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This article appeared in the RCHM magazine November 2022 issue.

As a fresh intake of students settle into, I realise that, as newly promoted 3rd year students, we’re meant to have all the individual herbs and major formulae off pat. I wish I could say that I have, but my reality is that it is still a work in progress, to be able to pluck appropriate herb choices from my mental index box rather than my diligent notes, herb jars and reference books. 

One of the biggest strands of herbal medicine training is the sheer feat of memory required to retain and crucially, retrieve, the entire pharmacopoeia - with Pinyin, Latin, action category, channels entered, taste and temperature, dosage, primary and secondary functions - of each herb. You’ve all done it, I am aware. The application of this is then the next essential strand, which is laid before us for a lifetime of refining and ongoing understanding. There are so many ways of creating a formula and combinations of herbs beyond the sum of their parts to grasp and benefit from. Understanding the character of each herb will only come with their use, seeing how they behave in practise, how the text book information turns into practical knowledge, but first - the herbs and ways to learn them.

We all have different learning styles and challenges; ways that work but more often, lifetime prejudices that limit us so considering some ways of inputting the information seemed useful; suggestions to try as new cohorts set out on this path of the great data download, ways of ingesting and digesting this bolus of information to transform it into the story of Chinese Herbal Medicine in practise.

My own route into Chinese Medicine started as an acupuncture patient. I went on to study it, and financed my training by continuing my work as a woodland manager and trainer, my deep rooted passion of the plants made it a given that I would study herbal medicine eventually. I didn’t anticipate it taking quite so long, but the enforced stopping point of the pandemic and a fortuitous Jade Screen encounter with Andrew Flower had me on the way within 36hrs. 

Memory is like a sponge, it can get pretty overloaded and sometimes needs a good squeeze to make space for the new. End of second year seems to be peak wrung out, so us WCA third years should now be set to replenish those dessicated brain cells. Because WCA is so vitally based around direct supervision of treating clinical cases, we are all beginning to develop strategies and styles from this. We circulate around Michi Naomoto, Andrew Flower and Simon King in 6 month blocks, treating a minimum of 10 cases with each, observing and discussing our fellow students’ cases, so that is at least 40 cases with each teacher. 

Every time we review a formula, we take another little chew on the bolus of understanding; rereading and adding notes to the mental index card, and the paper notebook for back up. Herb choices are made from clear, diagnosis informed treatment principles, and the secondary actions of each are often the deciding factor, as well as the student herbalists’ developing preference for the actions of particular herbs. We are regularly cautioned against seeing a single experience from adding a herb to a formula as the only possible response to that herb, so by reusing them we develop our understanding of their potential. 

The first year WCA ‘Herb Octopuses’; the ‘body’ of category, herb name, plant name, temperature and taste, with multiple flexible ‘legs' of secondary functions, dose, cautions and our teacher’s clinical pearls are coming into a different perspective now. Even the ‘we were never taught that!’ herbs become three dimensional and begin to take up more room in the great brain sponge, finding different holds in order to stay attached, more visible and retrievable. 

Colleagues have written stories and poems of the single herbs, leant into their own strengths and memory methods. The three huangs were stuck in my mind by a fellow student saying “hmm. Qin:chin, Bai:…by your bum, lian:well…its in the middle”. And Prince Tai Zi Shen wants nothing to do with Princess Li Lu, but was fantastic coming back exhausted from a long journey through hot, exhausting country. Others set their herbs to well known songs; beautiful, creative films illustrated yet more; zi hua di ding was a crazy frenetic advert that included the English country garden to eliminate boils and carbuncles (wu wei xiao du yin) 

Another student created fantastical computer cartoon images to illustrate each herb and its primary / secondary actions - bold, gamers’ animé-like images unique to their own memory process. Quizlet already has some great sets for learning herbs whilst ready made flash cards are available for the less visually creative. One of our number made sets of ring bound mini flash cards by category, another made plastic laminated mind map sheets. Someone else extended their creative writing skills with elegant, impressionistic poems of each herb creating hooks for their imagination. The previous group had a chocolatier in their number who makes extraordinarily delicious herb infused chocolates. Teas offer another good way of getting in touch with the characters of the herbs. One other danced the energy of each herb, viscerally learning through their bodily experience the character of the herbs - not just chewing the bolus but actively engaging with it. 

My own primary method has been through the plants themselves. I check the herbs in my well-worn wildflower id books, seeing a link through the Latin name - figwort (Scophularia) used in folk medicine to treat TB infection of the cervical lymph nodes is first cousin to the Cool Blood herb xuan shen, used, among other things, to soften hardness - scrofula - and transform phlegm heat; not the same herb but family. A herb’s vernacular names can offer an attachment to memory - the West Country folk name for Solomon’s seal of sow’s tits chimes sweetly with the Yin tonic yu zhu. I rarely pass a wild plant without naming it, and if I can’t, needing to stop and track through my plant nerd brain til I can. It makes me a questionable walking companion apparently. That index card bank was a bit claggy from a couple of decades as an acupuncturist first and plant educator second, third or fourth, but it’s still reference worthy and the links between it and the Chinese pharmacopoeia are starting to buff up like a more recent edition. If I do walk with someone, teaching them the plant and its corresponding Chinese relative roots it more firmly in my brain. Bensky’s app is a real boon for that. 

Creating a herb library is a fantastically expensive learning tool, but on the plus side, it is tax deductible as the beginning of your own raw herb dispensary. Handling the raw herbs hooks in to all your senses, particularly taste and smell. The ranks of jars start out looking like a monochrome splurge of brown / beige plant bits but with time begin to emerge as a nuanced and elegant palate. When arranged by category, and dispensed, or even just pulled out when writing a formula, muscle memory begins to play a strong part - a stretch to the left is a Wind Cold or Wind Heat Releasing herb, whilst go right to Stabilise and Bind or Calm the Shen. If you know a dispensing herbalist near you, find out if you can volunteer in their dispensary. It is a fabulous way to breathe life into the herbs, with the benefit of seeing the herbs in formulae rather than as single or categories of herb. Less visual in a powders dispensary, but you still have the combinations and dui yao presenting themselves as well as seeing the preferences of an experienced herbalist creating formulae. With appropriate supervision, it’s an awesome way to learn with benefits both ways.

There will be other methods, some too rude to repeat apparently, and we each have to find our own methods and preferences. Bring your existing skills with you to enhance your learning. Remember to take pleasure in the things you get better at, not just seeing the gaps you still have to fill. Notice how you begin to recall herbs more readily and start to make choices more freely of how to combine them. More often than not, it’ll have been done before, find the historical precedent of your choices, whichever tradition you follow, to inform and consolidate your ideas. Ultimately nothing short cuts endless repetition, learning from all angles; single herb, formulae, disease. At WhiteCrane.Academy we are privileged with the knowledge and generosity of our teachers, chewing over the herbs and formulae with us in class and supervision, sharing their insights and experience, ruminating.

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