Plant Healing, Fire Wisdom
Erin Everett interviews Plant Spirit Medicine author Eliot Cowan
With Plant Spirit Medicine, don Eliot Cowan has combined his knowledge and expertise as a Five Element Acupuncturist with indigenous healing methods and wisdom gained from decades of intensive study with the Huichol people of Mexico. The Huichols are one of the few remaining living shamanic cultures. In addition to his work teaching medicine from the spirits of plants, don Eliot is an elder shaman, or tsaurirrikame, in the Huichol tradition.
EE: Many modern-day herbalists and scientists address the healing power of plants by looking at their chemical constituents. Can you tell me about the ways traditional cultures work with the healing power of plants?
don Eliot: Traditional cultures, of course, haven’t been concerned with chemical constituents. Rather, they have been concerned with making relationship with the plant, and in particular, the traditional cultures tend to relate to plants us brothers and sisters; that is, us beings who have a great deal of wisdom and knowledge to share and that we can learn a lot from. We can certainly learn from them how they can make themselves useful to us for healing purposes. And traditional cultures have always tended to particularly value learning about the uses of herbs through dreams.
Indigenous cultures in general relate to dreams as valid ways of knowing something. They have not been particularly invested in analytical or scientific method, but they have learned a great deal about the world around them through dreams.
This is particularly true of learning about plant medicines. The plant people don’t have mouths and voice boxes, so they find another way to speak to us and inform us, and that is predominantly through dreams.
EE: So how can western people connect with plants through dreams?
don Eliot: Well, western people dream like everybody else does. And there are well-developed methods for learning how to dream in an intentional way, and these ways of dreaming with plants are available to anyone, no matter where they were born or what the color of their skin is. You know, when I talk to people in various places, I like to ask people about their dreams. I find that the majority of people have had spontaneous experiences of what we could think of as extraordinary learning. Many people remember having had a dream that later came true. Some people have had a dream that happened in the distant past, before they were born, which turns out to be historically accurate. Most people have experiences in dream of meaningful interactions with beings that are very unusual, such as talking plants, talking animals, dead people, unborn people … and of course, everyone dreams. Everyone’s dreams take place in places other than the bed in which they’re lying.
I find that these types of experiences are very, very common, in fact, more common than not. This goes to show that the dream state offers some very unusual and valuable possibilities for learning. And this is something that indigenous peoples have been aware of from the very beginning. And where they are still living in the traditional ways, they still take great advantage of the dream state as a way of learning. As I said before, since everyone dreams, regardless of your cultural background, these kinds of dream learning experiences are available to anybody, with just a very minimum of guidance and instruction.
EE: And so, one of the ways that we can learn to connect more deeply in this way is through shamanic journeying?
don Eliot: What you’re referring to us shamanic journeying is a form of dreaming, so the answer is yes.
EE: When I look at nature, I see how everything works together to benefit the whole. How can plants teach us how to live in community together and in harmony with the earth?
don Eliot: Well, what you just said was beautifully said. And, in a way you sort of answered your own question! Plants can teach us how to live by their example. And teaching by example is always the best teaching anyway, even for human teachers.
Simply by taking the time to be with plants, to open yourself to them, to observe them, to see how they are in the world, gives us a beautiful example of how to live in balance and harmony. Now, sometimes plants will offer teachings in a more verbal form, to people in dream. Even so, that’s not really necessary always and not always available. Even just being in the presence of a tree, let’s say. That’s always available and there’s always beautiful learning, if one opens oneself to it.
Our people somehow assume that we’re superior to plants, that we don’t have anything to learn from them, that they’re simply there for our exploitation. Really, all it takes is just a small change of attitude to open oneself to the possibility that plants may actually be very wise and knowledgeable and have a lot to teach us. When one spends time around plants with that attitude, one learns.
EE: So, tell me about Plant Spirit Medicine as a modality. How does a healer help people with plants? What kind of connection can treatment with Plant Spirit Medicine bring?
don Eliot: The way that a plant is in the world, the way it relates to the world and lives in the world in mutual benefit … The way a plant is in the world is its medicine. And a Plant Spirit Medicine healer takes it upon herself to get to know plants, to make friends with them, to be informed by them. To recognize them, so that the plant feels free to share its medicine, its unique and beautiful way of being in the world with human people through the healer. So, in this way, the person can receive from Willow the capacity to bend and flex gracefully with the winds of change in their life, just as willows do. And in a similar way, each and every plant has its way of being, its medicine that it is willing to shale with others if someone is willing to lake the trouble to get to know it.
EE: One thing that you’ve been working with a lot lately is community and building community. What do you want to tell readers about that?
don Eliot: One of the things that we can learn from plants as we open ourselves to them is that no plant ever exists by itself. It always exists in a community of other plants, of soil and sun and rain and wind, the animals. It’s constantly in relationship and exchange with all these different members of its community. And the same thing is true, of course, of human beings, but this is something that, well, we seem to be forgetting. There’s been such a strong premium put on individuality, individual achievement, individual identity, and so on, that people seem to be beginning to forget that the true joy and meaning in life can be found in the fabric of exchange. If you take a plant away from its community of other beings and living forces of the elements, it immediately begins to wither and die, and the same thing is true of us, at least in spirit. So community is very, very important.
EE: How can we actually go about building community? What are the steps we can take?
don Eliot: That principle of exchange and connectedness is an aspect of the elemental energy of Fire. So it is that, for example, if we say that such-and-such a person is a “cold” person, what we mean is that they’re isolated and not in good relationship with others. If we say that a person is a “warm” person, that means that there is a free and joyous exchange in their relationships with others. So the element of Fire is a great teacher and a great source of relationship. You know, what happens when you build a fire is that people come out from the cold and sit around and enjoy each other’s company. So there are many people who ale finding joy in the community of sitting around the fire and sharing warmth and laughter. So this Sacred Fire Community is beginning to emerge and define itself now.
EE: With all the upheaval recently, many people are really feeling like they want to do something about the state of the world. What can people do to help the situation?
don Eliot: For many people, when they contemplate the disturbing world events, they quite naturally find themselves responding with fear. And out of that fear, they feel driven to figure out some kind of action or response that would help ensure some sort of security for themselves and for others. But really, the complexity of the world is such that no amount of calculated mental activity, trying to figure out what needs to be done, none of that has a chance of being effective.
So, it’s not about trying to change the world according to our notions of how it should be because we see over and over again the violence that that leads to. Rather, it’s really about finding what is my role, what is my place, how do I move and participate in the world as it is. To find that out, well, the figuring capacity of the mind driven by our fears just won’t get us there, but fortunately, we have another capacity to call on, so I refer back to the Fire that we were talking about a moment ago, which is the principle of relation and exchange.
That sacred fire lives in everybody as their heart, and it has a great capacity for knowing. So, in each of our hearts we know what there is for us to do. And in following that knowing, we find peace and joy, even in the midst of chaotic and terrifying events.
Eliot Cowan is the author of Plant Spirit Medicine, with its 2014 expanded edition available at your local bookstore (here’s a link to the book at Malaprops, Asheville NC’s local bookseller) or through Sounds True. Click these links for more information on the Blue Deer Center, the Sacred Fire Community, or to find a Plant Spirit Medicine Healer in your area. For information about Asheville, NC-area gatherings of the Sacred Fire Community, visit ashevillehamlet.org.
Erin Everett’s blog, Bee and Tree, brings readers perspectives and practical tools for bringing the sacred into modern life. Erin is the past editor and publisher of New Life Journal, which is where this article first appeared in 2009. She is a member of the Sacred Fire Community.
Content (c) 2009-2017 Erin M. Everett/Bee and Tree