banner (17K)

Ethnomedicine - the philosophy of healing

© Kat Morgenstern, September 2003

astrological represntation of the planets and signs correspondences in the human bodyThe world changes through the way look at it - or put another way, the colour of our glasses tints our view of ‘reality’. In days gone by philosophers contemplated the structure of what we call 'reality' in great detail. To develop mental models of the world, which can be projected onto reality and which in turn shape the interpretation of that reality as experienced by an individual or a society, seems to be a fundamental part of human nature.

Ever since Descartes declared the physical world to be mechanically functioning parts of essentially dead machinery, our world has changed accordingly. Life is no longer sacred. Even the human body is commonly regarded as a machine with parts that are supposed to fulfil a particular function. If they don't, they are obviously ‘malfunctioning’ and must be ‘fixed’, either with the aid of medicines, which are supposed to kick-start the ailing part into resuming its normal function, or else, the part is obsolete and can simply be removed or exchanged. Soon we will be able to grow our own spare parts from our very own cells and no longer will have to rely on spare metal parts, donor organs or pig parts.

Similarly, the rest of nature is interpreted according to the same reductionist principles. Plants are considered as the pretty carriers of the sum total of their biochemical constituents. Many are thought to be ‘useless’ as they are chemically ‘inactive’ while others exhibit promising activity, which chemists attempt to isolate and reproduced in pill form so it can be marketed as a remedy for various bodily dysfunctions. Welcome to the material world.

It is often assumed that this western model of reality is the only valid and scientifically proven model and it is therefore mistakenly considered ‘absolute truth’, as opposed to the quaint and folksy models adhered to by other cultures. The western scientific system is conveniently rational and ‘enlightened’ (i.e. uncluttered by magico-religious mumbo-jumbo) and can easily be grasped by the logos, the left-brained, analytical thinking processes. We love simplistic models. According to the materialistic model anything that cannot be measured, simply cannot exist, thus, we don't have to worry about it.

All very well, except that there are certain aspects of reality that refuse to conform, they resist the western methodology and yet, they work. For example, why does visualization work? It has been shown that visualization can have a measurable effect on the involuntary nervous system, yet traditional medical doctrine teaches that the involuntary nervous system acts independently and is not under any kind of conscious control - yogis, spiritualists and shamans have proven science wrong time and again.

Traditional Chinese medicine, a very ancient and complex medical practice, treats organs, which according to the western model of anatomy cannot even be found in the physical human body. It refers to elements, energies and ‘meridians’, invisible energy lines that run through the body, but which cannot be paralleled to any of the bodily systems recognized by western medicine, neither blood, nerves nor lymphatic system. Yet, if manipulated by needles at certain specific points, measurable effects can be observed. Chinese doctors even perform heart surgery and other operations while the patient is fully conscious. The patient may even talk to the doctor who performs the op - with no other anaesthetics than a few needles applied to specific points.

Many traditional models of medicine don't view disease as mere ‘dysfunction’, but rather as an imbalance, a physical symptom of a psycho-spiritual cause, i.e. the falling out of equilibrium or alignment with the cosmic order. Health is the concept of wholeness, an alignment between inner and outer realities. If we loose our bearing, our purpose or place in life, we fall ill. Illness is taken as an opportunity to re-align ourselves with the cosmic order. Such concepts of course seem completely alien and abstract to modern western thinking, in which even the soul is regarded as an aspect of brain biochemistry, that can be treated according to the same principles as an upset stomach. Psycho-spiritual realities are simply denied their existence.

Ayurveda, the ancient Indian philosophy of healing is not just concerned with physical well-being. It is a philosophy of life, which teaches balance and moderation. Mind, body and soul are acknowledged as separate aspects of the totality of a human being, and each part can bear on the others. Imbalances manifest as diseases, which can be emotional, spiritual or physical in nature and must be treated accordingly. An imbalanced mind can be healed with meditation practices, breathing exercises or yoga, while an imbalanced body can be healed through proper diet and herbs.

Prearing Ayahuasca

Photograph courtesy of Dennis McKenna

Shamans often see diseases as demons, which they can identify and banish while in trance. A ritual is performed which places the patient in the centre of the shamanic universe, while the shaman goes on a spiritual journey to search for the demons and their causes as well as the healing plants needed for a cure. The shaman goes and finds the medicinal plants, however he does not believe that it is a particular chemical constituent that affects the cure, but rather, the spirit of the plant, which must be ritually invoked while he picks the plants. Improperly collected medicines are as good as useless. Furthermore, frequently it is not the patient, but the shaman or the family of the patient who are required to take the medicine that will cure the patient.

All of these different methods can work as good and in some instances better than the western model of medicine. But that is not even the point. The point is, why, if the western scientific model assumes the sole claim to ‘absolute truth’, do these completely irrational models work at all? Why do placebos work, or homeopathic remedies, which arguably may contain little more than a single physical molecule of any active substance in each of those little sugar pills?

The point is, that we must expand our limited mental horizons and accept the fact that not all that is 'real' can be measured and scientifically explained - at any rate, not with our rather crude instruments and current limited levels of understanding. And since our western model does not seem to explain the whole picture, we might as well open our minds to other models of reality. There are many different ways of looking at the world and one does not negate the other. The following little story from India illustrates the point:

Once upon a time a great guru and his elephant came to a little town, and as is the custom when a teacher comes to town, the people came to gather around him to hear his teachings. ‘Bring me all your blind people’ he requested, and the blind folks came forward. He lined them up around the elephant and said: ‘I want each of you to describe to me the thing that is in front of you.’

The first man, who held the elephants trunk felt it and said, ‘it's like a mighty python, muscular and a little hairy, but it seems to be hollow and it wriggles.’ ‘B*******’, the next man said, who held one of the tusks, ‘it is smooth and curved and quite stiff, and not very long.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ the next person said, who held the ear, ‘it is flat and thin like a pancake, and it flaps!’ ‘No way’, the next person said who held the leg, ‘it is more like a tree, round and sturdy and it has a tough bark!’ ‘I don't think so’ another man said, who held the tail, ‘it is thin as a string!’ And so they argued, each convinced that their own perceptions were true and the others must all be wrong. ‘Such is the nature of reality’, the wise man said, ‘we all perceive just a tiny part and mistake it for the whole, and worse still, we fight over it, each believing that only we have the ‘real’ truth. But the real truth is that there are as many perceived truths as there are people looking at the reality in front of them, and each is as right as the other, - from their perspective, and no individual perception is or can be all encompassing.

In the coming newsletters we will examine a range of different healing systems and the cosmological models upon which they are based.

Warning: include( failed to open stream: HTTP request failed! HTTP/1.1 404 Not Found in /home/sacred85/public_html/ethnobotany/medicines/ethnomedicine.php on line 65

Warning: include(): Failed opening '' for inclusion (include_path='.:/usr/lib/php:/usr/local/lib/php') in /home/sacred85/public_html/ethnobotany/medicines/ethnomedicine.php on line 65


Please note that all materials presented here are copyrighted. You may download it for your personal use or forward it to your friends or anybody you think might be interested, but please send it in its entirety and quote the source. Any other reuse or publication of our content is only permitted with expressed permission of the author.
Please send comments or inquiries to Sacred Earth.

Subscribe to SacredEarth_NewsLetter
Powered by

This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.


Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.