Meeting Bill Mitchell
I first met Bill Mitchell in Rosemary Gladstar’s Advanced Course in Herbal Medicine at Sage Mountain. Dressed in a blue button-down shirt, with cross-cropped hair, Bill looked more like someone headed to a corporate office than a yurt on a mountain in Vermont. Then he started his lecture on cancer by playing a song, and he got my attention. Bill was unlike any other teachers I’d encountered at Sage Mountain – and he is the one I remember the most. He talked about spirit and healing as well as about science and health. He talked about listening to the energy of the earth and of ourselves, about the importance of engaging our knowledge and energy in the moment so that our time together was a living body. He said that we are not ‘a part from nature’, but are ‘a part of nature,’ that he wanted to call forward a second American revolution and this time for it to be a declaration of dependence, dependence on the earth and on each other. And he talked in intricate detail and depth about the ways the chemicals of the plants interacted with the chemistry of the body.
Bill was one of the most remarkable healers I have met and he was also one of the least pretentious. He made such an impression, less for what he said and more for qualities that are hard to find to words for: an openness, a willingness to be vulnerable, a feeling of the depth with which he cared – qualities that emerge so powerfully in his comments in Numen and, I hope, come through in the excerpts below.
We were incredibly grateful to be able to arrange an interview with Bill at the last moment, squeezed into his schedule of teaching a weekend course at Sage Mountain. We were especially grateful because Bill died of a heart attack several months later.
In this post I have included some of the selections that made it into the film – and some that did not. I offer these reflections as a celebration of Bill’s life and all that he offered. May his words remind us all to look and listen with our hearts as well as our heads and to open to the mystery of life – remembering that, as he says, the closer you look, the more magical and magnificent it is. That it is our fault if we don’t look closely enough, not the fault of the universe.
Spirit and Healing
Ann: Bill, Can you begin by talking about the relationship between science and the sacred?
Bill: Chemistry and science are basically are sacred. I don’t know how you can separate chemistry and science from that which is sacred. Life is sacred. Every aspect of life is sacred.
If we examine the leaf of a plant for example and we get down closer and closer, we get a cell, we get an atom. We get closer and closer and eventually we come down to things we don’t understand. We ultimately come down to mystery when we look close enough. The closer you look, the more magical and magnificent and mysterious something is. It’s our problem that we don’t look close enough, not the problem of the universe.
But when we do look close enough and we come to appreciate what the chemistry symbolizes, what in fact it is, then we are always brought down into mystery.
Ann: How does this work in healing? People talk about the different chemical actions of plants, but what else is in there, helping the plants work?
Bill: There are a lot of ways of thinking about plant medicine, herbology. One way is to think about the plants as a collection of active compounds. There may be sterols in there, steroids, there may be bioflavanoids, carotenes, proteins, and on and on. How we react to disease, allergies, all of these different energies can be alerted by the biochemistry of what we consume, what we take in.
I’m perpetually astounded by some of the effects that one gets from these plant medicines. I’m astounded – and being astounded is a spiritual act of awe in a sense. The plants surprise me. I’m surprised by what affect they can have on a person.
The Patient is the Hero
I think of my patients as heroes and they’re on a journey. And their journey is to discover wellness, not just to become well. It’s a discovery process and they’re the hero on this journey. The doctor is not the hero. The patient is the hero. They’re the ones that have to discover themselves, their purpose, what they need to do to be healthier. And in the end, we find it’s not just taking a pill, it’s how we relate to everything: our diet, our movement, our exercise, for example, the different materials we take into our body that are medicines.
The medicines that I love to use are the ones that have been around on earth forever practically; the plants we’ve evolved with, the plants we have grown to understand.
The biochemistry is a way of understanding more about this journey. So I explain to my patients the chemistry of what they are taking. I don’t just give them a pill. I tell them this is how it is working. This is what I’m expecting. This is how it connects in with your body and then I tell them to see if that’s true or not.
And then we get together for our next visit and they’ll say, well yes or no. It did or it didn’t. And then we’ll talk some more.
The Plants as Attractors
Gathering the patient in, attracting them to their own journey, is maybe one of the most important things I do.
And the plant medicines are very good attractors. They have a taste. They have a smell that sometimes triggers an experience in their youth of smelling this thing or tasting it. And that is part of the healing as well.
This may get cut out of the tape, I don’t know, but I believe honestly that the herbs sometimes want to be part of us, want to be part of the healing process, almost call to us. You go out in the garden and you’ll be attracted to a certain thing and many times that will be a medicine that’s good for you. That’s kind of a little woo woo and it’s a little going out on the edge of things. It’s far away from the scientific model that we’re used to and yet, we’re so subtle, we’re so in tune when we listen, that you can look at a bunch of plants and generally you’ll probably be attracted to one or the other and you make teas out of them and lo and behold, that tea helps you to feel better. Or that’s the very one that you need, just by attraction.
Well, who’s attracting who? Are we attracted to the plant or is the plant attracting itself to us, does the plant participate? Or is the plant a passive observer? Is the plant a healer or just an object growing in the ground?
These are mystical and numinous questions that are probably worth pondering.
I love to have three or four plants, maybe even tinctures in a bottle, and say, now smell this, now smell this, now smell this. Okay, taste this, now taste a drop of this, what’s happening. Which one do you want? And the patient will say, oh I want this one.
It’s profound. It’s just profound. I’m caught up in the magic as a healer. Maybe it’s grateful. Maybe I’m just grateful to have the help from the plants. That may not make much sense to anybody, but to me it’s everything. And that’s how I heal. That’s part of my process. And I’m clearly astounded by it. By science, I mean these molecules, these aromas, these turpines, they’re floating up in the air and they effect my nose and my olifactory system and they’re science, how that happens. But the experience inside of myself, inside of my patient, can be profound, hugely profound. It can make a difference, it can change their lives. And that’s what I want to have. I want patients to participate in the change of their lives.
Because if a patient doesn’t want to get well or they don’t appreciate their own journey, if their dreams are dead, if they’ve lost the will to live because they’ve lost a sense of purpose and all that stuff, then what good are you as a healer? You’re not going to help them until you recapture them.
They’ll remember their nephew who is cute and realize that they want to stay and help him. It’s just a little memory, it just flicked in, but it is enough and all of a sudden they get on a path of healing because they want to live, they want to survive or they want to get well.
Moments of Revelation
Ann: Have you had a personal experience of this? Something like this in your own life, that helped you get on your path of healing?
Bill: When I was a child, seven or eight, I was living in Mononk, Illinois.. I was a sensitive child. It was a nice little town. My grandfather was a coal miner. I was walking along. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, as a seven or eight year old I didn’t think of this very often. And I remember just being stopped in my tracks, by the hedgerow, near the train. I can remember the smell of flowers very strongly and the smell of grass, even the smell of the steam from the train and I was stopped in my tracks and surrounded by what felt like a halo of light.
I was filled with a feeling of love and the image that I could heal anything or anybody through the power of love coming through my hands.
I know that sounds a bit mystical and odd, but there it is. I was paralyzed in that immense feeling of love for about a minute or so and then it went away. And from that moment on I knew I was going to be a healer or be in healing or be a doctor.
I wanted to help people and it seemed to be related to nature and related to love. It didn’t involve bottles of pills or surgery; it just involved a caring.
And that was an amazing experience for me, a magical experience I’ll never forget.
I’m wondering as people are watching this if you can reflect in yourself whether you’ve had a magical experience like that, something that has transformed your life, and you know we put them aside and say, oh that wasn’t important or whatever. You know I’m not so sure that those things aren’t important, I think that’s part of the magic and the mystery.
I think those moments of revelation, where something happens to us, something is revealed to us are actually very important in a person’s life. This wasn’t subtle. It transfixed me and I’ll never forget it, every moment of it.
The Magic of Healing
Ann: How has that experienced of revelation in your own life informed your work now as a healer?
Bill: I would say this about healing, when a patient comes in and they are very ill, for example, something happens to me, and I think most doctors will tell you this, herbalists and so on, you’re drawn into their conflict, you really want to help them so much. And you may not know the exact diagnosis, you may not have any idea about what the treatment is, but somehow in the process of talking to them and experiencing them, you begin to have small, mini revelations about how to help. I don’t believe it comes from pure logic or pure medical science logic although that’s there. I believe that the revelation that happens as you are learning what to choose for this person, especially in plant medicine, is part of the process of being with the patient and talking with them and inviting in whatever will help.
And here we lapse into territory that sounds strange and fishy to a lot of people but I can’t help but saying that there is a certain sacred magic in relating to somebody as they discover what/how this journey needs to go, where it needs to go, what the medicines are, which plants, which foods, not doing which foods, how to move, how to do certain postures and stretches, how to breath, how to think, all that comes in the process and it is a revelatory process. It is not necessarily logical.
So revelation, revelatory moments are part of the healing experience and the plants participate in that and in the end, we get a compilation of therepeutics that will probably help the patient.
It is a magical and mystical as well as scientific and logical journey and they’re all married together, it doesn’t feel like anything is separate.
The Importance of Love
Our conversation ranged widely on these and other topics. In closing, I asked Bill if there was anything else he would like to add, words that today seem especially fitting and poignant – and as important as ever.
Bill: Not really, not anything more than I have said. We just need to love one another and that’s it. That’s the alpha and the omega of it. Gandhi said that sin is separation from one another. I think that sums it up. When we separate ourselves and exclude and reduce then we get ourselves into trouble. If you want to call that sin or wrong doing that’s probably right.
I think healing occurs, it starts with and ends with loving each other, and caring for each other as much as we care for ourselves. It’s the golden rule, it’s the way it works in medicine, in politics and in every aspect of life. That would be my wish for people. If I had no other words to say, to love one another.
Thank you, Bill.