Feb 272011

The Language of Healing:

The Power Of Conscious Vernacular & Deliberate Terminology

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

An Excerpt from the full length article, in the March Issue of Plant Healer: A Journal of Traditional Western Herbalism.

Languages are forever evolving, depending on shifting understandings and cultural context, the watering down of some definitions and the recasting of others.  This is true of the English language in general, and the ways we use it, and even more so when it comes to the vernacular of informal and professional sub-groups such as the field of herbalism and its diverse community of herbalists.  Most obviously we can see how conflicted or detached patients can get due to the conventional modern biomedical use of oppositional metaphors such as “the war on cancer” or “the battle with disease”, with it sometimes recommended that they picture their illness as a hated enemy, visualizing antibodies as fast-firing little tanks attacking on their behalf.  In comparison, a client whose herbalist explains things in terms of the body as an ecosystem in which microorganisms are integral of often beneficial coinhabitants, where no one imagines our bodies have “betrayed” us just because we might be ill – and where we consider that we treat imbalances rather than somehow corrupted corporeal beings – is much more likely to trust and therefore better nourish, tend and listen to their bodies, more likely to be at ease and at home in their selves and in this way less stressed out and quicker to self-repair.

The ability of herbalist’s clients to accept, love and wholly inhabit their ailing bodies is supported by a language of nourishment and accord, more than by one of judgment or conflict, disassociation or transcendence.  And so it is for us as well, that the words we speak and write each have their own kind of power, and that the ways we perceive and define help to determine who we are.  The words we use and definitions we assign them affect our ability to wholly understand concepts and techniques, influence our self image as people and as practitioners and healers, help determine our degree of empowering self confidence or sabotaging self doubt, and both connect us to other discoveries, ideas and tools, and sometimes hinder us from seeing past our bias, dogma, systems, models and habits to new connections, combinations and conclusions.  It is with our selection of and understanding of terms, that we define not only words but our field, our calling, passion or profession.

To increase the chances that we are clearly imparting what is most important to clients and students, minimizing projection and confusion, avoiding unnecessary hot buttons and trigger words, encouraging rather than discouraging response, it’s important that we consciously craft our sentences to best effect.  The sample examples below are words central to the world of the herbalist, but the principle of a deliberated language and responsible communication applies to you no matter what your vocation, interests or mission.


A Few Sample Misunderstood, Maldefined or Misused Terms

Health:  Wholeness, balance, functionality, integration and mutually beneficial cooperation of all our parts; measured not by some bodily perfection but by the degree of vitality, responsiveness, effectiveness, and satisfaction.

One example of a less helpful connotation is equating health to an absence of symptoms, sometimes resulting in insufficient attention to underlying foundational causes (such as lifestyle habits, degraded liver function or vitamin D deficiency).  Someone can have no symptoms and serious problems, obviously, or have certain recurrent symptoms but otherwise be vital and healthy.

Herbalist: Anyone and everyone who knowledgeably and effectively uses plants to help facilitate the natural healing process of their bodies or the bodies of others.

It feels important that this definition be deliberately wide, largely inclusive and possibly even generous, so as many herb allies and herb associates as possible can reasonably claim the title… even if they’re primarily herbal teachers, artists, activists, botanists or gardeners, whether they treat others professionally or only tend their families or their selves.  After all, the term “herbalist” has never ensured nor really indicated a specific level of proficiency or experience, a particular number of years of practice or amount of clients seen.

Certainly there is a qualitative difference between a veteran practitioner that is highly respected and uses freshly grown or gathered ingredients, and someone who has only read about herbs and perhaps always purchases their herbs from a whole-foods market.  But there is also a measurable difference between those who use fresh plants when appropriate and those who are limited to or only choose to use purchased and dried products.  Between those who have apprenticed and those who are self taught.  Between compassionate and service-focused practitioners and those who are simply brilliant herbalists.  A highly motivated herbalist who is adept at synthesizing ideas and information, or someone without much herbal knowledge who is especially intuitive, can prove better at diagnosis and formulations, and thus more effective with their treatments, than someone who has hung the herbalist shingle for decades.  For us to make such distinctions can be arrogant or self-effacing when applied to ourselves, disempowering or elevating for those people we evaluate and label, and divisive for the community.

Folk Herbalism: The herbalism of the common folk, or more importantly, diverse expressions of herbalism that is common to all kinds of folks… not only the schooled, certified or income producing but also the illiterate who learn their skills from watching their elders, those practicing without the approval or permission of modern health authorities, herbalists who provide assistance for free or treat only their neighbors and families.  Literally, folk herbalism applies equally to herbalcentric academians and the oft-maligned “kitchen herbalists,” professional certified clinical herbalists and plant-rendering rainforest shamans… though it characteristically evokes an herbalism which is personally empowering and largely egalitarian, experiential and in some ways subjective, available, accessible and gladly shared.  It appears grounded in the earth and the lessons of nature, and is thus home to the coveralls wearing herb gardener, the feather bedecked Hourani healer, the free clinic herbal anarchist, herbal rebel and herbal outcast.

At the same time, it could be a mistake to use language that unrealistically sentimentalizes or glorifies folk herbalism.  Just because someone was smart enough to quit a boring school doesn’t mean they’re necessarily innovative, self educated, experienced and wise… sometimes it just means that they can’t keep commitments and have accumulated less useful information.  Just because an herbalist rejects certification or bucks medical convention is no indication that their diagnosis or treatment will be any more effective, or even more innovative, than those closer affiliated with guilds, universities or hospitals.  And just because an herbal treatment derives from a cool tribal culture shouldn’t exempt it from analysis and evaluation, nor should even the most comfortable of traditional herbal story-lines prevent us from considering and weighing-in the latest scientific research or even our own sometimes contrary experiences.

Medical Herbalist: Basically any herbalist administering herbs or herbal advice in hopes of a medical outcome or improvement, a practitioner.  In some cases it seems employed primarily to make the practitioner or teacher feel more important.

Master Herbalist: A nice sounding title or herbal degree, but nonetheless kind of a bullshit term that anyone could be forgiven for feeling embarrassed about.  In one sense, to “master” means to rule over.  In another, it suggests someone has reached a level where there is nothing more to be learned.  In these two senses, no one really masters anything since there is always a possibility of new insights, greater wisdom and further developed proficiency.

Accredited Herbalist, Certified & Approved: Being given credit by an organization; being vouched for by an organization that certain qualifications are met; receiving approval from an organization, authority or agency acting as if they have the power to disapprove and deny.

Understand first of all, if you don’t already – that there is currently no licensure or certification required in the United States to practice herbalism.  And it is the language we speak, that can in part facilitate any systems and rules to follow, or that can establish the fact and tone of any alternative.

Accreditation and certification of herbalists can beneficially increase acceptance of our field by the large numbers of people in this culture brainwashed to equate official monikers and scientific degrees with knowledge and competence.  In this sense, a language of professionalism serves to legitimize the modern recommendation and use of herbs, theoretically reducing the future likelihood or extent of draconian governmental regulation, expanding the market for herbs and herbal information, and broadening the client base for practicing herbalists.  It could be useful to have a certification system whereby the overall quality of the plant is ensured, or to know that when we are ill, the herbalist we seek help from meets certain agreed upon standards.

At the same time, the language of certification can stratify the community, giving increasing control over roles and titles to a governing board, resulting in the unintentional impugning of the credits of those who do not qualify or belong, and inadvertently impacting their incomes.  A language of qualification and authorization can’t help but contribute to elitism, no matter how hard we might try to prevent that from happening.  Any type of accreditation, no matter how beneficial otherwise, unfortunately legitimizes less desirable official qualification and governance, setting the tenor for what will likely be much less benign herbal legislation, regulation or even prohibition on the part of our government.  Finally, as the government increasingly seeks in stages to control not only herbal products but also herbalist behavior and even who can practice, they may find membership lists a useful resource for management and repression.

The power of speaking professionally – and of employing letters of accreditation or certification at the ends of our names – is nothing less than great… both in the many benefits that can bring, and the problems that it without question ushers in.

Tradition: The system of knowledge, skills and customs passed from one generation to the next.   The value of tradition is huge, the ways that it delineates roles for new folks to identify with, equips them with an informational base to build upon, and sets out a way of perceiving and acting on the world that has already been well tested.  A significant portion of TWH and Plant Healer Magazine’s mission is to identify, explore, encourage, share and showcase the many under-promoted native, place-based Western folk herbal traditions.

The flip side is that tradition can become dogmatic, restrictive or resistant to new ideas and discoveries.  It’s essential that it be a vessel to carry us forward in our lives and practice, and not dogma we blindly repeat or a straight jacket within which we are unable to move or adapt.  A Taos Pueblo Indian friend of mine once told me a story one day that carries the point well: “My mother would always cut off and set aside one end of a venison roast, before putting it in a pan to cook.  One day when I was young, I asked her the reason for this ritual behavior, figuring it might have something to do with the spirit of the deer or some such thing, but all she could tell me was it was a family tradition and she had learned it from her mom.  Later, I witnessed my grandmother doing the exact same thing, cutting off and discarding one end of what would be our dinner, and when I inquired about it she told me almost the same thing, that it was just the way the women of the family had always done it, and that it was a tradition.  Some months down the road, I was fortunate to get to visit my ailing great grandmother.  I told her my story, and repeated the question as to why she and the rest of the family cut the ends off that way.  ‘I don’t know why they do it that way,’ she answered with one eyebrow up, ‘but the reason I always did, was because my only pan was too small.’”

Whatever your identity, aims and intentions, describe it well… for it is the ideas that our chosen words convey that can either weaken our positions and purpose, or else help to make truly effective healing action possible.

Our hope is that this article will inspire discussion in the community, so please post and forward often.  For the complete 5,000 word version of this article, click here to go to the Plant Healer site and subscribe:
Plant Healer Magazine

  3 Responses to “The Language of Healing, Guest Post by Jesse Wolf Hardin”

  1. This is such a beautiful post, and a very important one too! You are so right when there is a “system” in place that attempts to establish level(s) of assessment, no matter what, you run into ego. However, without these systems, unless a clear reputation is created by the practitioner (word of mouth, etcetera), a person who read a couple books and buys the powders can claim they are completely professional and no one could be the wiser – at least for awhile. I do think reputation eventually brings everything to the place it needs to be. I am entirely against certification and licensing of herbalists by the way! I see more problems here than they attempt to solve.

    Please know that when I use MH (“Master Herbalist”), that it is because of the school that I chose to learn herbal medicine decided on this, years before I was even born. I am not in charge of what someone is called upon competent completion of their program, and I chose this program not because they use “MH” but because it provided a very good herbal foundation as well as reputation-wise being the oldest herbal school in the USA still in existence – their track record of healing was well-established (and I got nearly three-quarters of my tuition and other costs paid for, which obviously influenced my choice). Nor do I have any right (or desire) to tell them what I ought to be called upon completion of the program. And even the school itself says that now that we had earned our MH that it was only the BEGINNING of our herbal studies and experience. While I don’t have to use it (and I would never have to amongst Herbalists anyway), the “outer world” for some strange reason likes it, even upon my explanations that point toward the lack of “certification criteria” legally. The only thing we can legally do (really) is teach and mediate. We cannot diagnose. We cannot treat. We risk the law if we go out of these bounds, and obviously we can end up skating in these areas really close! 🙂

    In any case, I never believed that “Master” means “Master over” nor does it ever mean in any field that one has learned all they need to know. I can think of many of what I consider to be Master Craftsmen (or women) and neither of these apply – in any field. So I am not sure where this might come from, other than encountering people who deliberately misuse this name, and I am sorry that your experience may have leaned in this direction. I am not ever one to attempt to disempower others through linguistic manipulation!

    So – if I were to create “titles” that actually help for true discernment, rather than supporting or attacking ego, can we try adding a couple more terms to this list?

    Lay Herbalist: This would describe the person who has read a few herb books and/or uses the powder pills or other pre-made products from a store. It is nothing to be ashamed of, as many of us start this way. It can be adequate for a person to handle first-aid, and also to help relieve symptoms with herbs, and be the first line in treatment of their family. They may sometimes get lucky and alleviate the underlying problem, but the books most widely available on herbalism use a symptom-based system of herbal recommendation, the reason being that our society is already trained to think in this disconnected way. This provides no understanding of vitalistic principals so inherent to deeper forms of herbalism, no matter what system (tradition or not) it is. However, as mentioned here, a Lay Herbalist would not know anymore than a “layperson” of herbalism, and if a person at this ability level decides they are “all that” and becomes professional, I believe they would have a very short career (and hopefully they don’t hurt anyone in the process!).

    Adept Herbalist: This would describe any Herbalist that can actually get the job done, even the most difficult ones, and there are so many varying ways in which to specialize that I cannot possibly address them all here. While it is true that Herbalists continue to learn all the time, while at the same time realizing the power of nature is awesome and sometimes surprising (and definitely to be cooperated with!), there is a place where one realizes they can handle just about anything that comes along. This can happen because Herbalists know deeper processes of human bodies, minds, and spirits (or animal) – and also deeper processes of plants. While science cannot be ignored, it definitely has its own belief system that must be weighed and considered wisely by the Herbalist. Most of all, it is my belief that an Herbalist communicates on all levels with the one to be treated, AND communicates on all levels with the Plant Kingdom, and can often act as the mediator to bring about the highest vibration of balance available. I also believe that the Adept Herbalist can identify plants nearly as well as any Botanist, and know their properties scientifically as well as having open communication with the “plant spirits” if you will. And some Herbalists, I should add, are also excellent Mycologists and have abilities for communicating in the Fungal Kingdom as well.

    I realize that these two terms are wide, but the intention is to know who can, and who might be able (or cannot). The trick would be to rightfully recognize where you would be. While it can be helpful to compare to others to assess this (and even better, to learn!), it can only be done for ourselves in the end. Even the outer society may not validate your ability by hiring for services, just due to the fact they have no grounds for understanding.

    I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe that Jessie and Kiva’s reputations ALONE warrant MUCH more than any title that could be manufactured in any language on the planet! Your service to the world is likely for now grossly underestimated, but I do not believe it will stay that way for long – eventually, people will wake up and the time-tested and truly-earned reputations will prevail! 🙂

  2. As usual a comprehensive and fair overview of all angles in this discussion. I find myself divided; perhaps because I have struggled with conventional veterinarians for over a decade now, many asking what my credentials are(even when my diets and supplement protocols reversed the conditions they were unable to help) ; perhaps because the three year diploma in canine nutrition I took DID REALLY TEACH ME A LOT; perhaps because I read – everyday, and encounter in “real life” all kinds of “experts” spouting “facts” that are not just wrong but dangerous to the dogs; perhaps because I really busted a gut to get my Chartered Herbalist credential from Dominion and I’m proud of it; all of this adds up to my sympathy for those who wear a title proudly. I use the CH initials to show that yes, I have trained in this field. I am starting a BSc in nutrition and when I finish, I will add those letters proudly as well. It reassures my clients, the vets I work with and shows how hard I’ve worked at what I do.

    Now – the flipside is, I am also doing a thesis at Dominion and when it is done, I will not use the Master Herbalist title…I am sure that there are “Masters’ in this world insofar as people can be truly adept at using herbs to heal, but I am nowhere near that level and won’t be even after my thesis and the other studies I am doing. maybe in ten years, maybe twenty. But I agree that handing out the title after a yearlong thesis or even a few years study, is misleading. It is study AND experience that bring mastery of a field. This has to be demonstrated in the record of one’s work itself, not granted by a board or other agency.

    If there was anything I learned in my study at Dominion so far (and from reading all these blogs, from herbmentor etc ) is that I had NO IDEA how deep and complex the entire field is. Sure, for years I recommended milk thistle for dogs with elevated liver enzymes and suggested slippery elm for IBD. I had some idea this was what herbalism is about – until recently, and now the real study, experience, practise, immersion has begun. So if I could write my own title, not for vets or anxious clients, it would be something like “Seriously Studying and Learning Every Day Fledgling Herbalist”. But the very word “student” tends to put people off, if they’re looking for a professional. Which is kind of sad, as I hope to be a student as well as practitioner of both nutrition and herbalism, for as long as I can.

    I’ll just close by saying this. I have a LOT of clients come to me with very ill dogs – dogs they cherish as a member of their family and upon whom they have spent thousands of dollars at conventional vets – and am able to clear up cases of Inflammatory Bowel, atopy, food intolerance, subclinical nutritional deficiency, and more simply using diet. Often these clients have been to the “veterinary nutritionists” with their dreadful commercial diets and white rice-boiled beef- corn oil generic homemade plans that never, ever help. I recently worked with a lady who had been to no less than three of these experts, two “board certified” and one wellknown and published nutritionist, and all three diets were complete disasters. Without boasting I will say her little dog is on a carefully personalized and monitored diet now and 80% symptom fee in a few weeks I am not a vet; I am not a Phd: I am not “board certified”. I have a diploma, and I’ve studied long and hard, but the real crunch is I have over 2000 cases under my belt and I live, eat, breathe this work. That’s what makes me good. Can I have some letters after my name for my track record in canine nutrition? I guess not.

    In short, I am torn because I tire of hearing so much bloody drivel about canine health and nutrition espoused by those around me. On the other hand, it comes from the trained and the untrained alike. If the idea of accrediting agencies and certifications helped protect the public from charlatans I’d be all for it, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. I don’t know what the answer is, but everyone with credentials is not good at what they do, and neither is everyone without. I will have to mull this over more, and just keep doing what I do – learning, studying, striving for excellence….what else can we do?

  3. Ahhh… what a thought inspiring post. I always love to read your take on a situation, no matter what it is, because you always inspire me to seek deep within myself for my own individual feelings, opinions, passions, direction.

    Thank you, my brother.

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