This is an essay I wrote for Plant Healer Magazine earlier this year. It’s a hot topic right now in the herbal community, and something that Kate Clearlight and I will be addressing at length in a class that we’re co-teaching at the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference next weekend. If you don’t know about TWHC, check it out (and book a last minute ticket) HERE.
Of undisputed origin; genuine.
Origin: late Middle English: via Old French from late Latin authenticus, from Greek authentikos ‘principal, genuine.’
Buzz-words. Like ‘forage’ and ‘artisanal’, and all the other words that take over our collective consciousness with a meme-like speed, these words start out meaning something. Then, because of how quickly trends spread in our current electronic age, what starts as a well-meant thought spreads to the next person, and then the next, until it seems like everybody is using it, and then it no longer has the weight it used to. It hangs there like a dead word, an empty shell of a word, and the original meaning has beat a retreat for the hills. The word and its repetitive re-use loses its authenticity. In an ironic twist of fate, ‘authentic’ has started to become a buzz word itself: meme-fied and scattered around the internet with happy looking people flinging their arms out and quotes about how to ‘be authentic’, or to ‘find your authentic self’.
I thought nothing of it until a few months ago, when an article a friend wrote was plagiarised (almost word for word) on a herbal website. We had an in-depth discussion both about the plagiarism but also that ideas don’t really happen in a vacuum, and I got to thinking about what it is that differentiates between copied content and authentic content, when so many of us herbalists have such similar goals. And also, on a deeper level, what is it that makes a person, their work, and what they contribute to the world, authentic. In this essay, I’m attempting to take a closer look and explore what authenticity truly is, why this is important, and also how we can all work towards finding it in our own work.
Authenticity is, at its root, something of undisputed origin. This can apply in matters of identification (are you who you say you are?), and of security (authenticated pages on the web), and it applies to the way we exist in the world. People can feel authenticity in others, the way we can feel malice, and resentment and fear and falseness, almost as if we have our own built in authenticity sensor. The reason for that sensor is simple: trust. We need to know who we can trust in the world, and authenticity is when what is on the surface matches what’s underneath: when something is what it says it is. I like to think of ‘undisputed origins’ in the same way as I would when wildcrafting a plant’s roots: when digging, I’ll feel my way down from the surface, by the stem, making sure that the root I’m uncovering is, in fact, the plant I want it to be. This is important in terms of plant identification but it’s important as a whole in terms of people, content, information, and classes.
When looking at a field as a whole, be it music, art, law, herbalism, every new creation, idea, formula or teaching comes as the result of what’s come before it: we quite literally cannot create without context. Our context is that which has come before us, it’s those who we’ve learned from, those who inspire us, and our own unique spark of ‘self’ takes all of this in and transforms it into something new. There’s this thing that happens when we take inspiration in, and let it dwell in our unconscious, then spit it out again. In the process of assimilating it it becomes a sort of primordial soup, that no longer resembles its original form but is still influenced by it. And its in that primordial soup form that it is broken down into its constituent parts, losing its identity as someone else’s, so that by the time we are ready to communicate it, it becomes something that’s our own.
Authentic content, be it a class, an article, or a product, is content that we have made our own.
We have a lot of things dictated to us by society, and the media: how to dress, how to act, how to represent ourselves. Fine lines that we dare not cross with regards to our behaviour. And yet, the more we have (in the rich western world), the more wealth we seem to accumulate, the more miserable I see people becoming, and the more I see people afraid to be authentic in the world for fear of being judged, ridiculed or rejected. The bulk of my herbal practice is helping people with depression and anxiety disorders try to find a way to navigate the world, and one of the things I see the most commonly with my clients is a desire to be themselves in the world, but no idea of what that even means. And the thing is, that while the internet is awash with these memes of pretty people standing joyfully on cliffs with quotes about ‘living your authentic life’, that’s not what it really looks like for most of us. It looks different for everyone, and its never something that happens overnight. As much as stories and movies would have us believe that these things happen in a moment of epiphany, the reality is that ‘authenticity’ is a constant process: every single choice we make, or thing we put out there is an opportunity for us to act with integrity, allow ourselves to be seen, and to come from a place of honesty. And the cool thing is that what this looks like evolves with us. So there’s no great ‘unveiling’, just a process, and that process can be difficult, but in doing it, it’s slowly shedding these things that are dictated to us. I think one of the important things about authenticity itself is this: authenticity is something that is entirely itself, within its context.
This context is important: it is from our context that we are born, from our context that our ideas arise, and within our context that our ideas are received. Think about art history: one piece of art on its own might be good, but when looked at in the context of what came before and after, you get a completely different picture: you can see the traces of the influence of the artists whose work influenced those who came after, be it through inspiration or reaction, and you can follow this trail of influence through time to the current age. There’s something incredible about this sense of context, and we have the very same thing in Western herbalism. I think of it as a tapestry of sorts, with each one of us as a thread who is influenced by those who inspire us, by our teachers, by our bioregions, and by our own personal outlook. Our context is going to be so very different, and therefore what each of us has to contribute to the tapestry is different. Sometimes we delve down to the back of the tapestry where (in my mind) the primordial idea soup is, and then sometimes we come up to the surface with an idea, a class, a formulation, that stands out like its own little work of art, not separate from the tapestry around it, but still very much its own. When someone’s work is authentic that the stitch they make in the tapestry expands it, makes it more beautiful, helps it grow and gives something for other herbalists to build upon. In short, authenticity keeps our field alive. When I think of authenticity, my favourite examples are plants. A rose cannot be anything but a rose, even if it is surrounded by dandelions. A dandelion, on the other hand, is a dandelion, similar to other plants in its family but entirely itself in its weedy, wild messiness. Peony is peony, pedicularis is pedicularis. I know this is utterly obvious, but it seems to me that we herbalists can look at plants and see their beauty for what they are, and yet for some reason we tend not to see ourselves in the same way: we want to be dandelions if we’re roses, willows if we’re oaks, pines if we’re penstemon, or maybe a little of all of them. Imagine you’re a wild rose and you’ve spent your life being told you should be a pine tree. Some people need to learn what being a rose means again, and to find the joy in it. It’s only when you start to be that rose that you can look around and appreciate the pine without resenting it. When a person and their work is authentic, it affects us deeply because we see someone being what they are, expressing what they are, and not afraid to discuss the influences that made them that way. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, humbling to be around, and something that I think we are all fully capable of, and dare I say, should strive towards.
Luckily for us, I don’t think it’s actually that difficult. Here is my simple ‘authenticity how-to’.
How to be authentic in the world, with the things you create and share, and with who you are:
1. Strive for integrity.
Know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If you are unsure of your identity or place in the world, then it’s really easy to get bummed out by what others are doing. If what someone else is doing bums you out, makes you jealous, or makes you want to copy them, there are two good courses of action to take: The first is to stop following their work (why subject yourself to feeling bad?). The second, and the one that I think is more productive, is to take a good look at yourself and why it is that they are bumming you out in the first place. Is it because they’re doing something you want to do? Is it because they do something better than you? Is it because they are enacting ideas that you’ve had that you haven’t acted on yet? These feelings don’t arise in a vacuum— we very rarely feel unhappy with ourselves by looking at someone doing something cool that we have absolutely no personal interest in. But I think that the more content we are with our own actions, our own integrity, and what we are doing, the less we feel the need to compare ourselves to others. These feelings are an opportunity to self-analyse and maybe make some changes, but in the long-run, comparison does us no good. Because the thing is, when you have a strong self-identity, regardless of whether its in your products, formulations, teachings, writings, marketing, or clinical work, then it’s almost impossible to compare yourself to others, because there truly is no comparison. It’s not that one is better or worse, but that they are different and each have their own merits. Another way of putting this is the example of plants I gave earlier: a wild rose is simply a wild rose, and a dandelion a dandelion. Knowing who you are and what you have to offer the world means that you can focus on the path you’ve chosen for yourself, knowing that you have something unique to offer. It doesn’t mean that you’ll be popular, universally adored, or start earning a fortune, but what you’ll find is that that stuff matters a whole lot less when you’re doing something that comes from your heart.
If you have an underlying goal or purpose to your work, then you are setting the groundwork for integrity. Integrity is defined in many ways, but the one I like the best is ‘a state of being whole and undivided’. The most important thing that this does is carve out your boundaries— where you end and other herbalists begin— so that you know what is yours and what isn’t. Think of things that we want to have integrity: joints, mucous membranes, barriers, and yes, our selves. Having integrity means inhabiting, fully, what you know yourself to be. With integrity, you both know who you are and who you are not. The great thing about this is that seeing someone teach a brilliant class will fill you with ideas and inspiration, but you’ll also be able to truly appreciate work that others’ do that you would most likely not do on your own.
2. Show your work
Some ideas come to us in a flash of inspiration. You’ll be reading a book about something completely off topic, and then all of a sudden it appears as from out of nowhere, and you have to jump up and find a pen and write it all down before it disappears from your life forever. I love these moments, and the things that come from them are usually inspired, and different and ground-breaking. But, there are also ideas that creep up slowly, or that are solidified after a toss back and forth with someone, or that come from seeing something someone else has done and having an idea of a variation of it, or a refinement. When it comes to product making, I think the fastest way to hurt someone’s feelings, or piss them off, is to make a product that’s almost identical to and based on theirs, without crediting them in some way or another. I’ve got a few products in my own store that were inspired by others, and I like to tell the story of it in the product listing. Not only does this acknowledge the person who had the original idea (who would be well aware that I got the idea from them) but it acknowledges a sense of context. I have a completely non-herbal example to illustrate. Remember maths exams? It wasn’t enough to simply write the answer in the space provided, you had to show your work. Showing your work, at its most basic, shows the people reading the test that you know your s**t, that you’re not copying the answers from the dude next to you, and that if you had to do it again, you could. It shows that you have enough of an understanding of a topic that you can explain how you got from A to B, and that shows an intimacy with it that makes your knowledge credible. When it comes to our work as herbalists, be it as a product maker, a teacher, a clinician, or a writer, showing what your starting point was, and explaining the path you took to get out of the maze of confusion to get there, makes your work yours.
3. Acknowledge your context.
There’s no western herbal canon, so we all learn from different people.
The simplest thing is to acknowledge your context. How to do this? It’s simple: In writing, cite your sources. In product making, if something you’ve made is directly inspired by someone else, mention that. In teaching, if you got information from somebody else, credit them in the class. Jim mcdonald is really good at this— if you’ve seen him teach you’ll see that he talks about the people he’s learned things from all the time. Someone who does this really well in writing is Matthew Wood, who mentions in his books the different people he gathers snippets of information from in conversation. Herbalist Alanna Whitney, uses a Spiritual Heart Protector formula that she learned from Paul Bergner and Sheri Kupfer years ago, and loves the formula so much that she kept it as is. She’s been using it for so many years now that it’s a part of her repertoire and feels like her own, and yet every time she uses it she mentions who she learned the formula from. Similar to showing the work, above, in crediting sources, instead of taking away from one’s credibility as an ‘original thinker’, it actually reinforces one’s credibility. If you have the strength to show what ideas have contributed to your product/ class/ article, then you also have the strength of conviction that it is truly separate from what you are offering.
4. Be honest.
I think this for many of us, is a difficult thing to do. We all want to be knowledgeable, and we don’t want to seem like idiots. But the quickest way to lose credibility in your authenticity is to bluster. It’s ok to now know, it’s ok to be wrong, and its ok to not have fully worked something out yet. It’s also ok to repeat information that you get from someone else, and your credibility is reinforced if, in the repeating, you mention who you got it from. Ask yourself ‘is this mine yet?’. If its not, then that’s ok. We don’t all need to be new content generators constantly, and often the best things need mulling over for a good long time. An example: Christopher Hedley and jim mcdonald both teach the humoral temperaments. Jim learned about them from Christopher and spent years mulling it over, before he had his own take on it, and then he started teaching it. In his classes he’ll use direct descriptions from Christopher, and say something to the effect of ‘Christopher Hedley says X’, and will at some point in his class mention that he learned a lot from Christopher. But because his take on the four humors is so different to Christopher’s now, it is authentically jim’s: it’s been through the process of being melted down and remade into something that incorporates jim’s own take on herbal energetics. We all learn from different people, and are inspired by different sources, and how these things all fit together in our unconscious, to come out as a solid and new *thing* is going to be different for each of us. If you’ve got a piece of information and are repeating it, or have a formula that you love from someone else that you’d like to replicate, first and foremost, be honest with yourself. If it isn’t yours, then say that: nobody will think any less of you. In fact, most will think more highly of you, because it establishes your credibility, makes your insides match your outsides, and has the ring of authenticity that people instinctively seek out.
I think one of the keys here is to recognise that the things we produce are a part of a body of work that has extended into time long before us, and extends out in front of us too. We’re not just isolated beings trying to connect people with plants, and with the earth; or trying to educate and empower people about their own healing, we are ALL striving for some variation of these things. To broaden the perspective even more, we’re plant people, and we have something unique to offer the world, that builds on our collective work. Individually, we have our work cut out for us, but as a group, despite often disagreeing with each other, we’re still all working towards the same things. It’s one of the most beautiful things, I think, about Western herbalism: it’s a living thing, a mutable field of a tapestry that we’re all contributing to together, and it is still evolving. The more we seek out what it is that we uniquely have to offer the world, the more beautiful, diverse and nuanced our tapestry becomes.
In a world of regurgitated content, the world needs true authenticity more than ever. Not in the ‘make a meme about it’ sense, or the ‘craft a self-image and use it as a marketing tool’ sense, but in a way that has nothing at all to do with image and other peoples’ reactions. When it comes down to it, authenticity in our work and our selves has to do with an internal calibration of factors: integrity; acknowledging that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves; being honest with ourselves; and showing the work it takes for us to get there. It’s a life’s work, not a switch that you flick on, or a heavy blanket that you throw off, but a daily check-in with yourself and your internal compass. Authentic work speaks to us all on a deep and profound level. We respond to it with trust, and we respond to it with a flicker of hope: each time one person stands up and says ‘this is who I am and this is what I have to offer the world even if nobody likes it’ it inspires those around them to do the same, to stand up against the odds and be fueled in their own work and purpose. It’s a bravery and an honesty that, I truly believe, has the power to change the course of humanity, over time. And it all starts with a simple little nod to our context.