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Back in 1972, when I began my search for a better approach to health and illness, one of the first books I acquired was American Indian Medicine, by Virgil Vogel. I pored over the descriptions of how different tribes used common plants, many of which I had known growing up in the woods and fields of the rural South. I was fascinated by the notion that nature could heal, and I felt in my bones the power of that truth.
By early 1973 I was in Lahore, Pakistan, sitting beside a hakeem, a practitioner of traditional Unani medicine, in his indoor/outdoor consulting booth at the edge of a dusty street. Surrounding him were shelves of hand-labeled bottles holding exotic compounds that had been patiently ground in a mortar and pestle. A year later, when I began my training in Ayurveda and homeopathy, I discovered the subtlety and complexity of such natural medicinals and the power they had, not merely to relieve suffering, but to catalyze personal growth and transformation.
After returning to America, I hauled around my kit of remedies and potions, offering them hesitantly and with some embarrassment to friends and patients. Today, nature's medicinals are quite in vogue, popping up everywhere--shiny new versions of those myriad little bottles fill shelf after shelf in health-food stores and even pharmacies. They come from many parts of the world and reflect a variety of therapeutic schools. The most widely available are herbs, homeopathics, cell salts, and flower essences.
Though each of these classes of natural remedies has its own breed of practitioner, a common thread runs through them: they are all lifted from the same living matrix that nurturesand sustains us human beings. As a result, such medicinals tend to convey complex, natural, informational patterns that can be used by the human system to reprogram the body and mind. Because these medicinals come from the larger biosphere, they encourage the kind of personal reorganization and spiritual evolution that is congruous with an overall shift toward a healthier planet. They heal us into a wholeness with Nature.
Though all of the medicinals we will explore here have the capacity to promote change and reorganization, each type provides a distinct therapeutic "angle," with herbs being used most often to affect organ systems, homeopathics for rebalancing the overall "vital force," and flower essences for addressing the dilemmas of the mind. Understanding the principles that govern the use of each class will allow you to learn to use its basic remedies and, if you wish, to stock and apply the home medicine kit detailed in Section V. Meanwhile, your personal experience with the transformational effects of natural remedies will provide a foundation for much of what you'll learn in the rest of this book.
1: Herbal Traditions Dr. A. came into the Center for Holistic Medicine in New York City looking sallow and breathing heavily. It had been all he could do to get himself there. He was exhausted and sick, but relieved to have made it. "I left the hospital," he said. "They told me not to, but I did anyway. I couldn't deal with all the tests and medications."
Dr. A. was a psychoanalyst of the old school. He had escaped Vienna as the Nazis arrived, and had come to America already middle-aged. Starting over in New York was no small challenge. In order to open professional doors that would otherwise have been closed to a man his age, he simply told everyone that he was ten years younger than he was. With his energy and determination, he was questioned by no one, and he'd become quite successful.
But now, at the age of eighty-six, it was all catching up with him: the cumulative professional responsibilities, the rapid tempo of New York City, and a physical constitution that had never been very strong. Under the stress of trying to maintain the pace of a younger man, all his systems had begun to fail. He was admitted to the hospital with a laundry list of complaints including anemia, chest pain, and a bloated abdomen. Whether it was due to the barrage of invasive tests he was put through there or the side effects of strong medications, he found his strength ebbing alarmingly. So he signed out "against medical advice" and retreated to his cottage on Cape Cod. After recovering enough to travel again, he came in to see me.
I looked at his swollen ankles, listened to the moist sounds in his chest, and said, "You're in heart failure!" His heart was letting fluids accumulate in his lungs and legs. "You've got to go back into the hospital . . ." I began to explain patiently. "Oh no!" he interrupted, mustering more intensity than I thought him capable of at the moment. "I'll die at home first." Hospitalization was out of the question; he'd already done that, he insisted, and it had nearly killed him.
Two and a half hours from the city was the Himalayan Institute, where we did residential holistic therapy programs. We weren't set up for intensive care, but he couldn't remain at home. Soon I installed him there and he started on a holistic program.
By the second day of his stay, I was nervous. Dr. A. wasn't getting any better. His condition was serious, and it was becoming obvious that the diet and exercise regimens we offered weren't going to do the trick. I pulled down my Scudder's textbook of Eclectic Medicine, published in the 1800s, and studied the various herbal remedies that had been used for heart failure. I didn't dare give him digitalis unless it fit his symptoms precisely. If it did fit, a small dose would turn him around. If it didn't, the dose needed to get results could be dangerous, since foxglove, the plant from which the digitalis leaf is taken, is quite poisonous. Unfortunately, it didn't fit. Digitalis works well when there's a slow pulse, but his pulse was fast. That, along with his bloated abdomen and fluid accumulation, pointed me in the direction of convallaria, the common name of which is lily of the valley.