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Acupuncture Today
March, 2004, Vol. 05, Issue 03
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Visiting Old Friends: Plant-Gathering Protocols

By David Bruce Leonard, LAc

The following article is part of the introduction to a new book, Medicine at Your Feet - Healing Plants of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Volume 1, available in September 2004. Robert Newman will return as co-author of "Outside the Box" in an upcoming issue.

If we are to create a world suitable for human habitation, we must bring the "sacred" back into our medicine and our lives. Without a genuine connection to the earth, we are just one more licensed mechanic.

I will describe here a traditional gathering ritual that was taught to me, but the details of any protocol will vary depending on the family or tradition. While I use traditional Hawaiian protocols for gathering herbs, you may use another. I believe that any protocol that is earth-sensitive and creates a profound shift in perception is good.

A specific gathering lei is sometimes worn and a medicine bundle is used to store the herbs gathered for the patient. Upon leaving the wao 'akua (the forest), the lei is sometimes left as an offering. The patient, when given the bundle, can use the gathered ingredients as his or her medicine and then the bundle itself can be replanted in the patient's yard, where it will continue to grow. This can create a sense of healing continuity through time.

Bright clothing, particularly bright yellow, is discouraged in wao 'akua, as is loud or disrespectful behavior. Traditionally medicine is gathered fresh for one person at a time, before sunrise, while going makai (toward the ocean). When gathering for a male patient, the right hand is used to gather materials from the East side of a plant; for a female patient the left hand is used to gather from the West side of a plant. Sometimes a "male" god such as Kane, Ku or Wakea is invoked for men and a "female" deity, such as Hina, Pele, Papa or Laka, is invoked for women. I almost always invoke Lono, regardless of the gender of the patient. Some Hawaiian practitioners gather with a specific knee bent for a male or female patient. Certain plants (such as solanum nigrum or cordyline terminalis) have their own specific gathering and preparation "rules." Remember that these are only a few of many possibilities and that they will vary according to the plants being gathered, situation, people involved, etc.

Sometimes a "kapu" (sacred) space will be created before starting a journey through the forest. A kapu space is a place inside of us that is unaffected by the outside world. This can be done alone or collectively in a group. It is very powerful and can radically change both the experience and outcome of medicine gathering.

Omens, both positive and negative, are always acknowledged. If a hiking companion falls and stumbles repeatedly, or if there are "unexpected" obstacles to the process of gathering medicines, those involved should stop and pray or meditate together. If the disruptions continue, the gathering should be done another time.

One gathering protocol I use follows.

1. Gratitude, meditation and prayer - turning to spirit, tuning into spirit
Gratitude is the only emotion that will never fail us, no matter what our circumstance. For those among us who are atheists or agnostics, please remember that one can turn to spirit without "praying" to a bearded-white-guy-in-the-sky with a deep voice. This gratitude or meditation can be expressed to the Earth itself, to the Unconscious, or to the "Great Spirit." What is important is not who or what we pray to, but that we pray at all. It's not the prayer, but whom we become through praying, that makes the difference. All things in Hawaiian culture begin and end in prayer. If we don't know what to do, we pray. And if we don't know why we're praying ... we pray to find out.

2. Offering a gift: an oli (a chant), a lei, etc.
Just as one would never visit a kupuna (respected elder) empty-handed, the same applies while visiting the wao 'akua. A gift of a chant, food, or a lei is an appropriate expression of appreciation. (Whatever is left as a gift, however, should be made of natural materials and should blend in reasonably well. Don't bring your childhood decoder ring or your favorite Nine Inch Nails CD as an offering).

3. Permission: May I gather?
A basic courtesy.

4. Introduction: Who am I?
Your name (or a nickname to protect you from kolohe or mischievous sprits) is given.

5. Where am I from?
This is a description of your ethnic background regarding your family history. This is a Polynesian custom, based on the importance of 'ohana (family) in interpersonal relations. Polynesian peoples "know" each other through family connections.

6. For whom am I gathering?
The patient for whom you are gathering is named.

7. Why am I gathering, to what end?
This is a statement of your intention of the desired outcome for that specific patient. "I am gathering so that Auntie Alice can breath freely and share her aloha with the world."

8. Why am I really here?
The answer to this question might go something like this: "I am here because I didn't feel like doing my income taxes this morning and needed an excuse to get out of the house," or "I am here because I want my patient to think I'm a good practitioner," or perhaps, "I am here because I really do love Auntie Alice and I want her to live a long life."

This is a question that is answered in the depth of our self-honesty and is typically shared only with God. The answer to this question is an acknowledgement of our shadow, psyche and humanness. While saying this can be embarrassing (even when said silently to ourselves), it can be an important form of self-honesty. We do this as a gift to ourselves ... to bring our unconscious forces into the light of conscious mind. And, lest we get too impressed with ourselves, it keeps us humble.

9. Giving thanks.
Again, gratitude.

So, a typical protocol may be done out loud or silently, and might go something like this:

  • Meditation, prayer or chant.
  • Recognition of ke kuahiwi (the mountain), ka 'aina (the land) and ke kai (the ocean) as the source of who we are and from which we receive blessings.
  • A gift is then given to the forest.
  • May I gather plants from this forest? I am David Bruce Leonard, a student of Hawaiian medicine under Kahu Kawika Ka'alakea, descended from the Northern European families of Leonard, Heyndrickx, and DeNutte. I am here gathering for my patient (give the patient's name here) so that she can heal the sores on her legs and stabilize her blood sugar. (The patient is visualized throughout this process as having healthy legs, mobility and vitality). I am here also because I needed to get out of the house.
  • Thank you. I vow to honor, sustain and nourish this wao 'akua as my kuleana (privilege/responsibility).

This is a simple and adaptable protocol that can be used in numerous kinds of situations. Done often enough, these steps will soon become unconscious habits. There are other detailed protocols involving very specific plant combinations and kinolau (divine physical manifestations), but they are beyond the scope of this book. Please note that the subject of traditional gathering protocols can be quite complex. If you are interested in collecting herbs, you should receive further instruction from a teacher of traditional medicine.

And remember (as my Hawaiian teachers never tire of telling me): There is no medicine in the plants. Our medicine is our relationship to God.

Click here for previous articles by David Bruce Leonard, LAc.


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