An Interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner

“We are, in fact, trained out of our feeling sense as we grow, trained to believe it is useless, an impediment to clear thought.”

by Ross Simonini
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner

“We are, in fact, trained out of our feeling sense as we grow, trained to believe it is useless, an impediment to clear thought.”

by Ross Simonini
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner

Ross Simonini
375 Snaps

Stephen Harrod Buhner is a generalist, a scholar of all things, both human and not. He is best known as a writer, but I first came to his work through his talks, which take the shape of digressive odysseys led by a relentlessly curious mind. A typical Buhner talk begins with the subject of plants, then uses botany as a language for discussing medicine, poetry, woodworking, perception, ecology, diet, psychology, intoxication, mythology, and other subjects he seems to casually command. He is a self-
proclaimed “polymath,” and the bio on his website chronicles his reading practice: “30,000 books so far, 50,000 or so scientific journal articles, and hundreds of thousands of articles.”

Buhner has also written twenty-three books and many shorter works, which approach plant-derived medicine both from the rigorous scientific method, in which he isolates alkaloids and phytonutrients, and from traditional indigenous perspectives, in which whole plants are considered as life forms. His Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging and Resistant Viral Infections, for example, is a dense reference manual, while Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth is an expansive philosophical work that freely intermixes memoir, anecdote, and a cross-cultural belief in animism.

From the outside, Buhner’s two approaches may appear to stand in conflict with each other, but like other great aggregate thinkers, he sees past superficial contradictions and reveals networks of collective knowledge. Across his work, one of his primary projects is defining “the feeling sense,” a mode of perception outside of intellectualism, which he uses in his own writing and discusses at length in his book Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life.

By trade, Buhner has spent most of his life as an herbalist. Today, his protocols are widely used, especially by those suffering from chronic Lyme disease, a condition that often cannot be adequately treated by Western, allopathic medicine. A few years ago, I spent a season working with Buhner, attempting to treat an unknown stubborn malady I’d been enduring for years. Until then, I’d found no relief through the pharmaceutical route, and after hearing his talks and reading his work, I reached out for his advice.

Initially, he told me he was no longer seeing patients, but after learning about my mysterious constellation of symptoms, he agreed to take me on, without charge, as a kind of personal challenge. He began sending me long emails, filled with metaphorical stories and specific indications for my treatment. He is known for his use of large, potent doses, and for me, he prescribed heaping spoonfuls of dark algae and tinctures so bitter they gave me shivers to swallow.

As the treatment progressed, we also began a second, more casual exchange that lasted many months, in which I interviewed him about his life and work. My questions were informed by my personal interactions with him and by his methodology as a healer. What follows is an edited version of that correspondence, during a period when Buhner’s ideas permeated my mind, reading life, in-box, and body.

—Ross Simonini

I. FEELING LIKE GOETHE

THE BELIEVER: Much of your work returns to an emphasis on what you call “the feeling sense.” In Ensouling Language, you ask writers to heighten their sensitivity to language, paying attention to how each word and sentence makes them feel; in Plant Intelligence, you ask your readers to address their sensory gating channels (the neurological process of filtering out unneeded information). “How does it feel?” is a question you repeatedly ask in every situation. How would you specifically describe this kind of “feeling”?

STEPHEN HARROD BUHNER: Feeling, in the sense that I use it, is very specific. It is what happens when you walk into a restaurant with a friend and suddenly stop, look at your friend, and say, “This place feels weird. Let’s leave.” Everybody has experienced some form of this. You might describe this as a form of non-kinesthetic touching. All humans have the capacity to sense the meanings inside anything they encounter, whether it be a place, a person, a communication, a book, a painting, a song. We feel it. The ability to sense meanings is at root a feeling thing, not a thinking thing. While the feeling sense, as I use it, was an integral aspect of the Enlightenment, over time, as the most reductive and conservative members of that movement took over the sciences (and the culture), the feeling component was increasingly viewed with suspicion. A cynical dissociation took its place. What we have lost in consequence is an essential element of our humanity. No one seems to realize that scientists and physicians (and bankers and hedge fund operators) who are trained out of their feeling sense are, in essence, sociopaths.

As we are schooled, we are trained to think but not to feel; we are, in fact, trained out of our feeling sense as we grow, trained to believe it is useless, an impediment to clear thought. In one very real sense, we have allowed the most psychologically damaged of the reductionists to structure how we approach the world, scientifically and culturally. We literally train our children to lose their capacity to feel the world around them, to have an integrated capacity for feeling. Many of the people we are supposed to most admire in contemporary culture are, in consequence, a kind of sociopath; they lack feeling for the life forms that surround them. This feeling sense, by the way, is root to the empathic sense as well as the aesthetic sense. Over time, in the West, we have lost our capacity even to understand the aesthetics of our jobs, our homes, our relationships, and most art. Many people have also lost their capacity to empathize with other life forms of any sort; this is especially true of people in any position of power.

At this point in time, few people are aware of the distinction between emotion (e.g., mad, sad, glad, or scared), feelings (a complex mixture of emotion and input from the feeling sense), and feeling. Feeling occurs something like this: We see a man sitting on the subway, our feeling perception gives us a sense of his interior world, the psychological reality he lives within. It happens, in this instance, to be very similar to our father’s, who had massive anger issues. This triggers old memories in us and a complex of feelings arises. They are composed of the accurate feeling/sensing of the meanings of that man’s life, our old memories, our projection onto the man of our unresolved problems with our father, and the emotions (fear, anger, sadness) that arise in response.

If you examine in any depth the contributions of artists in any field, including science, you will find that they use their feeling sense to guide them into the metaphysical background of whatever part of the world they happen to be focused on. They move past the surface of the phenomena that surround them and find the deeper meanings that can be found only below surfaces.

BLVR: There must have been some cultural benefit of detaching ourselves from the feeling sense. Or do you view it as a grand mistake?

SHB: I go into depth on this in my book Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm. The answer is long and complicated and I am not sure we can fit it into this form. In brief, few trust the Earth less than environmentalists. The Earth has been alive for over four billion years. To begin to understand the nature of our behavior, you have to ask yourself, What is the ecological function of the human species? Complex, self-organized systems with the kind of experience the Earth has do not make the kind of mistakes that most environmentalists ascribe to them. We are not a virus, a cancer, a plague. To see us that way is to assume the Earth made a terrible mistake when it expressed us out of the ecological matrix of the planet.

It is crucial to understand that nothing is expressed out of the ecological matrix except to perform an essential ecological function. (This is usually layered with many other functions; the Earth is always efficient.) We look at what is happening, the loss of species, the killing of old-growth forests, the ecological collapse and resultant human problems that occur, and we become aware of the pain and suffering involved. And we know that other options are available. So we become aware of the tragedy of the human predicament.

It is important to understand here that the Earth has been dealing with death and endings for a very long time. The Earth doesn’t have our knee-jerk response to them. We humans are not that important; only the Earth endures. And always new life occurs in new forms for new ecological demands. All of us are going to die; so are all of our cultures and inventions. The point is not that we are going to end but how we live now. I feel much as Goethe did when he said, “I trust myself to [nature]. She may do as she wants with me.” I wish more environmentalists felt the same way.

BLVR: You often describe the feeling sense as it applies to inanimate objects. Would you say this is a form of so-called animism? A way to refer to the object as “thou” rather than “it”?

SHB: We are thoroughly trained to be ashamed of and avoid what mechanicalists call anthropomorphism; that is, the “projection” onto other life forms or even inanimate objects of human attributes. This dynamic, the accusation of anthropomorphism, has only one function: to shame and shut down any innate recognition of the livingness and intelligence of anything other than the human. It keeps people oriented toward the belief that the world is just a collection of resources there for our use, that humans are somehow exceptional, different, more valuable than the rest of the natural world. Hence there is a multitude of descriptives that have emerged out of that mechanicalist worldview; the word animism is one of them.

Animism as a descriptive has meaning only when it is situated in worldviews oriented around either (predominantly) monotheism or scientific mechanicalism. From those orientations, it simply means attributing the same kind of value to the rest of the world that the Western systems apply only to humans.

To be more direct here: yes, the experience of the world and all its parts as alive and aware and equal in value to the human is root to our natural experience of the world. One way to grasp how innate it is is to note that children in every culture on Earth naturally take that position. To get them to stop believing what their experience is telling them takes constant retraining over decades. They have to be forced to believe differently. One of the ways that is accomplished is to teach them to distrust their feeling sense and to rely only on what they are being taught: that the mechanical nature of the world is fundamental.


II. A SELF-DIRECTED EDUCATION

BLVR: It’s somewhat taboo for scientists to use their intuition. Isaac Newton, for instance, was an alchemist but hid this from his peers to maintain his reputation as a man of reason, and you often cite the ostracism Barbara McClintock experienced when she stepped outside of cultural comfort zones. Which scientists would you cite as having been particularly in touch with their artistic, feeling sense? How did it contribute to their work?

SHB: Because it is so rarely acknowledged, most people, including nearly all students in schools, are completely unaware that holistic thinking is at the root of most major scientific discoveries. There is a common experience in those moments of discovery of what many people call intuition, a leap of understanding that emerges suddenly out of the depths of the self. For many of those kinds of scientists, there is a sense of aliveness of the phenomenon being studied, whether it be a mathematical phrase, a star, an ecological system, a bacterium, a molecule—it doesn’t matter. The thing is, this is a common experience, and any in-depth reading of any of the great scientists reveals it.

This includes such people as Einstein, George Washington Carver, Goethe, McClintock, and many, many more. All of them were quite clear that their results came from this kind of approach to their work. The phenomenon is common; the problem is that it upsets the current belief that the best science is performed in a state of dissociated mentation.

BLVR: You’re a proponent of the amateur scientist. How do you define self-education?

SHB: I have struggled with the term self-taught for a very long time and have come to a place where I have to disagree with its use in this context. Part of the problem we run into as people, over and over again, is a lack of specificity about the meaning of words. Self-taught in actuality means learning without any exterior feedback or input from others. I am unsure if there is any human being that the term accurately describes.

All of us get feedback from the exterior world… although a lot of people work very hard to ignore that feedback, scientists among them. (It seems to be a root human response to information input that conflicts with core beliefs.) In my case, I—quite early on—experienced a strong distinction between being schooled and being educated. And in the midst of my college schooling I realized I was wasting my time. I was getting a degree, studying things that had little relevance to what I felt I was meant to do, to what the core of me wanted to do with my life and work. So I made a list of all the people whose work had moved me, that had some similarity in feeling to what I felt in my deepest self, and I arranged to study with them. Once the decision was made, I traveled extensively, and met and took workshops from some of the greatest minds of our time. Why settle for warmed-over soup when you can have an original feast?

This exposure forced me to think, to really learn how to reason. It also forced me, as it still does, to move outside the limited parameters of culture and science in which my thought was being constrained. I could not stand to have my thinking constrained to a small box, to a single discipline. I was driven to become a generalist, to work with broad understandings and systems. The connections between things fascinated me; they often seemed much more important than the single phenomenon itself that was being studied.

Too, I had (and have) no tolerance for shallow thinking, in myself or in others who hold themselves out as scientists. Our lack of generalists, our focus on constrained disciplines, is part of the reason we are in this mess. One of the things I loved about Buckminster Fuller, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, James Lovelock, Robert Bly, and all the others who were/are my mentors is that they were not specialists, stuck in a narrow discipline.

When I found a truly deep thinker (such as Václav Havel or Robert Bly), I would read their works extensively, each book perhaps fifteen or twenty times. I was privileged, in a sense, to have found them. Such in-depth reading allowed me to see subtle aspects of the world as revealed through exceedingly perceptive minds. I could take on their orientation and for a time see the world through brilliant eyes. Doing this with as many people as I have done has allowed me contact with the great geniuses of our time, a way of touching the subtleties of their thought with deep intimacy. They became my teachers and I learned a great deal. So, no, I was not self-taught. Self-directed, maybe, but not self-taught.

And, yes, there were costs to taking this path. The difficulty in giving a culturally useful label to what I was doing presented many problems. When people asked me what I did, the answer was hardly a simple one. Finding a job where I could be paid for what I was doing was impossible. So I just began creating unique forms of work that continually challenged and interested me. To me, all the work I have done is simply a different expression of the same core work. To the outside world there seems no relation between them.


III. PLANT SLAVERY

BLVR: Most of the plants that we eat are grown through the practice of monocropping. How has that affected our relationship with plants?

SHB: Part of the real problem with gardening on any scale, as opposed to wild harvesting of food (as humans did long ago), is that it reverses the locus of power. In wild harvesting, people are dependent on the “out there,” on nature, a wildness over which they have no control. This creates a specific kind of relationship. Those people know that their survival depends on powers and forces much larger than themselves. That, by its very nature, generates a specific kind of carefulness, reverence, humility. With the switch to intentional agriculture, the power begins to shift to the human. (The more extensive the agriculture, the more the power shifts.) As a consequence, a belief naturally begins to arise that we can control nature. Over time, that belief has become widespread; there is very little general awareness in the West that nature is beyond human control, that we are dependent on powers far beyond that of the human. In fact, if you look with any discrimination of perception at how most people in the West view the natural world, they see it as somewhat like a cross between a city park, an amusement park, and a big-box warehouse from which material for our use can be gathered. (They are always outraged when a limb falls in a forest and kills a camping family or if someone is killed by a bear or a disease carried by a tick. There is a common belief that nature should be kind, fun, caring, and most of all, safe.)

Large agricultural monocropping, primarily done by large corporations, is just an extension of the trend to its logical conclusion. In consequence, there is now very little cognizance of where our food comes from or even of the nature of food itself. Very few people have a sense of what plants are, that they are extremely intelligent, fundamental to the functioning of the planet, and a source of complex food and medicine for most life forms on the Earth. We are trained to view plants as insentient organisms, passive, and simply a kind of stupid background to our intelligent, civilized foreground. The problem is rooted in an inaccurate (mental) software problem. We have a very deeply inculcated belief that humans are of essential importance; at the same time, we believe in the relative unimportance of everything else. Monocropping, a form of plant slavery, just appears to prove the unintelligence and unimportance of plants. It is just an extreme form of an ancient epistemological error.

BLVR: Is agriculture inherently flawed? Are the alternatives (permaculture, foraging, et cetera) even reasonable in these overpopulated times? Is there a way for people to develop a better relationship with plants?

SHB: There is an inherent, inescapable problem in intentional agriculture: it moves the locus of power from the plant to the human. However, that being said, as long as agriculture remains small-scale, the people engaging in it are much more affected by natural events. This does tend to focus their attention on powers larger than themselves (e.g., nature). It tends to generate a certain level of humility, of understanding that there are powers here greater than ourselves that can easily overwhelm the human world. Small-scale human agriculture can be relatively sustainable, but once the population attains a certain level, agriculture itself becomes its own end simply in order to generate enough food.

There are a number of other factors contributing to the problems in agriculture and which interfere with the possibility of creating a more sustainable relationship with plants. Christianity is one of them. It generally does not accord much respect (e.g., attribution of a soul) to life forms other than the human. It’s a primary factor of human exceptionalism in the West. Unfortunately, Western science also is founded on human exceptionalism. There is a large amount of Christianity inside fundamental scientific assumptions, much more than most people realize. We are at a time in human history when a very definite struggle between competing paradigms is occurring.

The ancient paradigm that accorded soul and sacredness to the natural world, common in both ancient Greek and Roman orientations as well as in nearly all indigenous cultures, is emerging again quite strongly in the human species. This is especially true among the proponents of deep ecology and Gaia theory. This disturbs both scientists and Christians a great deal. Nevertheless, it is the harbinger of a shift in our orientation toward the world, a shift that will once again move humans out of their exceptionalistic orientation and into a common realization of the equal importance of the rest of the natural world. Such paradigm shifts are always painful and are usually accompanied by a great deal of cultural collapse

BLVR: You speak about plants (and bacteria) with such high regard. Sounds almost utopian.

SHB: I would not call what the bacteria do utopian. What is more accurate is that cooperation is fundamental to the functioning of the Earth ecosystem. It is a great deal more important than competition. Even in the human sphere, Western civilization (for example) could never have arisen without cooperation. Nevertheless, this truth does not preclude competition, nor the inescapable fact that organisms die. Death is inherent in the system. Our inability to accept that and come to terms with it is one of our major character defects as human beings.

As I have come to understand how much of the world around me works, it has definitely informed both my thought and behavior. It has had profound impacts on the shape of my life. Aldo Leopold once said, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one [lives alone] in a world of wounds.” The difference between what really goes on here in this scenario we call Earth and what we are taught is profound. It is important to understand that the beliefs about the world that we absorb as truth act much like software does in a computer. They structure behavior. I have spent my life working to alter my software so that it is more in accordance with the real world than with my culture and species. This changes everything.


IV. OBSOLESCENT PRACTITIONERS

BLVR: How do you feel about the rise of herbalism schools?

SHB: Well, there are herbalism schools and there are herbalism schools. Some are very good, some are embarrassments. The worst of them are, in my opinion, the ones that are trying to mimic medical training. The technological medical system is terribly flawed. Anyone who has spent time in that system, whether it helped them or not, knows it, so why mimic it? (Besides, its underlying assumptions about so much, e.g., bacteria, are inaccurate in the extreme. Why mimic crazy people?) Herbalism is not technological medicine, and it shouldn’t be.

On the other hand, the schools that are training community herbalists tend to be uniformly pretty good. They tend to focus on the art and feeling of the craft and not on a lot of bullshit theoretical models that don’t have much relationship to the real world. Nevertheless, the United States no longer feels all that good about unregulated areas of the economy, despite the fact that one of the foundations of the country was a belief in the unregulated genius of its citizens. There is a pretty strong movement among many to regulate herbalism, to institutionalize it; they just can’t figure out quite how to accomplish it yet. Should they, herbalism will become just another ineffective element of corporate capitalism. (The money, as Chris Rock once put it, is not in the cure; it’s in the medicine.)

BLVR: Successful psychotherapy should actively work to make its practitioners obsolete.

SHB: Very strongly so. In my opinion, practitioners that don’t do so are guilty of the most egregious malpractice. Human beings are not just a body over here and a psychological structure over there. That so many think so is one of the greatest problems embedded within the healing professions. Nearly all diseases have a psychological component; nearly all psychological dysregulations have a physical component. For example, babies that don’t experience healthy bonding with their mothers often suffer irritable bowel syndrome. So, just looking at the inflammation in their ileum doesn’t really address the root of the problem. (We are most definitely not a clock with interchangeable parts.)
During illness, everyone has moments of tremendous fear; the emotional components of illness nearly always activate root patterns (and fears) in the psychological body, which then affects every other aspect of their lives: work, the healing journey, their families, their friends, every relationship they have. Many of the core beliefs they have about their lives are challenged. To ignore these foundational truths is a terrible form of malpractice. For the majority of ill people, one of the most important things they need during severe illness is to be companioned on the journey, whether into a new form of health or into death itself. Few doctors are able to make that kind of journey. . . or even want to. They have been trained to remain dissociated.

BLVR: You’ve often spoken about the way you began using herbs on yourself, with osha for intestinal cramping. Other than for the treatment and prevention of illnesses, how do you personally continue to use herbs now?

SHB: I have worked intensively with plants now for over thirty years. To temporarily avoid the point of your question, I can say I use pine pollen every day for keeping my testosterone levels high. I have an herbal pharmacy of perhaps five hundred herbs, which I continually utilize whenever my body needs them. Returning to your point, I can say that my herbal pharmacy and daily intake fit into a much larger orientation, the pharmacy being a tiny expression of it.

I live on the edge of Silver City, New Mexico. We are adjacent to an eighty-acre ranch that has been here since 1915; the arroyo that runs along the side of our house has quite a large Russian elm forest lining it (which stabilizes the banks—and, no, it is not an invasive species). That elm is another herb that we use often, for both food and medicine. And Silver City is located right on the edge of two of the largest and oldest wilderness areas in the United States. In many respects, I spend my day surrounded by wildness. That, in and of itself, keeps me from forgetting that there are other worlds and lives besides the human. 

BLVR: Before becoming an herbalist, you worked for many years as a psychotherapist. Were you working in any particular lineage?

SHB: My primary methodology was a combination of transactional analysis, regressive treatment techniques, and neuro-linguistic programming. In general, the more theoretical a psychological school becomes, the worse it is at helping people. The more it looks at people in isolation from the ecological field in which the people are embedded, the worse it is at helping people. We are not different in any substantial sense from any other life form on the planet. If a psychological theory is not true ecologically, it is not true. That is, if it does not apply equally well to plants and chipmunks and bacteria, it isn’t foundationally true. In consequence, it isn’t much use over time for life in any form that life may take. Any effective psychotherapy has to have, at its root, empowerment. It has to give a more accurate software program to the person using it and empower them to live a full, effective, and deeply rewarding life. It should, by its nature, take the professional psychotherapist out of the equation, remove the necessity for an outside agent. Successful psychotherapy should actively work to make its practitioners obsolete. (However, as James Hillman and Michael Ventura once put it [in their book title], We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World’s Getting Worse.)

Herbalism is a form of ecological medicine, rooted in medicines that are biodegradable (most pharmaceuticals are not easily biodegradable), inexpensive, renewable, and user-friendly. My psychotherapeutic orientation was simply extended to this field. I didn’t consider it a change of profession except that, over time, there was a significant increase in the focus on nature as an element in the healing process.


V. “ONLY THE DEADENED OF HEART ARE UNABLE TO FEEL WHAT IS INSIDE THEM.”

BLVR: You’ve called yourself an Earth poet. What is an Earth poet? Is there a tradition of Earth poets?

SHB: At its simplest, an Earth poet writes, and speaks, about the deeper livingness and intelligence of the ecological body that surrounds us, from which we come, and in which we are inextricably embedded. There is a root awareness of the living intelligence of the Earth, of the communication between the world around us and human beings. More, there is a continual sense that, as Thoreau once put it, “this earth which is spread out like a map around me is but the lining of my inmost soul exposed.”

This lineage, that of the Earth poets, is tremendously ancient. In the East, especially in China, the lineage was well developed. This is captured very well in David Hinton’s marvelous book Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China. Li Po, for instance, is one of the better-known poets in that lineage. Nevertheless, you can find them in any culture.

In the Middle East, there are writers such as Kabīr and Mīra Bāī. In Europe, there are Goethe and Rilke and many of what are (distressingly and inappropriately) called the Romantic poets. In North America, there are Whitman, Thoreau, Frost, some of Dickinson, Snyder, Pendell, some of Bly, and of course Mary Oliver. Then there are Vallejo and Lorca and Jiménez, Neruda, and Tranströmer. There are so many.

You might say that this strain of poetry has served to keep the feeling sense (as it is applied to the world itself) alive and available to people who need to be reminded of its existence. This kind of poetry always describes human interaction with a living, intelligent world that is a great deal more intelligent than humans will ever be. These poets keep alive a strain of human relationship with the wild that reductionism has been trying to stamp out for centuries. You can pour all the sidewalks you want (internally or externally), but wild plants will always break through them sooner or later.

BLVR: In addition to the Earth poets’ shared subject of nature, do you think a kind of environmental awareness affects their approach to language? Their syntax, phrasing, vocabulary? Is there a grammar that expresses wilderness?

SHB: Here, I would have to disagree with the word environmental. That word is far too dissociated from reality. It, in actuality, creates the same kind of dissociation that the word cement does. Just try its internal impact yourself: “environmentcement.” There is no life in it, no feeling component. If, however, you substitute the phrase natural world or the word nature, it creates a much less dissociated internal experience. Try it now: “naturecement.”

Environment in and of itself fosters no feeling experience, but rather generates a movement into a particular kind of mental state. It is very much rooted in the dissociated mentation that is the hallmark of what people now consider “science” to be. Without a feeling experience of the living intelligence of the natural world, of nature, the only possible approach is mental. The words that are used have to call forth in the listener that feeling experience.

I don’t think Earth poets have ever had an “environmental awareness,” but instead they have a living experience in their daily lives of an aware, fully alive world in which they were/are inextricably embedded. The experience is one of being companioned by a living intelligence with whom one is in daily communication. This in and of itself gives rise to a vocabulary, a unique type of linguistics. The words become filled with a certain kind of meaning. In some magical way, the underlying experiential meaning infuses the words. The reader then experiences that meaning when their eyes, their perceiving self, touch those words. Only the deadened of heart are unable to feel what is inside them.

BLVR: You used the word magical. How do you define this? As a practitioner who draws on a wide spectrum of research, when do you feel comfortable allowing magic to dictate a choice of treatment or recommendation?

SHB: So, yes, let’s tease apart the word magic. I use it in a specific sense, not a supernatural one but rather in the sense of a magician’s magic. Something happens, you can’t figure out how, but it seems to undercut the foundations of the world as you understand it. The woman is sawed in half, yet she is fine. It’s magic. For those who are willing, it is possible to find out that she was sawed in half, how it is done, and to then do it oneself. It is much harder to figure out the “magic” that we commonly encounter in the world itself. Still, “magic” occurs there all the time.

For example, a gambler’s hot streak. Statisticians will say that a flipped quarter will come up heads half the time. But a gambler knows that sometimes a flipped quarter will come up heads twenty times in a row. And every gambler, no matter how much they depend on mathematics in their profession (which they must to be any good), also knows the feeling of a hot streak when it hits. They also know how it feels when the cards go cold. In chaos theory, cold cards are called gambler’s ruin. If you don’t stop playing, ruin is a distinct possibility.

Now, it is hard with the rational mind to grasp how a gambler can feel a hot streak and know the moment it ends, yet this is a real phenomenon. There is certainly some underlying understandable dynamic occurring, but it feels “magical” when it happens. Nor is this kind of thing limited to gamblers. Most writers who are any good know the moment, when they are writing a story, when the characters come alive of their own accord and begin to move about on the page. That moment can’t be easily explained; it just feels “magical.” Nor can I explain how, when I am working with an ill person, feeling deep into the circumstance of their illness, wondering what I can use to help them, there’s a “magical” moment when a plant just suddenly pops into my mind and says, It’s me, use me. Nor can we explain the odd moments in our lives when we turn this way on that street just for the hell of it and run into an old friend who offers us a job just as we desperately need one and further, one that sends us on to the career that we never would have considered but for that chance meeting.

We can make up all kinds of stuff about those sorts of things, about the world, the unconscious, or what have you; nevertheless, the moment seems magical. It is magical. As Frank Herbert once put it, [in Dune], “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve but a reality to experience.” There is a lot going on here that humans will never understand. We encounter “magic,” “miracles,” every day; most of us, however, have just stopped noticing them.

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