned it specifically when I tried to explain to her what my treatment principle was and why I had chosen some of the herbs that she would be taking.

Paeonia lactiflora by Ulf Eliasson That night I dreamed that I was drinking tea out of a wide bowl with a strainer pressed to the bottom of it to keep the tea leaves from floating to the surface. When I had finished the tea, I removed the strainer to discard the marc (used-up plant matter) and was delighted to find that the bottom of the bowl was covered with large white flowers, fresh and plump as if they had just been cut from the plant.

I hadn't thought of my little moment in the pharmacy with the white peony tincture or the dream at all, until Theo's question kicked my memory into gear.

White peony is now a definite herbal 'genius' of mine.

Althea (whose special plant ally is mugwort, not marshmallow, by the way), incorporates workings with plant devas into our education to help attune us to the spiritual energies of plants. In this way I've had wonderful experiences sitting in her garden with live plants which made them special 'friends' -- namely, skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), elder (Sambucus nigra) and St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum). But I'd never had quite the same experience of communication between myself and a plant like I had with white peony.

Another teacher of mine, Michael Tierra, has mentioned several times on his blog that herbalists often happen to be artists as well. Being both myself, and knowing many herbal healers including Michael who fit the artist bill as well, I wholeheartedly agree. A paragraph in one of Michael's recent posts really resonated with me:

No matter how deeply one studies and enters into the complexity of healing, plant biochemistry and so on..., nevertheless there is always place for the irrational and the subjective. The poet's perspective of life, the musician's sense of harmony, the artist's eye of proportion and relationships - these are all shared by healers, especially the herbal healer who works with plants, which are the pure creative expression of nature and the healing process.

I challenge anyone to express it more brilliantly than that!

Herbalits are artists and therefore should create a special place in their practice for the help of their own little attendant plant spirit. Perhaps like animal totems these may change and cycle back and forth over time, but the idea of a divinely assigned plant ally, while by no means new, can really help an herbalist to co-create with the ultimate Divine source of healing.

Since my experience with white peony, I've been keeping my intuition a little more open and trying to allow it to confirm or be confirmed by my usual bookish nature when it comes to choosing herbs for a formula. I pay attention to herbs I come across during the day, in the form of pictures or live plants or dreams, and more often than not these herbs step forward when I review a client's case. Sometimes their presence is specifically indicated for a certain condition; other times they help me decide when I am on the fence about two herbs that do very similar things.

I have to say, after only a short time with this approach, the results and the experiences I have had with clients have been very gratifying. I have felt a greater confidence in my formula selections -- a shared confidence greater than the reassurance I have gotten from books and research only. I keep the awareness of gentle, beautiful bai shao close by; she takes the edge off performance pressure and ego, allowing me (so far!) to be a more present and compassionate practitioner. I am as grateful for this blessing and gift as I am for my human teachers.

If you have a special herbal daemon or genius, I'd love to hear about it and how you came to know it was your ally in the comments section!