Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lady Slipper and Solider's Heart

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons, photographer unknown)

Stephen Harrod Buhner describes the medicine of Lady Slipper as being like two loving hands cradling the heart.

In the wake of the Civil War, the shattered hearts of soldiers cried out for the Lady Slipper's medicine, and she was gathered almost to the point of extinction.

Plant medicines produce a direct and immediate impact in the body to alleviate suffering. At the same time they work to help the body remember the way back to health. This deep and often subtle healing happens best when space is opened for the plant to work deeply inside someone over time, penetrating further into the consciousness and the heart field.

These forms of healing are, of course, inextricably linked. But in a culture that has forgotten that the plants are our ancestors and teachers, the living medicine of the plants we use is often forgotten and ignored. Too often plant medicines are applied in a mechanistic way to create a specific result in the body. The medicine is still the medicine -- but when we don't give it space and time to do its work, and we don't engage the plant, much is lost.

I imagine the shape of the Lady Slipper's blossom -- a heart open in the center shielded by wing-like petals -- and I imagine the way she could teach a heart forced shut by the brutality of war to begin to allow healing in again. And, knowing enough Veterans who left pieces of themselves on distant battle fields, I also know something of the incredible patience and strength that opening takes.

Did the doctors treating "Soldier's Heart" in the wake of the Civil War bring their patients to the woods to be with the plants that would become their medicine? More likely the tinctured root was administered to a patient who was taught little about its source. In the parlance of the day the plant was known as "American Valerian," used primarily as a sedative. Plants are generous, using their bodies to create the medicines that will restore the imbalances in the ecosystem they perceive through the chemical and electromagnetic information they take in from the world around them -- including the imbalances in the bodies of the humans who share their habitat. But the imbalances created in our culture are too big for the plants to correct through chemistry alone.

There wasn't enough Lady Slipper in all of North America to heal all the pain and terror and loss the people here experienced as a result of the Civil War.

And at the same time a single Lady Slipper could have taught the culture all it needed to know about how to reshape itself in ways that would give hearts the space they needed to heal and open again like pink orchids in the understory of a shady forest.

Even more than we need plants as physical medicines today, we need them as teachers. And to know them as teachers, we need to come to know them in the wild.
Wildness is a fundamental part of their medicine. And wildness itself is the best medicine for the diseases of civilization -- violence, alienation, stress, numbness, grief, and rage. Former Green Beret Doug Peacock has written and spoken eloquently about how time with Grizzly Bears in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains saved his life when he came back from Vietnam angry and devastated and wanting nothing to do with the culture that sent him to war. Those of us living in that culutre would do reflect on the more subtle injuries we sustain from accepting brutality as an inevitable part of life.

In a culture at war with the Earth and with the wildness inside its own people, we all suffer from a variant of Soldier's Heart -- it is only diagnosed in those who show the most severe symptoms -- Veterans of war and survivors of torture and physical and sexual abuse. But in their pain we see our own amplified ten thousand fold and mirrored back. I am not speaking metaphorically -- nobody who has been exposed to the ravages of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (as Soldier's Heart is now called) even in passing could ever view such a profound psychological injury as a metaphor. Rather I am speaking of the fact that in the most violent culture in history, trauma is universalized, and diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress is a matter of differentiating the most extreme cases from the mental and emotional health state of the general population.

Psychotherapist Chellis Glendinning describes the traumatic break that all of us have experience as a result of the dissonence between what our bodies know and what our culture telss us and makes us experience -- a break far more subtle but chillingly similar to that experienced by those who survive war, rape, and abuse:
"And as goes the outer, so goes the inner. The psyche that, by all accounts, had been a worthy reflection of the unity of seasons, wind and waters, soil and rock, stars, plant and animal life was shattered and scattered too. I see this breakage as the traumatic response – the splitting and sending into unconsciousness those experiences the organism is not designed to process, the seat-of-the-pants clawing for function and meaning in what is left of the conscious mind. And so the onslaught that appears to us as the unending march of harsher forms of technological systems, the grasping for control by global corporations, the splitting of community into those who have it all and those who have nothing -- this is reflected in a parallel inner onslaught that manifests as the march of abuse, a grasping for rationalization, and the splitting of psyche into denial and numbing on one side and unspeakable suffering on the other."
All of this has its physical consequences as well. Pam Montgomery writes in Plant Spirit Healing that:
"Heart disease is the single leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more lives than the combined next four causes of mortality. [ . . . ] According to heart surgeon, Dr. Philip Bhark, only half of heart attacks are caused by known risk factors like tobacco and obesity. What then is causeing such massive heart disease? Could it be that we are dying from broken hearts? And if so, what is causing them to break? The heart is made up of 10 billion cells that synchroinize in electical wavelike patterns. Dr. Bhark says that more than half of heart-related deaths are from sudden cardiac death, which is the abrupt disruption of electrical patterns in the heart. It seems that high levels of stress interfere with the electrical rhythm of the heart. Stress is not just a fight or flight reaction. It can also result from tension created in the body while having to process varying degrees of ever-present external challenges, then disrupting our inner connection with the laws of nature and even affect the synchronization of our natural rhythms. Additional tension can also result from the interference of manmade electrical fields. The natural wavelike pattern found in nature is one cycle per second, which is the same rhythm as the heart's. Could it be that the loss of connection to the natural world, created by modern life, is the original wound and this primary seperation is causing our hearts to break?"
(And could it be that war, on the collective level, and violent crime, on the individual level, are the way broken hearts replay their wounding, projecting it outward -- the result of being so deeply wounded that we come to believe woundedness and wounding are our fundamental nature?)

As an herbalist, I treat stress-related disorders with adaptogens and nervines -- much as Civil War doctors used the tinctured root of Lady Slipper. These medicines are important -- I have seen them help people who were prisoners of anxiety reclaim their lives.

But walking the forests of Maine where the Lady Slippers are coming back in greater and greater numbers, I remember that the most important work I do involves connecting people with the living Earth that is the source of their healing.

That's the medicine that makes hearts whole again.

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