Can the body actually heal itself? Hippocrates is largely credited with coining the concept vis medicatrix naturae. Most often translated as “The Healing Power of Nature.” This simple sounding idea has caused more controversy and discord within medical and scientific discussions than most realize. It seems Hippocrates (like many other great “thinkers”) was simply suggesting that it is actually in the nature of living organisms to heal. Meaning: that is just what we do. We heal. Sometimes we do it with such ease that few even notice and sometimes, well, sometimes it is a bit more difficult to hide.
The first time that I saw this concept of an innate healing ability differently was in end of my fourth year of naturopathic medical school, just before graduation. I was attending an elective then called HEART (Humanistic Elective in Alternative Medicine, Activism, and Reflective Transformation). It was my first day of living communally with 15 other medical students, mostly MD candidates and a few DO candidates…for a month. The 16 of us cooked meals together, reflected on our medical education, and discussed mind-opening ideas about healing with leaders in alternative medicine. We were living in this little mountain town outside of Santa Cruz which set the scene for some great learning and even better memories. This first day we arrived was no exception.
Like almost every other day for that next month, we had a bite to eat together, walked together up the hill through the trees, and talked with each other about life. This first day was a little bit different though. One of the mentors led the discussion that day. And the discussion wasn’t just about life, it was about Life. As we walked through the awe-inspiring trees of the Santa Cruz Mountains, our guide gathered us all around her and pointed to the knot on one especially gnarly tree. She enthusiastically reminded us this too was an example of every living organism’s natural ability to heal.
She explained that the tree had likely encountered some stress like an injury or an infection and had grown the knot (also known as a burl) as a result. Whether as a means of protection or because the genetic code got disrupted, growing the burl was a natural process for the tree.
It is just how the tree works. Interestingly, this knot, or burl, is often highly valued by artisans because of the fascinating grain patterns created in its wood. A burl produced by the redwoods are deemed so valuable, people are poaching them to the point that it may be a threat to the Redwoods. If only we all valued our own wounds or scars so much….
Hippocrates shared with us another one of my more favorite rules of healing: it takes time, but it also takes the opportunity. He really was rather brilliant... these astute observations likely contributed to him being considered the “Father of Western Medicine”.
Most of the recommendations for reducing knots or burls in growing trees includes regular pruning of dead branches and shoots. Seems reasonable enough advice, trim debris that is no longer serving you. As long as we are discussing trees growing in areas that a human or other animal can prune the branches on a regular basis.
Sometimes, the opportunity to heal without a scar isn’t always available to us. During these times, our natural tendency towards healing creates these knots or burls. These “imperfections” get created. That is just what we do.
As long as the stress continues, the burl will continue to grow. Though it is important to appreciate the beauty in the design of the burl, sometimes we also need to find a way to stop the growth of the burl.
Ram Dass recently wrote: If you go out in the woods and look at trees, and some trees are gnarled and some are straight. Some are flowering and some are barren, you just look with appreciation at the differences. You neither judge nor react. You don’t necessarily hate that tree and love that tree. But the minute you get around people it’s all different. So I would suggest you treat people like trees.
What would happen if we appreciated the knots or burls in our healing instead of judging or reacting to them? What would happen if we always pruned away dead branches or shoots? What would happen if we appreciated the burls of others? What if we didn’t “poke” at others as their knots became obvious?
Maybe next time we see a burl on a tree or a person, we could appreciate the intricate pattern created in the scars a bit more. After all, Rumi did wisely profess:
The wound is the place where the Light enters you.
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Jonci Jensen , ND is a naturopathic doctor in Carlsbad, CA who shares