Energetics of Plants and People

February 4, 2008

  I’ve been mulling this over for a while, the concept of energetics. That is, one can ascribe certain characteristics to plants and people. Notions such as hot, cold, wet, windy, catabolic, excess, etc are at the heart of this system. And I am definitely an adherent of this method of understanding patients and treatments. It makes fundamental sense to me that a condition or person is hot, and in choosing a cooling remedy to treat it. But what becomes apparent is that the system is in the eye of practitioner, as these ideas often don’t make sense to patients or to practitioners of a different system.  So what is fundamental to one’s belief in their system leaves other people scratching in bemusement or practitioners arguing whether bitters are cooling or heating.
These concepts and values are core to many traditions (TCM, Five-Element, Ayurveda, Culpepper/European, American Eclectic and others) and it seems apparent that each offers something useful to its practitioners. But often embedded in these modalities, is a firm ‘this is how it is’ attitude, which I personally don’t jibe with. I feel that plant energetics are much more elastic.  At the root of these categorizations stand some formidable questions. What exactly does ‘hot’ mean? Are we talking about a measurable temperature?  Clearly not, as many people who would be considered hot or have a condition considered hot, have normal a temperature range. And individual plants are not really hot or not. What is being discussed is an observational phenomenon. That is, they (or their symptoms/condition) seem hot.  It makes intuitive sense to someone schooled in energetics, but the problems this terminology engenders becomes apparent when discussing them with folks outside the ‘energetic circle’. When it comes to the extremes, most people find it easy to agree, such as with hot being associated with cayenne and horseradish, and perhaps cucumbers cold, but there is much debate and conjecture within the huge muddled middle.

As far as plant energetics (and energetics in general) I think a good place to begin is in accepting that what we are discussing are human constructs with no clear scientific delineations. Not that we need scientific rationales for all diagnosis and treatment, only to consider that each modality (and person within that modality) may have a slightly different view of the energetics whether it’s about the plant, symptom, or patient.

At this point, I may have raised considerable angst and ire amongst folks who disagree and feel that there is some underlying truth and broad-based validity to the energetics of whichever system they practice. And there are good reasons for this. Most of these systems are well-developed and have withstood the test of time (perhaps even thousands of years). And practitioners of these modalities will have seen positive health results, which is probably the most important proof of efficaciousness.

This may be, but many different treatment protocols help people recover from pathologies and become healthier individuals. These range from surgeries to tea.  So where does this leave us? What seems apparent to me is for practitioners to gain an in-depth understanding of one or more systems as these provide valuable navigational tools in health care. And rather than deliberating which system contains more truth (always a nebulous concept), working and refining the tools and knowledge gained from whichever system has drawn them. And listening to each other to expand our repertoire, though not necessarily learning these different approaches.
At this point in my herbal career I tend to categorize energetic distinctions based on a combination of what I’ve gleaned from systems I’ve studied and on an organoleptic basis. That is using my senses to approach energetics; observation, listening, taste, touch and perhaps the occasional intuitive leap.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this method. Disadvantages are obvious in that it is a very subjective approach. After all, who am I to disagree with 5000 years of written traditional Chinese medicine? Or to numerous other systems practiced worldwide? I guess I am the same critically-minded person that questions his own field of medicine, Western clinic herbalism, and the plants used there within.

The advantage (and this is once again widely individual) is that it makes sense to me. Instead of relying on rote learning, using what I have gained from a system and adding that which makes intellectual and intuitive sense. This way when a patient asks why I think they have a hot condition, I have a reasonably ready answer, because this is how I perceive the symptom, and can explain my ‘logic’.

In summary, I reckon there is no perfect system and so we as practitioners need to follow those modalities which draw and intrigue us and eventually use them as starting points to develop our own coherent system of diagnosis and treatment. It may be easier to follow the doctrinaire ways of medicine, but that wouldn’t be very holistic would it?