Preparing To Listen To Plants
Only to him who stands where the barley stands and listens well will it speak, and tell, for his sake, what man is.
~ Masanobu Fukuoka
Plants are all around us but very rarely do we pay attention to them. They create the air we breathe and the food we eat. Nothing in our life is possible without plants.
As a species we emerge from the same ecosystem as do plants, the same “ground of being”. We are much closer to plants than we know. The material that creates nourishment in a plant, chlorophyll, is only one molecule different from material that transmits nourishment in our body, blood. Blood and chlorophyll are identical save that chlorophyll has magnesium at its core and blood carries iron.
We cannot learn to listen to plants. Listening to plants is not a skill that is learned, it is a skill that is unlearned. In order to hear what plants have to say to us we must unlearn our layers of conditioning that smothers our perceptions of the world. When we have sloughed off our layers, what is left is a kernel of our heritage as mammals. What remains is our possibility of connection with the rest of life. Small children listen to plants remarkably well, and they do so without training: They have less to unlearn.
As our species evolved and we became smarter and smarter monkeys, our intelligence came at a price. In order to acquire learned intelligence we had to sacrifice our instinctive intelligence. Not all of our instinctive intelligence was sacrificed, just enough to allow room for our new learned intelligence.
This is why native peoples always come back to the lower belly as a source of life and wisdom. Our learned intelligence is associated with our head. This is the neo-cortex that sits between our ears and gives us so much joy and anguish. But our more ancient and deeper intelligence is associated with the lower belly. Our lower belly is our connection to nature and to the natural world. It is the source of our “lost” intelligence, the intelligence of nature.
By bringing our attention back to this long forgotten part of our body and mind, we can reconnect with our instinctive intelligence. It is like a muscle, long dormant, that we can now begin to flex. As we use it, it will grow stronger with time.
If we do not recognize the possibility that plants may have something to tell to us, we will not listen to them in the first place. Once we are willing to accept that as a possibility, then we must practice listening. What we are practicing is the removal our mental cluter. In practicing we are again learning to trust that small faint voice inside us. At first that voice is barely audible, if we can hear it at all. But slowly, if we pay attention and are diligent, that voice will become stronger and clearer.
I consider listening to plants and gathering plants as separate and distinct activities. I may do one thing or the other, but generally I do not do both at the same time. When listening to a plant, the plant is the center of attention. When gathering plants for a patient, the patient is the center of attention. When you begin listening to plants I would not recommend doing anything else at the same time. In other words, set time aside to do just that.
However, when you are getting ready to listen to a plant, you may want to do a ritual as if you were going to gather plants. Creating a Kapu Space is a very useful ritual before spending time deep listening. It will help to put you in an appropriate frame of mind. In a sense, listening to a plant is a form of gathering, except that you are not gathering the plant itself, you are gathering information about the plant.
After you have done your ritual, you can move through the forest (or yard) and let your mind empty. Use a rooted gait and go into Hakahele (moving vision) and Hakalau (peripheral vision). Use your peripheral vision to shift into a more receptive mode. Allow yourself to relax and soak in what is around you. Feel the surrounding environment through your skin. Take your time. Notice changes in temperature and shifting sensations in your body.
Listening to Plants
Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter. ~ John Muir
Set aside at least an hour, preferably two. If you are like most of us it will take you at least that long to allow the mental chatter to subside a bit. Bring a cushion, blanket, or a chair with you unless you know that you will be sitting on comfortable grass or sand.
Turn your cell phone off. Do not write anything down while you are listening. Do not bring any books or writing material with you if you think you might be tempted to pick them up before you are done.
Select a plant that seems to be “calling” you, one for which you have an inexplicable affinity. Do not pull the plant out of the ground, or cut or tear leaves or branches; leave it in its natural state.
Sit down, make yourself comfortable, and mentally introduce yourself. Empty your mind. If you are sure that the plant is non-toxic, touch it and smell it. Pay particular attention to what happens in your body as you sit with this plant. What sensations are elicited? Where in your body do you feel them?
Notice what emotions, sensations, or images arise as you pay attention to this plant. Do not edit yourself! You may have thoughts of the president, or your grandmother, or a kitchen sink. You may feel anxious, bored, foolish, joyful, or annoyed. Your body may feel all manner of sensations: pain, discomfort, and tingling. You may feel nothing whatsoever. It does not matter. Just make a mental note of what is happening and go back to paying attention to the plant.
If I can do so comfortably, I will sometimes lay with my head resting on a part of the plant.
When you are done, thank the plant. Review what you have learned. See how much you can remember of your experience. If you want to you can then go back and write down your experience… or not. I sometimes rely on a “Rite in the Rain” book for my notes, a small field notebook with water resistant pages used by field biologists. While I like to think that I always remember the important things, in retrospect this has not always been the case. So I would recommend writing things down, once you are done listening.
Once you have really listened to a plant, you have made a friend. Your relationship to that plant will be changed forever.
Allow the information received to settle into your psyche over the following weeks and months. Some of it will make sense to you immediately, some will become apparent over time, and some of it will never make sense to you.
If you are 100% certain that the plant is not toxic and does not need special preparation, you can experiment with it a bit and see how it holds up to what you had experienced. Again, some things will fit, and some things will not.
Some plants will surprise you. When I first gathered Eclipta alba (han lian cao) in the wild, I discovered that the plant when used fresh causes stomach pain. The dried plant in the clinic never did that!
Over time, as these plants become your friends, they will have more and more to say to you. And like some of our friends, they may self-disclose or not, depending on their mood and our ability to read nuances.
One day, you will notice that you are paying attention to your friends, loved ones, and patients in a different way. You find yourself viewing plants differently than you have before. Weeds are suddenly something interesting rather than a nuisance.
If you are a practitioner, you may find yourself using herbs in the clinic, differently. Ultimately, you may find yourself practicing a different kind of medicine. Rather than the medicine you have been taught, you may modify it so that now all of you is involved in the process, not just half of your brain.
EXERCISE: Listening to Plants
• Pick a place in nature that you can be comfortable. If you need to, bring a chair or a blanket with you so that you can be comfortable. Select a situation in which you will have minimal outside distractions. Turn off the ringer to your phone.
• Select a plant you wish to listen to. You may have decided which plant that is beforehand or you can choose one that you are attracted to for whatever reason.
• Ask permission to sit and listen to the plant. Wait for some kind of “response”. It could be a confirmation such as a sudden breeze, the sound of a bird, or a sensation in your body.
• Spend an hour or two just sitting and listening to the plant. Use your body as an antenna. Make a mental note of any thoughts, emotions, or sensations that arise for you, but do not give in to the temptation to write anything down just yet.
• When you feel complete, thank the plant and write about your experience.