I'm in Fort Worth right now, at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. As a classical pianist, the opportunity to attend the Van Cliburn is akin to being able to attend a Super Bowl playoff. It's especially a kick for me, because one of the contenders happened to be my son, Chetan Tierra, who was specially selected and auditioned from a worldwide pool of over 1,000 very talented young men and women. Despite being a favorite of the Dallas Star's classical music critic and many of the audience, Chetan did not advance to the semifinals. The fact is, at such a prestigious, well funded and expertly organized event, all the contenders were among the best and most talented young pianists in the world today, and it's a significant accomplishment to just be one of the competitors.

At the time of this writing, the Van Cliburn is in its final rounds with playoffs by the six finalists consisting of a 50-minute solo recital and two major concerto performances with orchestra. At least from my perspective, having met many of the avid Cliburn patrons, this is one of the most anticipated cultural events of this wonderful city. Many have assiduously followed the event, which has taken place every four years since its inception in 1962.

The competition is held in honor of Fort Worth's very own esteemed resident Van Cliburn, who, at the age of 23, played the Tchaikovsky concerto at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 -- and won. Unintentionally, this put a chink of human warmth in the midst of the Cold War deadlock between Russia and the United States, which portended mutual annihilation at that time. Van Cliburn, then a tall, lanky red-headed boy from Texas, instantly became the beloved of both the American and Russian people. His win was no mean feat in the eyes of the Russians, who could not imagine that anyone who was not Russian could give a more powerfully passionate performance of Tchaikovsky's iconic piece than one of their own.

Allow me to heartily recommend that you tune into the Van Cliburn website where you can watch incredible performances by Chetan and the other competitors.


As much as I am a musician, I am also an herbalist, so plants can never be too far from my range of experience, wherever I may be. To wit: I visited Fort Worth's Botanical Research Institute of Texas (also known as "The BRIT"), which I learned was the country's 10th-largest herbarium and the repository of over a million dried plant specimens in special storage cabinets dating as far back as 1741.

Few people who may have enjoyed pressing a favorite flower in a book or with guidance using a plant press in childhood, may ever have imagined that there exist multifloor herbaria dedicated to collecting and maintaining such fragments, along with information about the collector, the date and time of collection, and so forth.

The obvious question is: What purpose do these herbaria serve, especially in the 21st century age of information? Our guide, botanist Triana Franklin, said that such institutions as the BRIT serve many research-related functions, including charting the changing ecology of different regions and having an actual dried specimen of a plant that can be referred to in various botanical research projects involved with plant taxonomy, geographic distribution, and the standardizing of plant nomenclature.

In fact, most universities maintain herbariums. The most notable ones in the United States are the Gray Herbarium at Harvard and those at the U.S. National Museum (of the Smithsonian Institution) and at the New York and Missouri botanical gardens.

The herbarium at the BRIT has particular strengths in the plants of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, and all of the Gulf Coast and southeastern United States. However, its collections are also worldwide in scope, and most of the Earth's plant families are represented here with special collections of plants from the Phillipines and New Guinea.

One of the distinctions of the BRIT herbarium is that it has one of the largest collections of plants in the Asteraceae (formerly Compositae) family. In common parlance, these are plants with ray-like flowers. From daisies to sunflowers to dandelions, this is one of the most ubiquitous plant families and is responsible for a certain percentage of allergic reactions. According to the curators of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, the Asteraceae family comprises more than 1,600 genera and 23,000 species, enough to fill a modest herbarium, but not enough to fill the mighty BRIT.

Sorting at the BRITWe visited the room where new plant specimens are sent in daily and are handled and catalogued by volunteers specially trained by the national Master Gardener Program or the Texas Master Naturalist Program. Individuals participating in these programs volunteer their services a the BRIT Herbarium for credit, making it particularly useful when weather does not permit them to be exploring outside.

Plants are pressed, dried and catalogued by volunteers, ideally following what the herbarium hopes might one day be a standardized catalogue methodology. However, with the recent taxonomic reclassification that is going on as a result of DNA typing, the task of not only renaming but recataloguing bits and pieces of dried and pressed plant material dating back over 400 years is bound to remain an herbarium's distant dream for many years to come. Displaying all their respective parts (leaves, stalk, flowers and root), plants are laid out and pressed on non-acidic paper or fastened by special glue strips that will not degrade the plant material. Also recorded and preserved with the plant specimen are the standard Latin binomial genus and species names, plus the name, names or initials of those individuals who assigned the name to the plant.

For both edification and fun, check out the following page on the taxonomy of echinacea to find out just how complex plant taxonomy can be.

(Pictures above from http://www.brit.org/herbarium/.)

Herbal pharmacy beetleAnd Pests!

For what it's worth, particularly to my fellow herbalist colleagues and students, I finally got to identify one of the most common insect pests that have been a nuisance at my herb pharmacy for years. Unsurprisingly, it also plagues herbaria and is aptly named the "herbarium beetle" or "cigarette beetle" (Lasioderma serricorne; Coleoptera, Anobiidae). I think we can also safely call it the "herbal pharmacy beetle."

I also found out that the herbaria practice the same method of extermination as I do. Not wanting to discard plant specimens that are hundreds of years old, herbarium staff simply place them into a -40 degrees F freezer for four days, shake off and discard the dead beetles, and return the plant to its proper shelf location. For a more up close and personal description of this little harmless critter which may actually be one of the best natural sources of B12 and other nutrients (I know you avid vegetarians and vegans will love that!) go here.

Fort Worth also has several wonderful museums including the Modern Art Museum, Kimbell Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum, all very worth a visit. Fort Worth also has a beautiful botanical garden. Triana and the staff of the BRIT Herbarium are anxiously awaiting with a mixture of anticipation and some dread (at the work involved), a move away from the busy financial district to a location appropriately adjoining the botanical garden.

Visit the BRIT's website here or drop by for a visit the next time you're in Fort Worth.

Dear reader: wiith other commitments needing to be attended to, I've invited my student and East West School editor, Anne de Courtenay, to guest-blog for the sixth day of Kwanzaa. I'll be back tomorrow with a post on Faith. --- Michael Tierra

communityThe theme for today, the sixth day of Kwanzaa, is Kuumba -- Creativity: To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

Closely related to and building upon yesterday's theme of "Purpose," our meditation for today has not to do with creation for creation's sake, but for a directed, purposeful creativity. It is a call for us to draw upon our memories, imaginations and desires to create ways to strengthen and beautify our community, to prepare it to support even more creation and abundance after we are gone.

This type of creativity places an inherent value on community as a foundation from which we draw strength and in which we invest for the future. It's more than just our group of friends, family, co-workers or our neighborhood -- community forms the basis of our identity.

As a bona-fide Generation X-er (and born at the tail-end of that, no less), I certainly do not have the breadth and depth of wisdom Michael has presented in previous posts surrounding the lessons about community learned during his formative years at Black Bear. As the product of a completely urban and post-modern experience, a certain degree of isolation plus a weird hybrid of anonymity and individualism have always shaped my ideas of creativity and community. Only in my mid-20s, when I became more and more involved with my herbalism school in Chicago and later with East West, did I begin to really form and understand what I consider to be a real community experience that has become a significant part of my identity.

It would be no exaggeration to say that many of my generation and later are most likely to learn their lessons about community from the recent explosion of social networking and virtual communities on the Web! So, it may be helpful to dissect what consciously improving one's flesh-and-blood, mortar-and-brick community might mean in the real world, especially in urban settings where the idea of community itself might be a slightly nebulous concept.

You might ask yourself the following:

  • What and who exactly are my community? What binds us together? What values do we share?
  • Can I identify something that is missing or that I would like to see developed in my community?
  • Why do I think this should be changed or developed, and what do I think my community would look like if it were?
  • If such a development would indeed benefit the community, what specifically is my goal and intention?
  • Turning my attention once more to look at what resources I have to work with in my community, what sorts of specific actions, in order, might I take to achieve my goal/intention?

Once these questions are addressed and answered, the actual work needed to achieve the goal can begin.

Key to the sort of purposeful creation kuumba describes is the recognition of oneself in the generational continuum of one's community. Any creation using today's raw materials should honor our ancestors as well as support our children and our children's children.

From the standpoint of a student of herbalism, my fellow Chicago students and I travel as often as we can to my teacher's farm to help care for the specimen gardens and generally maintain the sacred nature sanctuary there. In classes and clinic in the city, we aim to help each other learn with the ultimate goal being to develop ourselves into better healers, thus reaching an even wider community. It is a conscious co-creation with each other, our teachers, our teachers' teachers, and the elements.

That's a very narrow example, of course. We can create many ways to better our communities -- we can "grow" people through education; we can build structures in which to gather for worship, art appreciation or commerce; we can honor our elders' dignity and instill that same dignity in our children by providing them with the best care; we can tell stories through various forms of art, plant trees and gardens, and be good stewards of the Earth.

But let's look at it from a less ambitious perspective: perhaps the most basic and literally nourishing way we can build community is often overlooked: Make and share a meal.


Poem for Kuumba/Creativity: "All that I have comes from my Mother!" by Luisah Teish

All that I have comes from my Mother!

I give myself over to this pot.

My thoughts are on the good,

the healing properties of this food.

My hands are balanced, I season well!

I give myself over to this pot.

Life is being given to me.

I commit to sharing, I feed others.

I feed She Who Feeds Me.

I give myself over to this gift.

I adorn this table with food.

I invite lovers and friends to come share.

I thank you for this gift.

All that I have comes from my Mother!

by Luisah Teish

How can you not feel part of a community when you are either hosting or invited to a meal prepared with love? Healing food prepared and shared with loving intention nurtures community on so many levels. It may not build community in so far-reaching a way as building a library or theater, sure. But it is a relatively simple ritual -- and a necessary one to boot! -- that can form and strengthen the nucleus of community. Whether it is a large feast or an intimate gathering of family and friends, the shared meal represents community and creativity at their most basic forms.

Teish's poem covers so much of what kuumba is about: the creation of a meal meant to nourish the community; use of healing foods harvested (probably organically and responsibly!) from Mother Earth, raw materials synthesized together into one delicious dish; generosity and the true spirit of sharing; and gratefulness for the source of the food and life in general, be it the Earth or the ancestors.

The chef finds joy in knowing where her food came from, how it is made, how it will be shared, and whom it will nourish. "I give myself over to this pot," she says, showing that she is generous with her food as well as her spirit and loving intent. This basic building block of conscious creativity to serve and share with a group can foster a togetherness that prepares all -- on a physical and emotional level -- to find the energy to better the community in more visible ways.


Dang guiHerb for Creativity: Dang Gui

Angelica sinensis, better known as dang gui, is the premier blood-building herb in the Chinese materia medica. As such, it is a specific tonic for women and is used for all sorts of gynecological complaints, including cramps, irregular periods and other menstrual disorders. It specifically treats symptoms of blood deficiency in both men and women, including ringing in the ears, dizziness, dry skin and hair, fatigue, limited flexibility, brain fog, and blurred vision.

Dang gui is unique as a blood tonic in that it also helps move the blood, which relieves pains of stagnant blood anywhere in the body. Its blood building and moving effects work best when taken in combination with other herbs to enhance its action for specific indications.

So why have I chosen dang gui to represent creativity? For this I choose to look at creativity from a very basic angle.

We all know it takes two to make a baby, but it is the woman who carries it while she and the fetus together create ten little fingers, ten little toes, two little eyes, and so forth. To do this, a woman must have enough blood in her body to support herself and the child within. Dang gui, with its famous blood-building qualities, indeed helps resolve issues of infertility and thus helps prepare a mother for the creation of new life. (Note, because this herb also moves blood, it is contraindicated for use during menses and pregnancy.)

From a slightly more general perspective, the proliferation of Blood, in traditional Chinese medicine, leads to a proliferation of well-nourished and harmonious Qi/energy, and vice versa.

In other words, this herb supports the future by helping to create a strong and safe atmosphere in the present. Sounds like kuumba to me!

As a final note to the nourishing properties of dang gui, and as an addendum to Luisah Teish's poem above, the Chinese administer this herb in a food-as-medicine stew including mutton or lamb and ginger as a postpartum meal for mothers who are experiencing abdominal pain (due in no small part to blood deficiency, having lost a lot of blood giving birth). The traditional recipe is simply one part dang gui, two parts fresh sliced ginger and five parts mutton simmered in eight cups of water until reduced by half. But here's a recipe for lamb, dang gui and ginger dumplings which would be fun to make and even more fun to share, especially with anyone in your community who might need a bit more warmth and energy this winter! (And here's a delicious-sounding recipe for steamed dang gui chicken.)

So, is kuumba/creativity for the sake of bettering our community just about cooking food and making babies? Of course not. These are just metaphors for consciously creating and nourishing a better future of healthy people able to shape a healthy and exuberant community. In any way you can, may you create with others a stronger and more beautiful community in 2009!

Thanks to Michael and East West for the honor and opportunity to contribute my thoughts here! Readers, I invite you to visit my personal blog, Herbis Orbis, for a discussion of a wide range of topics including herbalism, living with the seasons, and music. --- Anne de Courtenay

The theme for today, day seven of Kwanzaa, is Imani -- Faith: To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

The Struggle

Today's theme is particularly appropriate given the unsettling state of things throughout the world. Over the last eight years, the cynical elements, the very antithesis of faith, have grown in this country so that "we the people" have felt powerless in the face of the many fear-based decisions that we have allowed our representatives to make. We have to question whether we really are any safer than we were on 9-11. With the increasing disintegration of our nation's infrastructure, several things have become clear: the rise of energy and health costs, and the erosion of public education, an institution which the founding fathers of this country deemed essential for democracy.

We have allowed our body politic to be held hostage by huge corporate lobbies so that our leaders must govern having to weigh the cost of appeasing their corporate investors against the needs of the nation. Their failure to maintain adequate regulations of large corporate and financial institutions, which ultimately caused their collapse, was a massive betrayal of our trust. The inordinate amount of time, money and attention given by our leaders to attempt to "fix" this disastrous state of affairs led them to further neglect the needs of the people. No wonder we have lost faith in the system!

The election of Barack Obama -- in many ways, the most unlikely candidate for the presidency of the United States -- coincided with this series of events, reflecting a thirst for a completely new kind of leadership. But now we must guard against the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of excessive government control and increasing regulations that might threaten the our own personal liberties in other ways.

We are invited to an era of increased government transparency and to fearlessly present our views to our representatives.

So how is all of this relevant to health and healing and to an herbalist?

What herbal medicine teaches is that health represents a balance of various contrasting energies and forces in our bodies. This extends to a balance created with the outer world and nature. Finally, herbal medicine teaches that the first place to look for relief and assistance is in our immediate surroundings.

This demands responsible management of our natural resources by those who live closest to them and depend on them the most. These resources include fundamental necessities such as air, water, food, energy, and the places where we find them.

Hope for Energy

Many who are cynical say how alternative energy sources such as wind and solar cannot begin to supply our needs in the ways that petroleum has over the last 100 years. However, I think if each community, each household, each business, invested in producing their own energy from these sources, we might see a significant decrease in dependency from offshore energy reserves. We recently installed a solar system for our home in the low-lying hills boarding the coastal town of Santa Cruz. It was a big outlay of funds initially, but we are confident that whatever we spend today will be easily earned back within approximately seven years. You can't imagine the satisfaction of seeing the needle on the meter swinging in reverse, actually feeding energy back into the common grid for our community.

This approach to energy is ecological and free (maybe I shouldn't say anything, but so far there is no tax on wind and sunlight). Hopefully the Obama administration will set as a priority the kind of incentives that will enable more people to take advantage of these resources and in turn create new job opportunities. Imagine the possibility, if instead of having to pay rising fuel prices at the pump, we could supplement those needs by simply plugging our cars and appliances into free sources of energy!

Hope for Health Care

My particular interest in herbal medicine was fueled by the events of the late 1960s when increasing numbers of us who felt disaffiliated with the policies and directions of this country sought opportunities for greater autonomy and self-sufficiency. This led to the founding of communes throughout the country (including my own, Black Bear Commune in the wilderness of Northern California). In turn this movement led to the institution of collective farming, buying, co-ops, organic food, composting, recycling, free or low-cost clinics, and a number of less invasive and more natural alternative medicine modalities such as acupuncture and herbal medicine.

While not necessarily the best choice for all our medical needs, these healing therapies are capable of attending to at least 80 to 85% of the medical needs and conditions that afflict most people on a day-to-day basis and result in a burgeoning dependency on our limited conventional medical facilities. People routinely flood hospital emergency centers with fevers, abrasions and relatively minor respiratory, digestive and other complaints that can be easily attended to at home or by the local herbalist. In my clinical experience spanning over 35 years, I have personally seen a number of diseases efficiently resolved with herbs, acupuncture and other forms of skilled Asian physiotherapeutic modalities. These services are still largely not funded by insurance companies and certainly not by governmental agencies that are in the grip of the giant medical and pharmaceutical interests.

If we are really to develop a more equitable or universal health care system, it behooves us as the nation that in the past has shown itself to be pioneer for innovation to include these cheaper, less invasive health care modalities as options. There will always be those who prefer the quick fix of the magic bullet pill to relieve all symptoms, but there will also be those, who for various reasons, be they cost or preference, opt for a natural approach with diet and lifestyle modification, the use of herbs, acupuncture and other natural healing modalities.

It is up to "we the people" to inject this into the health care discussion of the Obama administration. He and his wife are descendants of a Black heritage where Africans used and continue to rely on the use of herbs and natural remedies for the majority of their minor health needs. Similarly, life as slaves on the plantations of the South necessitated people to continue to seek common plants and "weeds" for to maintain their health.

Just as we may not find a single alternative to fossil fuels for our energy needs, we need to take the same attitude with our health needs and be willing to employ a variety of means to assuage the many diseases that afflict a people on a daily basis.

We need a radical change of thinking when it comes to administering to people wracked by injury and disease. No profession represents the essence of compassion and caring as do the health professions. That is why we have so many hospital emergency services that at least in the past had to administer to those in need now and bill later. It is this area where hospital emergency wards are beleaguered by increasing numbers of the poor, immigrant and indigent at night, with insufficient numbers of medical attendants, that is at least partially driving up the cost of health care and leading to the closing of hospitals and community medical facilities.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States is indeed an occasion for renewed hope and faith. However, as he has so eloquently and repeatedly said, he cannot do what needs to be done alone. It will require many of us to insinuate ourselves into the various discussions on the economy, energy, education, health care, and so forth, and become actively involved in our communities and on a national level to have our voices and views heard.

On this the final day of Kwanzaa observance, I hope that we all can reach across the divisions of race, religion and politics to work together to create the kind of community and world that we want, keeping in mind that we live in a democracy that needs us to soften our individual demands, be they cultural, religious or otherwise, to allow for a diversity of views and opinions.

Poem for Faith: Forty Acres by Derek Walcott

Forty Acres
by Derek Walcott, written for Barack Obama

Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving -
a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and overalls,
an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd
dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed,
parting for their president: a field of snow-flecked
cotton forty acres wide, of crows with predictable omens
that the young ploughman ignores for his unforgotten
cotton-haired ancestors, while lined on one branch, is
a tense court of bespectacled owls and, on the field's
receding rim -
a gesticulating scarecrow stamping with rage at him.

The small plough continues on this lined page
beyond the moaning ground, the lynching tree, the tornado's
black vengeance,
and the young ploughman feels the change in his veins,
heart, muscles, tendons,
till the land lies open like a flag as dawn's sure
light streaks the field and furrows wait for the sower.

The meditation for this day should include the kind of outer and inner seeking that occurs to us when we see ourselves at night looking up to the stars with humility and dazzling wonder. At such rare moments we may experience a rare feeling of ease and calm knowing that in the vastness of creation there is always place for hope and faith to fill the void.


SkullcapHerb for Faith: Skullcap, Scutellaria laterifolia

The herb that I have chosen for today's theme is a beautiful low growing plant of the mint family commonly known as skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia). This plant has calming, nerve settling properties combined with gentle anti-inflammatory and detoxifying properties. As such, besides its use as a calming nervine, it has always had a special place in my medical armament for assisting in treating alcohol and drug addictions. I have given small doses of it hourly or every two hours for alcohol and drug addiction and found that people could go through the formidable withdrawal ordeal with minimal discomfort. The tea is always the best form and I recommend steeping two ounces of the dried herb in four cups of boiling water, covered for 20 minutes. This could be sweetened with a little honey if needed, or better yet the sweet, non-caloric herb from South America called stevia. To negate or lessen withdrawal symptoms I suggest that a half cupful be taken every waking hour during the withdrawal period and continued at a lesser dose of a cup three times daily for a week afterwards.

The herb is inexpensive, easily grown from small cuttings in most gardens and while it can be used for other neurological conditions ranging from insomnia to epilepsy, its special use as an herb to overcome addiction seems particularly appropriate as we explore ways to lessen our addiction to foreign oil, drugs (including medical drugs that could be supplanted with the use of herbs), and unnecessary conveniences that have the propensity to take us away from normal physical activities such as walking and interacting with each other.

Whether it be the last day of Kwanzaa or any other day, we can invoke a simple affirmation as part of our daily prayer meditation, "With peace and calm in my heart, I open myself to the inspiration that flows through me."

The meditation for today, the fourth day of Kwanzaa, is Ujamaa -- Cooperative Economics: To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.

In meditation on today's theme, I look back once again to my experience at Black Bear commune where our goal was to become as self-sufficient as possible through pooling our talents and resources. We found that through a combination of gathering, growing and raising our own food, and utilizing simple resources found or developed on the land, the cost to support and maintain a person was only $80 a year. No one felt deprived and nearly every evening there would be some form of communal singing and dancing or the opportunity to go off to some quiet place to read.

This did not mean that there were no challenges or problems. In fact there were many, much of them the result of our own ignorance and naivety concerning matters that other more successful tribal societies, through trial and error and with no alternative to pack up and leave (as we individually eventually did), learned to avoid. Lacking any agreed upon or enforceable principles and rules, we had no means to control who came down the long switchback dirt roads, how long they might stay, or when they might leave. This made for a more or less continuous state of instability.

In retrospect, my Black Bear experience ultimately showed that one need not run off and join a commune to experience the benefits of ujamaa. What it takes is vision and will to change. Perhaps it starts with inviting a few like-minded people to a friendly discussion about community. This may include family, friends or neighbors. What resources are they willing to share -- a seldom used piece of equipment, a portion of land to make a collective garden, a plan for collective buying or exchange of services, perhaps?

On a slightly larger scale, cooperative economics means developing small businesses and enterprises to fulfill the needs of one's immediate family, friends and community and whenever possible to employ those who are most able and dedicated to work and further develop themselves within those businesses and enterprises.

Even without the exceptional challenges of living in a wilderness commune like Black Bear, some of the steps toward cooperative economics I describe above may not only seem daunting and inconvenient, but downright counterintuitive to some. But take a moment to contrast this with the ensuing financial crisis of our times where people are losing their personal and collective autonomy to self-perpetuating corporate greed.

The root of selfish hoarding and greed is fear and insecurity. This in turn impedes the free flow and availability of energy, which in economics equates to money. This has an adverse effect on all of society, which includes the economies of the entire world.

Society as a whole always suffers when its economy is solely based on "winners and losers," which allows an increasingly disproportionate small number to advance at the expense of the larger majority. This type of cold, unbridled capitalism leads to exploitation, persecution, poverty, crime, war and terrorism. People with no meaningful way within the law to oppose oppression eventually feel justified in resorting to acts of terrorism and violence.

As we learned in part from yesterday's meditation on collective work and responsibility, one always has a choice. Why would you choose to support an economy like the one I've just described where there exists a much more compassionate and intelligent option?

No society is without its problems and challenges. The point of this day's meditation is only to show that through cooperation and sharing it is possible to expand the limited number of loaves and fishes to attend to the basic needs of many.


Cooperative Economics: All You Need Is Love by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Love Is All You Need

Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love.

There's nothing you can do that can't be done.

Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.

Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game

It's easy.

There's nothing you can make that can't be made.

No one you can save that can't be saved.

Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time

It's easy.

All you need is love, all you need is love,

All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love.

All you need is love, all you need is love,

All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

There's nothing you can know that isn't known.

Nothing you can see that isn't shown.

Nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be.

It's easy.

All you need is love, all you need is love,

All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

All you need is love (all together now)

All you need is love (everybody)

All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

-- Lennon/McCartney, Magical Mystery Tour, 1968

The lyrics of this song are so out there that it requires a certain level of letting go in order to embrace its meaning.

To put it simply, all is dependent on the power and intention of love to allow anything that is worthwhile to occur. We needn't delude ourselves that love somehow boils down to any overt act, but we should always strive to allow it to be the spirit behind all our exchanges with each other, including our business activities. I think if we operate from the place that "I gain when you gain" (perhaps using this as a basis for meditation), we have the essence of today's Kwanzaa theme, Ujamaa/cooperative economics.


ginsengastragalusHerbs for Ujamaa: Ginseng and Astragalus

Two herbs come to mind as I contemplate what it takes to invoke the powers necessary for "cooperative economics:" ginseng and astragalus.

Ginseng is the major herb used not simply to stimulate and therefore exhaust energy (as does coffee and other stimulants), but it actually builds and increases energy by increasing cellular mitochondria and the creation of ATP, the physiological basis of physical life energy.

There are two major types of ginseng: American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) and Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng). Both are powerful energy-building tonics. American ginseng has a somewhat cooler, less stimulating effect, while Chinese and Korean ginsengs are warmer and more stimulating. Forget about the popular sodas and caffeinated energy drinks that claim to have ginseng in them. Usually it is present in quantities insufficient to have any value, and is of poor quality at that. Unlike the true energy-building properties of ginseng, the effect of these drinks is based on stimulants such as caffeine which draws from our energy reserves, and when abused can lead to adrenal exhaustion.

Planetary Herbals has several products that include ginseng, including pure ginseng tablets. Personally I make it a point to take two of these each morning. This is not a full therapeutic dose, but is enough to gently build and maintain our daily energy needs. For those complaining of chronic low energy, I recommend taking two tablets three times daily with warm water to help assimilation.

Astragalus is another herb used as an energy-building tonic with the additional virtue of increasing the protective energy of the body against pathogenic corruption. Thus, astragalus symbolizes our ability to channel the power of the four elements of nature to outwardly manifest our immediate needs as well as our highest dreams and goals. The Chinese include astragalus as the major herb in a formula called Jade Screen, which protects against catching colds, flus and other diseases.

Together, these two herbs' healing and spiritual properties symbolize the energy, trust, focus and protection needed to build a cooperative economy.


The meditation for today, the fifth day of Kwanzaa, is Nia -- Purpose: To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

America is a great country because we are all here! Aren't you great? Aren't I? We're all great. Can you rise above your layered guilt and low self-esteem to say, "I'm great - and you're great too"?

What makes us feel the most pride? We can feel pride for all kinds of things about ourselves but too often it's directed to those things that our actions and decisions have the least to do with -- our race, the place where we are born, the country we live in, and so forth. This is natural, but for me, my actions, work and accomplishments are the greatest source of my pride. I don't think I'm better than anyone; I'm just talking about that moment after you've completed a worthwhile task when you can stand back for a few seconds and say, "Wow! That turned out pretty darn good!"

I can't imagine anything worse than awakening in the morning with nothing to look forward to and nothing to do. Thankfully, this hardly ever happens. If that were part of my daily reality, I think it might be time to die and make room for someone else who might be able to find something useful to do with their lives. Yet I'm afraid that too many people who have allowed their dreams and hopes to be beaten down since childhood awaken each day like that.

Anything we do must be done with the spirit that it is something we all can share some satisfaction and benefit from, or it's just another exercise in loneliness - and that's not much fun. Ideally, one's source of income should be a job or career that one can feel some personal pride and fulfillment in doing. Those who are self employed usually have little problem finding this perspective, but one may also be fortunate enough to have an employer who allows one the dignity to experience his or her personal accomplishment and satisfaction to the full and share in the profits.

One thing we need to remember is to always leave room for those who need to look deeper or higher for a purpose. These are the visionaries. They are the artists, poets, painters, musicians and scientists who of necessity must be given the resources to indulge themselves in the search of rarer accomplishments; accomplishments that require time and whose purpose many of us may not immediately see or understand.

This was one of the shortcomings of my life at the Black Bear Commune. Practical needs involving daily survival, involving kitchen duty, clean up, child care, pulling weeds, milking goats, chopping wood, etc., were so immediate in terms of our needs that those of us who at times went off to paint a painting, write a poem, compose music, or even study plants and herbs were seen as shirking their responsibility and duty to the commune. Those of us who had the calling and inspiration for these kinds of activities just had to take that time but it would have been better if everyone respected and appreciated the value in terms of our greater life together.

One day, the beatnik poet, Diane Di Prima, a friend of Elsa Marley (herself an extraordinary artist and poet), came down the road to live at Black Bear Commune. She decided make her home in the loft of the barn. In it she put up beautiful clothes and tapestries and exhibited the art treasures that she had acquired, welcoming us all to come up and appreciate them and the space she created any time. Below, a spirit of resentment was stirring concerning the contrast of someone "owning" (I prefer to regard it as "caring for") objects that possibly had considerable monetary value while everyone at the ranch was always scrambling to see how to get enough money for building supplies, tools, or the next run for food staples. I really appreciated and was proud of the space that Diane had created and enjoyed hanging out in the wonderfully warm, exotic space she had created in our barn loft, above the cow and goat herd. It didn't take more than two weeks for the negative rumbling of resentment to reach virtually threatening proportions. One morning around 4:30 a.m., I saw Diane hurrying up the road with all of her books, art, sculpture, tapestries and so forth, to skedaddle out of the ranch before others took it upon themselves to rip her off. I think it was a sad day for Black Bear.

For me, the moral of the story was that apart from all our practical needs, purpose must leave room for deliberate, focused purposelessness to impart that added special meaning that I think reflects our higher purpose.

Ron Karenga at Kwanzaa celebrationDespite my suggestion that Kwanzaa might be a universal celebration, it is impossible to ignore the fact that its founder Maulana Ron Karenga intended it as a special celebration for the African Americans. Kwanzaa was founded by Karenga in 1966 in Long Beach, CA, a year after the infamous Watts riots.

Only 43 years later, we have just elected Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States. Obama never said or implied, "I'm black and therefore it's time that I get elected president"; nor did the Democratic Party he represented say or imply, "Let's give a black man a leg up and a lift to the presidency of this historically racist country." We the people saw him as the best candidate for the job and he was elected based on his talent, charisma, skill and ability to communicate to the needs and concerns of the broader base of the American people.

I know it may not be entirely true yet, but I'd like to think that the pervasive worldwide acceptance and high regard for jazz and rhythm and blues; numerous black athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Jerry Rice, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, just to name a few; and the incredibly wealthy humanitarian, Oprah Winfrey, shows that we Americans have finally arrived at the place where race indeed represents nothing more than the color of one's skin or other superficial characteristics.

So there's a question here: Are we as a nation ready to move ourselves even measurably away from considerations of race?

Are we coming to the "America" Langston Hughes describes in the following poem?


Purpose: Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed

And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--

The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,

We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!


Herb for Purpose: Atractylodes Alba

Purpose is not simply something that we find, but a quality that we have -- the power to actively impart meaning to any endeavor of our life. Somebody, sometime, somewhere had to see and impart logic and purpose to just about any and everything we can imagine. This is a divine quality.

This implies that it is our prerogative and choice to impart and see purpose to anything we may do. We can help each other in that and I suppose that is where the collective or community support aspect is valuable, but ultimately it is up to the individual to awaken to it in his or her own life. Some of us are given or find great, creative work to do, those fortunate people may find it easier to see immediate and long term purpose and reward to their work. Others may find it difficult to see the greater purpose in a monotonous occupation.

However, it is possible to lose one's sense of purpose regardless what the task may be. People who commit suicide may be considered to have lost a sense or purpose for living. For the despairing teenager losing his or her first love, shamed before their peers, failing in school -- when one gets to the place where suicide appears as an option, sense of meaning and purpose is either absent or at critical low point.

The point is, purpose is a choice. Consider those who live in the most oppressive and abject circumstances, subjected to tyranny and oppression. Anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela served 27 years in one of the worst prisons in South Africa only to emerge as South Africa's first democratically elected president, and went on to lead his nation through a period of reconciliation. One can cite countless other examples, but suffice it to say that such individuals obviously possess a strong sense of meaning and purpose that allow them to persevere.

Purpose is a divine attribute that we bring to our work. We can help each other achieve this by serving as an inspiration for those with whom we are in close association.

Atractylodes alba is a Chinese herb that is used as a Qi tonic with the specific attribute of firing up digestion, helping the body to sort through and find appropriate purpose for the many and various nutrients in food. Herbalists believe that good digestion is the foundation to health. Without it our body suffers gradual and progressive malnutrition which leads to a plethora of acute and chronic diseases.

Atractylodes is seldom taken by itself but can be combined with other qi tonic herbs such as ginseng and astragalus described for the fourth day of Kwanzaa's theme, "cooperative economics," to amplify their effects by further enhancing digestion and assimilation. In the same way one can easily imagine how adding a sense of meaning and purpose to any of our solitary or collective endeavors enhances their value.

The meditation theme for today, the third day of Kwanzaa, is Ujima -- Collective Work and Responsibility.

I can hardly reflect on this theme without considering my own experiences as a Digger -- a hippie living in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district from 1967-69. These years of my life, considered now the zenith of the hippie revolution, finally culminated with myself and others founding a wilderness community known as Black Bear Commune in the mountains of Northern California. (The photo below is one of a much younger me at Black Bear.)

Michael at Black BearDuring those years, thousands of young people throughout America found themselves smitten with the wanderlust for a new life purpose. This quest often used the promise of love, sex, and rock and roll as its rudder, but in the highest sense it was a search for community based on principles of "do-your-thing' self-determination, sharing and openness -- all based on what I generally believe to be a well-founded conviction in the essential goodness of humanity.

In my community we learned that it was possible to share so many parts of ourselves with each other -- our homes, food, methods of transportation, bodies, minds, spirit, art, music and yes, even drugs -- and no one would be the lesser for having participated. In fact, it was quite the opposite; we learned that by voluntarily pooling our resources we were greater than the sum of our proverbial parts. Then it dawned on us that with a cruel illegal Viet Nam war looming in the background, and the struggle for racial and gender equality raging on all around us, we were participating in a movement that was soon seen as a threat to the principles of a society and politic that was antithetic to our young ideals. We aimed to build a culture and community counter to a society that sought to control individuals by keeping "we the people" separate and alienated from each other.

The fact is that in our time, there is more than enough of all the necessities to go around. We could feed thousands at a love-in in Golden Gate Park by barbecuing the meat of a freshly dead whale from a marine biology lab up the Northern California coast. The still very edible discarded unsold produce that filled the waste bins behind giant supermarkets was practically enough to feed a community of large multiple dwelling homes in the Haight. With the spirit of sharing openness on the part of its legal owners, one truck that would otherwise spend most of its time unused and parked on the street was used to pick up and deliver these and other useful goods to the places where they were needed. What's more, it was all done in a spirit of goodwill and joyous satisfaction. It was a "thing" that someone was eager and happy to do, and others were able to benefit from this union of generosity, joy and action. There was nothing to steal or take because whatever there was belonged to all.

In short, it was the picture of ujima -- all of us took reponsibility for one another and worked collectively to achieve a harmonious community.

Foreseeing the collapse and devolution of the hippie/Haight Ashbury culture (which was partially because the media kept blowing it up and inevitably more and more unsavory elements mixed with drugs took its toll,) I and some friends purchased land in the Klamath mountains with a down payment provided from various "weekend warrior" Hollywood and rock band types. In the autumn of 1968 about 30 of us moved out onto the land, named Black Bear Ranch. At first it truly represented our "back to Eden" mythos. It was a place with two year-round running creeks you could drink and fish from, endless miles of national forest (these were the days before the U.S. Forest Service designated such wild tracks as "tree farms"), no electricity or telephone, and a few broken down shacks. By the time we got there, we had barely enough time to truck in a winter's store of food and put up a pile of wood for to provide heat for the next six months or so. We soon learned the value and meaning of interdependent survival, making the most of our collective pool of scant experience and whatever tools we could find.

This is where I seriously began to explore the wild plants and other possible sources for food and medicine we could derive from our natural surroundings. The goal was ultimately to become completely self-sufficient and freed as much as possible from a money-based economy. Even then we sensed the fall of the American capitalist empire (which may or may not be occurring at this very moment).

In any case I learned many powerful and valuable lessons about collective consciousness from that wilderness experience -- life lessons that few of us living in our ticky-tacky little separate boxes we call home might hope to earn. We really are a tribal people and when we find ourselves in close daily intimate contact with a group of people based on interdependent survival, everyday life events and people assume mythic proportions. People tend to fulfill certain needed roles in a society if they are left to sort things out on their own as opposed to being told what niche to fill. I gravitated toward the herbalist, healer, and shaman; others became the kid care people; others, the garden care people, the animal care people, the art people, the kitchen people, the construction and repair people - all of this just naturally occurred without any pre- agreed upon assignments. Again, it was the power of "do your own thing" in action. For me it seemed uncanny but strangely natural. What's more, we each eventually grew to resemble the various gods and goddesses of ancient mythology, and I learned first-hand how those myths evolved.

Another valuable thing I learned was that sharing cooperatively was the most ecological and economical way to live. We only needed one or two vehicles for the ranch, one being a mandatory truck. People shared tools and learned to maintain them for each other. I learned how natural it is that around the early spring, living off the land, one naturally gets low on animal protein and we just naturally eat less and shed the winter stores of fat. I also learned that living off the land as a vegetarian was, practically speaking, impossible. Our life together as a wilderness tribe convinced me that we are first a hunter/gatherer people, requiring fish and game to survive, along some wild edible plants which were the first to appear in the early spring. Living off the land as we did, we watched a agrarian lifestyle naturally arise with goat and cow's milk, but we also relied for food on fish (salmon were abundant in the nearby rivers and creeks), deer and even an occasional bear or mountain lion.

(By the way, if you want to see a video that only hints at what communal life was like at Black Bear Commune, I suggest you rent the documentary "Commune" which I'm told is now the fifth top-rented Netflix film.)

So on this day of Kwanzaa and the next, let us meditate on our primal roots as an interdependent people, reliant on the earth and all its gifts and changes, but more importantly, each other. Consider the opposite: how utterly difficult it would be to have to survive totally by ourselves! The relationships and societies we create are not only to generate rivalry and confusion but also to at least make it possible for each of us to achieve a level of self-sufficiency so that a few of us at least can rear our very inquisitive heads above the herd to see and help prepare for what's ahead -- and yes, most importantly, to inspire us to a vision of unity.

Collective Work and Responsibility: "I Hear American Singing" by Walt Whitman

The poem for the today's theme of ujima is by one of my all-time favorite poets, Walt Whitman:

I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day- at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.


marijuanagoldensealHerbs for Ujima: Marijuana and Goldenseal

My choice of herbs for our theme today is informed by my personal experience: Marijuana and Goldenseal. These were two of the most influential and widely used herbs during the inception of the Black Bear wilderness community (and by hippies in general).

If truth be known, the mid-20th century herbal movement was begun with marijuana -- and we did happily inhale. Marijuana is currently finding deserved appreciation not only by those who use it recreationally but from the medical community. While frequent use of marijuana leads to a state of apathy and delusion which is counterproductive to health and well being, marijuana and all intoxicating herbs have and continue to play a vital role in human society -- as a way breaking free of our stuck fixations, compulsions and obligations enough to see that somehow there are always at least several different realities operating or possible at any given time. In other words, we should always remember that we always have a choice. Ever notice how things tend to work themselves out whether we choose to play an active role or not? (For an illustration of this, I highly recommend that you rent the old 1938 Frank Capra movie masterpiece, "You Can't Take It with You.")

Goldenseal is an intensely bitter herb so that indeed it tends to serve as the "bitter brew" that serves as an antidote to our overindulgences that lead to liver congestion, toxicity, and stagnant inflammatory diseases. 

The hippie bibles included the books "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert A. Heinlein and "Back to Eden" by the naturopathic doctor Jethro Klos. Jethro Klos was big on the use of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and until I rediscovered echinacea, it was the go-to herb for all infections and inflammations. It is still pretty good for those conditions taken both internally in a powder (usually put into gelatin capsules) and applied externally to infected sores and wounds. With herbalism going mainstream we have learned that the wild stands of North American goldenseal are endangered and so we should generally insist on using only organically cultivated goldenseal.

KwanzaaMany of us have heard of the African-American celebration called Kwanzaa, but I must confess that I along with the majority have not known what it actually is.

Reading a recent article published in the Los Angeles Daily News, I was happy to learn that this may be one seasonal celebration that I could completely embrace if for no other reason than the fact that it is not yet weighed down with the rank commercialism that all but overshadows the true meaning of Christmas -- which, to the best of my universalist religious thinking, is the celebration of the birth of a "God of Love." Indeed, when we pull aside the greed-thickened "tinsel-ly" veil where the presents we receive or did not receive obscures any deeper meaning to the holiday, many of us become disheartened as we see our friends and family overrun with greed mania in their inevitably unfulfilled search for ultimate self-satisfaction.

I come to the writing of this entry as Christmas day in my home and family has wound down, and at this late hour I may not have the opportunity to prepare for a full-on Kwanzaa celebration. I hope that next year I will be better prepared, with a specially set aside table or altar, with the kinara or seven candles, three green and three red with one central black candle in honor of the Black race. Those who may have difficulty singling out a particular ethnic race can look at it as a symbol of the geographical origin of the human race, which according to archeological consensus, seems to be on the African continent. One might also consider the extent to which black people -- long the minority in Europe and North America and who continue to rise to prominence in artistic, athletic, intellectual, social and certainly political spheres, with the election of the first black African-American (or mixed blood) person to the American presidency -- have in the past embraced "white"-oriented holidays and celebrations.

The seven-day celebration of Kwanzaa conveniently begins on December 26, the day after Christmas, providing a second chance for us to "get it right" through following, in our own way, what it means in the highest sense to be human through the specific observances of each day. One meditates each day on the meaning of a different theme and discusses it with family and friends. Hopefully these observances prepare us to usher in a new year of positive resolve on our wonderful mother, planet Earth, and to give back the fruits of our minds and physical labors for the betterment of all. (Check out this website for a more comprehensive discussion on the meaning and observance of Kwanzaa.)

The daily observances of the seven days of Kwanzaa are as follows:

Day 1 - Unity

Day 2 - Self-determination

Day 3 - Collective work

Day 4 - Responsibility

Day 5 - Cooperative economics

Day 6 - Purpose

Day 7 - Creativity and faith

As part of my Kwanzaa celebration this year, I would like to share with you a poem and herb each day on the above themes.


Unity: "I Have Learned So Much" by Hafiz

Today, December 26, is the first day of Kwanzaa and the reflection is on Unity.

Here is a poem on the theme of unity by the 14th-century Sufi Persian mystic and poet Hafiz, as translated and interpreted by Daniel Ladinsky:

I Have Learned So Much

So much from God
That I can no longer
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself
With me
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even pure

Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed
Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known.

comfrey by MdEHerb of Unity: Comfrey

As an herbalist, I believe that herbs possess spiritual powers. Of course, all plants and creatures are derived from a single life source and therefore have spiritual energy. How we choose to focus our attention in a particular way on a particular plant such as its growing habit, color, location, form, healing properties and uses, empowers it through our intention with special spiritual powers.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinalis) has the power power to mend torn flesh, broken bones, sores and ulcers. As a plant, comfrey itself is practically indestructible. Its roots reach deep down many feet into the subsurface of the soil, availing itself of all the rich mineral elements of the earth that in turn allow it to be used to heal and mend. All parts of the plant can be used with the mucilaginous root being the most healing.

In recent years, comfrey has suffered from the revelation that it contains varying but small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Other plants which contain these alkaloids can cause a deadly condition called "veno-occlusive disease." Plants are biochemically complex and contain hundreds of constituents, some of which in isolation are indeed poisonous.

However, out of generations of people who have and continue to take comfrey, my own years of use and promoting its use in seminars to thousands of people, I have yet to find a single case where one can ascribe such an adverse result from it. This doesn't mean that it isn't possible; different people can manifest what is called an "idiosyncratic" reaction to just about anything, be it a food, drink or an herb such as comfrey. Comfrey root remains one of the most fantastic herbs for healing fractures and collapsed spinal disks, while at the same time relieving pain associated with these conditions.

To use comfrey, simmer three heaping tablespoons of the dried root or about twice that amount of the fresh, finely chopped root in 3.5 cups of boiling water in a covered pot over a low flame for 20 minutes. Have one cup three times daily for two weeks. Then take a break for a week or so before repeating. At the same time you can get obtain the positive results from comfrey by applying a warm external fomentation of the tea directly over the affected area. For a back injury, one can take a flannel shirt and moisten the part of the shirt that is in contact with the affected area of the body and wear it to bed each night with a plastic covering to protect the bedding. For a wrist, elbow or knee injury, simply moisten a similar cloth, lightly ring it out and apply directly over the affected joint covering with plastic and leaving it on through the night. This external use of comfrey is completely safe to do over a long period of weeks or months as needed.

Sprinkling a little cayenne powder on the cloth will further activate the properties of comfrey.

So as we meditate on the theme of unity, consider how the power of an herb such as comfrey can heal and unify broken and disparate aspects of our body and mind into a stronger and new unity with ourselves and the world.

Cyperus Rotundus by Arria BelliThe meditation for yesterday, the first day of Kwanzaa, was: Umoja (Unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

I tried to meditate on this theme yesterday after my family's exchange of gifts as Lesley and I took a walk up a hill near our home in the low-lying hills above Santa Cruz. It was a drizzly, overcast morning.

Now, Lesley has a wider stride than I, and I found it a distracting challenge to keep up with her. She, on the other hand, looking for a cardiovascular workout, experienced some annoyance with my intention to follow the dictates of my own somewhat shorter stride. I recalled how we've experienced this problem in the past and thought, "If we are not even able to experience unity of being able to walk side by side, how can I expect that religions and the many other aspects that divide humankind from one another, be expected to achieve the noble realization of unity?"

In fact, it seemed that the day was engineered to test my definition and subjective experience of umoja/unity: Just before breakfast, I had a difference with my 25 year-old concert pianist son, Chetan, concerning the musical intention and significance of a single note varied in a repeated passage that he was practicing in Brahms' Piano Trio in C Minor op 101. In the heat of trying to learn this particularly ecstatic musical phrase, Chetan decided that the difference of only a single note of the repetition was a mistake of the composer. I tried to convince him how much changing a single note in a passage, flatting the third of a major triad for instance, can change a passage from a brighter optimistic tone to that of mysterious brooding intimacy. This wasn't a simple minor third change but an altered note that upon repetition still seemed to add to the expression of this remarkable work. We couldn't find common ground on this issue. Disunity strikes again!

Even periodically repeating the phrase "all is one" in my meditation on unity, which moved me into a wonderful state of inner peace and calm, was promptly frayed by the events described above!

I'm sure any of you who have had the not untypical holiday family experience over the last few days have experienced similar chaos and disunity. If, as I did yesterday, you get worked up with the expectation to make unity happen between yourself and others whom you love and care about, you may find that when it doesn't happen in even the most trivial situation, it can cause disgruntled feelings. It seems that each year as the holidays approach we seem to forget the previous years' challenges and confrontations that arise around the broader issue of family unity. As we plan for the holidays, some of us vow to avoid the same pitfalls of the previous years... but inevitably "stuff happens" and a sour note is struck amidst the festive cheer.

I think I would have had better success if my meditation and discussion on unity was done as part of a ritual with others, which is what Kwanzaa provides. However, this only seems to beg the question of what value is it to spout noble ideas and thoughts as part of a ritual if we are unable to practically implement those as part of our daily life and interaction with others?

Having said this, I don't think that all was for naught and that there is at least something to be said for performing an action with positive intention as opposed to the plethora of bleak news reports of serial killing, terrorism, genocide, financial greed, loss of life's savings, joblessness, environmental endangerment, home foreclosures along with the violent forms of entertainment we turn to in order to distract and dull our awareness of these negative aspects which seem to permeate our daily lives.

Taken in light of the above, I would have to say that my personal attempt to practically find unity between myself, others and the world that I live is eminently a worthwhile endeavor.

Kwanzaa Day Two Theme: Self-Determination

Let's turn to the theme of the second day's Kwanzaa contemplation: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) -- To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

Here is some verse -- a prayer, really -- specially selected for "Self-Determination:"

Meditation (in Swahili)

K'a má fi kánjú j'aiyé.
K'a má fi wàrà-wàrà n'okùn orò.
Ohun à bâ if s'àgbà,
K'a má if se'binu.
Bi a bá de'bi t'o tútù,
K'a simi-simi,
K'a wò'wajú ojo lo titi;
K'a tun bò wá r'èhìn oràn wo;
Nitori àti sùn ara eni ni.

Let us not engage the world hurriedly.
Let us not grasp at the rope of wealth impatiently.
That which should be treated with mature judgment,
Let us not deal with in a state of anger.
When we arrive at a cool place,
Let us rest fully;
Let us give continuous attention to the future;
and let us give deep consideration to the consequences of things.
And this because of our (eventual) passing.

Eji Ogbe -- The Odu Ifa


I was not able to find a worthwhile poem on ‘self-determination' that I thought was good enough to serve as a basis for this second day's theme. However after much thought and consideration I remembered the great essay, "Self-Reliance," by the mid-19th century America transcendental philosopher, poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This is a long essay that far exceeds the bounds of a blog but I can't think of a more appropriate statement encompassing the essence behind the idea of self-determination than this brilliant, oft quoted essay by Emerson.

In working up to preparing this entry, I read this essay again and realized that the last time I read it I was in my early teens. It was a fascinating experience to re-read the essay almost 60 years later.

When I read such phrases as:

"Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist,"


"He walks abreast with his days and feels no shame in not 'studying a profession', for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances,"

or who hasn't heard or repeated the proverb, "God helps those who help themselves,"

-- I realize that the precepts and principles Emerson expounds upon in this essay have supported my own life journey and the measure of fulfillment and success I have been able to experience throughout.

I think Emerson would be in full agreement with my personal view that all of what we accomplish in the world is manifested and directed by the invisible inner reigns of the will.

Cyperus for Self-Determination

As an herbalist, I choose the herb cyperus to correspond with self-determination, because cyperus is used to regulate energy or qi. One must be able to control their qi in order to appropriately direct their will. It is a common weed, with species and subspecies growing throughout the world, considered a noxious weed by most Western gardeners. Little used by Western herbalists, it is  widely used in as a medicinal herb China, India and in certain tribes in the Peruvian Amazon jungle where it is used to prevent conception. This is probably because of Oxytocin fungus that naturally occurs in the damp soil of that region of the world. In any case it should be strictly avoided if one wants to become pregnant or during pregnancy.

Cyperus rotundus is also known as xiang fuin Chinese herbal medicine and it is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to regulate qi and relieve the tendency of stagnant liver qi, which according to TCM theory is the cause of a wide variety of common imbalances, ranging from digestive complaints, chest pains, painful and irregular menstruation to depression and moodiness. All of these are regarded as "irregular qi" for which cyperus along with a number of other herbs would be employed. Other than precautions against using it during pregnancy, it is a wonderful herb to relieve menstrual irregularity and attendant pains and is otherwise considered a perfectly safe and harmless. In fact, certain California American natives used the roots of this herb as a food.

In 2008, Planetary Formulas (now renamed "Planetary Herbals" to account for many of the single herbs that have been incorporated into the line) turned 25 years old. In honor of this occasion, Lesley and I were sponsored by the company to attend the country's largest natural products exposition shows, Natural Products Expo West and and Natural Products Expo East. Planetary's owner, Ira Goldberg, generously arranged to send us out to both shows with all expenses paid. All we had to do was spend time at the Planetary Herbals booth; I autographed and gave away copies of my book Planetary Herbology and Lesley did the same with her outstanding book, Healing with the Herbs of Life.

The Expo West is always held in March in Anaheim, California, and Expo East is held in Boston in October. While I've been to many of the ones held on the West coast, last weekend was the first time I've ever attended the one in Boston.

A much younger me!As you can imagine it's a delight but still somewhat intimidating to have a man walk up to the booth and say how 30 years ago (by the way, check out the photo at left of a much younger me -- probably closer in appearance to how this man remembered me), when I was still using iridology as my diagnostic modality, I read his eyes and gave him an herbal and dietary program that changed his life, ultimately leading him to work in the industry ever since.

(While today I decry such ambiguous healing methods as iridology and kinesiology especially for my own students, I also believe that somehow if we are doing our work with the right intention to assist others on their path, whatever methods that are or were available seem to be just perfect and right for that moment.)

Then there was a woman who said she met me when she was 17 and I was teaching herbology at Heartwood College (now closed) in Santa Cruz. She told me that I somehow motivated her to pursue natural healing and nutrition as a career ... and she is now 55!

It's like a vague dream, that parade of people, faces and personalities that have passed by and through my sphere and claim to have been influenced by me. I act delighted and astonished, but the reality for me is that I was only me then, since, and now, nothing more nor less. Certainly I feel blessed to be told periodically how I have been the instrument for another's advancement and well-being, but from my point of view, there really was nothing else for me to do. I was always only doing my thing, and part of my thing is learning and sharing whatever I have gleaned with others.

Then lo and behold, there was the macrobiotic guru Michio Kushi, walking along with his wife and another Japanese friend, perusing the circus of natural products at the expo. Counting macrobiotics as one of the major past influences of my career, steeped in the teachings of George Ohsawa, Michio Kushi and a few others whom I consider as heroes, I found myself like one of my own admirers mentioned above, walking up to the gaunt, mid-80s Kushi, shaking his hand and thanking him for the powerful influence he has had on my life.

I remembered how many questions I had always wanted to ask him, such as "Why did Ohsawa reverse the definition of Yin and Yang, making macrobiotics obsolete for Chinese acupuncturists?" But realizing that I had already answered those questions satisfactorily for myself, I let it pass, just grateful for shaking his warm hand and thanking him for his brilliant teachings.

In the old days when I was a beatnik and later living as a hippie in Haight Ashbury, we had a name for people who frequented the places where we congregated and lived on the weekends or evenings after a "straight" job: we called them "weekend warriors." At the Natural Food Expos it seems the reverse; the liberals and ex-hippies who attend the events donning suits and ties, fancy and straight garb, are like weekend warriors in reverse, so to speak. They really are a dizzying array of contenders in the industry who are vying for greater credibility and respectability as they try to make a buck for what are essentially the simplest things: good quality, wholesome, organic foods and products.

But like any other commercial enterprise, it is nothing short of astounding to see what some people are willing and trying to do to make money - better paper, better water, better whole grains, better bags to carry the stuff around in, questionable overpriced homeopathic products -- the emperor parading in the booths up and down the isle indeed wearing no clothes, but no one dares to say so (after all, they paid their several thousand dollars to be there, and they have as much a right as anyone to their B.S.).

So the shows are actually fun for two to a maximum of four hours ... and then, as your gut feels a little queasy from the mixture of who knows what you ate as you were grazing from the thousands of free samples, which you begin to realize that like other such things were there may be inevitably more sham than virtue, it becomes tiresome and you'd really like to leave.

As one booth operator said as I walked past his flavored water booth, "I've got another three days to put up with this bullshit!"

Thankfully, I missed the usual bellyache described above because I decided not to sample everything or anything that struck my fancy, realizing that some of this stuff alone or in combination is probably not without some minor health risk. So, while it may not be the most glamorous fare, I managed to be sure to have whatever fermented foods I could find. This turned out to be some prepackaged miso soup and macrobiotic sauerkraut. That really helped.

I couldn't help feeling some pity for the few vendors who scraped their last few thousand together to purchase a booth space and didn't have enough to even have a real display, and only managed a lone person. It's a matter of too little too late and you're out.

But back to herbs and therapies that work. I'm teaching a class on herbal baths and soaks at the American Herbalists Guild Annual Symposium this weekend, so allow me to tip my hat to Michio Kushi by providing you the recipe for the following wonderful bath from the Japanese macrobiotic tradition, of which Kushi has been the leading exponent for at least 40 or more years.

Ginger Hip Bath: This bath is very helpful in case of serious dysentery. For less severe diarrhea, you can make the ginger water less concentrated: use about 1/2 pound of ginger for 8 quarts of water.

  • Grate 1 pound of fresh ginger and put it in a cotton bag.
  • Bring 8 quarts of water to a boil.
  • Prepare ginger water by squeezing out the ginger juice into the pot of boiling water.
  • Pour the ginger water in a tub, add more water and take the bath as hot as you can stand it.
  • To take a hip bath, ideally only have the sex organs and the lower abdomen immersed in the water. If you cannot find a small tub for this purpose, use an ordinary tub and sit in it with your knees pulled up and the feet resting on the bottom of the tub.

Ginger bath taken as a whole bath: Add ordinary ginger water to a whole body bath. This is very stimulating and yet relaxing.

Ginger bath taken as a footbath and/or hand bath: Use ordinary ginger water. This bath is good in cases of rheumatism, arthritis or gout.

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