Shamanic Herbalism is the oldest way of healing on our planet. In this tradition of healing, most of what is experienced is invisible. We start out in the quiet of our yards and garden, and we expand our consciousness with breath and intention into the invisible realms. It is in these realms of expansion that we may hear the voices of the plants and receive their wisdom. Here, I share a bit about my practice as a shamanic herbalist and how I came to connect so significantly with the trees. Then I share some wisdom of the trees that are my teachers and companions and, for each, a shamanic listening exercise so that you may learn the practices as well. My experience with teaching this is that even the most reluctant people have opened up when participating in these practices. There is immense joy in calling in the trees as our teachers and there is a view of a fuller life to be experienced.
Last summer, during a prosperity training in Vermont, I was given the task to sit outside in silence for twenty minutes. The wind was strong, so strong that it scared me a little. I connected with the trees, I watched them bending and swaying and noticed their resilience. Then it came over me that I so often asked the trees for wisdom, so often come to them for guidance and was being selfish. Maybe, sometimes, I should just be with the trees and not talk to them or ask them for help and support. And the trees responded: “We want you to constantly be talking to us, asking for wisdom, asking for support. There are not many people that do this anymore. You must do it as much as possible”. At this moment I realized that I was making myself small by thinking I should not be connecting with the trees in an expanded way all the time. I had thought I was imposing on them. I realized in that moment that what I have been given in my ability to communicate with the trees must be cultivated and shared.
As a child who spent time in the forests and parks, I played under the cedars and felt at home. The old growth of the Olympia National Forest brought me nourishment. But it would not be until mid-life that I found a place with the trees as wisdom keepers and healers of the spirit. I had gone to Lake Quinault to have a nice family outing. What I witnessed when we drove near the lake was massive clear-cutting. I was devastated. I told the trees in a silent prayer that I would return to connect with them soon, to witness what had happened to them.
I did return. I left my mom’s house in my car alone, drove out of town and toward Lake Quinault. I found a dirt road around the wild side of the lake and started on it. I came to a very large, old-growth Douglas fir tree that was growing near the road. I got out of my car and immediately began to sob. I told the tree how sorry I was for all the clear-cutting that the humans were doing. I circled around the tree and cried and cried. Then I asked the tree what I could do. “Soon it will be time for the cutting of the trees to stop”. It told me. “The ones that are cutting the trees will not be the ones to stop it”. I knew what the tree meant. It meant that the trees would stop the clear cutting. I did not understand this but knew that this was so.
I drove around further and walked up a trail and found the largest Western hemlock tree I have ever seen. Its diameter must have been six feet or more. I leaned up against this tree and began my lament again, asking for wisdom about what I can do. The energy of this tree was very happy and sweet. It basically told me, “Don’t worry, be happy”. Then this beautiful, expansive tree told me that it was my job to tell the stories of the trees. I now knew what was mine to do.
I began my work. My husband and I were living near a very large managed forest north of Seattle. I spent most of my days walking in the forest and connecting with the trees. I listened to them and they taught me a lot.
Around this time, I began to study shamanism. In the realm of the shamanic journey, I met a shamanic herbalist, spirit teacher from a very, very old tradition in the British Isles. She too began to teach me about the wisdom of the plants. I learned very simple ways of connecting with the plants through breathing in their breath and offering my breath to them. I learned how to talk to them. The wisdom I received was immense. It was outside of my normal perception of how to live my life. I began to expand my consciousness with the help of the trees.
These practices are meant to be done with the trees that grow around us. Go right outside in your yard or garden or nearby in a park and begin your lessons. The reason this is so important is that then you create a home life of richness. You begin to create an expansive foundation for the life you are meant to live. There is no need to go to some far away place to connect with a guru or take an exotic plant to learn deeper awareness. It is so profound, the wisdom and healing of the mind and spirit that occurs, and it is so near us.
Here is a simple shamanic listening exercise to allow you to expand your consciousness into the invisible realms so that you may receive the wisdom of the trees.
Breathing the Breath of the Trees-Shamanic Listening Exercise
Go out on the land, in your yard or to a nearby park to a tree with which you are already familiar. Walk up to the tree and bring attention to your breath. Breathe a few breaths naturally. Now put your dominant hand on the trunk of the tree and breathe, imagining the oxygen of the tree is the breath you are breathing in and as you exhale, offer your breath to the tree. Do this for twenty-one breaths. Then ask the tree, “Who am I?” and listen. Listen with more than your ears. You may hear something, see something, sense something, even smell something. When this is complete, offer gratitude to the tree.
Many trees are my teachers. I share four of them with you here. After a short description of my connection with each of the trees, I offer a shamanic listening exercise so that you can experience the wisdom of these trees. When you are engaged in these exercises, allow yourself to receive wisdom without taking time to analyze it. When you are complete with each exercise, you can then make notes and consider the meaning of what you received. Allow trust and willingness so that you may see through new eyes.
My childhood tree has become the greatest teacher here for us on our land. In one of my walks out into our upper meadow, I took time to gaze up at the very large Western red cedar tree that grows near the road. I was stopped by the energy that this tree was sharing. And in an instant I sensed the holiness of cedar. I bowed my head to her, and I felt surrounded by intelligence.
Becoming Like Cedar – Shamanic Listening Exercise
Find a cedar to which you are drawn. This will be one that you can lean your back up against. Come up to cedar and put your dominant hand on the trunk. Breathe seven breaths with cedar, imagining that the breath you breathe in is the oxygen given off by cedar and the breath you breathe out you are giving to cedar. Turn around so your back is to the tree and lean up against cedar. Imagine your feet growing roots into the earth. Imagine your legs and your torso becoming the trunk of the cedar. Imagine your arms as cedar branches, and your head is the top of the cedar tree. Breathe with this experience, again breathing in the breath of cedar and breathing out offering your breath. Now as cedar, breath. Breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. Do this for at least seven breaths. And again breathe as human, breathing with cedar. When this is complete, offer gratitude. You may want to record your experience of this in a journal. As you do this exercise with cedar several times, you will become aware that you are more than the ordinary being that to (you) thought you were.
We have several apple trees on our land. There is one very large tree beneath which we sit when we have our classes. When I first moved here to this land, I would go out under this tree and my hair would often get caught in the limbs hanging down. The apple was begging me to pay attention to her. I started listening and the tree taught me about self love. Many people have come to our land for classes and individual mentoring and stood under the apple tree and listened to her teachings. She is a beloved part of our family and community here at our farm.
Apple Teaches about Sweetness and Self Love – Shamanic Listening Exercise
This exercise is best done near or on the full moon and when there are apples on the tree. Go outside and stand under your apple tree as the full moon is rising. Notice the apples and also notice that within the light of the full moon, the apples are glowing. They are golden orbs of light. Allow this to be. Do not force the image, you will see it if you allow it. As you perceive this golden light, allow it to take you inward, to a place of sweetness where there is only love. Breathe this in and allow it to fill you. Follow the pathway out again until you are under your apple tree with eyes open. Offer gratitude to the apple and the full moon for this gift. Craft your favorite apple dish. Apple sauce, apple pie, etc., or herbs infused in organic apple cider vinegar. When you are done, place this under the apple tree. (You will probably want to have some kind of protection from critters if you made a sweet apple dish.) Let this sit under the apple tree in the full moon light all night long. The next day, take in the sweetness of love, eat your apple dish or if you made an herbal vinegar, you can pour just a bit in a glass of water and drink. Give thanks again for the moon, apple tree, and the sweetness of love that is always within you.
There is a lovely park in Seattle near Lake Washington where several cottonwood trees live. In the late winter, when the leaf buds begin to swell, a resin oozes out of the buds. This sticky resin relieves pain and heals sore muscles and nerves. The cottonwood tree, says legend, was one of the ingredients in flying ointment, the salve that the witches used for their shamanic journeys. As I have worked with cottonwood, I have begun to understand why this tree was utilized for this magic. Cottonwood will take your fear and replace it with inspiration.
Fear into Inspiration with Cottonwood – Shamanic Listening Exercise
Go in search of some cottonwood trees. They like to grow near water. Stand before the cottonwood tree and bring attention to your breath. Bow your head down and through your crown chakra, release any fears that you have, from the past or present. Give them to the cottonwood tree. Allow this until it feels complete. The cottonwood will transmute your fears, it will neutralize them with the water they contain. Now ask the cottonwood tree for inspiration to fill you. Again allow this to come through the top of your head. Allow it until this feels complete. Give thanks to the cottonwood.
I met this tree in an herbal class by drinking an infusion of Hawthorne leaf and flowers. The taste was unusual to me and rich. I decided to go out to a nearby park and harvest the leaf and flower myself so that I could continue to receive this divine nourishment. I took it home and made tincture from it, leaf and flower infused in alcohol. That night I had a dream that I had sex with a Hawthorne tree. The landscape in the dream felt old, like I was experiencing a past life. I writhed on the ground in ecstatic connection to this tree. And I for the first time knew what it was like to be pansexual. As you can imagine, that dream charged my path as a shamanic herbalist.
Hawthorne is the World Tree – Shamanic Listening Exercise
Go outside where the Hawthorne grows. Imagine that you are the world tree. You are the world as Hawthorne. Do not think about this too much. Just allow the intention to be there for this. Bring attention to your breath and then, with Hawthorne, take three breaths, inhaling its oxygen and releasing your breath as an offering. What do you see/experience as the world, inward/outward, always connected above/below, connected in conscious creation? Breathe as Hawthorne Tree, as world. Go walking around outside with this same energy, breathing as Hawthorne, as world, connected to inner/outer, above/below. What do you see, feel, smell, taste, hear? When this is complete, offer gratitude to Hawthorne and what you witnessed and experienced.
The compassion offered by the trees has been forgotten by many people. It is from this place of separation and forgetfulness that we do things like clear cut trees. As we remember the wisdom of the trees, we learn to love more deeply, and from this place we can help to heal our world. It is a commitment to practice these ways. It is not always easy because we can feel very alone and think that we are the only ones practicing this. It is very good to get with groups of like-minded people who are open to such ways and it is very good to find teachers to study with who can guide you as you are called deeper.
I leave you with this spirited exercise you can do with the trees to shift your perspective. For one day, ask the trees about every decision you need to make and follow it. When asking your favorite tree, breathe seven breaths with the tree, exchanging your breath and then ask each question. This could possibly change everything for you.
May it be in Beauty.
This essay was published in Volume 1 of Verdant Gnosis, Cultivating the Green Path. Selections from the Viridis Genii Symposium Edited by Catamara Rosarium and Jenn Zahrt, PhD