Ending India: Integral Sustainability & Bioregional Herbalism

The second half of my program in Auroville flew by so fast, that I am only now finding time to  write about it that it is over. (In the future, my intention is to blog periodically like a normal person instead of throwing up my life-story every 2 months, but here it goes.) 

Finishing the Medicinal Plant Garden!

The five-week community stay at Forecomers that I last posted about—with my peaceful capsule of solitude and herbal gardening work—ended too soon.  Nevertheless, during my time there, I was able to construct the garden beds, plant the seedlings, beautify it with signage, and begin making the herbal remedies for myself and fellow community members.  Below are some pictures of the full progression:

But just when I really got to start making some lovely medicines that I had been learning in classes at the Pitchandikulam ethnomedicinal forest, our stay ended.  In the beginning of April, my group set out for two-and-a-half weeks of travel around Southern India. 

The Sacred Solo: Insights into Ecopsychology

For our travel, we split into two groups of nine and ventured Southwest through the Karnataka state to Mysore (the capital of Sandalwood!), Bylakuppe (the largest Tibetan refugee settlement in the world!), Hamsah farm outside Bangalore, and Honey Valley. 

The most profound part of our journey was Honey Valley, a lush area of coffee plantations in the tropical hills and dry mountains.  My group stopped there first to begin one of the most interesting activities of our curriculum: the sacred solo.  Stemming from various shamanic traditions, particular Native American rituals, the sacred solo or vision quest is a right of passage, possibly the oldest human ceremony there is.  Often doubling as a shaman’s initiation, this experience involves an adolescent going out alone into nature for a number of days with little sustenance and then returning to share his/her teachings to the wider community.  While the shamanic intentions of this practice may seem lost in our ancestors’ mystical pasts, the insights that come out of communing with nature is something our society needs now more desperately than ever before. 

Honey Valley

Elaborating on this notion is ecopsychology, one of the most important topics I studied this semester.  Ecopsychology expands the notion of self from out our minds to embrace the Whole we called world or universe.  That is to say, humans do not exist within an internal vacuum and so the languages of ecology (the study of natural interconnections) and psychology (the study of the self) need each other.  Thus, one’s relationship to the natural world is inserted into the conception of mental health and healing—the destruction of the environment will necessarily be experienced as self-destruction.  This theory brings are radically different perspective to the force behind the pu-pu platter of mental illness and neuroses we are faced with today—the overwhelming majority of which have appeared in the past centuries of  increased urbanization and recent decades of our lives becoming more technologically detached.

And while all that may sound a bit esoteric, it is downright scientific when you take into account our current  cosmology (the Big Bang) in which everything was originally condensed into one point before expansion.  So, while we don’t realize it day-to-day, it is popular ‘fact’ that the whole planet is our very literal ancestor and even the most distant galaxies are made of the same stuff as us and.  In any case, psychology is inherently the most subjective of the sciences and can do no more ‘proving’ than to persuade us of where we should delineate the self and cognize its health.  So, if ecopsychology can persuade us that destroying nature is harmful to ourselves, (and, down the road, make it clinically insane and illegal to do so) I think it absolutely should.

Learning about this emerging field made a great deal of sense to me and has somewhat settled my love-hate relationship with psychology.  And right away, like a good theory should, my perspective shifted a little: some of the conditioned thinking of myself as inside my head dissolved and I felt more expansive, connected. 

During the sacred solo, when I was completely immersed in nature, this unfolding process furthered.  In seeing the enormously hidden egocentrism (and anthropocentrism) of psychology, I also realized how egocentric my own understanding and practice of spirituality had been over the past years.  When ‘I’ came to encompass the world, my own transformation became equally that of transforming the world.  This link is something I have read about in religious and philosophical texts before and had already been studying indirectly.  But it wasn’t until this experience that it really clicked, integrated, and I could fully commit to being in service to the infinite web of interconnections that is me/Whole. 

Discovering Maps for Spaceship Earth

Returning from travel, we had a blissful 3 weeks left to soak up the last of Auroville and conclude all of our courses (i.e. final papers.)  In culminating our curriculum from the whole semester, I truly saw how much I had learned.  It was more useful and life changing knowledge than I have ever come across before; teachings I was hoping to receive in line with the larger intention of this blog. 

The title of this blog comes from a quotation from the visionary Buckminster Fuller that says, “earth is like a spaceship that didn’t come with an operating manual.”  More than metaphor, our world truly is a spaceship: a craft hurdling through space with many crew members and limited resources.  And we don’t have a flying manual (or at least those in the driver’s seat have forgotten it) hence our current global crises and threats to planetary extinction.  So, I have been wondering for as long as I can remember: how do we set a proper course?

Out of many, the most useful map I learned towards better understanding our existence was four quadrants from Integral Theory.  This perspective sees reality as an interplay of four lenses: 1) individual subjectivity, 2) individual objectivity, 3) group subjectivity, and 4) group objectivity.  This is only a hypothesis and a guide, but I found that when you analyze a situation through these four quadrants, you have a chance at covering pretty much everything.

four-quadrants-of-sustainability Using this model explicitly in terms of personal and planetary health was the focus of my program in India entitled “Integral Sustainability in Auroville.”  That is to say, an initiative being called sustainable because it has a low environmental impact doesn’t really cut it—it is probably just appropriating the buzz word, and, even if genuine, it will be short-lived.  For something to be truly sustainable, integrally sustainable, these four components need to be addressed: 1) the sustainability of those involved (i.e. their body/mind/emotions/spirit), 2) the sustainability of the actions of those involved, 3) the sustainability of the culture or community involved, 4) the sustainability of the larger structures and systems within which the project exists.  By incorporating each of these bases, projects become downright foolproof.

Bioregional Herbalism: a Case Study in Global & Local Sustainability

Corresponding to this model, each of our courses in Auroville  addressed each of these four quadrants: 1) “Body, Mind, and Spirit: Cultivating Personal Sustainability”; 2) “Applications of Sustainable Living” (i.e. Service Learning Project in herbal gardening); 3) “Group Dynamics”; and 4) “Global & Local Sustainability.”

The last few weeks being back from travel focused almost exclusively on the Global & Local Sustainability (GLS) aspect.  Our final assignment was to research a global problem and make a proposal for a local solution.  I decided to extend my work in the medicinal plant arena and focus on the unsustainability of the global medical system and the benefits of bioregional herbalism.  My research on this topic in Nepal was enlivening, but it was as an observer from a distance.  And so in Auroville, actually planting and making medicines myself gave it all enormous personal relevance.  But at the same time, I was not satisfied with the herb garden project until I could bring it full circle by finding ways it could interact with the larger community in Auroville.

In the end, I found a lot of undiscovered purpose to what I had been doing all year. Bioregional herbalism—using plants found in one’s own community—is naturally sustainable (I also found that sustainability can be equated with health): 1) it heals our ecopsychological wounds by creating a relationship with nature; 2) it heals our physical bodies as medicine and makes our actions more ecologically conscious because nature is given personal value; 3) it integrates the community by relying on a common resource and body of knowledge; 4) and, its application has an impact on the larger systems of health care (from pharmaceutical market to the environmental preservation).

For my local research, I interviewed community members in Auroville already involved in these efforts.  The first was Snehan Trivedi, who’s project called Heal the Soil gathers volunteers ever Sunday to plant permaculture gardens in the empty land in a local village households.  The project only started three months ago, but he already has a waitlist of 10 households wanting gardens and another village has invited him to give a presentation and replicate Heal the Soil there. 

Secondly, I interview Parvathy Nagarajan, my herbalism teacher throughout the semester at Pitchandikulam forest.  She is the Director of Medicinal Plant Awareness Programs at Pitchandikulam and does amazing work such as, monthly health camps with free consultations and medicines for hundred of locals, and creating schools in villages that have herbal gardening, medicine making, and environmental conservation.  Also, in the past five years she has began teaching weekly herbalism classes, not for locals, but for foreign guests and residents in Auroville who she had noticed taking a more active interest in natural medicines.

“From what I have observed, people in the villages are avoiding natural medicine. Actually, it‟s the people in the cities, who have gotten used to more sophisticated systems and now realize all the chemicals and problems, that now want more natural medicines. But in the villages they have forgotten their traditional medicines and want allopathy because it seems better and more developed.”

—Parvathy Nagarajan

Early on in these classes, she asked me to document everything she was teaching—photos of the plants, their identification information, and the recipes of the herbal remedies.  When I asked her more about this, she explained that while Pitchandikulam already had a wealth of herbalism awareness resources in the local language (Tamil), they needed something in English for the class of foreigners.  She hopes that these people will bring their knowledge home with them, integrate it in their lives, and begin to change the cultures that are behind the wheel of modern medicine towards a more sustainable, and healthy, course.  Thus, as part of my final paper, this rough Medicinal Plant Resource Guide was the large part of my local solution for sustainable change: targeting the awareness of the foreigners as leverage points in the larger system.

But more so, my solution is to further integrate what I have learned in myself.  When I return to Chicago, I plan to involve myself in the bioregional herbalism of my own home.  First, I can start with my most immediate community and living space—even living on the tenth floor can’t stop me from making a windowsill herbal garden and putting plants permaculture style in the small square of afternoon sunlight that comes out of the window in my corner bedroom.  Then, looking at what community projects are already going on that I can plug myself into: perhaps empty-lot and rooftop gardens, or projects in school and summer camps.  And finally, I wonder what traditional medicine there is to the bioregion of Northern Illinois.  Is anyone reinvigorating this Native American heritage and, if not, is there space to do so?

Most of all, my hope is that these anecdotes over the past 10 months will inspire and guide you to take small steps towards further health and sustainability in your own communities, because that is the most profound change this journey can offer.

Love & Thanks,





4 thoughts on “Ending India: Integral Sustainability & Bioregional Herbalism”

  1. Good blog, thank you. I’m a herbalist and heartmath provider and studying buddhist psychotherapy. I’m currently working on developing a wilderness therapy program involving heartmath, wilderness survival, various exercises for connecting to nature, group work, myth/storytelling, etc. I’ve also applied to do a PhD on developing a meta-framework for Integral Health and Medicine (with herbal medicine as my primary modality). I’d be interested in keeping in touch. My website/blog is http://www.integralherbalism.wordpress.com
    I also have a forum called http://www.integralherbalism.co.uk for exploring how integral theory can contribute to the field and would be happy if you would like to contribute.
    take care

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