Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How to Become a Master Herbalist in Thirty Years or More -- Part II

In the last few years I've come across a number of people taking or teaching "Master Herbalist" programs. It always makes me cringe to hear the phrase. It is counter intuitive to me that one can become a master by taking a year long program. To me a master herbalist is someone who has had many years of practice. One of my herbal heros is Hua Tou. Even though he was the most famous herbalist in China during his time, he disguised himself to learn from other herbalists anonymously. I now tell the students in my classes, some of whom are in Master Herbalist programs, that I am a Junior Herbalist. Hopefully after reading this article, you can understand why.

How to Become a Master Herbalist in Thirty Years or More -- Part II by Paul Bergner, North American Institute of Medical Herbalism, Medical Herbalism Journal

Mastery of any topic is attained after years to decades of becoming fully engaged not only in the field, but being constantly engaged with a level of rigor and practice that steadily expands and also deepens understanding of the facts and principles of that field or topic. The master brings the subject completely alive in their own being and experience. Ultimately their career is characterized by various threshhold events of understanding and insight which contribute new understanding for the current generation and a legacy for future generations. Those thresholds are made possible by an intuitive synthesis of many facts and observations during the career leading up to them. This process among the teachers and leaders and innovators in a field is how that field stays current and alive throughout generations.

The 10,000 hour rule

A study of classical musicians at a Berlin academy of classical music investigated students in three tracks in the school: The Star track, headed for world fame in classical music; the middle track, headed for the St Louis Philharmonic; and the teacher track, less skilled and headed to teach music in high school. Researchers asked the simple question: How much weekly practice time have you put in year by year since your started playing your instrument? The results: star track musicians had put in at least 10,000 hours of practice. The middle track had put in 8,000 hours but none had put in 10,000 hours; and the teacher track had put in 4,000 hours, but none had put in 8,000 hours. This is now being called The Ten Thousand Hour Rule in popular culture, and people are claiming mastery for having showed up for work for 10,000 hours (about 20 hours a week for ten years.) There is a big problem with this kind of thinking, however. Musicians put in practice time with rigor such as scales, mastering all keys, and chords within them, as well as developing progressively more difficult techniques and progressively more sophisticated pieces for performance, while at the same time keeping well practiced in the basics. They don't just
play what they already know, they grow constantly, in addition to constantly honing the basics. Just punching the clock is not enough. I am sure the a Rotor Rooter Man can claim 10,000 hours of snaking toilets, but this is not progressive development of ability and insight. Or to put it another way, one stand-up comic criticized a rival saying: ?He says he's been doing stand-up for twenty years; I say he only did it for 1 year and then repeated that year nineteen times. In the herbal field, we have herbalists lecturing at conferences who are giving essentially the same lectures they were 20 years ago; herbalist-physicians practicing by rote administration of set formulas; herbalists writing books full of information they read in other books and which they have never demonstrated to be true in their own experience. So our questions for mastering herbalism are:

1) What kinds of activities or study count toward the 10,000 hours and progressively develop skill and insight in the practitioner?

2) How can we avoid becoming comedians who repeat their same jokes for twenty years without growing or developing new repertoire.

In this series of articles, I am not calling for standards for licensing or approval by any regulatory body or accrediting agency. I am an educator, with 36 years of clinical experience, 20 years teaching, and 15 years running a teaching clinic, supervising thousands of cases over that time in addition to my own clients. I'm now in my elder years, eligible for social security, and at this stage I could care a fig whether the government or anyone else approves of
me. And I am very much focused on how to train a younger generation of herbalists in the routines and practices and attitudes that will lead to mastery instead of decades of bad jokes. I believe the future of Western herbalism will depend on this kind of work to a much greater extent than reframing what and who we are for the sake of acceptance by authority, however necessary or valuable that may seem in the short term.

I've thought about the above questions deeply, and will give my thoughts in the third and final part of this article. Meanwhile I thought I would put this out on the lists for discussion. Every
herbalist, and especially every master of herbalism is not on the same track, in fact mastery implies to some extent uniqueness and being out-of-the-box. So there is not one answer to the above. A master of wildcrafting and medicine making is on a different track that a master of clinical herbalism, a clinical herbalist practicing in the physician-model will have a different set of ?scales? to practice than a clinical herbalist practicing in the hygienist/nutritionist model. Teachers will have routines of practice and preparation that are unique to teachers. True mastery of botany is essential for a master of wildcrafting, it is not for a clinical herbalist, and so on.

So I put the question for discussion: What are some of the routines, practices, disciplines, and attitudes that can lead to progressive development of an herbal career and lead to mastery in the field?

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