Adaptogens are herbs that normalize and strengthen, such as ginseng, eleuthero, rhodiola (my favorite right now), tripala, astragulus root, arjuna and many more.
These are the major herbs in herbal medicine. They are the ones most commonly prescribed and they can, in most cases, be taken throughout life.
The minor herbs, sometimes called “poisons” (!), act in one direction and are prescribed in only certain situations and for shorter periods of time.
This is a rich analogy for spiritual teachings.
First, we can see spiritual teachings and tools as medicines. Each one is a medicine for a specific condition. They have meaning and usefulness in the presence of a specific condition. And there is no “truth” to them, no more (or less) than there is truth in a shovel or lawn mover.
Then, we can look at teachings and tools as either adaptogens or “poisons”.
Some practices are quite adaptogen-like, such as shikantaza, bringing attention to sensations, inquiry and self-inquiry, prayer and so on. And just as an herbalist will most often prescribe an adaptogen to a client, a spiritual teacher (and tradition) will most often prescribe one or more of these practices. They tend to work in a gentle way, normalize, can be used at any phase of the process, and their effects are most noticeable when used regularly over time.
Other teachings and practices are more “poison” like in their effects and work in only one direction. And just as an herbalist will prescribe these herbs in only very specific situations and for shorter periods of time, a good spiritual teacher will use these teachings and tools only sparingly. Some examples here may be teachings aimed at “shocking” or shaking students out of complacency. It may be very helpful and just the right medicine in some situations, but works best if used judiciously.
There is a lot more than can be highlighted through the adaptogen analogy.
For instance, adaptogen herbs may normalize systems such as blood pressure, lowering if high and increasing if low. So in what ways – and what – do adaptogen-like teachings and practices normalize? In general, they tend to invite identification to release out of whatever fixation we have. I may have a fixated identity as a human being, or as emptiness, and in either case, inquiry can be very helpful. I can explore what is really here through the sense fields. I can identify the belief and inquire into it to find what is more honest for me. I find receptivity and sincerity through prayer, allowing fixed identification to soften and sometimes fall away.
And in what ways are other teachings and practices like minor herbs? An experienced teacher will notice how and where a student is stuck, and then apply a one-sided remedy to nudge the student out of that particular fixation. A less skillful teacher may apply a one-sided remedy habitually, without checking to see if it is appropriate to the student, or using it as a general teaching for a group of students, only some of whom may be in a situation where it is appropriate and helpful. (This seems to happen if the teacher is caught up in their own shadow. They need to hear and apply a certain teaching for themselves, and – somewhat forcefully – apply it to their students instead.)
Also, the adaptogen herbs may all support overall health, but each works on specific systems and the overall effect is unique to each. So a good herbalist will chose adaptogens according to the circumstances and the needs of the individual. An experienced teacher or student will similarly chose an adaptogen-like practice that is (maybe) especially suited for the person and what is going on for them.
A good herbalist also works with feedback, and so does an experienced teacher or student. We try something, look for feedback, and either adjust the practice or try something else. If it works quite well but not optimally, see if it can be fine-tuned. If it doesn’t work, try something else and see what happens.
- normalize, balance
I am reading Herbal Defense, which is an excellent introduction to herbalism.
In the introduction, the authors talk about how the major herbs are the ones that work “both ways”, bringing the system back to balance whether it is out of balance one direction or another. (For instance, normalizing blood pressure whether the starting point is hyper- or hypotension.) These are herbs that typically can be taken by anyone at any time, and throughout life. Some examples are tonics such as ginseng, eleuthero, rhodiola, triphala, astragalus root, echinacea, arjuna and many more.
The minor herbs, in some systems called “poisons”, are the ones that work in one direction, and are appropriate in only certain specific circumstances, used sparingly and for short periods of time. Most, or maybe all, of modern western drugs fall into this category, and many or most herbs do as well.
And the same applies to spiritual teachings. Mature and clear teachers tend to use the tonics liberally, and the poisons only in very specific situations if at all. They tend to focus on the teachings appropriate for just about anyone at any time, and throughout the process of awakening and embodiment. Teachings that normalize, bring back to balance whether people are out of whack one direction or another. And they use the one-directional medicines only sparingly, and usually only when interacting with a specific student.
It is easy to see this by looking at different teachers.
The one who are less mature, less experienced, and often less trained, sometimes use strong one-directional medicine as a rule, which may tend to reinforce fixed views among their students. One-directional teachings tends to make a particular story and viewpoint appear solid and real, and if these are the rule, their students may well fix on them as real and make them into another base for delusion.
And mature, clear and experienced teachers such as Byron Katie, Adyashanti, Douglas Harding and many traditional Buddhist teachers use tonics that tends to normalize, bring students back from any misguided and fixed views, and pull the rug out from under their students wherever they are. Bi-directional teachings tends to pull the rug out from under any story and viewpoint, leaving nowhere to stand.
- the major remedies, work “both ways” to bring the system into balance whether it is out of balance one way or another – tonics, appropriate for anyone at any time, throughout life (many of them)
- the minor remedies, aka “poisons”, work one direction, stronger, appropriate only in certain situations, used sparingly and for short periods of time
- also applies to teachings, and easy to notice if look at the mature and experienced teachers in different traditions (and compare them with some teachers who are less mature and experienced, and may not have gone through rigorous training themselves)
We can see teachings as medicines for specific conditions. We may be stuck in a rigid view, and the teachings nudge us out of that stuckness. (Any belief is a stuck view, an identification with a viewpoint, and the basic one is identification with the image/gestalt of a separate I.)
First, we can use medicine as analogy for teachings and practices. They are medicines for specific conditions.
– medicine as analogy for spiritual teachings and tools
— for specific conditions
— only practical tools, temporary and limited usefulness
— no “truth” in them, no more than there is “truth” in a shovel or lawn mover
— have no meaning/usefulness outside of a particular context (only useful when a specific condition is present)