I have always felt a deep, soul-level connection with the natural world. Nature has been my teacher, my healer, and my closest friend. It is not a coincidence that for my vocation in life I chose to practice a form of medicine that is completely based upon observing the patterns and principles of nature. In Chinese Medicine, we use these patterns and principles of nature to diagnose as well as to help guide people back into a greater state of balance. As practitioners of this wise, nature-based medicine, we use the ancient technologies of acupuncture, herbalism, Qigong, lifestyle guidance, and other modalities.
With nature being the bedrock for both my personal and professional life, as well as the muse for most of the poetry and prose that I write, this month I'd like to share some of my personal contemplations on the different ways in which nature manifests as medicine for the soul. Each different facet of nature has its own energetic healing qualities; we all will connect with these facets in our own unique way. My hope is that these personal reflections will inspire you to deepen into your own personal relationship with nature, and to explore for yourself what healing medicine the natural world holds for you.
The Medicine of the Redwood Forest
I have a deep affinity for redwood forests. I grew up at the edge of a redwood grove, the same one by which I am now raising my own children. I feel I am daughter and granddaughter to the redwoods. I go into the redwood forest whenever I feel like I need strength and grounded-ness. Like many other evergreens, these ancient trees are like wise elders that can offer us their wisdom, support and protection. They are old (even ancient in the case of old growth trees), and they've seen it all before. They remain upright and strong, season after season, year after year, decade upon decade, century upon century. Even when the storms of life are raging on, they stand firmly rooted in the earth. These trees can teach us resilience, strength, and rootedness.
With the medicine of the forest we learn how to stand firmly rooted in the beauty of who we are and where we came from, while always aspiring and growing up, up, up towards the light. A beautiful practice we can do when we want to receive the medicine of the forest is to sit at the base of a tree, allowing our back to rest against its trunk, and tapping into that strong sense of support. As we sit like this we can envision roots sprouting from our tailbones and reaching down into the earth, rooting and grounding us, entwining with the roots of the tree that we are leaning against. We can feel our spines come into alignment with the trunk of the tree, as we invite into our being that sense of strength, support, and resilience.
The Medicine of the Mountains
Standing at the top of a mountain is the closest we can get to the sky and the celestial bodies without actually flying up into the air! The mountains are where we can come closest to the sun, and it is where we can see the night sky and stars most clearly. When we feel we need to connect with the greater universe and with something much larger than ourselves, we can stand at the top of a mountain and turn our gaze upwards and outwards. Many spiritual monasteries and temples are located at the top of a mountain; there is a very archetypal image of ascending to a mountaintop in order to attain enlightenment.
A mountain top is the place where can get a broader perspective; it is a helpful place to be when we feel we need to see the big picture in our lives, the panoramic view. When we feel confused and unclear about which direction to take in life, we can climb to the top of a mountain. There is an acupuncture point named "Wilderness Mound" that invokes this image of climbing up to a panoramic mountaintop; I sometimes use this as a spirit-level point when I sense the client needing that expanded perspective, so that they may see more clearly where they have come from and where they are going in this path of life. A mountaintop offers the medicine of inspiration, clarity and insight. It is a place we can connect with that which is greater than ourselves, as well as a place to receive perspective and “downloads” from the heavens above.
The Medicine of the River
The medicine of the river is the medicine of trust and surrender. All rivers ultimately lead to the sea, though the journey that the water takes to return to the ocean will be a twisting, meandering and oftentimes tumultuous one. The truth is, we don't know what's around the next bend in our life: it could be a serene swimming hole, it could be a 1,000 foot waterfall. What we can learn from the river is that we are all being carried in this dynamic flow of life~ what in ancient Chinese philosophy is known as the Tao. This isn't to say that we don't have free will or personal power in the world, only to acknowledge that in life there is so much over which we simply do not have control. Surrender is a pillar for spiritual sanity, and the medicine of the river is in teaching us how to surrender with grace and trust.
The river of life is going to have rapids, waterfalls, stretches of stillness, stretches of turbulence. The ease with which we pass through it all depends upon our ability to surrender to the flow. At times we will be floating effortlessly on our backs, gazing serenely up at the infinite expanse of stars, and at other times we will be swimming like hell to avoid hitting that boulder! As we engage in this constant ebb and flow, this balancing act between surrender and control, we are all the while being carried on this river of life, carried out to the open arms of the great mother ocean, the salty source from which all life on this planet emerged, so many ages ago. Sitting and meditating on the banks of a river, we can receive this soul medicine of surrender and trust, and returning to oneness.
The Medicine of the Sea
Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.
--Tao Te Ching
Water, understood in Chinese Medicine to be yin in nature, is the ultimate symbol for acceptance and receptivity. There is a beautiful chant, sung in many spiritual circles: “the ocean refuses no river.” The ocean holds the medicine teaching of how to be accepting and receptive, while at the same time being immensely powerful. I personally often go to the ocean when my heart feels heavy. I find the crashing sound of the waves to be profoundly soothing. Many a parent knows how effective white noise can be for calming distraught babies, as we whisper “shhhh” into their ears. When my mind is churning and tangled with the noise of my worries and thoughts, that thunderous “shhhh” of the waves is a kind of white noise that drowns out this inner noise.
A simple meditation practice is to sit on the shore with your eyes closed, and tune in solely to the sound of the crashing waves. As we enter this meditative state of listening, the sound of our own thoughts and worries drowned out by the waves, we can more easily drop into that yin state of acceptance and receptivity. We can allow our hearts and our minds to be cleansed in this way. The ocean is cleansing. Saltwater contains powerful cleansing properties, both on a physiological level (it's powerfully antimicrobial) and on a more subtle esoteric level (saltwater is often used in earth based rituals to energetically clear a space). We can go to the ocean for its medicine when we want to cleanse, to clear our hearts and minds of its troubles. We can go to the ocean when we yearn to be softened, the way a sharp stone or piece of glass is tumbled in the waves until it emerges, polished and smooth. We can go to the ocean to remember the lesson of acceptance, as we meditate on the open arms of the ocean that refuses no river.
Nature is the ultimate medicine for the soul. As humans, of course we are inextricably a part of this great web of life, but all too often we forget this foundational truth. In this age of distraction, with its escalating technology and cavernous consumerism, it has become the norm to go through life feeling completely disconnected from nature. This is an evolutionary mis-match, and as humans we are suffering at a soul-level because of it. I believe it is this sense of being disconnected from the web of life that contributes to a great deal of the angst that people experience in modern life. Carving out the space in our busy schedules to spend reflective, meditative time in nature can really be the ultimate medicine.
As we shift from spring into summer, I encourage all of us to get outside and benefit from this abundant healing gift that is all around us, and is a part of us. Let your heart be your compass in telling you you where to go. As you go into these natural places that call to you, try bringing along a notebook or journal and write down any reflections or insights you gain from your time spent there.
I am a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist with a Heart-centered practice in the Santa Cruz mountains. See my About page for more about me and the work I do.