Apocalyptic Herbalism; The Mind Body Split

Illustration by  Maxyvert

Illustration by Maxyvert

The etymology of the word “apocalypse” means ‘to uncover and reveal.’  It is a revelation. And at this moment in time our society is facing the revelation of multiple imminent truths. 

We are, right now, being given the opportunity to see a more complete view of what is behind the narrative of the dominant reality created by our current civilization and, in this sense, it is a time of great expansion.  

It is also our chance to uncover the less known, but still living and thriving often on long held ancestral wisdoms, subcultures as well as those ancient, sacred cultures we have lost. And it is a chance to intentionally create a new world with what is good from the past and  the compost of all that is now being deconstructed. 

As an herbalist, or as I like to call myself, a plant healing artist (because plant healing is a sacred art), I have found that plants are some of our greatest allies, co-creators, community members, and agents of the sacred. Humans, and all other animals, have always been in mutual, interdependent relationship with plants and, if we have any chance of surviving the changing times and creating resilient and generative communities now and in the future, plants and plant medicine is an imperative component.

What we now call “herbalism” was once a sacred, place-based tradition that existed within all cultures on Earth.

As herbalism has become hugely popular and commercialized, much of the sacred aspects of this ancient tradition have dropped out along with pretty much all sacred, intuitive, and spiritual aspects from any cultural, ancestral tradition that finds itself appropriated and rising in the branded markets of capitalist economy.  

The dominance of Western, Euro-centric values, particularly since it dissociated into the mind-body split, has divided our collective reality into multiple narratives based on this false binary (all binaries are false), or dualism, of inanimate, lifeless matter and intellect, leaving out, not only the spectrum that runs living blood and energy through these two realms, but the essential life-giving, healing contact zone or dimension where they both intersect. 

Plant medicine and healing originates from worldwide sacred traditions including those that existed at the origins of Western civilization. Healing practices were culturally entwined with the way that that the divinity in everything was acknowledged and revered as a mystery that underlies all forms and shapes of reality. 

Sacred means holy or divine, and our sacred traditions, such as the healing use plants, have their source in ceremonial practices that allowed people to access and invoke our instinctive and innate healing potential that is rooted in what Jungian psychologist James Hillman has called the Mundus Imaginalis or Imaginal Realm. This imaginal realm is the ‘coniunctio’  between the worlds of the body and mind/spirit.

The use of ritual practices in our traditional medicines bring the practitioner and the person in need of healing into the imaginal realm, the world of dreams, the real place in between the mind and body, not to the exclusion of practical methods of herbalism but so that the imaginal can be experienced and embodied in them.

The imaginal realm is the place where our ancestors went to meet and speak with the living Gods so that they would know the truth and underlying elemental patterns beneath physical reality. This is the place where magic and dreams allow us to interface with source, purpose, and the unseen systems of creation that guide us in our Earthly work of making and engaging with life. The imaginal realm is where we must go to meet the symbolic and mythic messages of spirit and embody them. This is a very real type of grounded presence where we activate our natural propensity to animate the physical world with the vital force of life.

Our modern herbalism or plant medicine, and all of our folk healing practices, must be founded in the awareness of our sacred traditions of the past as well as an understanding of the conditions we are currently situated within so that we can adapt to what is being asked of us now and in the future. Our lack of individual and collective communication, engagement, and embodiment with the symbolic and archetypal realms for which we are entangled has left us in a reality that lacks any awareness of how our physical, emotional, and psychological health are responding to its effects. 

Robert Bosnak, alchemist and Jungian psychoanalyst, describes his conversations with Islamic scholar Henry Corbin: 

Corbin says there was a great cataclysm that happened in western culture around the 11th-12th century where it moved from a neo-platonic tradition to an aristotelian tradition. The neo-platonic tradition takes imagination as a reality. It is a place. It is a place where you can go and envision. It is a visionary tradition. 

There is the intelligible world that we would now call spirit, or we would call mathematics, or we would call mind, and then there’s the world of matter and then for the neo-platonists there is this world in between which is the world of the real imagination….During the last 800 years it dropped out and as we became Aristotelian, which is dualism, which is mind and matter, which created the mind-matter conundrum that we still are dealing with, the imagination became the opposite of reality.”

Adaptation to our changing planet and changing world will require a multi-faceted approach and much innovation as well as great imagination and great healing. As humanity and the civilizations we’ve created turn into the wheel of time, the worlds; physical, imaginal, spiritual, and the multiple universes of existence as well as our sacred origins, will turn with us and us with them. Although our remembrance and connection to sacred traditions may seem far behind and in the past, the sacredness of life is always with us. As plant medicine ways continue emerge in the face of the challenges approaching us now, the actions necessary to bring about ongoing healing in the cycles of life, death, and rebirth will require that we engage the revelation, what is being revealed, the apocalypse that will bring forth new worlds and ages right here on Earth.

Further reading:

In the Dark Places of Wisdom, by Peter Kingsley

Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel, by Robert Bosnak