Podcast 065: How To Not Be A Guru

Things are complex, and there are many factors. But guru syndrome is bad for the teacher and for the student, both. And believe it or not, active measures are required if you want to know how to not be a guru. Because humans have these tendencies: as students, to seek a guru; as teachers, to seek that status.

When the student believes their teacher is a guru, it may be comforting, but it’s also disempowering. It makes the student feel & believe that they have to depend on the teacher. But it’s important for students to make their own experiments, and express their own experiences!

When the teacher comes to believe they’re a guru, they start to think everything they’re doing must be right, down to finer and finer detail. But it’s important to question yourself first of all, otherwise you stop learning – and to step back and see the big picture, on the regular.

So here are some ways we’ve come up with when working out how to not be a guru in our own work, that we do our best to live up to.

As teachers – and as students, because we’re that, too – this is something we think about a lot. We know a lot of teachers and students who feel the same way! We hope that this discussion spurs some spark of recognition, as we’ve been gratefully sparked by plenty of others before.


Episode Transcript

Katja (00:12):
Hi I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:21):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:21):
And we’re here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:21):
And on the internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast.

Katja (00:21):

Ryn (00:26):
We are not doctors.

Katja (00:26):
We’re herbalists and holistic health educators.

Ryn (00:28):
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the US, and so these discussions are for educational purposes only. Everyone’s body is different, so the things we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but they will give you some information to think about and to research further.

Katja (00:46):
We want to remind you that good health is your own personal responsibility. The final decision in considering any course of therapy, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by your physician, is always yours.

Ryn (00:58):
Yep, it’s true every time.

Katja (01:00):
It really is. And actually, you know, that’s a nice lead in to this week’s topic of how to not be a guru.

Ryn (01:08):

Katja (01:09):
Just, you know, keeping that right in mind that the people that we’re working with don’t have to do what we say. It’s your decision. It’s not my decision. I’ve got some advice. Might be good.

Ryn (01:23):
Yeah. That’s where we want to be.

Katja (01:23):
That’s where we want to be.

Ryn (01:24):
So we, you know, we originally recorded this episode for the HerbRally podcast. And we just wanted to have this material here too, well first because we think it’s really important.

Katja (01:35):
Actually, and secondly because we think it’s really important.

Ryn (01:37):
Yeah. And then thirdly…

Katja (01:40):
Well, this week Ryn is going to be off in Mexico doing a MovNat course.

Ryn (01:45):
Speaking of not being a guru.

Katja (01:48):
And I’m going to be here in Boston editing an enormous bucketful of new videos that we filmed for you in the past two weeks. And I’m pretty excited about it. I think almost every course is getting new videos by the time that you get back.

Ryn (02:05):
I think so.

Katja (02:06):
Yeah. I’m really excited about it.

Ryn (02:08):
Yeah, so, while that’s happening, we hope you enjoy this episode.

Katja (02:12):
It’s something that we really like to revisit regularly. And we hope that it’ll be useful for you too.

Katja (02:17):
So, at our school we love to write things on the walls. It’s a way that we like to remember things that are important, but that are also easy to forget. So, it’s important to repeat them a lot. One of my favorite things that we have written up there is “Pain is a signal to change your behavior,” which is a quote from our friend Tammi Sweet, who is a great herbalist in Ithaca, New York.

Ryn (02:43):
Yeah. That’s a good one. By the way, this is like contact paper that’s on the walls.

Katja (02:50):
Yeah. We turned all of our walls into whiteboard. We’re not really writing right on the walls.

Ryn (02:55):
Yeah, just for the record.

Katja (02:56):
No crayons.

Ryn (02:59):
No. Yeah, that could be cool. Yeah. But one of the things that we wrote on the walls and that we frequently remind our students, especially when they’re just getting started with us, is this idea that EVERYONE is trying to convince you that their way is right. And that’s true in advertising. That’s true in politics. It’s true in fandom. It’s true in all different kinds of tribalism. And the thing is that it’s also true in herbalism. And it’s something that we need to be aware of and we need to be thoughtful. And finding the places where we’re trying to convince other people that our way is right. And that means that those other people are wrong. And that’s something that can get you into a little bit of trouble.

Katja (03:48):
Yeah. It’s really important to say that the stuff that we know is our experience, and it’s what’s worked for us. And it might be right for you or it might be the starting point for you to find what’s right for you. And so, in that vein we also write all over the walls and we say all the time that you should never believe anything we say. You have to feel it in your own body to know that it’s real for you and that it’s right for you. And that doesn’t mean that we’re lying or we’re not giving good information. It’s just a reminder that we like to give all the time for our students to make sure that they understand that we understand, and we want them to understand, we want everybody to be really clear, that the knowledge that we have and the information that we have is through the lens of our own experience. And it might not fit with every body and with every experience. So it’s a starting point. It’s a place to build from.

Ryn (04:52):
Yeah. And we try to be upfront and we try to be explicit about it, because we know that it’s very easy to slip back into trying to convince people that our way is right. You know, it’s something that you can push back on it, you can try to change the way you speak and the way you present things in order to counterbalance that, but it’s something that continually reasserts itself. So you have to kind of be on guard and you know…

Katja (05:18):
it’s like humans just have this tendency towards dogma and you have to fight it.

Ryn (05:24):
Yeah. And you know, the need to emphasize this is something that seems to have become increasingly acute or maybe it’s just that people are waking up and realizing that this is an issue and that there are some consequences to this. So we wanted to share some thoughts around one major contributing factor to that, or one way that that plays out, that we call “How To Not Be a Guru.” So, part of what got us thinking about this was that in just the last year, we’ve seen like at least a half dozen different instances of herbalists in the United States herbal community being called out in public, usually on facebook or social media.

Katja (06:12):
Which is not ideal, but that’s it’s own separate podcast.

Ryn (06:16):
There’s issues with that sort of venue, but being called out for bad behavior, ranging from things that was clearly just a matter of ineptitude or poor social skills. But over to other things that were, as far as we can tell from facebook, were abusive or were even potentially criminal in nature. And so this is something that I’ve seen a lot of people calling out and saying, alright, herbal community. To the extent that we exist and we have one, we need to start taking this kind of thing seriously. So, one of our other favorite phrases that we wrote on the walls was “Things are complex and there are always many factors” and that’s certainly true here. But,

Katja (06:59):
And I would even say, just to cut you off, I’m sorry, but I would even say that one of the complex factors is that nobody is out in the world trying to, no herbalist is out there trying to hurt people. And no herbalist is out there trying to like, well I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to make life miserable for the people. Like, no. Sometimes things happen just because of a series of complex factors and it doesn’t make it okay. But I don’t want it to sound like we think anybody’s malicious. That’s not it either. It’s just something that we need to think about. About how are we putting ourselves out there and are we doing that with integrity.

The Problem with Guru-dom

Ryn (07:44):
Right. Yeah. And so there’s always a lot of things that are going to contribute, but we would argue that one of the primary contributors to this kind of situation is the guru image. And so, just to do a little definition here, right? So, what is a guru? Well, the dictionary definition or the kind of standard definition, the way people mostly use this term in common speech nowadays, is to mean just an influential teacher or a popular expert. Like you might say Mark Sisson is a Paleo guru. And people don’t assume that means that he’s got a retreat center and people with uniforms and all of that kind of thing necessarily. We mean it in a kind of a lower key situation. But there’s another way that we can use that term in the way that we’re thinking of it today. And so, for our purposes, a definition would be more like a guru is someone who has, or at least claims to have, unique knowledge or skill and who acts as a gatekeeper for access to it. Somebody who makes decisions about who is allowed to learn and who’s not allowed to learn that skill or that information by defining what hoops they have to jump through to prove themselves deserving of being taught. So, you know, there’s a lot of layers to that. There’s a lot of like criteria that are wound up in that. But this is probably going to sound kind of familiar to you. You may have encountered people like this in your own life. Or certainly there’s plenty of examples of people operating in this way. Of course more extreme expressions are where it’s an actual cult situation. And I would just point out from my own life experience that that is not actually an uncommon thing, and it doesn’t always look the way that you think it does. And one thing that a lot of cults seem to be into these days is loudly proclaiming that they are not a cult, and that they don’t have a guru and that kind of thing, when it turns out, in fact that they’re just recapitulating all of those same structures and trying to label it something else.

Katja (09:57):
And it’s not like when we hear the word cult, we think religion. But in this case it was a martial arts context. And it’s so much more frequent that it happens around like a skill set. And so you’re not looking for it because it’s like, well, this isn’t a church. But that’s…

Ryn (10:19):
Right. Yeah. And you know, the other part of this too is that sometimes people start to move or to shift over into adopting that guru image without really noticing it at first. Like, I’m not sure if we want to call it exactly a slippery slope or more like boiling the frog sort of situation, where there’s slow degrees of change and then suddenly you wake up one day and you can’t see the fact that this has occurred.

Katja (10:46):
I think a lot of that is that, you know, we were saying that we tell our students you shouldn’t believe anything we say. And we say that a lot. We definitely say that like at least in every class. But the truth is that actually we’re really saying that for ourselves. I think that’s where that slippery slope starts is that when you start to believe as an herbalist that you have the one right answer. And it’s really easy to fall into that. It’s really easy to say, you know, well antibiotics are bad for this one situation. You should never have antibiotics in an ear infection. And that may be true. But then you can fall down eventually that way of thinking like, well, antibiotics are always bad, or pharmaceuticals are always bad. And especially as herbalists, when we work with other people, we’re often working with people who have had really bad experiences with other health providers. So, we see a lot of the bad stuff and then we might get to thinking that it’s always like that. And so I think that a lot of this happens a lot of times just because we forget to remind ourselves that we’re not always right. We don’t necessarily have all the right answers. And we shouldn’t believe everything we think.

Ryn (12:12):
Yeah. And you know, we’re also not saying that as a teacher you have to give away everything you know to anybody who comes along. There’s definitely a space for saying there’s some things that I know or that I can teach, but I require certain things of my students before I’m going to offer that. That’s fine. But when those kind of hoops to jump through start to look more like submission or renunciation of all others, or like you will only take instruction from me or that kind of thing. Or this idea of I’m going to pass along a unique experience or a unique initiation to you. And now you’ve been imbued with this thing that only I can give. And now you’ve like solidified or you’ve reified a kind of a power dynamic or a kind of relationship there. And this is the basic problem is that in the course of this guru image being generated or somebody adopting it or like allowing somebody else to ascribe it to them, and then as often happens once you start to enjoy the privileges of something like that, you want to defend them. But what happens is that this image or this perspective, it inhibits accountability. And it institutes these power-over dynamics, pretty much by default. You know, it’s something that just happens once people start to get into this relationship of you are a totally different class of being. And you have access to worlds and information and experiences that nobody else does. And if I want them then I pretty much just need to put up with whatever you ask for, whatever you say, or whatever you do. And because people crave that knowledge or crave that experience or that way of being in the world, then they’re quite willing to put aside their feelings of discomfort, or their uncertainties or whatever else, in order to get what’s being promised.

Katja (14:26):
And also I think because in a lot of areas there may only be one or two options for people to study with. So they’re like, well I want to get this information and this is the only school I know about. So, you know. And again, like this is not something that, it’s not like every herb teacher out in the world is doing this. It’s just that more and more as we look at our own privilege, as we look at the power structures and the institutions that are part of our system right now, and we think about how can we change those and how can we build a better system that is a place that we all want to live in, that this is something that doesn’t need to be extreme to be a problem. Like it can happen to anyone and it can happen just on Tuesday. Like you can just sort of get to thinking, wow, I really know my shit. And then you can kind of realize, you know, a couple of days later, like, oops, I was kind of on a high horse there for a minute. And that doesn’t make an herb teacher a bad person. It is an occupational hazard that when you are a person who has a lot of knowledge, then it can be real easy to get on that high horse or real easy for people to bring you that high horse and ask you to get on it.

Ryn (15:54):
Right? Yeah. Because if you’re doing this kind of work, you’re going to change people’s lives. You may save people’s lives. And that, it’s very easy to start, I mean, you should feel pride. That’s totally fair. But it’s very easy for that to start to shift over into this other thing.

Katja (16:16):
And you’ll see people who have been really hurt by other experiences that they’ve had. And that will make him mad. And it will make you want to protect other people from having that experience. And that’s not a bad thing either. But again, there’s a high horse that comes along with that and you’ve got to just resist the temptation to get on it.

Ryn (16:39):
Yeah. So you might, you might feel like you don’t have to worry about it, especially if you’re new to teaching or consulting or just being an herbalist in the world. But what we want to bring forward here is that you have to actively work to counteract this guru-vication tendency

Katja (16:58):
Or another way to say that is you have to actively work to create the balance of power that you want to see in the world, which means actively working to counteract disproportionate power structures and instead to enact or to create power structures that serve everyone, the student and the teacher, so that everyone is on an equal playing field. Even though the teacher may know more about herbalism, we still want to make sure that we’re creating a system in which everyone is equal. Everyone is fair. Everyone has equal access. And nobody is put in the position of, you know, above.

Staying Within Your Integrity

Ryn (17:44):
So, some thoughts on how to accomplish that. So first we, the most important thing is to stay within your integrity. And in order to do that, you need to be able to recognize when you’re standing in your integrity, and what that feels like, and how it feels when you start to get a little towards the edge. Maybe oops, I started to get really into what I was saying and wandered off the cliff there. So whether you figure your integrity as your scope of practice or as that that good old standard of first do no harm or some other metric, you need to be able to recognize when what you’re saying, what you’re presenting, what you’re offering is coming from that place of your own integrity.

Katja (18:32):
And your own experience.

Ryn (18:34):

Katja (18:34):
Is another way to say that.

Ryn (18:35):
Yeah, I was going to say it doesn’t mean you have to be right all the time because you’re not going to be. And if you start thinking you are, that’s also a way to end up as a guru. But to be able to say, I believe what I’m saying. I believe I have good reasons for saying it and I can explain what those are to you. And it’s not a black box over here. It’s a more transparent kind of a situation.

Katja (19:01):
I think that our culture really values words like master and values certification. And so that’s a trap to really fall into and that’s where I think the pressure comes to kind of branch out and Oh, I have to know an answer. I have to give an answer for every question. Even if I feel uncomfortable and I’m not sure that I know it. Like, if I don’t answer the question, then I must not be a good herbalist. And that’s just plain not true. If you can’t answer the question, then it’s just a question you didn’t know the answer to. It doesn’t make you not a good herbalist at all. I like to tell people that if you only know four herbs. If all you knew was like plantain and calendula and mint and ginger, you could do so much work with those four herbs. And that’s valid stuff to teach. And even if you had to say, I don’t know to 90 percent of the questions that got asked, but what you did know was those four plants. Heck! Even if all you knew in the world was chamomile, but you really knew it well, you could do tons of amazing, valid, important work. And the fact that our society expects that people who are knowledgeable about health issues are somehow supposed to know the answer to every single question, first off that’s completely unreasonable. But second, it does set up the system where we can feel pressure like, oh, I guess I do have to know every answer. And you just don’t. If the only answer you have is chamomile, and somebody asks a question. And you don’t have any idea if chamomile is the answer to that question. You can say well, you know, I’m not sure I know about that. What I know about is chamomile. And I can’t see any reason not to try chamomile for that situation. But I don’t have any way to know for sure that it would work either. That’s a valid answer. That’s legit. That’s within your integrity. And that’s also a legitimate answer.

Ryn (21:17):
Yeah. One of the things we really stress with our students who are, you know, they’re in our second year, they’re thinking about going into practice, is you have got to get comfortable saying, I don’t know. Like saying I don’t know, you should be enthusiastic about that, right? Because that’s an opportunity to learn something or to see how a strategy or a herb is going to play out in a new situation. So that’s good news, is the perspective that we try to adopt. But it’s super important to be able to say that freely and comfortably and in public and to people who are trying to make you an authority figure. You need to be super solid in that capacity.

Katja (21:58):
Also, every time that you do it, you are creating the world that is a fairer and more just place. Because every time that you say I don’t know that answer, you’re making that a valid response in a world that doesn’t want that to be a valid response right now. So, it’s like modeling good behavior.

Ryn (22:26):
Yeah. Okay. So kind of tied right up next to that is to make this effort to don’t think of yourself as a final authority, right? Any authority that you may have extends only as far as your knowledge, your experience, your integrity. And that’s always going to be incomplete, especially in a field like medicine at large or herbal medicine where things change a lot, where things are complex, where…

Katja (22:53):
We don’t understand things even that we think we understand and then next year we get new data and we’re like, oh look, it turns out…

Ryn (22:59):
Right, yeah. Where claims are going to swing back and forth. Where one of the principles is that things are going to change. That this generation is going to have problems that the last generation didn’t. And that we can get information from thousand year old books, but we can’t just apply it wholesale to today because the whole environment is different, the food environment, the environment-environment. Things change. So, the effort here is to really not think of yourself as an authority at all. Like all of the connotations and assumptions that we put onto that term or that title. Even if you are an actual expert, you’ve been studying this for a long time, you’ve been practicing for 20 years. If you consider yourself as an authority that institutes this kind of power dynamic where you’re, you’re above, you’re over. It’s better instead to try and consider yourself as a person who’s been studying for 20 years or who has had a lot of client experience or whatever is the reality of your knowledge, of your situation or your status.

Katja (24:17):
I think that in that regard, it’s really important to remember that no matter how long you’ve been doing this, there are going to be people who have other experiences. And because of that they’re going to know things that you don’t. And I think as a teacher, it’s super important to recognize that that is true of every single student even on day one. Every student, the very minute that they walk through the door, they already know things that you don’t know. Nobody is coming to us, nobody comes to our school and nobody goes to any herb school, as an empty vessel just waiting to be filled with knowledge and wisdom. They might not know much about herbalism, but they know a lot about a lot of other things. And the things that I can share about herbalism with them, it’s just part of their experience. It’s just part of their problem solving set. And they may have some really important experiences that will make them able to think about what I know and apply it in completely different circumstances where I may not be able to apply it. Or it might enable them to think about the things that I share and say, you know, actually I have a really different perspective on that. And I might not be able to see that perspective from my vantage point with my experiences. But when that gets shared with me, then that’s pretty amazing. And, I don’t know, we learn so much from our students.

Ryn (25:50):
Yeah. And I mean recognizing that they have that already when they show up. That spurs you to look for it and to ask for feedback and to ask for experiences or somebody else’s knowledge to contribute to what’s happening in the classroom or even in the client session. And the times when you can draw that out from somebody, that’s usually a time when they start to get really excited and feel really engaged and like, wow, you know, they’re making connections to other things in their life or family traditions or whatever else it might be coming from. Those are some really good moments for that student, for you, you’re learning something. And for the other people who may be in a classroom situation, they’re seeing you have that humility or have that interest even to say, Oh wow, really? I didn’t think of that way. Or I never used hibiscus like that, or wow.

Being Clear About Your Limitations (and Your Flaws)

Katja (26:47):
So, the next thing here is that it’s also really important to be clear about your limitations. So when, when we teach, we try to be really clear first of all about what we’re teaching from. Are we teaching from documented tradition? Are we teaching from direct experience? Frankly, are we teaching from wild conjecture? Sometimes the answer to that is yes. Sometimes somebody asks a question and it’s an interesting question that we don’t know the answer to. And so we say, I don’t know that answer, but let’s take a few minutes and see if we can puzzle it out. So let’s make some wild conjectures and see if we can get the logic together and come up with a hypothesis to that question. And then we can all go out and test it.

Ryn (27:35):
That’s often very helpful because part of what you’re doing there, again, in a classroom or a teaching setting, is you’re demonstrating the thought process you use to try to learn new information and to solve new problems. And I mean, I feel like that’s the most important thing I can teach my students. Because I can’t go through every problem they’re ever going to encounter and every disease state and every, you know, herb or whatever. Like it’s just not possible because there’s too much to cover. You can never get to all of it. So, the most important thing we can teach is here’s how to think through the question. Here’s how to find your way to what’s the resource that’s going to help me out, or what are the kinds of hypotheses I would need to test to know if this was really a viable solution. So, that’s really valuable for, now we’ve got lots of different reasons why that can be helpful. But, again, the key is to be clear and to say, I don’t actually have any idea but it makes me think of this. And I would want to know that. And these are the places I would go digging for the answer. And just to be super clear that the frame you’re working in then is uncertainty and conjecture and theory formation and so on. And, like you were saying, to be clear when it’s not that, when it’s, I’ve actually done this. I’ve seen this work. I’ve got this many case case files that I can point you at where we went from a to b. Or here’s a bunch of research studies that we can point at or some lab tests or whatever else.

Katja (29:09):
Or even here’s my experience from my own body. Here’s how it played out for me. That’s good too.

Ryn (29:17):
yeah. And as long as you’re clear about those things, then the students understand that what you’re saying or what you’re claiming isn’t just an eternal truth that floats in the ether and that you grabbed from the heavens and pulled down for them. But they understand where you’re coming from and why you’re saying that. And that’s at least as important what it is you’re saying.

Katja (29:42):
Yeah. So another thing here is to just be really clear about your own faults. I have a lot of them. And it’s important to be clear about those with yourself and also with your students. And again, like we live in a culture that says that if you’re an expert, you can’t really be flawed. But the reality is we are flawed. You can be a hero and be flawed. You have to be flawed. You’re human. That’s the only way. And so like making mistakes, having faults, having character flaws in general, that is just part of you. And frankly, you know, a lot of things that we consider character flaws, if you look at them from the other side, they are actually benefits. It’s just that you have to know when to apply it to have it be a benefit and when to make sure that it doesn’t like poke its head out as a fault. So, a lot of what we teach is not just around herbs, but also food and movement and stress management and all the different factors and holistic herbalism. Which means that we spend a lot of time telling our students that they shouldn’t eat sugar and that they should get enough sleep and that instead of distraction, they should seek relaxation. And so what that means is that we have to be really honest about the fact that I made a cake yesterday and I ate it. And sure, it was gluten free and dairy free, but you guys, it was still a cake.

Ryn (31:25):
Or that, yeah, today we’re going to do our class on sleep. And we’re going to talk about a bunch of herbs that are good for it. And you know, really humans need eight and a half to nine and a half hours of sleep every single night. And that’s also the time when I say, and listen to you guys, I went to bed at 2:00 AM last night and I’ve done that this whole week because that’s a habit I keep falling into. And I teach about these strategies because they’re things that I really need to remind myself about so that I’ll do them in my own life, right? So we try to be super active in displaying our imperfections. It’s not just that we don’t stand up there and say I am perfect and I always eat this way and I always sleep 10 hours a night and I always meditate and this and that. It’s not just to not make false claims, which those would be, but to actively display your imperfections.

Katja (32:15):
it’s really empowering for a student if you do that, because I’ve been eating gluten-free and dairy- free for 15 years and I don’t ever cheat. And if that’s all you knew about me, you might sit there and say, well that’s good for you, but I could never do that. I’m not like you. And that’s not true. It’s not that it isn’t hard me, it’s just that the symptoms are so crappy that I’m not willing to cheat. But you guys, I cheat on sugar all the time. And if a student knows that it’s a struggle for me. And then we talk about how do I try to manage that struggle and we all talk about that together. And we can sit around together talking about the struggles that we each have and ways to try to manage those struggles. Then we’re all better practitioners because now we’re preparing ourselves to deal with what other people are having challenges with. And sometimes the things that are challenging to someone else are not challenging to me. But if I can remember that there are things that are challenging to me than I can employ the same types of skills. It is not challenging for me to make a pot of tea in a day. That’s a thing I do multiple times a day. But for someone who’s just starting out in herbalism, or for a new client, for example, that might be very difficult for them. And so if we all spend a lot of time talking about what things are difficult for us and how we can try to overcome that, and sometimes just being flat out, honest, like you guys, I don’t want to overcome it. I just want to eat the cake today. Then it gives us so much more compassion and so much more creativity and so many more tools to work with other people who are just starting their journey with herbalism and helping them to get healthier in their own lives. So, it’s not just about like, I’m going to stand up and give you the list of my faults today so that you don’t think I’m perfect. It’s also an empowerment. It’s a teaching tool. It’s a community discussion tool. It’s really good stuff.

Learning from Many Perspectives

Ryn (34:29):
Yeah. Nice. So yeah, so everybody’s got imperfections. Not everybody has the same ones. Some of them are going to be more compatible with a particular student than another. And that’s true also about your teaching style and your way of presenting information and the kind of information you’re interested in and share. And so what this all means is that it’s really important to encourage your students to learn from multiple different teachers. Because you don’t have all the answers. No one has all the answers.

Katja (35:00):
And even if you did have all the answers, you might not say them in exactly the best way for that student to really assimilate that and be able to think it through for themselves.

Ryn (35:13):
Yeah. So, not every student learns the best from every teacher. And so, you know, in a field like herbalism, you’ve got to explore. You’ve got to see a lot of different perspectives if you’re ever going to find your own center. If you can’t see the whole field or the whole forest, I guess, then you’re going to get stuck just with the tree that was right in front of you. And so, you know, again, especially when people have limited access to a variety of herbal perspectives or herbal voices, that can become a real problem. Nowadays there’s this thing called the Internet. And so it’s a lot easier for people to learn from many different teachers in different formats. And we really, we always try to refer to a teacher who taught us something if we’re passing that forward. Like, oh yeah, Jim Mcdonald taught me this thing and I want to tell you about it or whatever it was, right? But also to say like, here is a bunch of different places that you can get another herbalists podcast or you can get their recorded teachings or you can read what people have said. Here’s a bunch of video places to check it out. We try to offer as much of that as possible rather than saying, I’m going to teach you how to use herbs for the cardiovascular system. And after you’ve taken this class, you’ve learned all there is to know. Right? I love it when I can share somebody’s class that’s as close to the same material that I’m teaching as possible, because that’s going to give my students a really different perspective. And, I mean, it’s just a fact with herbalism that if you get three herbalists in a room and you ask a question, you should expect at least five answers. That’s just the way a lot of the material we work with is going to go.

Katja (37:05):
I think that a lot of this is coming from a perspective, again in our culture, that there’s like a zero sum game out there and that we’re competing for business and whatever. And that’s not the way. We have a Hashtag that we like to use on social media that is community, not competition. And actually I first saw that because your sister was using that hashtag about the wedding photography community in Arizona that she’s a part of. And I thought that was really beautiful. And I think that it’s something that as herbalists we really need to embrace. That not only are we not competing with each other, but the reality is that students need all of us. They need all the different teachers with all the different perspectives, including the perspectives that conflict. Because when we’re talking about herbs, we’re speaking from personal relationships and personal experiences. And just like you know from your own personal relationships with humans, your feelings about a particular person and someone else’s feelings about a particular person may not match entirely. Who’s right? It’s hard to know. And 7Song gives this example all the time and it’s really a perfect illustration here. 7Song is, if you don’t know him, he’s an herbalist in Ithaca, the…

Ryn (38:35):
Northeast School of Botanical Medicine.

Katja (38:35):
Yes. And he talks a lot about skullcap as being an absolutely indispensable herb in his herbal practice, despite the fact that when he takes it he notices zero effect whatsoever. He’s like, it might as well be a sugar capsule. It has, not a capsule, but I just made that up. He says, I can’t remember exactly how he says it, but at any rate that it has zero effect on his body is what it comes down to. But that in his work with clients, the plant has been so effective that even though it has zero effect in his body, he cannot practice without it. It’s one of his most important plants. And I think that’s a perfect example of the need for multiple teachers. Because that’s a micro scale example of this, but not every teacher is going to have the same type of reaction that you’re going to have to every plant out there or to every situation out there. You have to see a lot of different ways of dealing with things and a lot of different ways of working with plants so that you can find your own center and know how you work with plants.

Ryn (39:55):
Yeah. So, we want to encourage our students to have access to or have interest in multiple teachers, multiple perspectives. We also, as practitioners and teachers, we need to have relationships with other herbalists who are doing that same kind of work in order for us to get some accountability from our peers. So, Katja and I really love this series of books by Terry Pratchett. It’s the Tiffany Aching series. It’s like in the Discworld universe. But it’s about this young girl who becomes a witch, and learns that most of witchery is more to do with taking care of old people and feeding them and trimming their toenails than it is with casting spells. But there’s a lot of really great stuff in that series for herbalists, for healthcare providers of all types.

Katja (40:49):
Yeah. He calls them witches, but he’s really talking about herbalists, you know. It’s really, it’s beautiful.

Avoid Cackling Through Community

Ryn (40:55):
Yeah. But one of the things that the witch community in these books does, is they make sure to meet up and to spend some time together at least once a year so that nobody goes cackling. And cackling is when a witch has started to decide that she knows what’s best for her setting and the people in it. And she’s just going to start making things happen instead of figuring out what people actually need and providing that when they ask. So yeah, so anybody can go cackling. And the easiest way to avoid that is to spend time with others, especially if they’ll push back on you a little bit. If they’ll give you a bit of a challenge now and again. And this is a thing that I think a lot of herbalists are doing now through social media. I’ve seen really great conversations happen there. I’ve also seen people get into arguments that were really unnecessary and just came down to a miscommunication, or like digging in and deciding that you knew what somebody else thought in advance. So that is quite fraught. I think it’s important, if possible, to meet people face to face, because that just changes our behavior as humans. And for us, you know, one of the big community days or community times here in Boston is the HerbStalk conference. So HerbStalk is a yearly conference. It’s just local. It’s in the northeast, or centered around Boston. And it’s great because we go there and suddenly it’s like, oh, there’s the community. Like we don’t see every other herbalists in a 100 mile radius every day or every month. But once a year like there they all are.

Katja (42:46):
Everybody’s there.

Ryn (42:47):
And, you know, there’s the ones that we really, really love and the ones that we get along with and everything in between, right? So it’s nice to have that for a little period of time.

Katja (42:59):
You know, but even the herbalists that you don’t get along with, they’re important. Because again, everybody speaks a slightly different language. Even if we’re all speaking English, it’s not really the same. Every single one of us had a different relationship with our mother. And so when you say the word mother, it’s going to mean something to you. And it might mean something really different to somebody else just based on the relationship they had with their own mom.

Ryn (43:26):
Same thing when you say motherwort.

Katja (43:29):
Right! Because if there can be that degree of variability with such a fundamental word, then all the other words are susceptible to that degree of variability too. So even an herbalist that you disagree with and you don’t maybe get along with very well, and you kind of have to make yourself smile when you see them in person, that herbalist is still really valuable in the community because they speak a different language than you do. And that might be part of the reason that you don’t get along very well, but it is also the exact reason why they are valuable. Because they are going to be able to talk to people who you are not going to be able to speak very effectively to or to teach very effectively. So, it’s important. It’s important that we are a community and that we are recognizing that all of us are important even if we don’t do things the same way, but in fact especially because we don’t do things the same way.

Being Accountable to Others

Ryn (44:30):
All right? So we try get accountability from our peers, but we can also find ways to be accountable to our students or our clients. And so we try to be genuinely open to critique and to push back. And there’s lots of different ways to engage in that. One way that we try to do it is we have a test we give to one of our student groups every year and we include, you know, a bunch of examples and scenarios and some short answer, and essay questions. And our last essay question is tell us about an area in which you disagree with us because we’d love to hear that. And you know, these are students who’ve been with us for two years and they’ve done a lot of work and a lot of projects. And they’ve certainly had time for us to indoctrinate them if we were going to do that, right? If we were trying to. But we want to know like, okay, you’ve been with us this long. Is there something that you think we’re wrong about?

Katja (45:28):
Yeah. Another way that we like to approach that is, again, just by making sure that at least once every class we say you should never believe anything we say. And after awhile it just gets sort of comical because after a while repeating something enough times gets funny. But that’s an open invitation so that if a student doesn’t agree with something, or if we said something and it came out wrong or whatever else, that they don’t have to feel afraid to stand up and say, hold on a second, I’m not sure that’s right. Or that doesn’t resonate with my experience. And they don’t have to feel like if they say that they’re going to get in trouble because we have already opened the door and said we’re not necessarily right. And making space in every class, and you don’t have to do it the way that we do it, but in whatever way you do, making space in every class setting for a student to say, hold on a second, I’m really not okay with what you just said is really important. Partially because a student feeling comfortable to do that means that they will do it. And if it was just a misunderstanding, you have a good chance to fix it right then. But sometimes it wasn’t just a misunderstanding. Sometimes what if you’re wrong? Sometimes what if we’re wrong. Like having a student empowered to say that right upfront and point out places where we need to be thinking more deeply about something that maybe we’ve been taking for granted, that’s tremendously valuable. And being able to do that in a positive way, in an affirming way, in an empowering way, means that we grow as a community instead of that there’s like these negative feelings and whatever.

Ryn (47:16):
So, there’s lots of different ways to go about this. You have to find a way that works for you and for your students or the individual that you’re communicating with. Some people like a very formal accountability process. with mediators and ground rules and the whole nine yards. Other people feel like it’s more authentic to sit down for a one on one conversation. But just be aware that what’s comfortable for you or feels like it would be the best thing to you, it may not be the best in all circumstances or for all people. So you have got to be not just asking for feedback, but how do you like your feedback? That’s one of the things we also try to do with our students when they’re new with us is to say like, so, you know, there’s going to be times when I’m going to want to give you some feedback on your work. How do you want to hear that? Do you want to do it in text? Do you want to schedule a time to talk in person? What’s going to make this most effective for you? And also you have to share the way it works for you as well, which if you haven’t thought about it yet, then that’s a homework assignment. To say like, okay, well how do I actually best respond to so-called constructive criticism, right? Because there’s going to be some formats or some ways of presentation that just turn you off and put you in a defensive posture. And if you can recognize that that happens, then you can start to unwind it. But you can also say, you know what? This method is way more effective for me. And the more you can provide that for somebody, the more you can, again, even just model the work of figuring that out, the more successful all of these interactions are going to be.

Katja (48:57):
Yeah. And then also recognizing that students have different comfort zones too. One student may feel really comfortable just raising their hand and stopping class and saying, hold on a second, that’s not okay, or that doesn’t jive, or I don’t understand, or I’m not sure you’re right. But another student may be too shy to do that or may feel uncomfortable doing that. And so making sure that you have both a right-in-the-moment immediate kind of accessibility, but also a one-on-one more private accessibility, will allow you to accommodate different students’ comfort levels. So you can still get the feedback in the way that you’re most comfortable, just as long as you’re thinking about how would I be comfortable receiving feedback from a student right in the moment that might be public, versus how would I be comfortable receiving feedback from a student who would prefer to give that privately?

Ryn (49:56):
Yeah. All right, so, you know, folks, we’re not claiming to be guru’s in the art of not being a guru. So, please, if you have experiences or good ideas in this vein, we’d love to hear them. And if you disagree with stuff we’ve said here or think we’ve got something a little shaken out.

Katja (50:18):
Or if we missed something.

Ryn (50:19):
Then we, again, we’d love to hear that. We’re open to respectful dialogue and we want to want to get more voices into this conversation. We figured this little podcast today would just be a way to plant a seed or to get a little more movement on something that, like I said, I already see people thinking and talking and sharing about this. So, we wanted to contribute to that conversation. If you do want to reach out to us, you can find us online. We’re the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism. We’re out there on facebook and instagram and our website is commonwealthherbs.com. So, if you do want to speak back or just say hi, then we’d love to hear from you.

Katja (51:02):
Yeah. The most important thing is just to remember that as herbal teachers, as teachers of herbalism, our work is about empowering students to you take the stuff that we’ve learned along the way and mix it up with all the stuff that they already know and the stuff that they’re going to learn along their way and have them take it out into the world. Because the bottom line is the reason that we teach people herbalism is so that there will be more herbalists. And it’s not a competition. It’s a community. And so when we are thinking about these things in a positive way and in a proactive way, then that builds a more supportive community. And we we can be sort of reprogramming ourselves that if we’re thinking about it and then someone comes to us and says, Hey, this thing, we’ve already been thinking about it. And so we can say, oh goodness, that was something I missed when I was thinking about it. It just puts everything in a more positive and constructive kind of way and that’s what we want in our community.

Ryn (52:12):
Yeah. Okay. Well thanks for listening. We hope this was helpful and we’ll see you around.


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