by Janet Kent.
We talk a lot on this blog about reconnection, the potential for healing of individual, society and environment when we reconnect to the more-than –human world. Here, I want to talk about a kind of reconnection possible wherever we are, the medicine of presence.
In this culture of over-stimulation and information overload, we spend much of our time up in our heads. The never-ending influx of news, mostly bad, can lead even those not prone to worry to a state of constant anxiety. Grounding substances and practices bring us out of our heads and into our bodies. They bring us into the moment. Out of the past, out of the future, into the here and now. When we tune in and pay attention to our surroundings, we take a break from our list-making and litany of worries. In the first part of this series, I discussed practices that support embodiment and reconnection. In this segment, I will discuss some of my favorite grounding herbs.
When we work with grounding herbs, we begin to see patterns in the qualities of these herbs. Many of these plants are bitter. How might this taste relate to their grounding influence? Bitterness, which is both a taste and an herbal action, stimulates the digestive system, especially the liver. But this action has broader effects throughout the body. Digestion is ruled by the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which governs the body’s rest and repair functions. Through the fascinating interconnection of our organ systems, when we stimulate the digestive system, we send a message to the body: we have time to relax, slow down, receive nourishment. Herbs that stimulate digestion also bring energy to the core of the body; they literally center our experience. These herbs bring us back into our bodies by acting on the gut. We feel embodiment through our viscera, an immediate counter-action to the machinations of the mind.
Over time, regular use of bitter, grounding herbs works tonically, improving overall health. Bitters stimulate the liver, an organ with over 500 functions. Among these functions is the processing of hormones, including those we use in times of stress. A well-functioning liver clears these hormones from the bloodstream so that we cease physically responding to stress once the stressor is gone. The liver improves digestion, including assimilation and absorption of nutrients, which improves the structure and function of the body as a whole, including the nervous system thereby having a marked influence on mental health.
Many grounding herbs are aromatic. Literally, this means they contain volatile oils. To understand how this quality relates to mental health, we must once again look to physiology. When we inhale, aromatic compounds move up through our nose into the olfactory bulb located in the midst of the limbic system, a circle of organs in the brain that facilitate how we process our experiences. Though the actual mechanism of the limbic system is a bit murky (hurray for the beautiful mystery of the body), this is where we process emotions, experience pleasure and pain, and form and house our memories. The location of the olfactory bulb in the midst of these organs speaks to the primacy of the sense of smell to how we relate to and interpret our experiences. This partially explains the strong connection between scent and memory. As Guido Masé explains in his book The Wild Medicine Solution, aromatic herbs help us adapt to our surroundings. They are simultaneously calming and stimulating. That may sound contradictory, but consider the many kinds of experiences that have both effects: a walk in the woods, stretching, making out. When we refer to herbal actions, relaxing and stimulating are not opposites; they are in fact complimentary. Through easing tension and enlivening the senses, aromatic herbs help bring us into the moment, increase awareness and heighten perception. In other words, if an herb is aromatic, it is likely to have a grounding effect.
Plant Allies for Grounding
Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Where found: native to Europe, found in North American gardens and grocery stores
Salvias grow all over the world, and everywhere they grow, humans use them for medicine, food and/or ritual. I overlooked this powerful medicine for a long time because I live in a bioregion that is not favorable to most salvias and I had a bias towards wild plant medicine from nearby. We grew Sage as a culinary herb though, and their striking presence in the garden led me to do some research on potential medicinal use. Upon study and use, I quickly regretted neglecting this common kitchen herb for so long.
As Gerard wrote, “Sage is singularly good for the head and brain, it quickeneth the senses and memory.” In other words, Sage, like many aromatic plants, brings us to our senses, into the moment. This action helps clarify thought, cuts through mental fog and helps us focus. Sage makes us more present and aware yet still manages to ease feelings of overwhelm and over stimulation.
Like most culinary spices, Sage is carminative, meaning it is an aromatic herb that stimulates the digestive system. This action contributes to its grounding effect. Sage also helps us digest and assimilate fats which in the short term improves digestion and in the long term supports the cells and systems of the body that require good lipid assimilation to function properly, such as the neurons of the nervous system. This action, along with its aromatic effects, makes Sage a powerful nervous system tonic.
Garden Sage is easy to grow or to procure from any grocery store. Here is an abundant available herb that anyone can access and make medicine with. When we choose cultivated plants, we take some of the pressure off of wild varieties. While the growing interest in plants for medicine and ritual is exciting, it can lead to over harvesting by folks who want to profit from this interest or by folks who want to harvest their own medicine but do not have a relationship with the plant stands they harvest from. White Sage (Salvia apiana), suffers from this growing interest. Stands of White Sage tended for hundreds of years by Indigenous peoples of the Southwest are at risk as more and more descendents of White settlers learn the cleansing, clarifying power of a White Sage smudge stick. While Garden Sage is a different plant, it too is used for purification in European folkloric traditions. So as you harvest Garden Sage for food and medicine, dry a bundle to make your own cleansing smoke.
Preparation: Sage makes a delicious elixir. Fill a jar with leaves and flowers and cover with brandy or whiskey and honey. For a sweeter elixir, use equal parts alcohol and honey. I like my elixirs a little less sweet so I usually combine two parts alcohol to one part honey.
Or tincture dried Sage leaves by filling a jar 1/3 to ½ way full of leaves and cover with whiskey. Shake daily for 4 weeks, strain, add honey to taste.
Dosage: 5 to 15 drops as needed
Contraindication: avoid during pregnancy
For a full monograph, read Kiva Rose who knows Sage better than I: http://bearmedicineherbals.com/matrix-and-salvatrix-sage-as-mother-and-healer.html
Damiana (Turnera diffusa)
Where found: native to South Texas, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, dried herb found in most health food stores and in Latin groceries
Long known as an aphrodisiac, Damiana is just as useful as an ally for mental health. Damiana is a warming, aromatic bitter. Her bitterness calms and centers, bringing energy to the GI tract. Simultaneously, Damiana is uplifting to the spirit and stimulates circulation, specifically to the pelvic area. Damiana’s gift is embodiment, moving us out of our heads and into visceral experience. When overwhelmed with our own pain and the pain of the world, we can forget how to experience joy. After long enough, we may even becomeapathetic. Apathy is a powerful defense against despair. If we cease to care about anything, we feel less pain. However, this numbness serves the powers that seek to dominate us and our fellow residents of Earth. Damiana is the antidote to this absence of feeling. She helps us return to the world of embodied feeling. We live under a system that profits from keeping us dissociated, up in our heads, ensnared in a world of disembodied communication. To return to our bodies, to remember how to experience beauty, pleasure, and joy are radical acts of reclamation. If we do not remember what in this world is worth fighting for, they win.
Preparation and Dosage: Dry plant tincture—1:5 at 60% etoh. 30-60 drops up to 3x a day. Or as an elixir with brandy and honey (see Sage elixir directions.)
I prefer Damiana in formula with other, less bitter herbs. Milky Oats, Rose and Damiana make a delightful combination.
As a tea, Damiana combines well with oat straw, nettle, alfalfa, chamomile and rose.
Rosemary Gladstar’s recipe for Damiana cordial is delicious and effective. See Gladstar, Rosemary. Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal. North Adams, MA: Storey Books, 2001.
For more on Damiana, see Sean Donahue’s beautiful blogpost.
Contraindications: Damiana’s ability to bring energy to the pelvis is not pleasant for everyone. Rae Swersey of Take Care Herbals , always insightful on such matters, observed that one must use caution with Damiana in cases of pelvic or sexual trauma and/or discomfort with that region of the body. The best way to determine if someone will respond negatively to bringing energy to the pelvis is to have them take a small dose in a safe place with nervines nearby that can alleviate the discomfort . Or formulate with herbs to balance or counter this effect. See below.
Avoid during pregnancy.
European Wood Betony (Stachys betonica)
Where found: native to Europe, found in North American gardens and nurseries.
Betony is a bitter mint family plant long used in European medical and magical traditions. Again, the bitter taste stimulates the GI tract and has an immediate calming and centering effect. As Matthew Wood writes in The Book Of Herbal Wisdom, Betony improves access to our gut instincts, which we can lose touch with when we spend too much time in our heads. Betony is a specific remedy for mild to severe dissociation. This term refers to a wide spectrum of experiences which involve emotional detachment from one’s surroundings. Dissociation is something we all do, to some extent, to avoid being overwhelmed by the constant stream of bad news. For survivors and folks facing everyday oppression, this defense mechanism can be a life line to survival in a hostile world.
Traditionally, Europeans in the Middle Ages used Betony to treat demonic possession. This translates to its current indication as a remedy for those who seem haunted. This action makes Betony a powerful medicine for those who experience the lingering effects of trauma. For what are we who carry the past with us if not haunted? When the body holds traumatic memories, when the body does not match our conception of self or when the body is reviled by the dominant culture due to size, color or characteristics, embodiment can be frightening. Yet many of the folks who experience this discomfort or pain in the body want to be more embodied. They want to learn to feel safe there. Betony addresses this dilemma perfectly by helping us feel grounded in the body while imparting a sense of safety and protection.
Preparation and dosage: Betony is easy to grow and pollinators love the flowers. Harvest the fresh above ground plant in flower and tincture – 1:2 at 95%etoh, 15 to 45 drops up to 4x a day. Dry plant tincture — 1:5 t 50% etoh, ¼ tsp to 1 tsp up to 4x a day.
Contraindication: none known
For a full monograph on European Wood Betony, see Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997.
Calamus , a.k.a. Sweet Flag, a.k.a. Bitter Root (Acorus calamus)
Where found: marshes, wet banks, river slopes
A few years ago, I dug my first Calamus root. I had planted it years before on the shelf of the pond we made from the clay pit that remained after we built our slip straw house. I planned to harvest the end of the rhizome and replant the section with next year’s bud. As I dug my hands into the boggy edge of the pond, I nicked the root with my finger nails. Calamus’ characteristic aroma rose up stronger and more pungent than the dried root I had used to make medicine in the past. Those of you who have had transformative herb harvesting experiences will understand what happened next. As I pulled root from the murky, stinky mud, I felt a shift. The root looks like a phyto-crawdad, a being comfortable in the muck, who thrives in gray-brown soppy soil. I examined this strange and wondrous root for quite a while. Then, I nibbled on a bit of rootlet. The shift heightened. Colors became brighter, smells stronger, sounds sharper. I sat there, looking at the root and my once familiar surroundings who knows how long. Though I had read about, used, and taught Calamus for years, I did not truly know Calamus until this moment. What I experienced, that autumn day, was a concentrated dose of Calamus medicine.
Like the other herbs described here, Calamus stimulates the digestive tract. The moment I described by the pond epitomizes its action. Calamus is calming and stimulating. Under its influence, my perception became sharper, yet I slowed down almost to a stop, giving me time to take it all in. Calamus also supports cognitive function, cutting through mental fog to heighten our awareness. In these times of digital information overload, the information the more-than-human world offers is often subsumed by the onslaught of human communication. Calamus, who grows on the edge of land and water, helps bridge the gap between us and the rest of life. It brings us into the moment, heightens our perception, makes us more receptive. Calamus is unparalleled in its ability to sharpen our senses, to help us see more clearly the details we might gloss over as we hurry on, cycling through our to-do lists and worries. The medicine of Calamus is the gift of Immanence. Being fully present and aware. Not in the past. Not in the future. Wonderfully and beautifully here.
Preparation and dosage: tincture of fresh root – 1:2 at 95% etoh, 10- 30 drops up to 4x a day. Tincture of dry root — 1:5 at 60% etoh, 15 to 45 drops up to 4x a day.
I love a few drops of tincture before going on a hike or before studying or sitting down to write.
Contraindications: Avoid during pregnancy.
Unsurprisingly, Calamus’ reputation as a perception heightener has led to misuse. For folks used to stronger, heavy hitting entheogens, this medicine may be too subtle for them to notice. This leads to taking too high a dose which can cause digestive upset and vomiting. If you are looking to get high, pick a different plant.
For a full monograph on Calamus, see Jim Macdonald. Jim really sets the bar high here for what is possible with a plant monograph, and with decades of working with an individual plant. http://herbcraft.org/calamus.html
Hurrah for the unbelievable work and for the marvelous body…
from Arthur Rimbaud’s “Morning of Drunkenness”
For those of you who have not read the first part of this series, “Earthwork Part One, Tools for Grounding,” I recommend doing so. The task of being present is vital but can be challenging. We have grown accustomed to spending much of our time disembodied, up in our heads, online, soaking up the spectacle. For some, the body and surrounding environment do not feel safe to inhabit, making this work even more difficult. However, we must do this work. We must overcome the false separation between our minds and bodies, between us and our surroundings. We are finally waking up. Look around. Feel the pleasure of the body. Use all of your senses. The work of reconnection starts with the self.