As we move through the transition of winter’s darkness and into the new year, it is a time most suitable for considering new perspectives in our lives. Here is some food for thought….
Herbalism means different things to each one of us as we all practice in unique ways with individualized approaches and goals. We may consider ourselves to be practical herbalists providing clinical services, artists creating heartfelt herbal products, or educators facilitating personal growth. We may take a logical or analytical approach or, instead, allow ourselves to be directed by the emotional or spiritual realms. We may embrace bioregional herbalism based in local plants or choose to focus ourselves in a particular cultural tradition that appeals to us. No matter how or why we practice, herbalism affords the opportunity to move outside of ourselves, leaving behind the mundane business of our everyday lives to enter the energetic flow that is the network of all life. This process of engaging life beyond the boundaries of the individualized self may be called “unselfing” or “interbeing” and enriches our herbal practice as well as our daily lives by connecting us more deeply to place and its emanating life. Have you ever walked across a high alpine meadow filled with blooming wildflowers? If so, then you may have experienced the cacophonous din of diverse and vibrant life forms interacting with one another. You may have felt the reverberations of boundless vitality penetrate you, luring you into oneness with the meadow underfoot and the overarching sky. Experiences such as this can be had anytime and anywhere through the processes of unselfing or interbeing. Embracing this approach deepens our place-based wisdom, redirects our energy back into a reciprocal exchange with life, creates a foundation for solving current environmental issues, and illuminates our wild nature inviting us into a limitless world beyond our wildest dreams.
Looking beyond ourselves to realize our interconnections with the world around us is nothing new. Trees have been doing it for eons and bacterium for even longer. Life does not grow in a vacuum and living beings exist because of the community to which they belong. That is to say, trees, humans, and other life forms have both endogenous and exogenous sources of knowledge and assistance that help them to survive and thrive despite the difficulties and challenges that present themselves. As David George Haskell described, the Ponderosa Pine survives in locations with hot dry summers through a combination of internal wisdom and mechanisms as well as help from an external complex of soil organisms including mycelium. When afternoon showers are absent and its own water saving strategies are not enough, the tree is nevertheless able to obtain moisture through its own deep and spreading root structure augmented by a vast network of fungi that, conducted by electrical charges, draws water from the depths upward through the mycelium and into the tree roots. Ponderosa Pine also sustains itself through an interrelation with fire. Before fire suppression policies and modern forces of climate change, forest fires tended to occur much more frequently, regularly consuming fuel in smaller amounts, and clearing the understory but causing little harm to tree canopies. This fire pattern aided the Ponderosa, whose thick bark and high branches protected it while the forest floor was cleared of competition for its own seedlings. Thus the Ponderosa makes itself stronger and more successful through external relationships and interconnectedness with other living systems.
Like the Ponderosa Pine, people have also been thriving for millions of years, in part, due to a multitude of relationships with other organisms and life systems. Our ability to use tools, our advancing intellect, and many other endogenous assets have no doubt helped us to evolve into the widespread species we are today but we could not have made it on our own. It is our interconnection with plants that nourishes our bodies with vitamins, minerals, sugars, and refreshed oxygen to breathe that provides critical resources for our survival. Nothing illustrates more clearly the profound impact of the interrelations between humans and plants as the process of respiration. In a deeply intimate exchange, the reciprocal giving and receiving of life force between species through the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide forms a profound bond. What memories or ancient truths may be imprinted upon these gaseous molecules flowing freely between plants and people may never be proven but can certainly be known through oneness that transcends species. It is these essential exogenous relationships and interactions that provide an access point for reconnecting to life and land as well as a foundation for unselfing and interbeing.
How then can we come to such a place of mutual understanding between our ego-centric selves and the rest of the living world to which we belong? Cutting through the layers of self, eventually coming out the other side, and rediscovering our connection with all living beings and life systems is a multi-faceted process of letting go of what gets in the way. Born from The Source of Life, most of us spend our days engaged in distractions, limited by coping mechanisms, and developing defenses to life’s difficulties. This process ultimately moves us away from that eternal connection to life and hinders our ability to connect with plants, rivers, clouds, animals, and the earth. As an English speaker, I am keenly aware of the everyday barrier that language can be in recognizing the value of life beyond ourselves. Other than humans (and perhaps our pets) all other life is referred to as ‘it’, implying the lifelessness of the rest of the world and our separateness from it. Researching and learning deeply about what interests us most is one aspect of pursuing relationship with the living place as it brings us into understanding about what a place is and how it functions. Furthermore, transcending our minds, allowing our hearts to take the lead, and letting our senses loose to perceive beauty in the world around us puts us back on the path to reconnection. You don’t have to be in an alpine wildflower meadow to do this. A Yerba Mansa plant in the backyard garden fills the air with its pleasing pungent aroma, steeping my lungs in the plant’s vitality and drawing me in for a closer look. Entranced by the radiant glow of the gleaming white flowers, an otherworldly palette of colors reveals itself containing within it all hues of the universe. In this moment, I am Yerba Mansa and the rest of the world dissolves. Perceiving beauty and wonder in the world brings us out of ourselves and allows us to rejoin The Source of Life, becoming less of an individual and more part of an interconnected system of life. It sets us free to imagine how a tree experiences its surroundings or to contemplate what it feels like for the river to move freely toward its delta. Iris Murdoch and others have referred to this as a process of “unselfing”, or transcending your individuality or even your own species to become part of the entire community of life. Murdoch described a moment of seeing a kestrel in flight. Immersed in its pure beauty, she forgets about what worries her, nothing exists except the kestrel, and when it flies away she has gained a new perspective. The experience of unselfing allows us to embrace an herbal practice based on interconnection not only with plants, but also with entire ecosystems or places. When we are in tune with and engaged in sustained mindful observation and deliberate interaction with our surroundings, we begin to acknowledge that we are a natural part of ecosystem functions (for better or for worse) and we can discern when those systems are out of balance. This allows us to share in the wisdom of the land as we deepen our relationship with the wilds and develop new understanding about how plants work as medicines. This gift also bestows upon us the responsibility to act in ways that nurture the health of plants and the living systems that support them through respectful interactions and working toward more sustainable environmental policies. Ultimately the process of unselfing invites us into ascension beyond ourselves, where our relationships are formed and our insights are gained through profound connections to the network of life.
The concept of interbeing is similar to unselfing in that it moves us beyond ourselves as individuals and into the collective consciousness of life. This idea is based upon the notion that there is no birth or death; that birth is simply the continuation of something that has always existed in some form and death is a transformation of that thing into something else. Thich Nhat Hanh provided many examples of this including an ocean wave. A wave is born of the collective ocean water, rises, crests, crashes, and returns to the ocean waters only to be reborn again and again. He furthers this notion by saying that the wave is interbeing with the ocean, clouds, rain, earth’s atmosphere, the moon, and beyond. Since we are also made of water, this example includes us, too. Likewise, when we pick an edible fruit or wildflower and eat it, we are interbeing with that plant, the soil, pollinating critters, oxygen, rain, clouds, sunshine, and the entire cosmos of everything that is interconnected and played a part in the flower’s existence. As herbalists, we can easily see our own interconnection with plants but if we take that further and extend it to all living systems, our interbeing is infinite and possibilities are limitless. We not only see ourselves as part of nature but we can see the interconnectedness of everything including our own actions. This understanding allows us to look into a sunflower, see the seed, and realize that we are looking into eternity as that seed holds the essence of innumerable generations of sunflowers born from the sun’s energy that originated from some other cosmic source and so on. When we apply this kind of thinking to our herbal practice we can easily slip out of ourselves and into the ecosystems and lands around us and see infinite possibilities for wisdom, harmony, and fulfillment in our wild nature and the limitlessness of life. We can share our being with that of the plants we love, the river that nourishes life, or the land that sustains us all. As Thich Nhat Hahn reminded us, we can become solid like the mountain or fresh like an opening blossom. We can embody the qualities of the river, unyielding, relentlessly moving toward its goal, employing patient softness to wear down even the hardest of obstacles. Through interbeing we return to The Source of Life for a clearer understanding of plants, places, ecosystems, and ourselves.
Through this practice of unselfing or interbeing we can transcend ourselves by reconnecting with the universal feral nature within us, thereby recognizing our inseparableness from the rest of the wild world. This reconnecting fosters deep relationships with plants, animals, rivers, mountains, canyons, forests, and wildflower meadows while allowing us to see ourselves as part of those ecosystems. As David George Haskell and others have suggested, leaving behind the notion that we are somehow separate from life systems, the disrupters or tarnishers of wildness, we can begin to see our actions including the damming of flowing steams and the logging of forests as acts derived from wildness. If we accept that the massive eruptions of prehistoric volcanoes and their accompanying large-scale remaking of the landscape including extinctions as natural events, then so too is the paving of cities around the world invented and undertaken by primate minds and hands. The difference is that we can actively decide to make changes in the way we live our lives. With this understanding we are open to value the heavily altered riparian corridor as much as the remote National Park lands and we can begin the difficult job of evaluating and reconsidering our role in these places. As Thich Nhat Hanh succinctly stated, “Only when we’ve fallen back in love with the earth will our actions spring from reverence and the insight of our interconnectedness.” Through this paradigm of recognizing our full integration with wildness and our natural place within ecosystem functions we can not only deepen our relationship with place and medicinal plants but we can also make more insightful decisions about how to mitigate or solve the environmental problems our modern way of living has created.
All meaningful relationships must be reciprocal, involving a mutually sustaining exchange of give and take. How long can a relationship endure that is largely one-sided? That is modern humanity’s great question. In order to reconnect with place, we must rediscover the reciprocal flow between life, land, and ourselves. We can begin by learning as much as possible, falling in love with life (not limited to our own lives), and realizing that we can turn the subsequent gifts of that process into actions that revitalize land, plants, water, animals, and therefore ourselves. Moving beyond the idea that we are distinct from or elevated above the rest of life and re-entering the ancient reality in which plants existed and began acquiring wisdom long before humans, allows us to learn and grow in harmony with the place where we live. It affords the opportunity to create a mutually beneficial relationship with place and all life, which facilitates us becoming native to our locale regardless of where we grew up or where our ancestors originated. Unselfing and interbeing ultimately allows humanity to transform its role in the world to become a healing force for the land rather than subjugating it as a commodity. From this perspective we can see clearly that environmental degradation contributes to our own suffering and that caring for plants and place is nurturing ourselves. Rediscovering and exploring our connection to place through immersion in knowledge and steeping in pure present moment beauty may be what saves us all.
This essay was originally published as: Saville, Dara. (2017-2018). Unselfing, Interbeing, and Rediscovering Our Connection to Life and Land. Plant Healer Quarterly, 8(2), 22-29.
Haskell, David George. (2017). The Songs of Trees. New York: Viking.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. (2001). A Pebble for Your Pocket. California: Plum Blossom Books.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. (2002). Under the Rose Apple Tree. California: Parallax Press.