Tag: Plant Spirit Healing

Secrets of The Herbal Healing Deck is a blog series in which we will share some of the best stories of the deck’s creation. These include magical and mysterious experiences, synchronicities, and revelations about the plants that transpired as we (myself–Sarah Baldwin–and Ashley Verkamp, the deck’s illustrator) collaborated on the deck. We will also divulge some of the reasons behind the specific symbols and images that Ashley has included in the card illustrations. Below is an account of some of our experiences with Wormwood, which in The Herbal Healing Deck signifies Mystery.

Years ago, when I was in Oregon completing an herbalism internship, I became fast friends with another intern, Kristyn. Sometimes, she and I would escape intern life to explore the surrounding area. Toward the end of the summer, a few weeks before our internship came to a close, we happened to meet a shamanic hermit who began teaching us some interesting things.

 

The story of how we met this man (we’ll call him Pedro) is recounted in some detail in The Herbal Healing Deck’s guidebook, so I won’t spend too much time on it here. Suffice it to say that he had knowledge and abilities of an unusual sort. He was quite psychic and had a way of speaking that was simply enthralling. He was eccentric and mysterious, and he didn’t always explain himself fully, but we came to admire and respect him. We traveled to his little hideaway several times to hear of his wild stories and hard-earned wisdom. Pedro was a wanderer, and part of me, though I had responsibilities waiting for me back at home, wanted to join him on his travels and see what kinds of strange and amazing things would happen in his presence.

 

I’ve never had a guru. Not really. My spiritual teachers seem to come and go like seasons, or more accurately, like storms. They sweep in without warning, shake things up, and are gone again before I can make sense of what has happened. Even as I’m grateful for the sweet rain they have brought, even as I see my garden growing more lushly, I miss them. Sometimes, years later, they might visit in my dreams to give a message or impart encouragement. But often, I never see them again.

 

Wormwood Teachings

 

During our visits with Pedro, he shared many pearls of wisdom. One of these was his emphasis on meditation. For example, he encouraged us to visualize the merkaba, an ancient symbol of sacred geometry. The merkaba consists of two intersecting pyramids, and one form of meditation involves visualizing these pyramids spinning in opposite directions. I have since learned that this technique is used to reach higher dimensions.

Merkaba

Kristyn and I also spoke with Pedro of our herbal studies; he had a particular affinity for Wormwood. He spoke of the plant as a means of inducing telepathy and synchronicity, explaining it as a kind of lubricant for spiritual forces. It makes everything flow more smoothly and magically. It makes you feel inspired to talk about the very thing your companion was just thinking about. Or, you might be in the middle of saying the words, “I wish we had a drum,” just as your friend pulls a drum from her bag. It lends an air of magic to the atmosphere. As I write in The Herbal Healing Deck guidebook, “[Wormwood] seems to lubricate the mind and circumstances to favor synchronicity. It energizes the mystery of life itself.”

 

At the time, home-brewed absinthe was enjoying a kind of renaissance, at least in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, one of the main ingredients in absinthe is Wormwood. Pedro performed a ceremony for us with absinthe, using it as a kind of clearing agent and spritzing it over us as a blessing. This was my first encounter with such a ritual; I’ve since seen other shamans work with alcohol or perfume in a similar way–to cleanse, to clear, to protect, to drive away darkness. It was a powerful clearing, though at the time, I was fairly insensible of the honor being done me.

 

That evening, Pedro was hesitant to let us leave. I recall a long, somewhat awkward pause during which he would not speak, but he also wanted us to remain. Kristyn and I were tired, and we planned to see him again within a few days, so we sped off soon enough.

 

The farm where we were worked happened to grow a large quantity of Wormwood. As we interns discovered, spending a long day baking in the sunshine amidst a field of any singular herb can be quite an experience. While you may not think of a particular plant as being mind-altering, at the end of an eight-hour shift of working with that plant you might begin to feel otherwise. We would often perceive the plants acting upon us in strange ways–the entire group would feel giddy, or dizzy, or tired. Working in a field of Wormwood, a plant which has been used to alter consciousness, was pretty intense. The scent irritated my throat and made me cough. Meanwhile, it felt as though a few of the threads binding together my normal, alert consciousness were loosening slightly.

 

Before we visited Pedro again, I went to the Wormwood fields to gather a bundle. I bound and dried a smudge stick, which I intended to give to Pedro as a gift. (Here I must say “do not try this at home,” for Wormwood has compounds which can be harmful when inhaled. If you do use Wormwood as a smudge, be sure to burn it outdoors and do not breathe it in. In fact, always take care when working with Wormwood. Some herbalists discourage internal use at all. That being said, Kristyn and I have both used Wormwood internally with no ill effects (well, besides the intensely bitter taste). She travels a lot and brings Wormwood along as an ally for treating traveler’s indigestion and nausea. Nevertheless, do your research before working with Wormwood and make informed choices.)

 

The Storm Passes

When Kristyn and I again pulled up to Pedro’s hermitage, there was a strange, empty feeling. His vehicle wasn’t there. Neither were his belongings. He was gone. In my youthful folly and denial, I voiced the opinion that surely he would be back soon. Kristyn knew better. When we recounted our last visit, we realized that he had been dropping hints that he was about the leave the area for good and that we might never see him again–even as we made plans to meet up. In this light, his strange hesitancy to let us leave the last time we’d seen him made more sense.

 

It was a bitter truth–just as Wormwood is a bitter medicine. I recall the two of us wandering around rural Oregon, unsure of what to do with ourselves. We ended up stopping at a cemetery to regroup. This grave scene now seems appropriate, for the grief I felt at suddenly losing this teacher still touches me to this day. We didn’t get any contact information; we didn’t know where he was headed. His teachings had taken us by storm, and the storm had passed.

 

After Pedro left, I spent some evenings in solitude at the Wormwood fields, watching the sun slide beneath the horizon and meditating on the mystery. The long rows of these tall plants, with their wispy, sweeping arms seemed to epitomize the mystery of life itself.

 

Kristyn and I finished out the summer in Oregon, which was a bittersweet experience. An intense longing for home–for the familiar, for the arms of my lover, for my parents, for my friends–was mingled with a deep longing to live this way forever–in the presence of plants and plant lovers, in a kind of magical Neverland where we would never have to grow up or face the rest of the world, but rather, would be able to wander in childlike wonder at the magic of life for eternity. On our last day, Kristyn and I sat in a hidden part of the farm and listened to George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” as we wept for the beautiful summer that was coming to a close. I’m grateful to say that we are still close friends to this day.

 

A few years later, I ceremonially burned the Wormwood smudge that I had not been able to give to Pedro. From time to time, he wanders into my dreams to deliver a strange message or perform a mysterious act. I now see his brief cameo in my life as an initiation into the unknown. His teachings marked the beginning of many years of exploration in shamanism, plant spirits, meditation, and other spiritual practices. I feel blessed to have known him.

 

The Mystery Continues

 

While developing The Herbal Healing Deck, I would complete the written entry for each plant and give it to Ashley, along with some of the plant’s physical medicine for her to sample. Ashley would enter into a shamanic journey to visit each and every plant spirit and receive a vision which would form the basis of her illustration. She would complete this process and then send me her illustration, as well as a written journal entry of her journey experience.

 

When I first opened the Wormwood illustration, I nearly fell out of my chair. In the center of a very mystical and stately plant spirit, there was the merkaba. Unmistakable. I had not told Ashley about Pedro’s merkaba meditations, or even about his Wormwood teachings.

Fields of Wormwood

By this point in our collaboration, I was used to Ashley being able to pick up on various details of a plant spirit that I had never communicated to her. It was part of the magic of our creative process, which felt very guided from the beginning. Sometimes, she would be shown herbal information that I didn’t know myself. But these had typically been things that could be confirmed through research–in other words, they were associations with the plants that were more widely known. For example, in her Oak journey she picked up on the tree’s use in medicine wheel gardens, which neither of us knew about before her journey. Upon doing some research, we discovered that, sure enough, Oak is sometimes used in this way.

 

Never before had Ashley picked up on one of my personal associations with a plant spirit. How could she have known that the spiritual teacher who taught me about Wormwood was the same person who introduced me to the merkaba? She didn’t. I was left to stare off into space, slack-jawed, and wonder how this could possibly be. It was downright astonishing to have her pick up on a plant association that was personal to me, and that I had never shared with another person. In other words, I’ve never heard anyone else talk about Wormwood’s connection with the merkaba. I’m not even sure there is a tangible connection–except that there is now! Now, when people draw the Wormwood card, they will be greeted with a lovely, luminous merkaba. The plant and the symbol now live together, at least in the realms of The Herbal Healing Deck.

 

I am left to ponder the meaning of this strange synchronicity. I can accept that Ashley’s shamanic journeys were potent and authentic enough to allow her to tap into plant wisdom without ever opening a book. But what does it mean that the spirit of Wormwood showed her a merkaba symbol? Was it a message for me, specifically? Was it a message for the both of us? Is it a message for everyone who works with the deck?

 

Or, on another level–do we as humans have the power to not only pick up on, but also to create associations with the spirit world? Could Pedro, with all of his shamanic prowess, have had something to do with this? Or, does the association between Wormwood and the merkaba go deeper? Is this an ancient connection that I happened upon accidentally and mistook for my own association between the two?

 

As with any good mystery, I am left with more questions than answers. It seems only appropriate that this ineffable experience would happen with Wormwood, whose key word in the deck is Mystery.

 

What I do know is that when I draw Wormwood from The Herbal Healing Deck, some kind of magic is afoot in my life–whether I can see it or not. Sometimes, I think I know what it’s about–although, given the above story, can we ever really know the meaning of magic?

 

When you are lucky enough to draw the Wormwood card, my advice is to be as open as you can be to the strangeness of life. Trust in the unknown; embrace it like a friend. But don’t try to hold on too tightly, for magic cannot be bottled or captured. It can only be enjoyed and then released. All things must pass.

 

I will leave you with a photo of the very Wormwood field where I used to spend time during that fateful summer. The beautiful words come from the Wormwood plant spirit itself, as told to Ashley during her shamanic journey. Not only are they poetic, but they also encapsulate the ethereal, mysterious essence of Wormwood:

 

 

 

 

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Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”    -Rumi

Hawthorn is one of the 12 trees featured in The Herbal Healing Deck, and it’s a plant that holds special meaning for me. In fact, Hawthorn changed my life, opening my heart not only to deep healing within the context of relationships and community, but also to plant spirit healing. Here, I will introduce this wonderful plant’s medicine and share my personal story with Hawthorn.

 

The Physical Medicine

 

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is a type of small tree or bush that produces red berries. These tasty and edible berries, along with the flowers and leaves of the tree, are a medicinal heart tonic. Hawthorn’s medicine is gentle, so the tea or tincture can be taken as a long-term heart and circulatory tonic. As a nutritive herb, it restores damaged tissue of the heart. Hawthorn also strengthens the heart beat and regulates blood pressure. Good for connective tissue, Hawthorn can be used as support for joints, veins, tendons, and ligaments. It also helps with circulation, improving blood flow to the extremities.

 

The Heart of the Matter

 

While this plant provides great benefit to the body, Hawthorn’s ties to the heart go far beyond the physical realm. The plant spirit of Hawthorn is one of the most beneficial for healing and opening the energetic heart. This is a very important medicine, as Western culture suffers greatly from physical heart disease and emotional heart blockage alike.

 

The heart chakra is the very center of our being, the middle ground between the earthly, lower chakras and the heavenly, upper chakras. The heart is what allows us to rise above mere survival, pleasure, and will-power and to feel true love for others and for life itself. Our hearts connect us to our families, partners, and friends, as well as to the world at large. The heart is now being recognized as a primary organ of perception, with an electromagnetic field many times larger than the brain’s. Our hearts process our emotions and allow us to feel the greatest feeling of all—love. Getting the heart pumping with feelings of gratitude and joy also boosts our ability to manifest our desires. Clearly, caring for our hearts, both physically and metaphysically, is of immeasurable value to our lives.

 

An Introduction to Plant Spirit Healing

 

Digital Camera
Sarah Tree-Hugging a Redwood

Hawthorn certainly holds a special place in my heart–this was the first plant spirit I consciously connected with. It was in the summer of 2010, during my internship with Herb Pharm, where I’d gone to learn the nuts and bolts of herbalism. I got a lot more than I bargained for when plant spirit healing was introduced in a weekend-long seminar. Up until that point, I had always felt that plants had a magic about them, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that they also possessed a spirit or consciousness. That weekend, everything changed.

 

I have to admit that Hawthorn reached out to me even before this experience. I’d been working as a buyer in a  health food store, and it was my job to order the bulk herbs. There were some old Hawthorn berries that nobody had touched for a long time. We discontinued the product, so I took the rest of them home. There they stayed in my cabinet, untouched for many months. I told myself, “I don’t have heart problems, so I don’t need this medicine. I just don’t have the time to mess with it right now.”

 

To introduce us to the Hawthorn spirit, our teacher had the class of about 15 people sit in a circle around a small Hawthorn tree. She explained that Hawthorn was a fairly accessible plant spirit, and I got the impression that she would be working her shamanic mojo to help open us to the experience. She passed around two bottles of tincture, which were used as a drop dose to connect with the energy of the plant.

 

This is great exercise, by the way–sit quietly in a relaxed state and place a single drop of tincture of any medicinal plant on your tongue. Get quiet to absorb the taste as well as any feelings or images that come to you. I’ve seen this done as a kind of blind test in many classes, and it’s amazing what people can tap into. Even those with zero experience in herbal medicine can often pick up on the essence and purpose of a plant without even knowing its name. I think it’s partly intuition, partly the plant spirit communicating with us, and partly the age-old DNA connection that humans have with medicinal plants which has aided our survival for millennia.

 

Back to our story–when I first tasted the tincture, I was instantly transported back to my childhood. The taste of the berries alone was reminiscent of cough medicine I’d had as a child–sweet and comforting. On another level, Hawthorn was a bittersweet medicine that made me feel my heart very deeply, including its wounds.

 

I began to spontaneously recall instances from my childhood that were painful in some way: the time my brother tricked me by saying we could play hide and seek, only to leave me hiding by myself outside for a long time while he went back inside; the times when I had nobody to play with at school recess and sat by myself on the jungle gym; the time I skinned my knee and cried in the bathroom until my brother came in to say, “Everyone knows you’re just doing this for attention.”

 

Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face. I felt embarrassed to be crying in front of my classmates, but the memories and associated feelings were so powerful that I simply had to surrender to them or get up and leave. Up until that point, I’d rarely (if ever) wept in front of a group. This too was a tendency held over from childhood–people in my family rarely express their feelings openly. Yet there I was, bawling like a child in front of everyone. I was uncomfortable and vulnerable, but determined not to miss out on the experience.

 

When the teacher ended our session, we all took turns sharing our experiences. I could hardly even speak. Afterwards, everyone went back inside to get ready for bed. I only went in for a moment to gather supplies before heading out to my tent for the night. I asked around to see what had happened to the Hawthorn tinctures, because I wanted another dose before bed. To my surprise, nobody knew where they had gone. When I returned to the Hawthorn tree, I discovered that both of the bottles had been left on the ground. And this wasn’t done by a single person, either, as they lay in different areas of the circle.

 

This seemed, to me, like a clear metaphor for how easy it is to forget about the heart. It was then that I recalled my own Hawthorn berries sitting in my cupboard, unused. Having just had a powerful experience with the plant, I now understood how much value I had completely overlooked. Those berries had been a gift from the Universe that I had ignored. Hawthorn wasn’t just about keeping the physical heart healthy. It wasn’t something that only people with heart disease needed–it was something that everyone needed.
Feeling rather humbled, I took a larger dose of the medicine and headed for my tent. As I lay in my sleeping bag, the memories continued. I relived more moments from my childhood, which eventually gave way to more recent painful memories of lost or broken relationships. It was a huge catharsis, like a tidal wave of pent-up emotion finally having an outlet for release.

 

More importantly, Hawthorn began to show me patterns. I could see how the times when I felt a lack of love as a child had translated into patterns of grasping and insecurity as an adult. Even more painful, I was shown how some of my actions–based on pain, fear, and lack–had in turn caused pain for others. It was a cycle in my life, repeating itself over and over again through my various relationships. I got very little sleep that night, but I received a teaching that would last for a lifetime.

 

Flowers and Thorns

 

This experience had lasting effects on my life. Within six months of returning home from the internship, I ended an unhealthy partnership. After gaining some distance from that situation, I was able to see how the four major romances of my life had all mirrored the dynamics of my relationships with the four people in my immediate family. It was kind of eerie, really, with patterns and similarities so striking that I couldn’t believe I had been blind to them all these years.

 

Plus, I am now more open about shedding tears in front of others, even in public, when something moves me. Though I still sometimes feel embarrassed depending on the circumstances, it’s become a lot easier for me to open up to people and groups in general. It’s as if all along, I’d unconsciously feared that having an open heart would make me weak. But on the contrary, it’s made me stronger.

 

The Hawthorn tree is a member of the Rose family, and both of these plants reflect the connection between joy and sorrow. Roses are a classic symbol of love and the ever-opening heart. And yet their stems contain wicked thorns, so that if you hold on too tightly to the experience of love, you will draw blood. Our earthly existence is temporary, and so we know that everyone and everything we love will eventually pass. Often, what we love most in life breaks our hearts the most as well.

 

Hawthorn also has thorns covering its trunk and branches. I see these thorns acting as acupuncture needles which, when stuck in the right places, can release long-held pain. Hawthorn finds your heart’s tender spots, even the places you’ve forgotten about. When she sticks her needles in, the pain intensifies. But when it’s over, you feel much lighter, healthier, and perhaps a bit wiser.

 

Grandmother Hawthorn

 

I see the spirit of Hawthorn as a grandmotherly figure who delivers just the right dose of medicine at the right time. Her lessons can be stern, but they are always fair, and she never gives you more than you handle. She won’t spoil you, but is able to show you the kind of tough love necessary for the healthy growth of strong children. Grandmother Hawthorn can open your eyes to issues you’ve been hiding from yourself, and unconscious patterns of action and reaction that wreak havoc on your relationships.

 

This is why I say that everyone needs this medicine. Even those like myself who were blessed with great parents and a healthy upbringing can still point to painful childhood memories. Nobody is perfect, and so nobody makes a perfect parent or sibling. And yet, injuries of a familial origin are often what linger within us into adulthood. As psychologists know, our primordial relationships with immediate family members form the basis of our tendencies as adults. With the lens of truth offered by Hawthorn, you are more able to protect yourself and your loved ones from unnecessary sorrow.

 

From the Heart

 

If we truly acted from our hearts, imagine how the world might be different. Would people still spray chemicals on their food, eat meat that came from suffering animals, dump trash into the ocean, or go to war?

 

And yet, it is very easy to forget all about the heart. In fact, I believe that our culture teaches us to shut down our heart centers. Rather than being taught to feel and process our emotions, we’re expected to hide and neglect them in order to succeed in our jobs and our lives. Even in the realm of romance, people tend to jump from one relationship to another without allowing themselves the time to grieve, much less change the pattern that manifested a non-functional relationship to begin with. I’ve done this myself, only to find that while I had changed the name and face of the person whom I was with, the patterns stayed much the same (and actually worsened).

 

Until we face our fear of vulnerability that comes along with opening our hearts, this won’t change–not on the personal level, and not on the global level. I know it’s scary, but I promise you that it will be okay. While I sat tearful under the Hawthorn tree, nobody laughed at me or shunned me. In fact, the more I open up, the more surprised I am at just how kind people can be.

 

Working with the Hawthorn spirit can dislodge emotional blockages in order for you to start pumping love more freely through your veins. Under her care, you are able to handle all of life’s bittersweet ebbs and flows, its joys and sorrows. If you open yourself to the wisdom of Grandmother Hawthorn, you will receive a mighty reward—nothing less than a greater depth of feeling and a higher capacity to love.

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