I have been preoccupied with school. It is my constant companion, my ball-and-chain, my ultimate teacher, my inspiration, the first thing I think about when I wake and the last thing on my mind at night. It is the most perfect and natural thing I could imagine doing with my life right now, a great joy and gift, but it is also very trying to coerce myself to study, and to sit in a chair for 25 hours a week when I’d rather be hiking in the woods.
There are a plethora of wonderful things about going to school for Oriental medicine and acupuncture. One of my *favorite* things is, of course, herbs. Although I don’t have quite the amount of leisure time to meet the Pacific Northwest herbs in their natural habitat as I’d wish, I am still surrounded by herbs at school. And for that I am so excited I am practically jumping out of my skin.
I will start with the basics. The number one way I am learning about herbs is through class. We have 4 terms (1 year) of single herbs, where we study the herbs grouped in categories. The categories of Chinese medicine are a brilliant organizational system based on what action the herbs have in the body. At first I was appalled by the idea – how could you group herbs by what they do? They are so varied and unique? I though about yarrow; it would probably be in the “Acrid, release the exterior” category, but it is so much more than a diaphoretic. It is a bitter digestive, moves blood and also stops bleeding, and it is an external remedy for wound care. It is complex in flavor and action and the thought of forcing it in a category was unthinkable. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the categories may be fixed, but the herbs withing them have no limits to their additional actions.
Taking a herbal class with almost weekly tests, learning somewhere between 300-350 herbs in a years time was equally appealing. Learning about herbs is indeed a life-long process, but forcing myself to swallow my pride and practice rote memorization to learn the herbs is not a bad first step to take. Its like doing scales before you learn how to play a song.
Dr. Liu, one of the teachers at school, said he had a Chinese doctor study with him. This doctor was out of school 8 years, which is upon first glance, a decent amount of time to gain experience with herbs. It was obvious that he was not near mastery, as Dr. Liu told him to go back and study the single herbs, especially their natures and flavors. What he told us reverberates in my head when I approach my wits end during a study session:
“You must study the herbs again and again to broaden your foundation upon which to build a high building. Everybody wants a new and different approach, but first you need the foundation of the old.”
Dr. Liu taught an elective for two terms, called Herbal Combinations. The class looked at the interactions between herbal pairs, and how their flavors, natures (hot, cold, ect…) and actions changed when combined. Although it was a little over my head (or a lot, actually) at times, I still learned a ton, mostly through having my view of herbs both reduced and expanded. It all came down to the flavors, which is the reductionistic part, but the flavors as I previously understood them broadened.
This term I started formulas, which are organized similarly as the single herbs, in categories based on their action. Compared to the other classes, I feel like it is a difficult subject for me to grasp, mostly because of the shear quantity of information contained within the formulas. The coolest thing about formulas is that they exist. I am not sure if there is a comparable body of formulas in Western herbalism (granted, I have not dedicated my attention to discovering them). The Chinese formulas have been so carefully and elegantly formulated, meticulously documented and studied by generations of physicians since 220. The year 220. What were the Western herbal formulas from 220? Do we use them now? Did that knowledge get lost, or did it evolve into pharmaceuticals?