DEPTH DIAGNOSIS IN THE PRACTICE OF
SACRED PLANT MEDICINE
By Stephen Harrod Buhner
Copyright © 2003 Stephen Harrod Buhner
As herbalists, all of us have learned great deal during the past decades: about plants, our herbal history, and the use of plant medicines in healing. One of our great weaknesses, however, has been the lack of a comprehensive system of diagnosis. As our knowledge has matured, our practices have grown, this lack has become more demanding of recognition, the hunger for a rigorous system of diagnosis more insistent. Yet many of us want such a system of diagnosis to be grounded in the kind of plant medicine we have come to practice. It needs to be a system that holds within it the deep empathy for all life that so many of us feel, a deep and living connection to the plants and people who come to us for help, a system that is rooted in our peculiar American history, a system that is infused with the indigenous and historical wisdom from so many cultures that continually expresses itself through us and our work.
Many of us have attempted to fill this diagnostic vacuum by turning to western allopathic diagnosis or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). But western allopathic approaches are exceptionally reductionistic, depend more each decade on machines, and, studies show, tend to be right only some fifty percent of the time. Inherent in that model, as well, are attitudes and perspectives that are not only in contrast to the essence of the plant work that so many of us do, but are in fact antagonistic to it. For many of us, using allopathic diagnosis feels distinctly wrong.
TCM, while it works for a number of people, is a foreign system to many of us and we find no easy emotional response to it. The language is odd, the concepts alien, the orientation skewed obliquely to the one we naturally
possess and in consequence many of those who turn to it as a kind of final resort simply end up with another reductionistic model, albeit an eastern
Many herbalists use one or both of these forms, sometimes filling in with
muscle testing or other approaches found to be of use, but they are often default systems, used because nothing else that feels right is available. So, instead of adopting either of these models, for the past 30 years I have been working on the rediscovery of such a system of diagnosis - for our ancestors through the millennia must have been using something other than TCM or transformed Hippocratic/allopathic reductionism. The ancient approach that underlies the Hippocratic, TCM, and Ayurvedic models is itself preceded by a much older and more deeply personal
approach to healing - an approach concerned less with theoretical models
than it is with a more immediate and personal understanding of disease, plants, and people. For over 15 years I used a variety of this older system very successfully in a full time psychotherapy practice. For the past decade I have been applying it in the depth-diagnosis of physical illness and healing with plant medicines. It fulfills all the expectations I had for another kind of approach and the results are often exceptional. This article
outlines the essential processes of this kind of depth diagnosis.
Depth diagnosis depends on shifting the personal mode of cognition from VIA to HID. The process is fairly simple, but mastering it, like any new skill, takes much practice.
The steps are as follows:
1. Intending to know
With depth diagnosis, you must intend to know - in the deepest sense of that word - about the living, complex phenomenon that is in front of you and
what is wrong, what is diseased, how healthy functioning has been interrupted, and what to do about it. While temporary breaks from the process are important, it is important to not waiver in this intention until you
actually do know what you have set out to know. It is the focus of your will
that will carry the process through.
2. Focusing attention on sensory impressions
This shift of consciousness from the VIA mode begins by first focusing on the sensory impressions of any particular phenomenon. With plants or with something highly accessible such as the skin, this occurs through the use of touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound of the thing itself. This simple focusing of attention is the beginning of the shift in modes, for consciousness is shifted away from verbal linguistics to direct perception through the senses. This shift to the senses grounds the person in their body, shifting awareness away from the verbal/analytical mind to the flow of information that is continually coming from the environment to the body through the senses. Our bodies emerged out of this Earth, our senses are meant to perceive it and were in fact shaped by the environment from which we emerged in order to perceive it in particular and meaningful ways. Our bodies possess highly sophisticated mechanisms for processing the communications and information coming to us through our senses and recognizing the patterns embedded within what we are sensing. Because the entire surface of the body comes alive in this process, sensitive to what is touching it, quality of life is enhanced as well.
3. Becoming aware of the primary emotional impression the thing makes upon you.
All phenomena, when focused upon, generate an intimation of a particular mood or quality within the perceiver. This is most often experienced as an emotion or feeling. Emotions and feelings in this sense mean much more than the basic psychological feelings of mad, sad, glad or scared - though these have their importance in this process. Emotions in this sense are analogous to smells. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of different smells. This can be easily experienced through smelling a wide range of essential oils or perfumes. Few of these smells have particular names, yet they still exist and possess tremendous impact. We are daily touched by the world within which we are embedded, we feel the touch upon us in the thousands of nameless feelings we experience each day. They flit over the surface of our consciousness like shadows across a grassy meadow. In paying attention to them, they come forward into consciousness and begin to reveal their secrets, for each emotion registers the impact of a particular meaning that has touched us. They are, in fact, transforms of information from the world around us. These transforms contain extremely condensed and elegant communications about what we are encountering.
While focusing attention on the sensory surface of a thing begins to shift the mode of cognition, the perception of the emotional flavor emitted by any particular phenomenon anchors it into personal experience. This allows the person to begin to drop below the surface of the thing being studied. Some essential questions to ask yourself that will help this process are:
a. how does this thing you are perceiving feel to you?
b. do you like it or not?
c. what primary emotional feeling do you have about it/ mad, sad, glad,
This initial intimation, impression, or mood of the phenomenon is the beginning of your connection to its being. It should be firmly anchored into experience and not forgotten. For it is this initial intimation that is the key to unlocking understanding of the phenomenon itself and it is to this initial impression that you will return over and over as you refine the emerging knowledge of that which you are studying.
During this process the human being is establishing a living rapport with the phenomenon itself. We have an innate capacity to entrain ourselves, to
establish a harmony of patterning, a rapport, with anything upon which our attention is focused. When you emotionally hook yourself to a living thing, you anchor yourself to the nonlinear flow of its life. As your connection is deepened, you begin to flow with its life patterns, absorb its meanings, its intelligence, and its particular point of view. This includes, of course, its interconnectedness with the life or environment within which it is embedded.
Opening up the self to this form of perception and allowing the world in through the senses is, of course, sometimes uncomfortable. Some things simply do not feel good when experienced. Still, it is important to understand that irrespective of your immediate response to any phenomenon, to go further, to complete any depth diagnosis, you must be able to come, eventually, to love whatever you have focused your attention upon. All of nature responds to this primary act of caring, diseased organ systems or ill people not the least. So, loving is critically important but it is often difficult because disease can be so tremendously frightening. This process cannot work unless the caring is genuine - a false niceness will not do. In the deepest sense, to succeed, you must come to truly love what you are perceiving, for nothing will give up its secrets without being loved. (Well, one caveat: nature - or any part of nature - will give up some of its secrets if tortured, which, from this perspective is what many scientific experiments are. Still, the secrets revealed are affected by the manner in which they are obtained and never in the process will the heart of nature be found.)
4. Make conscious the moment of first contact.
Continual experiential contemplation of the moment of first contact raises the process - and the thing studied - to a high level of conscious awareness. Experiential contemplation here means sitting with the phenomenon you are developing relationship with, allowing your sensory perceptions and the feelings that occurred from the moment of first contact to increase in intensity until they are all that you feel. The mood generated by the phenomenon, its emotional tone, and, more importantly, the meanings that these reflect, are allowed to deepen until the experience of the phenomenon becomes all encompassing within you. This mode of perception, of cognition, requires total immersion in the experience of the thing being perceived. During this deepening, you, as a participatory consciousness, begin to weave through the phenomenon in an active beholding. In so doing the phenomenon will come alive within you.
Oscillation means the slight disengagement with the phenomenon, a slight stepping away from immediate experience in order to allow the pattern of meaning within the phenomenon to arise within you in a form that you can consciously understand.
Each emotional tone, intimation, or mood that is felt in response to a phenomena is an expression of meaning. And it is this meaning, or series of meanings, that you are working to turn into usable knowledge. To pin it down, to put salt on its tail, means understanding these meanings and their patterns, then capturing them in a
verbal, analytical expression in language. This is not a forced process, rather the analytical capacities of the brain are allowed to generate - of themselves - linguistic descriptions that capture the essence of the thing, the meanings of the mood that has been felt. The verbal/analytical mode of
consciousness does not invent the linguistic phrases to describe the meaning of the phenomenon, rather the linguistic descriptions of the phenomenon emerge of their own accord out of the store of memories, information, and experiences that the human being has accumulated during his or her lifetime.
The emotional tone is felt and held within, you slightly disengage from the phenomenon, and allow the mind to generate linguistic phrases to capture the meanings that give rise to these particular emotional tones, and then you reengage with the thing and emotionally compare that which has been generated to the living phenomenon itself. And so on, back and forth, until the phenomenon stands forth and is understood, the descriptions entirely congruent with the phenomenon you are experiencing. (With practice this process becomes extremely rapid.)
This mode of cognition is, as a result, exceptionally personal. It involves, or rather is, a participatory consciousness. This requires a great deal of internal flexibility, for you are allowing concrete knowledge of the thing being studied to naturally emerge within you. Depth knowledge of the phenomenon will express itself through a unique mode of representation, comprised as I have said from everything that is already within you. It is crucial, as the German poet and natural philosopher Goethe comments, "to cultivate as many modes of representation as possible or better, to cultivate the mode of representation that the phenomena themselves demand." You must remain as open as possible and let your seeing be shaped by the phenomenon itself.
This requires such a flexibility in your internal world, in order to develop elegance in this ability, that it initiates an unavoidable encounter with personal psychological unclarities. Through this back and forth process, psychological unclarities in the perceiver come forward into conscious experience. If you are doing this kind of depth diagnosis, for example, on someone who rather unpleasantly reminds you of the energy or mood commonly possessed by your alcoholic father, you will be unable to see this new person in their own light. Your analytical mind will generate a mode of representation similar to that possessed by your father and while this is informative, it is the unfinished emotional baggage that accompanies this mode of representation that will interfere with being able to clearly see the person in front of you.
All human beings possess these unclarities. It is an inevitable aspect of the human predicament. A dedication to this mode of perception, however, forces personal transformation in order for the process to be mastered. Undifferentiated application of these old memories and unmet needs is what is often referred to as projection (seeing the world exclusively through the VIA mode is another form of projection - mechanomorphism). There must be a drive to see with transparent eye, to have no judgments about or emotional aversions to the mode of representation that arises within you. This calls for tremendous personal awareness. Additionally, because the phenomena upon which we focus our attention penetrate so deeply within us in this process, we are deeply touched by the meanings that they embody. These meanings themselves have tremendous impact on how we perceive ourselves and the living world within which we are embedded. Because of these two aspects of this mode of cognition, perception in this way initiates a soul making process that in and of itself is tremendously moving.
During this part of the depth diagnosis process it is no longer necessary to actually be in the presence of the phenomenon being studied. It is carried daily within you in the imagination. This is also why the first moment of contact is so important. That initial perceiving and the moods that it generated remain with a sparkling clarity within the participatory heart. The emergence of the demanded mode of representation takes time. Depth diagnosis, for me, can take from fifteen minutes to a month or more, depending on the person and the problem. (The average is about two weeks.)
Because organ systems, in general, are not immediately visible to the external eye, their diagnosis begins first with the sensory impact of the person being diagnosed rather than the organ system itself. The process thereafter is the same. How do you feel upon seeing them? How does their skin feel? How does their breath smell? Do you like them? What is the mood, the emotional tone that they generate? But more. . . what part of their body is your eye, your attention, most powerfully drawn to? Focus on this part of them initially, to the exclusion of all else. Fix the moment of first contact strongly in your experience, then let your consciousness be drawn deeper, to the organ system underlying the place your attention has been drawn. Sit with this in contemplation, allow the organ to emerge in your mind's eye, and follow the process outlined here until the system itself emerges in its own light. To be diagnostically comprehensive the process usually needs to be repeated with the next thing that forces itself upon your attention and so on until the whole person has been diagnosed and understood.
6. The emergence of the phenomenon in its own light.
The culmination of this process is the emergence into a unique moment of perception where the phenomenon, in a gesture of acquiescence, unconceals itself.
With consistent meditative focus, the forces involved - the will of the perceiver and the life force of the phenomenon - converge; the force of the student's energy matches that of the thing being studied. When this occurs, there is a point of stasis where movement forward is difficult. The force of personal will, the intention to see the phenomenon revealed in its own light, is what carries the perceiver through. If this directed focus is maintained, the will and intention consistently focused, there is a moment of breakthrough where one emerges into a center of understanding. This moment of breakthrough, called the pregnant moment by Goethe, is when, as the philosopher Hegel noted, "the spiritual eye stands immediately at the center of nature." Because of the deep empathy involved, at this moment of breakthrough, the student, in a sense, merges with the thing studied. Perceiver and perceived become linked, unified as an organic whole. The phenomenon then expresses within us the essence of itself. This moment is saturated with empiric content, filled with meaning, possessed of tremendously dynamic tension and is a moment of highly engaged knowing, a moment of unconcealing, a gesture of acquiescence from the phenomenon itself, which allows an entity to come forth and show itself in light of its own truth, to show itself from itself. All previous interactions with the phenomenon, up to this point, were only preliminary. At this moment there is an instantaneous, living dialectic that joins all parts of the phenomenon to the student in a dynamic, interpenetrating whole. The flow of energy from observer to observed and back again becomes a living language in which nothing remains unconcealed.
From this vantage point any and all aspects of a phenomenon can be perceived and developed in the mind. From this central point there is no necessity for exhaustive engagement in the minutiae of the phenomenon (e.g. plant chemistry or cellular structure) to understand it. There is only understanding itself, from which all aspects of the thing can be understood if the you only direct your awareness in that direction.
If the breakthrough moment eludes you, you become distracted or confused, then you must take yourself back to the initial moment of contact and allow the mood and emotional tones of the thing to once again emerge within you in all their freshness. Your intention to know, the directed focus of your will, and your depth immersion within the feelings that the thing generates within you are what leads eventually to this moment of breakthrough. As Goethe comments, "Individual phenomena must never be torn out of context. Stay with the phenomena, think within them, accede with your intentionality to their patterns, which will gradually open your thinking to an intuition of their structure."
The focus of this work upon individual plants reveals, among other things, their medicinal qualities and healing attributes. Over time you create within you an experientially generated data base of knowledge of plants as living medicines. Each plant remains fresh within you, for the moment of first contact is stored away and can be recalled at any time. The knowledge of their power as medicines emerges out of the deep, living dialectic that you and the plant have created together.
All indigenous people gathered their knowledge of plant medicines in this way, directly from the heart of the world, from the soul of the plants. All said they could talk to plants, that plants could talk to them, that they were told by the plants their uses as medicines. This manner of perception, of diagnosis and healing, is the most ancient humans have ever known.
The knowledge you gather, you will find, will overlap tremendously with that to be found in the plant guides you might later study, but you will also find healing uses for plants that are unique to you and your relationship with them. The plants always know their uses as medicines, and these uses are far more complex than even a thousand years of human use can reveal - there are always more healing attributes to discover when this kind of living dialectic is experienced.
The focus on organ systems allows each one of them to emerge out of the living system in which it is embedded. A living dialectic is developed, much like that which occurs with plants, and the organ system will speak to you in its own mode of representation, standing forth unconcealed. From this mode of cognition you will know what is wrong with any particular organ system, you will not think it. That you know so deeply what is wrong will itself be communicated to the person you are working with and plays no small part in their healing. Further, the elegance of understanding that comes from this mode of cognition far surpasses any generated by the verbal/intellectual/analytical mode. From the VIA mode elements stand out, relationships become only a shadowy background, barely perceived. From the HID mode, relationships, intercommunications and interdependencies are vivid. The psychological and spiritual elements to disease stand out sharply, along with the physical.
Once the pregnant point is achieved with any disease or organ system and it has given you its gesture of acquiescence, revealing itself to you, the request for a plant or series of plants to help is sent up out of the self. In that moment the database of living plant knowledge within you offers up the one or ones that will help. You, acting as facilitator, bring the living plant, as medicine, together with the living intelligence of the organ system and the living being of the person before you. In that moment, the eyes that you have developed through this mode of cognition can see clearly the restructuring of the body, and the alleviation of suffering takes place.
This form of diagnosis and healing is exceptionally elegant, very deep, and extremely thorough. It offers a living alternative to the reductionistic, dead diagnosis that has been developed within the western allopathic traditions. No particular training in anatomy and physiology is needed, there is no need to break down the body into a collection of parts, nor the person into body, mind, and spirit. For they are perceived as a whole and the mode of expression to understand them emerges from within the practitioner and his or her own life experience. It is a living diagnosis, constantly in flux and movement, like the living systems it is used to understand and heal. As such it is much more realistic and can perceive nuances that a dead reductionism cannot. With this type of depth diagnosis, it is possible to not only see the living reality of Type 3 cervical dysplasia, but see, and experience emotionally, the impact of an unloving husband's ejaculate upon it, in response to which it is malforming. It is possible, once the living dialectic is established, to understand that what the cervix needs is a particular kind of touch. To notice that it has a particular kind of color in the imagination and to find that the plant root that comes when called possesses that exact same color and to suddenly realize that within this woman, the cervix is indeed a special and holy kind of soil. Not one in which a man's seed is to be planted (a metaphor I despise for its inaccuracy - men's ejaculate is more chemically akin to pollen. It is NOT a seed.) but holy Earth from which this woman is intended to flower. The call goes out from the self and the plant needed responds. Powdered and placed against the cervix, it lays the groundwork and heals,
teaching the cellular structure of the cervix how to be whole again, bringing
into it some of its nature, to feed the lack, to fill the need. And then it is no surprise to see that there is need for light in the darkness and so a plant that holds within it this particular kind of light is used to flow up against the cervix and the mature woman begins to flower, takes root, and finds within
herself a strength she did not know she possessed. The story is much longer and more detailed of course, like all stories it goes on and on in all directions, both forward and back. One part of that story is a physician's surprised insistence that the new test results are impossible and they had better be taken again.
This kind of depth diagnosis comes from deep within our heritage as human beings and as herbalists. It is a living expression of the plant and human world, a tradition a million years old. Unlike allopathic reductionism it is a living diagnosis, unlike TCM it comes from our own ground of being. It emerges out of the soil of this continent, the heritage we possess, the plants that have healed us and brought us to gladly kneel before them.
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