President Obama

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.”

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