Grassroots Healing, Musings, Reflections, Spirituality, Plant Medicine

Learning to Open the Eyes on the Ends of my Fingers

(or Reflections on The Diagnostic Touch)


The times are changing and perhaps more exponentially, or more rapidly than ever before. Tech is venerated as some new god that will redeem us all, as we get swept up in a tsunami of information unprecedented in human history. For folks who are digital migrants, we have either taken to it like a fish to water, or we have started to feel like we are really drowning. In my own work, there’s now an unspoken burgeoning pressure to somehow be ahead of this game as most people now are wont to self-diagnose via advice from Dr Google. Some people subscribe to every internet health gurus eNews, and as a result not only end up taking every supplement and ‘superherb’ that’s on trend, or worse – start prescribing these wonder drugs indiscriminately as some sort of panacea to everyone they meet. At the other end of this spectrum, we also have clients who are on about twelve different pharmaceuticals and so we now have to wade through which drug is for the original ailment, which are for the side-effects, possible drug-herb interactions, contraindications, and half-lives. And then we have to figure out if we can actually be of help at all, and if they have a doctor who is willing to work with us to begin to wean the patient of this chemical cocktail. The mindset that births both of these extremes is the same. In this Age of Instant Gratification & Technological Wonderment, it is the reductionist mindset of the quick fix. And as a result, we are losing our traditional knowledge and understanding of the unique essence and specific virtues of the plants, and we are losing our skills of diagnostics. And why not? We have the machines that go ping to do that for us now. (And we have standardised plant extracts – but that’s another story). We are losing touch.

But machines, or even standard lab tests, can’t detect nuance. They can’t depth diagnose through empathy or perceive the dynamics of the life experience that courses through a patient’s veins. They can only take snap shots of that given moment, without regard to extenuating circumstances. The conventional assessment of blood pressure is a prime example.

Monty Python fans will understand.


Before medicine became technological and profit-driven by the pharmaceutical companies, the physicians/healers  themselves, if they were any good, had to also be skilled diagnosticians. Trained on the job, their own bodies were highly aware, acutely sensitive diagnostic instruments. The full use of all of their senses was employed to make an accurate assessment of the dynamic being that sat or lay before them. Mindful observation of mannerisms, pallor of skin, observation of the tongue, colour of eyes – both iris and sclera, the posture, the gait on walking, facial expressions, the colour of urine and any discharges, as well as skilled and thoughtful palpation of the tissue, the moisture of the skin, feeling the temperature, feeling and reading the pulse, smelling the general odour, hearing the tone of voice, hearing the heartbeat or the lung sounds, the crepitations (crackling) in the joints, the gurgling of the stomach.  All of these, as well as a detailed case history allowed the physician/healer to make a highly accurate diagnosis.  Of course, one needs to have a certain depth of knowledge and understanding to then be able to understand the significance of what the senses are reading, as well as the most appropriate treatment, but overall what we have is a truly holistic picture of the state of health of the person. Up until the 1950s, many physicians in the West still practised like this and with an understanding of the energetics of the disease process. Physicians who practised in the East within the systems of TCM, Ayurveda, and Unani-Tibb continue to practice under this paradigm. Their diagnostic skills have been maintained.

Touch is a human need. Babies crave it. Appropriately given, it soothes our nervous system, or it can stimulate it. It can convey a sense of belonging, and of being loved and cared for. We may think of the therapeutic touch of massage and bodywork. Yet, the diagnostic touch, the touch that conveys that someone is willing to spend time with you, is willing to listen to you -on all levels of your being- in order to most appropriately care for you, can also be therapeutic. We all want to be heard. We all need our pain acknowledged. Whether modern medicine thinks so or not, this acknowledgement forms as large a part of the healing process as the treatment itself.

I’ve come to this reflection on this diagnostic touch from my own nagging feelings of inadequacy, of something missing, spurring an eagerness to learn. When I did my training at college, out of the four or so years dedicated to the practice of Western Herbal Medicine, we did a grand total of two days dedicated to physical examination. Even then we didn’t use it much, nor were we encouraged to, in the 400 hours of student clinic. And reading the pulse or feeling the tissue for changes beneath didn’t come into it at all. But a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, I’ve learnt much on the job, and I often find that when the time is right, things come into your world that suggest – either subtly or blatantly, that it’s time for further development. The personal upheaval of recent months has been such a time.

In my previous post, I mentioned that working with plants and making medicine is one of my coping mechanisms. Reading is another. I devour books almost insatiably. The first book that came into my world around this time was “Cancer: It’s Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment’ by the late, great American physiomedicalist, Eli Jones, MD.   Published in 1911, it is as relevant today as it was back then. Perhaps more so. After spending the first two to three chapters lamenting the state of cancer treatment in regular (allopathic) medical practice[1], and indicting it all to shame, he then begins an emphatic treatise on the physician’s skill in correct diagnosis.

He [the physician] must educate his hands — have his eyes at his fingers’ ends. The delicate, sensitive touch of the fingers will soon teach him how to detect cancer in any form….”   (Eli Jones. Ch.5)

In “taking a case” of cancer to treat we want to look the patient over carefully; ……

We examine the pulse of our patient; we find the pulse of cancer a weak pulse, often a discouraged feeling to it, and quicker than normal. The weight and feeling of the muscles show lack of nutrition. The tongue under its yellowish, white color shows, in advanced cancer a dark red color; in the last stages we have the “beef steak” tongue. The white of the eye has a pearly tint with greenish yellow spots, showing a drain upon the system, toxic matter in the blood and decomposition of albumen. The eyes will tell you if the glands are acting normally or not. The tongue shows you whether the patient is digesting his food or not; if he cannot digest his food, he cannot make good blood. The pulse tells you whether the vital forces are strong or weak. You must learn to study the quality and character of the pulse; until you can do that, you cannot cure this disease or any other.

Thus it is, by a careful intelligent study of the eye, tongue and pulse of our patient, we can get a good idea of the advancement made by the disease and the vitality of the patient; and this will be a guide to us in making up our prognosis and also for the rational treatment of the case.”  (Eli Jones, Ch.6)


“Never forget the fact that the general health of the patient must be better before the cancer is any better. Watch the eyes, the tongue and the pulse; they will tell you of your patient’s condition. One of the first things my students have to learn is how to read the pulse. Not one doctor in a thousand can do it…. Grasp the wrist of your patient; banish every thought from your mind; think of what you are doing and what you want to know. How does it feel? What is the impression you get from the pulse? Remember the pulse of cancer has a weak discouraged feeling. It is a little faster than normal. If there is pain the pulse will show it, also if there is any heart difficulty. You can tell by the pulse if your patient is responding to the action of your remedies. The pulse will feel a little stronger, fuller and more regular. Remember that the healthy, normal pulse is full, strong and regular.”

I particularly like this admonition to his students;

“A doctor of all men should be a gentle man, and have an easy, gentle touch. I have had patients tell me how their physician pinched and squeezed the tumor in their breast until they screamed so that people could hear them out in the street. Such men are ignorant jackasses. I told these patients that they should have “slapped them in the face.” Such men need that kind of treatment. It is the only treatment that they can understand. In examining a case of cancer, it is hardly ever necessary to cause a patient a moments pain where a doctor understands his business. Treat your lady patients just as you would like a brother physician to examine you or examine your wife, sister or mother.”

Throughout the rest of the book, he then cites numerous successful case histories, along with his particular treatment protocols. The good doctor clearly knew his stuff and got extraordinary results. It’s a fascinating read and one which I will refer to time and again, and perhaps I will expound upon his work in some future article, but this idea of the importance of the physical examination, the diagnostic touch, to confirm a case spoke to me. Something was stirring, once spoken of, long forgotten, wanting to be heard once more.

Perhaps it spoke because of my own case of fibrocystic breast change. I’ve had it for about 9 years, managing to reduce it somewhat through various means including fasting, juice feasting, and dietary management, but never fully being ‘cured’ of it. Over the years it has changed character, largely influenced by hormonal cycles, that in themselves are an apparent barometer of whatever stress I have been going through. Recently, the character of the fibrous tissue and the cysts changed again. Using it as my own case study, I am acutely aware of the ‘eyes on the ends of my fingers’ as I palpate the changes and monitor closely the response to more accurately chosen remedies. It is often said that it is very difficult for the practitioner to self-diagnose, and an objective view must be obtained. Having said that, there is also the adage; “Physician, heal thyself.” Why pass up an opportunity for such intimate hands-on learning? It’s only through direct experience, that which we then can internalise, are we able to apply the knowledge gained with true, deep understanding and maybe a hint of wisdom. During my pregnancies, I learnt to feel the growth, and the positions of my babies, to listen to the heartbeat, and the whooshing of the blood coursing through the umbilical cord, as well as the difference between a ‘ripe’ and an ‘unripe’ cervix.  I am, by and large, my own practicum, being curious by nature. But I digress.

As luck (or divine direction?) would have it, I came across another book for the hands-on aspect of diagnosis simply called ‘Hands On’ by Nic Rowley. It outlines in very easy to read and systematic detail the course of physical examination that any practitioner can employ (the subtitle is ‘Basic Clinical Skills for Students and Practitioners of Complementary and Alternative Medicine), and in a logical and what may become intuitive sequence. Although written much more recently than Eli Jones’ work, it borrows from the physical examination methods used in modern conventional medical practice (but devoid of observation of the tongue or reading of the pulse beyond counting it’s beats), and the author states that “if you have not got a pretty good idea of what is wrong with someone by the time they get on to your examination couch, you are unlikely to know what is wrong with them by the time they get off it”. This method of physical evaluation was what we were taught in that grand exploration of the subject during college. However, I think that despite the statement made above, not only does it’s offering still give our client the reassurance that we are leaving no stone unturned in their care, if we combine it with the careful visual and tactile observations of our tradition’s elders, then new information can be gained, and the case may be more fully rounded. After all, conventional medicine has left the concept of energetics and holistic practice behind, and as a result the most appropriate remedy. Unfortunately, in the modern practice of Western Herbal Medicine, particularly in this country, we are moving along the same trajectory. Nevertheless, it is a helpful book that reminds us that our senses are still among our best diagnostic tools. And even if we stop here with these ‘basic skills’, we can still determine likely differential diagnoses.

In his conversational tome, Traditional Western Herbal Medicine and Pulse Evaluation, co-authored with Phyllis D. Light and Francis Bonaldo, Matthew Wood reminds us;

“ In energetic medicine we view disease as a pattern. This is the basis of Holism, which looks to the unity in the diversity, the pattern that pulls together the disparate symptoms into a whole.

…In holistic medicine we believe – and everyday experience confirms this – that nature can cure herself. This is the primary difference between holism and biomedicine. But in order to make this belief a reality we have to pick up a different set of tools and approach the body from an entirely different perspective. Holism requires that we seek to understand the underlying problems that cause illness in the body such as heat and cold, damp and dry, tension and relaxation. If we can address these conditions before the disease has progressed too far, then we will be able to unburden nature and allow her to cure herself. Our understanding must be different and our tools must be of a different order.

…In natural, holistic, and energetic medicine our diagnostic tools must also be different. These include methods that help us to see the general patterns caused by stress in the body. We start with simple questions pertaining to hot and cold, damp and dry, tension and relaxation, basic emotions, aggravations and ameliorations. While we are asking questions, we are looking at the complexion of the face and skin, and then the signs of strength and weakness on the face (color, wrinkles, high spots, low spots, good hair, bad hair, etc.) Then we move on to methods that allow us to perceive very directly the imbalances in the body. This includes looking at the tongue, taking the pulse, and feeling the skin (for moisture, dryness, warmth, cold, oil, water, etc.) Pulse diagnosis is particularly suited to energetic medicine because the pulse reveals patterns of imbalance in the organism, not the sort of molecular lesions that constitute the evidence of disease in conventional biomedicine.

Such examination is usually enough for an experienced practitioner to draw conclusions about the origins of stress and disease within the organism. Then we select our therapeutic tools. These include exercise, nutrition, lifestyle, massage, bodywork, herbs, and homeopathic remedies. They must be suited to natural energetic patterns and changes in the body.”

This is the third book that happened to fall into my lap in recent weeks, and one that ran along with this theme building in my mind of the diagnostic touch. On first read-through I admit that I found it somewhat overwhelming. How in the world am I going to learn all of this? How in the world am I going to remember it all? There are no less than 22 different pulses that might be felt in 3 different positions on each wrist at three different depths representing the various organ systems, existing in pairs such as high/low, rapid/slow, tense, wiry/relaxed, slippery/non-resistant, strong/weak, etc., listed under the headings of dimension, time, tone, blood and vessel, and power. As well as the Southern blood types and the seasons of the blood noted by Phyllis.  Even with a knowledge and understanding of the energetic model of Traditional Western Herbalism, and of the physiological processes of the body, it still seems at first exploration to be overwhelming. But how it has spoken to something deep within me! Pulse reading is akin to learning a whole new language. But then so was the materia medica of herbs when I first began learning them. These things become indentured over time, seasoned by practice. Even Matthew states; “ It takes decades to learn pulse diagnosis and, like herbalism, there is always more to learn.”  I suspect that over this time, intuition will also develop alongside, much as it has with learning the herbs.

Phyllis D. Light picks up the thread;

“ The pulse is also that lyrical, throbbing, musical heart rhythm that sings the song of our body and soul. This is the pulse that I must explore. It is the cadence, depth, quality, breadth, speed, force and rhythm that invites me into the wrist to palpate the flow of the bloodstream, the river of life. Feeling the pulse against my fingers is one of the most important assessments of vital energy that I know.”

 This is a book that I expect to be referring to over and over again as I begin to slowly train those ‘eyes at the end of my fingers’ to ‘see’ and really feel into the dynamics of the blood – that river of life – moving beneath them. Don’t be alarmed if I greet you now with “may I feel your pulse?”, rather than “hi, how’s it going?”  It may take me a while to learn to really feel what it’s telling me but, in the meantime, I need lots of practice, so “may I feel our pulse?”

In this age of tech where even the idea of robots ‘caring’ for the elderly in nursing homes has been floated around, I fear that we are, quite literally, losing touch. Obviously for the practitioner – allopathic or holistic – mindfulness, empathy, and respect must accompany this ‘hands on’ tool. One must be aware of past trauma, or cultural taboo. This should go without saying and permission should be gained first. The diagnostic touch may also serve, however, as an educational tool. By explaining what you are looking for and why, the patterns that we are feeling and observing and how it all connects, we invite the client in to the conversation with their own body. We invite them to get in touch.

By often feeling of the pulse….we may get the faculty of discerning the natural magnitude of the different constitutions, which no words can explain…”  Sir John Floyer (1707)

I’m excited to add this tool to my practice, and to grow and develop with it in seeking a truly holistic framework for the wellbeing of my clients.






Jones, E. “Cancer: It’s Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment’.  1911. This book is available to read free online at

Rowley, N. Hands On: Basic Clinical Skills for Students and Practitioners of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. 2018. Aeon Books. London.

Wood, M. Bonaldo, F. & Light. P.D  Traditional Western Herbalism and Pulse Evaluation: A Conversation.  2015. Lulu Publishing.

[1] If we read it without a knowledge of the time he wrote it, one might think that he was writing about the state of affairs today. The allopathic paradigm hasn’t changed in 100 years.

Grassroots Healing, Plant Medicine

On reviving the Vital response.

I have to confess that sometimes, I struggle to articulate myself well. I read a lot, I study a lot, I learn a lot from my clients as well as my elders, and I experience all of my roles in life deeply. As such I have a lot going on upstairs, and in my heart. I also had a really bad case of writer’s block for several months. At some point, I will seek out the wild calamus root and take a bite or two. In the meantime, I need to quote the wisest man that ever was with the disclaimer that;

there is nothing new under the sun.”

and warn you that this post will probably be quote-heavy.  I would also like to give thanks to my teachers Sajah Popham, Matt Wood, David Winston, Kiva Rose, the eclectics, physio-medicalists, my guru – the Rambam (Maimonides), the Myddfai physicians, Hippocrates, and indigenous peoples everywhere for the following insights and (re)discoveries. And obviously to the great Creator for making it available and giving us the faculties to sense it.

So with that being said……

Once upon a time, I was an eight year old girl who, watching as my 22 y.o aunt suffering with neurofibromatosis died in a medical system that has little changed since, came up for air from my dreamworld long enough to wonder if the humans had lost sight of the forest for the trees. Why did she have to die? I heard rumours whispering through those trees that she was fine until the doctors opened her up, and then the thing spread like wildfire. But she did die, and I retreated back into my dreamworld, all the while keeping these thoughts of ‘but why?’ tucked in my subconscious until the absorbed experience of other relatives and friends, and far off acquaintances and their plight at the hands of this system became too much to ignore. Surely, I asked myself, there is a better way?

You are greater than the sum of your parts.”

It is human proclivity to assume that the ancients – or even our previous generation – were primitive in thought; stupid, unintelligent, and lacking a general understanding of how life works. I have a teenager who reminds me of this often. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In a world now long gone, and devoid of digital distractions and #fakenews, some of our ancestors knew very intimately how life worked. Either agrarian or nomadic, they knew the ley of the land, the wheel of the year and it’s cycle of seasons, the migratory or growth patterns of various species, the value of relationship with the land, the creation and each other. And they became skilled observers of the patterns that emerged from the flow of the very essence of life, that of the Vital Force. Fortunately, these observations were preserved in the various healing traditions of East and West – before the advent of chemical medicine, and these are still available today. In these traditions the Vital Force is termed Prana (Sanskrit), Qi (Chinese), Life force, or the Ruach (Hebrew). There are probably many other terms specific to the culture in question. This Vital Force is that which enlivens and directs our integrated being – spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical.

The Vital Force unfurling. Image credit: ©M.Carnochan 2017 

This observation and acknowledgement of the Vital Force provided a foundation for a truly Wholistic view on the human condition, in sickness as well as health. It allowed a system of healing to develop that considered the unique and tangible constitution of the individual, as well as sound diet and lifestyle practices to support optimal health and healing, and plant medicines to address the specific patterns that the vital force worked in sickness. It also allowed for a system that acknowledged that plants, as well as people, are greater than the sum of their parts.

Our modern practice of Western Herbal Medicine, if it’s wholistic, draws much from the observations of the ancients, as well as those more contemporary practitioners with a keenly developed insight into the natural world. I say, “if it is wholistic”, because I see an unnerving trend to practice from the biomedical, or largely reductionist perspective, especially if it’s in the name of integration. We see this in the many soundbites and memes breeding in the interwebs that include such gems as, ‘if you have inflammation, take turmeric!’, or this classic, “Juniper essential oil is good for kidney infections!” My alarm bells reach fever pitch every time I log onto Facebook. And if you bear with, I’ll get to the point and tell you why.

Unfortunately, reductionism – that lovechild from the ‘age of enlightenment’ – is the lens through which the modern world views Life. In his book, The Lost Language of Plants, the inimitable Stephen Buhner quotes James Lovelock, author of Healing Gaia;

The problem of reductionism lies with the belief that the method of examining systems by taking them apart is all that is needed. Reductionists are certain that there is nothing in the whole system that cannot be predicted from the knowledge of the parts….[But] to understand [the universe] and its most complex entities – living systems – reduction alone is not enough.”

Stephen then further comments; Reductionism presents further significant problems. The greatest indicator of fundamental errors in the epistemology of science is what happens over time to the peoples and nations that internalise it as a primary epistemology. Specifically: How do they treat other people, other life forms, the environment? What happens to their culture?

Let’s all take a moment to think about that. Like, seriously. How many specialists did you say you have? How many drugs are you taking? They want to do What?!

While reductionism, or breaking things down and isolating their parts, has proven itself in helping further our knowledge of the intricacies of our exquisite organism, and granted, conventional biomedical thinking has its place in therapy, it has also given us the age of ‘wonder drugs’ and the mindset of the silver bullet, that ‘quick fix’ approach to medicine, the one-size-fits-all approach. The poison, cut, and burn! approach. It has given us antibiotics, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, opiate drugs, vaccinations, and hormone drugs – to name but a few – all of which fail to address the bigger picture and, due to their designed nature of not being readily broken down by the body and thus readily excreted along with your normal waste into the waterways, have done indisputable and potentially irreversible damage to the Earth’s eco-systems.

Alienated from Nature, human existence becomes a void, the wellspring of life and spiritual growth gone utterly dry. Man grows ever more ill and weary in the midst of his curious civilisation that is but a struggle over a tiny bit of time and space.”

(Masanobu Fukuoka; The Natural Way of Farming.)

So my eight year old self grew, and I found that there is a better way of viewing life, and a more complete way of how we can heal. And I began to practice Western Herbal Medicine as a Vitalist, just as the sense-able humans had always done, because there’s nothing new under the sun and when you’re onto a good thing, you should probably stick to it. This accounts for the success of Ayurveda and TCM.

So what does a Vitalist foundation or a truly wholistic practice of Herbal Medicine look like? And what differentiates it from the biomedical approach – or conventional medicine?

I’m glad you asked.

After assessing the necessary lifestyle and environmental factors, we seek to determine the unique constitution of the individual. This allows us to see behind the physiology, the psychology, and the organism as a whole. (Sajah Popham)

In the Ayurvedic tradition of India, it is said that we have two constitutions;

  1. Prakviti– the innate or essential nature that we are born with. This is where we see inheritances of personality, physical appearance, genetic inheritances and weaknesses, and the influence of our womb experience manifest.
  1. Vikruti – the assumed or current patterns that we see that have arisen from our diet and lifestyle practices, habits, and environmental influences. In modern speak, we may think of this as  our epigenetic constitutional picture and will largely influence the local state of the tissues as described further on.

In the majority of systems that acknowledge constitutions, the basis of differentiation is on the elements – earth, water, fire, air – each representing various aspects of the body such as structural – bones and connective tissue (earth), fluids – water, oils, blood, plasma, lymph (water), digestive and metabolic power (fire), and respiration (air). We see these in the four temperaments of early Greek medicine (Melancholy, Sanguine, Choleric, Phlegmatic), the three doshas of Ayurveda (Vata -air, Pitta -fire, Kapha water/earth), and the 5 elements of TCM (they include wood and metal as a sub for air), and there are others. There are also constitutional systems that I am aware of based on endocrine (or hormone) preponderance, body type (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph), and the animal representations devised by NZ medical herbalist Richard Whelan. However these also follow the same energetic patterns of the elemental models. It is a universal application. The relative ratios of these elements differentiates the organism and this determines the individual constitution.

In brief, if we were to take the Ayurvedic constitutions (doshas) as an example, they would look a little like this (these may also occur in combination);

Constitution Main Characteristics
Vata (air/wind) Cold, dry, changeable, nervous restlessness, typically thin build and quite tall, or petit. Overactive mind, hard time focussing. Very imaginative. Digestive issues such as gas and bloating. Dry skin and hair. Worse for movement.
Pitta (fire) Hot, driven, ambitious, focussed. medium height and build. Hot temper. Strong digestive fire, can lead to acid reflux etc if imbalanced. Active.
Kapha (water/earth) Slow moving, sleepy, sluggish. Slow metabolism. Nurturing by nature. Can become depressed, sad, dull and foggy, and needing to hold onto things.

But we can go even deeper in our differentiation

The Vitalist practitioners of the physiomedical tradition of 19th century North America introduced the Six Tissue State observations. This has been further developed by the master herbalists, Matthew Wood and David Winston, along with the corresponding tastes and vitalist actions of the plants, which I’ll outline further on and go into more depth in my next post. The six tissue states determine the specific constitution of the tissue and therefore determines the state of the organ. This provides an extraordinary insight into the movement of the Vital Force in the pathology of illness and disease. It also provides a more specific, wholistic, individual, and appropriate use of the herbs. The Six Tissue States are as follows and they are based on Temperature, Moisture, and Tone of the tissue.

  • Heat/Excitation
  • Cold/depression
  • Damp/Stagnation
  • Dry/Atrophy
  • Damp/Relaxation
  • Wind/Tension

and we can observe them in the body like this;

Tissue State Spiritual Mental Emotional Physical
Heat/Excitation Zealot, enthusiastic in the faith- can lead to Extremism. “Type A’ personality, driven. Temper, ‘fired up’, passionate. Irritability. Anxiety, tension, restlessness. Warm/hot to touch, redness, irritation, swelling, tender, burning sensations. the tongue is elongated, flame-shaped, bright pink/red. The mucous membranes and the capillaries are typically affected by heat. Rapid bounding pulse. may have high blood pressure. Hypersensitivity, hyperimmunty.
Cold/Depression Lacking in faith, no sense of purpose, unfruitful. Dullness of mind, apathetic. Prone to depression and melancholy. Low energy. fatigued. Cold skin and extremities, poor peripheral circulation. Pale skin. Pale tongue with white or thick coating. Under secretions. Septic, or putrefying conditions, prone to infection. Slow wound healing. Pulse is weak and slow.
Damp/Stagnation Stuck in a rut, bogged down in one aspect of their belief, but wanting to grow. Depression, dullness, cloudy thinking, can’t concentrate, lack of focus. Languid. A build up of waste products due to poor elimination, which leads to a thickening of fluids (lymph,etc). Pain feels heavy, dull, dragging, bearing down. Bloating. Because of lymph stagnation and liver congestion, the skin is typically affected and skin conditions are common. Hangover. Fibromyalgia type pain.
Dry/Atrophy Once had faith and and a sense of purpose but it wasn’t affectively nourished. Withered, weathered, diminished. Nervousness, tension, stress, lack of confidence, hard time asserting themselves. Low will power and vital reserve. Anxious. Weakness, withering, emaciation, loss of flesh. The tongue is typically dry, the skin is dry, and there may also be constipation or poor digestion. The mucous membranes, the skin, and the synovial fluids that lubricate the joints are most typically affected due to a lack of secretion. Sticking, sharp pains. Irritated coughs due to dry respiratory conditions. The dryness is due to lack of water as well as oils. The atrophy due to undernourished tissue.
Damp/Relaxation No solid framework to their faith or belief system. Goes with the flow, can’t seem to grasp a clear sense of purpose. Often a mellow, relaxed disposition. Goes with the flow’. The tissues can’t hold onto fluid due to a lack of tone. There may be prolapse or herniation. Excessive sweating, salivation, diarrhoea, urination, menses. Varicose veins
Wind/Tension Fixed in a belief, but is changeable and then they become fixed in that belief. Anxiety, stress, tension. There’s a significant nerve/gut connection here. nervous, tense, wound up. Constriction and cramping, spasms. Symptoms come on suddenly or come and go, they are irregular, or alternating (eg; constipation and diarrhoea). The gut is typically affected, although this has much to do with its connection to the nervous system as the smooth muscle tissue is affected.


Herbalist, Sajah Popham teaches the wonderfully useful perspective of our internal ecology as a reflection of the earth’s ecology – hence tissue states may be likened to dry desert like conditions, swampy or boggy conditions, cold tundra, or humid rainforest conditions etc. This is useful because it begins to reconnect us with the rest of creation, and it also increases our understanding of the plants that we might use.  The tissue state isn’t always this delineated however, and some tissue states can give rise to others, for example a hot/excited state can lead to dry/atrophy. A damp/stagnant state might also lead to heat/excitation, which may then lead to dry/atrophy. The beauty of this system is that coupled with an understanding of anatomy and physiology, we can still observe these patterns through our modern eyes, through the lens of biomedicine and see that it is translatable. The main difference is that with this wholistic understanding we are viewing life through a wider lens. We are treating the whole person.


Perhaps the most classic example of the intelligence of the Vital Force and it’s movement in the body can be seen in the mechanism of Fever. The body’s ability to generate a fever is an important part of our immune health. At the beginning of an illness which produces a fever, we feel cold and shivery and look pale. This is because the hypothalamus, (which regulates our body temperature) has turned up the heat, whilst at the same time constricted the blood vessels under our skin so the heat can be kept inside. This increase in heat creates an environment which pathogens don’t find very hospitable. But if it gets too hot, damage to the internal organs (especially the brain) can occur, so once the immune response has been stimulated the hypothalamus begins to cool the body down by relaxing the constricted blood vessels allowing sweat to escape. This is when the fever ‘breaks’. The sweat contains toxins and debris from the pathogens as well as the body’s own metabolic waste. It is a relatively quick and efficient method of cooling the body and excreting waste products, and people typically feel much better afterward. (The sheets on the bed that the patient is resting in should be changed regularly during the course of the illness due to this toxic sweat). Conventional wisdom uses drugs such as Tylenol or Panadol to suppress the fever, however this ‘quick fix’ approach of suppression can do more harm than good in the long term, because it stops the movement of the Vital Force and can drive the infection deeper into the body.

Chronic suppression of acute conditions leads to chronic disease.” (Sajah Popham)

The Vitalistic and wholistic approach endeavours to support the movement of the Vital Force. For this we typically use herbs appropriate to the underlying tissue state and that also possess a diaphoretic action. A diaphoretic opens the pores to allow heat and toxin-laden sweat to escape the body. This has an after effect of cooling the body down. The art and science of herbal medicine therefore meet in the skill of the practitioner to assess the underlying state, and then prescribe accordingly.

So why do my alarm bells go of when I read infobytes on the internet about this herb being good for that? Because, conversely, just as the human body is enlivened by a Vital Force, so to are the plants, and just as we experience patterns of energetics, so too do the plants. For example, the taste and effects of Juniper is spicy, pungent, and stimulating. The essential oil (volatile oils) concentrates these characteristics. Infection in the actual kidney is a pretty serious affair, and somewhere in its pathology will be a hot and irritable state. Giving a plant that is by nature warm and stimulating will only aggravate this state and potentially cause more serious damage. The same can be said for Turmeric. It is also a warming, pungent, and drying plant. It is often combined with black pepper to increase it’s absorption in the body – a plant which is warming, pungent, and stimulating. If a person is constitutionally hot and dry, then taking turmeric and pepper long term will aggravate that constitution. The ‘anti-inflammatory’ effects of Turmeric are based on the biomedical isolation of a key constituent called curcumin. If we take the whole picture of person and plant energetics into account, then a typically hot, dry, and inflamed person can take turmeric when it is balanced in a herbal formulation with more energetically appropriate herbs by a skilled practitioner. This will then ensure a much more successful treatment.

In my next article, I will discuss the Vital intelligence and the energetic patterns of the plants in more depth. As a brief outline, plant energetics also follow the same principles of Temperature, Moisture, and Tone. These are largely ascertained by the taste of the herb and the effects that we notice in the body as a result. This way of directly experiencing a herb as a potential medicine using our senses is known as Organolepsis.

Temperature – the herb may taste or produce a sensation of warmth or heat (the effect of this is a stimulation of the vital force, metabolism, so we use it to relieve the cold/depression tissue state.) Conversely, it may produce a cooling sensation (this sedates or slows down the metabolic fire, so we use it reduce tissue irritation.) The plant can also be neither hot nor cold. This is a neutral temperature and can be used across all constitutions and tissue states.

Moisture – the effects of the taste, or the mouthfeel of the herb might be moistening, and may produce more secretions such as salivation, or it might be a mucilaginous plant (this energetic lubricates and softens hard tissue, and reduces atrophy.) A plant might be considered drying if the effect is to produce a dry mouth, or it has a diuretic action. It removes excess fluid from the tissues, and we use it relieve stagnation or relaxation. The final sensation is balanced and it us used to harmonise a herbal formula and normalise the tissues.

Tone – The herb may have the effect of constricting, or tightening tissue (such as ‘puckering’ effect in the mouth), this increases the tone of the tissue, it also reduces excess secretions, and we use it to counteract increased relaxation of the tissue structure, such as with bleeding. A plant might have a relaxant effect – we see this as an antispasmodic action and therefore useful in tension and cramping pain. This effect also increases secretions and counteracts tension and constriction. The final energetic effect here is nourishing. These are the nutritive herbs which are typically rich in mineral salts and help to feed and heal the tissues.

There are Five key tastes and Four ‘mouthfeels’ that give rise to the energetics as well as the actions of the herbs on the body, and the affinities they have for the specific organs. The tastes are also largely indicative of the constituents (or chemical makeup) of the herb. The tastes are:

  • Bitter
  • Pungent
  • Sour
  • Sweet
  • Salty

The ‘Mouthfeels’ are: astringent (drying, puckering), acrid (like Bile), oily, and mucilant (slippery, moist, slimy)

If you’ve stuck with me this far, well done and thank you so much. Coupled with the aspects of life that we should always first consider: good diet, regular movement, nourishing sleep, optimal hydration, regular exposure to sunshine, an environment conducive to good health, and a sense of purpose in life, we can see that an understanding of the Vital Force, and how it moves in our unique body as well as the plants we use, outlines a truly wholistic system of healing. What I have shared in this post is but a brief glimpse at this beautiful model. I hope it has piqued your interest enough to join me as I endeavour to go into further details in future posts.

Michelle x

References and Resources.

Buhner, Stephen. The Lost Language of Plants. White River Junction, VT. Chelsea Green. 2002.

Griggs, Barbara. The Green Pharmacy.

Popham, Sajah. The School of Evolutionary Herbalism. Lecture notes.

Waller, Pip. Holistic Anatomy: An Integrative Guide to the Human Body. Berkley, CA. North Atlantic Books. 2010.

Wood, Matthew. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism. Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. Berkley, CA. North Atlantic Books. 2004.

_____________ The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkley, CA. 2008.

______________ The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. Berkely, CA. 2009.  assessment of constitution from an Ayurvedic perspective. Also has a great list of recipes and looks at the energetics of food. New Zealand medical herbalist, Richard Whelan’s animal archetypes. Herbalist, Rebecca Altman has written several articles discussing the four temperaments.