Mar 302012

Critical Intuition: Knowing The Difference Between Intuiting & Projecting

Excerpted from the Herbal Rebel Column in the now available Spring 2012 Issue of

Plant Healer Magazine

by Paul Bergner

In previous columns, I have spoken of a Four Directions model of obtaining knowledge, of study, that may be applied to herbalism or any other field of endeavor. In the North, we diligently study traditions and what previous generations have left for us in books or oral tradition. In the South we throw ourselves into practical experience, alone, in groups, or in our communities, tasting and experimenting the plants and the contexts of their healing, testing the promise of the studies of the past. In the East, in this era, we look at new information or perspectives that may be coming from the field of science, and we look to new plants or methods, entering our awareness from other lands or traditions. Finally, in the West, we study the reality of the plants and our healing methods with instinct and intuition. It is a mistake to be stuck in one of these four directions, four ways of knowing, while neglecting the other three. We can’t hope to actually help someone else by simply memorizing things in old books. Likewise we can’t expect to ignore what is in those books, and expect our empirical knowledge, or that of our colleagues, to fill all our needs. If we want to be Scientific Herbalists only, we will be up a creek as far as helping anyone, because the entire body of knowledge of “scientifically proven” herbs is not sufficient to treat anything other than a few symptoms or conditions. And finally, we can’t just be Spiritual Herbalists, ignoring our homework in the North, or just rejecting information from science out of hand, or not finding a way to test and ground our intuitive insights.  Especially, we can’t simply take our psychic impressions about a plant and what it can and can’t do, where it belongs on the medicine wheel, what its doctrine of Signatures implies, where it falls in the rulership in the zodiac, and think these impressions are infallible. The individual who is too invested in their naive first psychic impressions is as undeveloped as the individual who believes everything they are told by someone in authority without questioning it. We need to address these impressions with critical thinking. Or should I say critical intuition.

If the essence of critical thinking is to keep questioning, questioning new ideas, questioning old beliefs, questioning ones own motives, and to develop a living mental stream of persistent inquiry, then the essence of critical intuition is to develop an identical process about our intuitive insights. “Is this impression really true?” First of all, let me say I think intuition is an innate ability, and even if some have it to a higher degree than others, practically every human being has pretty good functional intuition. I say this because I have led many beginning students through awareness exercises with plants, where they try to intuit information about the plant, and most people can see things about the plant that are true but not immediately obvious to the senses. In a recent year, nearly every beginning student in a group of 36 identified the properties of Sickle-Topped Lousewort as cooling and relaxing, although not knowing its name, and not tasting or smelling it, after sitting near it for 20 minutes. Another exercise, which I learned in the Tracker School community, is to put a plant or plant part in an envelope, so that the individual cannot see, taste, or smell it. The person holds the envelope, and tries to sense the plant, and asks a series of questions.

  1. Is it poisonous or not
  2. Is it food or medicine
  3. If it is medicine what is its use or body system affected.

I have done this exercise with beginning herb students, apprentices, and also with college students who knew nothing of herbalism. The students receive 4 envelopes, with a poison, a food, and 2 medicines. I do not know which envelope they are testing and cannot influence their impression.  For poison, I sometimes put poison hemlock seeds in one of the envelopes. Out of perhaps 60 student testings, only a handful of student have failed to identify the poison hemlock as poisonous. For most of the substances, the students are 80-90% accurate. Sometimes, unexpected but accurate information comes out. Once an apprentice intuited that Althea was both food an medicine, and that as medicine it was good for the nervous system. This is not conventional wisdom about Althea, but in her case, this nursing mother in dry-as-a-bone Colorado was dehydrated with nervous irritation from the dryness, and Althea indeed soothed the irritation.  We don’t want to rely on this method for studying unknown herbs, because “usually” and “most of the time” is not good enough for detecting poisonous plants.

I am convinced, after working with different types of students for nearly 40 years, that this innate intuition and instinct can be developed into a highly reliable and refined talent, and I’m also convinced that this is an essential talent to develop in order to work in the field of natural healing with plants. These, I think, are the essential points of practicing critical intuition:

  1. Make the intention to set aside your preconceptions. When we make an intention, we put ourselves in the center of our being, we increase our awareness, we mobilize all parts of our physical and spiritual senses. We put ourselves in a positive state, rather than a negative, overly receptive state where we may become porous to vague impressions. In this first step we impress on our unconscious mind that we want accurate information, not confirmation of our previous prejudices or opinions.
  2. Make a second specific intention that you want to consult your “highest and most accurate intuition.” We again impress the deep mind that we do not want impressions based on wish-fulfillment or ego-pleasing.
  3. Ask your question in clear terms.
  4. Be very open as to how the answer will come to your consciousness. It may differ between individuals, and also for one individual at different times. A person may “see” something, another may “hear” and a third may just get a vague sense of an answer.
  5. When you get the impression, ask again if the information is accurate? Again, impress on the deep mind that you want accurate information as free from bias and projection as possible. A light, focused, but curious and playful attitude works better than a heavy and skeptical or overly serious one.
  6. Finally, find some way to ground the answer, or test it in reality.

The same process can be used when working with plants. Some special considerations:

  1. Make the intention to perceive the plant on its own terms, in its own essence, rather simply in its relationship to human utilitarians values.
  2. Do not free-associate off the English plant name. Baby-blue eyes for wounds in childhood, Bleeding Heart for a broken heart, etc. The English name has nothing to do with the essence of the plant on its own terms. Release those associations.
  3. Do not free associate on some form of plant morphology, Shooting Star for those who have failed to incarnate properly, etc because the flower looks to a human like a shooting star. Release that association and ask for the truth of the plant on its own terms.

Be aware of your own projections as much as possible. The question is not “Am I projecting?” but “How am I projecting?” Overcoming projection, this can only be obtained by strong intentions to do so, brutal honesty about ones own covert motives or inclinations to denial or dishonesty, persistent questioning and re-questioning, and long practice.  One herbalist made a flower essence set of several hundred plants, and fully 1/3 of them were either for disordered eating or for rigid religious attitudes. This practitioner in this case suffers from disordered eating, and uses distorted religious beliefs to rationalize the behavior. I once intuited 6 plants on the same day, and five of them said they were “good for people who suffer from overwork.”  Hmmmmm.

Ultimately, the final stage of grounding is necessary. And this brings us back to the Four Directions model. Each direction can act like a check or balance against the others. Is there some history of this plant use in old literature? Does science have anything to say about this? And ultimately, the proof come in the South, where we take the plants in repeated experimentation or use them clinically.


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  4 Responses to “Critical Intuition Excerpt by Paul Bergner”

  1. Tis not a common thing to find grounded, respectful information about using the intuitive process. I highly value this article. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this clarity. It’s too easy to choose the easy path, doing what comes naturally, and miss out on the grounding we need to be well-rounded. Thank you.

  3. Too often i’ve found myself frozen in the North of “learning” from (science, conventional knowledge,etc.) what others have already learned. This Spring, I am dedicating myself to learning in a brand new way about some of my favorites:) Thank you for the clarity and humility that shines through in the article.

  4. Brutal self honesty in a larger compassion. Thanks, Paul and Kiva

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