Podcast 031: Resilience Not Dogma

Katja shares a hard-fought lesson: that health is not equivalent to merit, and that as herbalists it’s important for us to stay away from idea that there is A Right Way and We Know It. Instead our role should be to offer a wide variety of tools to try that can help build greater resilience, and provide guidance on those the client is most interested in. Herbs help out in a variety of ways to compensate for the impacts of a suboptimal situation.

Mentioned in this podcast:

  • The Twenty-Four Hour Mind, Rosalind D. Cartwright – An elucidation of the mood-regulating functions of dreaming and the importance of dreams in our emotional lives.
  • Behave, Robert Sapolsky – A cross-discipline deep dive into the current best scientific understanding of the complex web of interactions we call human behavior.
  • Four Keys To Holistic Herbalism – our free mini-course outlining the fundamental determinants of health and the basic philosophy behind our approach to herbalism.


Our book Herbal Medicine for Beginners is available now on Amazon!
Herbal Medicine for Beginners by Katja Swift & Ryn Midura

Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.


Episode Transcript

Ryn (00:00):
Hey folks, Ryn here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism on the internet everywhere thanks to the power of the podcast. We’re airing one more replay this week. This one comes from June, 2018, and it’s all about how we can avoid getting dogmatic with ourselves, our friends and our clients, as herbalists. It’s easy to let that happen, it turns out. But it’s not very helpful to get stuck in a mode of thought that believes there’s one right way to get healthy. There isn’t. There are many possibly right ways worth a try. And this idea is really important to us and our way of practicing herbalism. So we wanted to bubble it up to the surface again today. In the intro to this episode here, you’ll hear Katja refer to Herbstalk. Herbstalk is our local herbalism conference here in Boston. And when we recorded this episode, it had just happened for that year. It was a big in-person live event with hundreds of attendees and dozens of presenters. This year Herbstalk will not be those things, but it’s still happening. On this Saturday, August 29th, 2020, you can tune in from anywhere for virtual Herbstalk. Free online classes will be presented on Facebook and Instagram and a virtual herbal marketplace will be open with some great discounts from local small scale herbal product makers. It’s awesome. So you can get all the details and access information at Herbstalk.org. Okay. On with the show.

Katja (01:43):
Hi, I’m Katja, here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts. And tonight Ryn is not feeling fantastic, so I am quietly recording the podcast without him. He was like, I’m just going to lay down for a minute. When you’re ready, let me know, but I didn’t let him know. Instead I’m letting him sleep. So it’s just me tonight. I have to say the part where we’re not doctors, we are herbalists and holistic health educators. And ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalist in the United States, so these discussions are for educational purposes only. Everybody’s body is different. So the things we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but hopefully they’ll give you some information to think about and to research more. And of course your own good health is your own personal responsibility. That is your right as well. And the final decision in considering any course of therapy, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by your physician, is always yours.

Katja (02:51):
Alright, so today is Friday, June 8th. And I got to say, you guys, we are really tired. Happy, but tired. This past weekend was Herbstalk, and it was really, really great. It is so wonderful to see all of the herbalists in our city come together. And, you know, we’re all doing our things all year long, and sometimes you don’t always cross paths with everyone. And it can be easy to forget how vibrant and large the herbal community is in our city. And so it’s wonderful to just see everybody over the course of a weekend. Let’s see, we sold books while we were there. And if you picked one up while we were teaching and we didn’t get a chance to sign it for you, or if you ordered one of our books on Amazon, then hit us up for a fancy inscribed bookplate. Just send us email to info@commonwealthherbs.com and let us know where to send it. And we will send it out to you and it will be so fun. Let’s see, also this week I wrote a new article for Aroma Culture magazine about herbs for inflammation in neurological disorders. That won’t come out until November, but I think it’s worth the wait. It’s a pretty good one. And, let’s see. Oh right, I was going to tell you guys about what we’ve been reading lately. Ryn just finished a book called The 24 Hour Mind. And he was referencing that book in his Herbs for Dreaming class that he taught at Herbstalk, and really liked it. And I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but he told me a lot about it and I was really into it as well. So I’m pretty excited to read that. If you are interested in sleep, and how the brain works, and how the body works, and how dreaming plays an impact in all of this, then that might be a really fun book for you.

Katja (04:55):
I am currently reading a book called Behave by Robert Sapolsky. And that book is about how we understand the way that the nervous system functions. And it is fascinating. And I’m really, really excited. We teach about the nervous system starting in August for our apprentices. And so I really want to get this very large book finished before we teach that again, because I want it to permeate the way that I think about the nervous system. And today all day we taught our advanced students. And we we’re talking today about seeing clients. And it was a really great conversation, kind of more about the subjective side of clinical skills. Kind of the, Oh, the like channeling your inner grandma, you know. Like having that ability to really see people in compassion and also see yourself that way and be able to see the whole picture for what’s going on for people.

Herbalists Build Resilience, Not Deliver Dogma

Katja (06:18):
One of the things that we were talking about was how important it is to remember that the whole point of our work as herbalists is to help our clients build resilience and not to deliver dogma. You know, there’s not like a right answer. And it isn’t up to us to say, here is the right answer and you must do it if you want to be healthy. But I think it’s really important to just take some time to think about that really on a regular basis, because it is so easy to get to thinking that you have the right answers. And I mean about anything, like how to make the best brownies or which way to put the toilet paper on the roll. And when we get to thinking about health, it’s really, really easy to let that human tendency just go way too far.

Katja (07:11):
And I am definitely speaking from personal experience here, because I have done that. I’ve gotten really hooked on something and like it must be this way. This is the right way. But health isn’t about merit. And I want to put a little asterisk next to that because I’m going to come back to that again, that idea. But the first thing I want to say about that is that it’s not like you were very, very good and you didn’t eat any gluten this week and as a reward you’re healthy. And I definitely think that avoiding gluten is an important part of being resilient and being healthy for a lot of people. And I’m absolutely one of those people. But there are lots of ways to build resilience. And if you splurge and have a piece of wedding cake, you’re not going to like go to gluten purgatory, although your guts might feel that way tomorrow, or they might not, or they might, and you might decide that it is completely worth it. All of those things could happen. The other thought that I wanted to include about health isn’t about merit is that I want to point out that the privilege of good health is literally about privilege. The life expectancy for people who are living with poverty is drastically lower than for people who are affluent. And it’s so easy to get ideas about health and ideas about merit really tangled up in our society. Sort of, we can get to thinking that like, Oh, well, my sickness is a punishment because I wasn’t good enough. Or, Oh, if you’re sick, there must be something wrong with you. Or even like, Oh, you know, I had a really cruddy respiratory thing the last couple of weeks. And you can just feel it like people thinking, Oh, well you’re an herbalist. I thought you weren’t supposed to get sick.

Katja (09:08):
No, that’s not how it works. Like, what am I trying to say? First off you should get sick sometimes, because it’s healthy. It’s good for your immune system to practice. But the reality that merit is not what makes us healthy, but privilege plays an enormous role in health. It’s really important for us to keep in mind, because first off good health is also a social justice issue issue. But also when we tangle those ideas up, then we really get bound up in the idea that there’s a right way to be healthy, and worse that we might know what it is. And there’s not one right way. I have literally told clients to eat cake and that was the right answer for them in that moment. And that might not be the right answer for somebody else in some moment. And I even just did it again. I was like, that was the right answer. It’s so hard to get these ideas separated in our minds. But really there’s tools, right? There’s a lot of tools. So if one tool doesn’t fit for you to help your body be strong and healthy, then just use another. And the goal of using the tools is not so that you’ll be very good or so that you’ll get a good grade on your test. It’s to use the tools, to build a body that is strong enough to handle the stress that comes your way and to be resilient. The goal is not I will never encounter stress. And the goal is not I will never get sick. The goal is to have the tools so that when you do get sick, you know what to do, and it’s not a big panic, and to have the strength to be able to get sick less often.

The Resilience Compass: Food, Sleep, Stress Management, Movement

Katja (11:12):
So, if that’s our goal, then how can we help people and how can we help ourselves to build resilience. And Ryn and I organize our thoughts on this around a compass because we like compasses. And also because it makes it easier to remember, and because, conveniently, we can break our ideas about building resilience down into four categories. So that’s very handy. And so on the points of the compass, we have food, sleep, stress management, and movement. And we might have talked about this before on the pod. And if not, we definitely talk about this in our free class that’s on our website, the Four Keys to Holistic Herbalism. It’s like four 20-minute video classes that just talk about kind of some of the things I’m about to talk about, but in a little bit more detail. And you can find it just on the homepage at commonwealthherbs.com. So, check that out if you’re interested. But so within those categories, food, sleep, stress management, and movement, there’s so many options, so many tools, so many ways to work. So I want to kind of explore that a little bit.

Katja (12:33):
When we think about food, obviously, if you’ve ever met me, you know if you’ve listened to me talk for like 10 minutes, that I’m a really big proponent of gluten free and dairy free being a generally good idea for humans. But if somebody says no way I’m giving up cheese. Well, that doesn’t mean that I can’t help them to be stronger and healthier and more resilient. That person could eat more vegetables, because actually every study that’s ever been done shows that regardless of whatever else, they’re looking at, whoever eats the most vegetables wins. And that person could take digestive enzymes that help their breakdown of dairy proteins, or could drink gut heal tea on a daily basis, which since it tastes good, that’s not even hard to do. And it not only helps your digestive tract to stay really healthy, but it helps with lots of other great things too, so that’s not even a bad idea. But it’s like, it’s not like a person who just can’t live without cheese, well, forget it. You’re never going to be healthy again. No, like of course there’s other ways we can do that work.

Katja (13:40):
We can think about sleep and all the detox and repair work that your body has to do while you’re sleeping. And that really requires about nine hours of sleep at night for human adults. That’s not really like a variable time. There’s a very small amount of variation, like eight to nine, but mostly it’s about nine hours of sleep for human adults. But that doesn’t mean that a person who doesn’t have the time for that can’t be healthy and resilient. They can make sure that the quality of the sleep that they do get is high with herbs like ashwagandha or mugwort, which promotes sleeping soundly through the night. They can work with herbs that help other parts of their body that would normally rejuvenate during sleep like the liver. And milk thistle is a favorite there. They could work with gentle restorative adaptogens to help the endocrine system compensate for the lack of sleep. There’s so many ways that we can provide a person, who maybe doesn’t have the ability to get that much sleep, with other benefits would help in that area.

Katja (14:54):
I would, when we think about stress, I would love for everyone who has an awful miserable, stressful job to be able to change it. But that’s not an option that’s always available. It’s not like you can just be like, Oh, I quit this job and I’m going to go get one that’s totally stress free. That would be great. But that doesn’t mean that you’re stuck with the damaging effects of stress just because you’re stuck in a stressful job. There are herbs that can help manage stress better from tulsi and gynostemma in the endocrine system to chamomile and linden in the nervous system. There are herbs that can help support the cardiovascular system from the effects of stress like hawthorn and basically every berry anywhere, and herbs that can help you get to sleep after a stressful day, when that stress is impacting your ability to sleep, like skullcap and passionflower. So again, it’s not like, Oh, well, in order to be healthy, in order to get your good grade in health, you have to not have any stress. No, there’s a lot of ways we can work with it.

Katja (16:04):
And we can think about movement and, again, like the gillion billion studies that show that being physically active every day improves cardiovascular health and lymphatic health and digestive health and even emotional health. But there are so many ways to be physically active every day. No one form of movement is ideal for every body. It’s not like everyone should be out there running, you know. That’s not right for every body. Some people will do much better if they dance. And some people will do better with lifting heavy things. And some people, you know, like there’s just so many different things for all different types of bodies. And even for people for whom movement at all is really difficult, there are plants that can help here, like ginger and cayenne that are stimulating, motivating agents that can encourage movement in the circulatory system. And when you get your blood pumping, then you feel more inclined to get your everything else moving. There are all of the lymphatic stimulant herbs like this week’s herb of the week, which was red clover, that can help the lymphatic system to move more freely. So that as you’re working up to more physical movement, you are also sort of optimizing the function of the lymphatic system. And we could work with eleuthero and spikenard, which are some of the more stimulating adaptogens to give energy, to start being more active. And even we can think about plants like solomon’s seal that helps protect joints from damage. So there’s just, there’s so many ways here. It’s not like there’s one way to do the thing that will help you get healthy.

Compass Points can Compensate for Each Other

Katja (17:53):
But what I really love when we look at this compass sort of organization, is to recognize that each of each of these four categories can actually help each other as well. So if you know that you’re really stressed and not eating well, getting some extra sleep and making sure that you have a walk in your day can actually help you compensate for the stress, and give your body more detox time to deal with the junk food that you were having. And that’s a legitimate compensation. Not every point of the compass has to be perfect, or it has to be good. They can compensate for each other. Another example is let’s say someone who doesn’t have the time to get enough sleep. They can make sure that they are eating extra vegetables and good quality fats and proteins, and that they avoid sugar as often as possible during that time that they’re not getting enough sleep. And that’s going to make sure that their body is well nourished and has the tools that it needs to do the work that it has to do on less sleep. But also by avoiding sugar during that time, then that means that you don’t have the extra processing work in the liver from the sugar consumption, and you would have to do that work at night during sleep. And in fact, there’s a lot of other inflammatory processes that you’re avoiding by avoiding sugar consumption. So it’s not like sugar is evil, well kind of it is. But it’s not like you should never ever have sugar or you’re like a bad person because you eat some. It’s that in this particular case, we’re using the avoidance of sugar to help compensate for a situation where there isn’t enough sleep. So the bottom line is that you don’t have to live life perfectly to be healthy. Your body should be strong enough to handle the sub-optimal sometimes. And in fact, actually sub-optimal situations can be good for your body. Once in awhile, a little bit of stress will build strength for you.

Katja (20:01):
So I’m not saying that you should just go out and eat cake every day. Though, you know, sometimes it happens. But just this idea that like…and I have been there in my life as a practitioner…that, you know, Oh, wow, no wonder you’re sick. You’re eating cake every day. And on one hand, that’s true. Don’t eat cake every day. That’s not a great idea. That’s not healthy. On the other hand, Hey, you know, there’s other ways we can compensate. And if right now you’re in a place where cake is all you want, then we’ll do other things to help you be healthy. And it’s kind of a ridiculous example, but just trying to get that point across. Because it’s so easy as practitioners, really of any health system, whether that’s herbalism or yoga or even mainstream medicine, to get to thinking that there are right and wrong answers when it comes to health. And there’s just not. there’s just getting through this day with as much grace as possible, or at least with as little clumsiness as possible, or really at least just getting through the day, and then trying again tomorrow.

Your Health is a Fixer Upper Project

Katja (21:17):
One of our mentors, Paul Bergner, likes to say you’re born into this life in a fixer upper and you fix it up until you can’t anymore. And then you die. Which for me, growing up we never had new cars. My dad was always fixing the cars. And for that matter my family was a completely DIY family and we were basically always fixing something up. So this concept is really appealing and comforting to me. And I can think about different times in my life that I can apply to this analogy. Like sometimes you fix something up really fancy and sometimes you just make it functional. And that’s okay too. And we can think about that in health terms. Right? Right. Because sometimes that might mean that you’re having fish and avocado and broccoli and doing yoga and getting the perfect amount of sleep. Yay. And so you fixed it up really fancy. And sometimes you’re eating harm reduced gluten-free dairy-free cake and calling it dinner while you watch too much Netflix instead of going to bed. But that’s what happened today. And you can do yoga some other day and eat the fish and the broccoli and the avocado and whatever.

Katja (22:30):
You don’t get more points for the fish day than you do for the cake day. It’s not like you’re a more meritus person for that. You just wake up again tomorrow and you keep doing the best that you can. And obviously we strive for the fish day and we strive for making the best choices that’s going to make our day easy on our body. And that’s good to do, but that doesn’t make us good as people. And it doesn’t mean that we do the right thing. It just means that we are working hard to care for ourselves the best that we know. So there definitely have been a lot of times in my life that I haven’t felt this way. Yeah. I have definitely been more, way more dogmatic in my approaches. And I don’t know if maybe it’s just that as I get older I’m starting to understand the world and myself better, or maybe it’s because I figured out the hard way that a dogmatic approach just doesn’t work because it’s not very appealing. And when we wrap health up with these value judgments about right and wrong and good and bad, then it’s not accurate. It’s not right, whatever. But it’s not appealing. It’s not comforting. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that I gained some compassion for myself and now I’m able to let that flow out to my view of the rest of the world, probably some of all of that. But those are my thoughts today. It turns out nothing needs to be perfect. It should be good enough, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. So I wish you a really delicious whatever you’re eating and a really enjoyable whatever you’re doing. And just to think that whatever it is in this moment, it is good enough. And I wish you a big, giant sunny hug with that as well. So I think I’m going to go to bed too. It’s 8:42, and that sounds like a great bedtime, actually, a luxurious bed times. So I’m going to go do that. We will see you next week. Bye.


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