As a student of Josephine Spilka, my first introduction to her teaching was in an essential oil [aromatherapy] class that she offered from a Chinese medicine perspective. Josephine taught many other classes in herbal medicine and was also our clinical director at Daoist Traditions. She was one of the most challenging and intriguing teachers during my time there. In this interview, Josephine and I spoke at her home in Western North Carolina which is beautifully decorated like a museum with altars and shrines. We spoke about her calling to teach, the significance of an oral tradition and immortals. We also shared a very special tea reading with these two Chinese herbs: Shi chang pu/acorus root [commonly known as Sweet flag] and Yuan Zhi/polygala root. Yuan Zhi/polygala is about orientation, purpose, and anchoring while Shi chang pu is about sorting things out and in combination they can be used for alchemy. I hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did! To find out more, please visit Josephine at: www.essencepresence.com.
IInterview with Josephine Spilka
Weaverville, North Carolina
June 22nd, 2017
Mary Burke- Pitts (MBP): How did you discover Daoism?
Josephine Spilka (JS): By accident, through Chinese Medicine. Basically, I think when I became interested in Chinese Medicine I had no concept of what it’s origins were at that time and I wasn’t even motivated by that, particularly, I was motivated by Chinese Medicine as a practice, so I didn’t really think about it as Daoist until I met Jeffrey [Yuen], which I was out of school (I was just out of school), a couple years when I met Jeffrey.
MBP: When was that?
JS: That would have been 1998 or 1999, maybe the very end of ‘98.
MBP: Where did you meet him [Jeffrey Yuen]?
JS: I met him at the New England School of Acupuncture (NESA) in Boston. I had actually heard about him from another acupuncturist on the west coast when I was out there and she actually gave me some treatments sort of based on Jeffrey’s style and ideas and I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to meet him. And when I went back east for the first year or two years, I studied with Sharon Weizenbaum in Amherst Massachusetts and she introduced the NanJing, she didn’t talk a lot about the Nei Jing but she introduced sort of the classics and she was also learning Chinese at the time and I still hadn’t met Jeffrey and I think I must have gotten a flyer in a Crane herb order, so I have been ordering from Crane herbs even before I went to acupuncture school and got a flyer and he [Jeffrey] was starting to teach at NESA and I studied with him there and in New York from that time on.
MBP: What does Daoism mean to you now?
JS: Well I think about it as one of the lineages that I hold and in terms of my own work and my own life and my own practice. For me it represents the streams about the teachings of the natural way, the natural world. That’s the thing that attracts it to me the most, is that it talks about how we are in nature and how we are as humans in relation to it and so that’s the thing I find most compelling about it.
MBP: How did you learn about Buddhism?
JS: Well again, totally by accident, quite frankly. I think as a young person I was a twenty two or twenty three year old, I was struggling as many young people are because I felt tortured by my own mind, I felt that my mind was somehow unable to be pleasant for me and I was living with a man who had the Autobiography of a Yogi by Parahamsa Yogananda and so I read that book and so I started meditating on my own in the apartment where we lived and I told a friend of mine and she was like, “What! You’re meditating by yourself? You have to come with me.” And she literally almost dragged me to what was then called Dharmadhatu in Austin, Texas at that point but it’s now a Shambhala center in Austin, Texas to hear Pema Chodron who at that time was not famous but is one of the very first students of Chogyam Trungpa who became my root guru so I went to hear her speak [Pema Chodron] without having any real interest in Buddhist practice at all and I walked away from that thinking, “Well, if that’s what it means to be a Buddhist, I think there must be something to it,” because her presence was so amazing she was somehow warm and personable with everyone in the room, even though there were probably 75 people in the room and so from that I guess that means, I should look into this and so I kind of did like an experiment, I didn’t really think that I wanted to be a Buddhist at all, I just wanted to learn to meditate and I wanted to sort of emulate her and by accident I was sort of exposed to Buddhist practice and then I went to Karma Choling, which is a Shambhala Buddhist retreat center in Vermont in 1986 and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s voice on a tape because I went there to sit just to meditate and I did not go to a Buddhist anything but I heard them chanting in the shrine room and I felt called, I was like, “Oh, they’re chanting, I want to know what they’re saying”, you know and I went in there but it wasn’t part of the program I was doing and so the woman who was my meditation instructor said, “Well, if you’re interested I’ll give you a little tape and you can listen to it, you can’t listen to it with other people because that’s not part of this program but because you have this interest I’ll let you listen to it,” and she gave me a headset with the tape recorder and I was like walking around at Karma Choling and listening to him [Rinpoche impa] at which point I was like, “Oh well, I guess I’m going to do this, I don’t really know what it means to do this but I’m gonna do it,” and a year later I took refuge which is a first step to being a Buddhist formally. I took refuge at Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s cremation which happened in 1987 at 218 Karma Choling in Vermont which was 3,000 or more people at that assembly and teachers from all over the world and it was covered in Time Magazine and stuff like that and so that’s how I got into how I was a Buddhist.
MBP: What are the overlaps between Daoism and Buddhism?
JS: Now that’s a big question. So in both traditions in Chinese Medicine and Buddhist practices. In both traditions in Chinese medicine and in Buddhist practice there are lots of crossovers. Well Daoist practices existed, in theory, before Buddha came on the scene. There were people investigating the nature of their experience and the nature of their mind by sitting down and doing nothing basically. And the Buddha himself figured that out, like the only way this is gonna work is if I sit down and do nothing because I can’t figure it out any other way. And in a way they both have that core, you have to look at your own mind, you have to sit down and sit still and actually do that in order to realize the nature of this existence. And I think they crossover in so many ways because of that. They both have lots of rituals in various permutations and the emphasis in Buddhist practices is frequently on in helping others and in Daoist practices more in evolving or cultivating yourself. So I think they have a slightly different emphasis but they have the same goal. You’ll see I have an ancestor shrine here in the living room and I have a little card up there that says, “All Dharma agrees at some point,” and I truly see that to be and I don’t think that they have a divergence, they just have different methods. And in medical practice, in Chinese Medicine, they are inextricably woven. There’s almost no way to kind of pull them apart. The Daoist cosmology is obviously more specific in certain ways about working with the body, but the Buddhist influence is often there in a way that things are talked about. I shared with you that I was reading, Awakening to Reality, and one of the quotes that I highlighted from there says, “If you do not search for the great medicine, how can you ever come upon it? But coming upon it but not refining it, this is truly foolish and insane.”
MBP: What does that mean to you [the quote from Awakening to Reality]?
JS: Well this is kind of the core of the work that I feel like that I’m here to do. Which is to help people to learn how to refine the essence that encounter even in themselves and in their lives and both of these traditions point people to themselves as the source of knowing and like I said they [Daoism and Buddhism] have very different methods in certain ways, the Daoist practice that we’ve been introduced to by Jeffrey is very diffuse in some ways, not often very rigid or regimented and some Buddhist practice is very tight that way they have a very specific practice to cultivate certain themes but on this point they both agree that you have to A) be looking for a deeper resonance to your own existence and be that you have to decide that it’s worth more than, you know, you have to chose to actually do it. That if you don’t make that choice than what’s the point? So I think they both agree on that [Daoism and Buddhism] that it’s up to each person to make that choice and to decide they want to cultivate themselves.
MBP: My next question is, are there any practices that you’ve made a part of your life from the influences of Buddhism or Daoism?
JS: Oh yes, so I’d say many. So over the years, well I first began just doing sitting meditation practice in the Buddhist style called Shamatha or Shine (shi’nee) practice which is a practice of synchronizing the mind and body through the breath and for many years that was my main practice.
JS: Chinese medicine became my practice when I went to Chinese medical school but before that in 1988 I went to a Buddhist seminary. At seminary you’re given what’s called the preliminary practices, the core of which is to contemplate that death comes without warning and that everything in this world is impermanent. And so you could say that the contemplation of impermanence was my main practice at that point and so simultaneously I was doing that and then I went to acupuncture school so at the same time I was also doing sadhana practice in the Buddhist tradition which is more about the potential of energy, similar to Chinese medicine in certain ways only again, the methods are different but the goal is to use the energy you find in your world, in yourself to wake up, to be more present and more alive and more healthy and so I did that for many years as part of my main practice and when I got out of acupuncture school, and I had mentioned that I was studying with Sharon Weizenbaum who was teaching something that she calls mandala acupuncture which is a way of looking at the body and touching the body so that you gain information directly from it, and for me I would call that a practice because I feel like I learned so much just everyday from people’s bodies about what it means to listen to the body and what it means to have a body and what it means to work with the body and so, in a certain sense for me that was the practice of medicine which became my main practice for fifteen years. Throughout that time, I did various forms of qigong and taichi, I learned from in school, I learned the yang form of tai chi and when I was living in Vermont I learned something called Hua Yu style taichi and I also began to study calligraphy at that point. So I began to study with a woman, she was a Buddhist but she also studied with a Chinese person in Boston and learned to do calligraphy and learned this Hua Yu style of tai chi so, I lived in Vermont for about twelve years so probably for all of those years with the exception of maybe the first two, I was studying with her. And Jeffrey has taught us Chen style [tai chi form] and what else . . . calligraphy and qi gong and I would say taking pulse is a practice too. Learning to listen to the pulses. And I continue to do sitting practice, meditation practice. I continue to do sadhana practice, I continue to do qigong and I teach my clients qigong too, mostly the 8 brocades, which I actually learned the 8 brocades in the context of a meditation instructor’s program for three years I did a teacher training program for teaching Buddhist practice and we learned to do this qi gong and we actually did a lot of qigong during that time. And it had to do with visualizing energy movement as well. So, most recently, I’ve taken up a shaking practice, which is also a Daoist practice that you you probably know relates really well to doing Divergence and so I’ve been experimenting with how that works. And the other practice that I do a lot is divination. So actually I just did divination yesterday because it was the [summer] solstice. And that, again, it’s an amazing practice to that regularly and begin to sort of understand what the meaning of those hexagrams are. One of the things I’ll share that happened yesterday was I have this client who was working with me and we’re going the divergent release and I explained to him sort of how the needle technique was working to help him and we did this reading for him yesterday and it was Hexagram 17- Sui – Following which has got an open line at the top and the Trigram Zhen- Shake which has two open lines and one yang line at the bottom and when I explained to him this hexagram he was like, isn’t that the needle technique that we’re doing? Shaking and opening and I was like, “yeah, exactly, wow.” It was perfect that he understood and it was perfect that he recognized it, you know, and he pulled it, he created it and it couldn’t have been more on point, so to speak. It was great, it’s seventeen, that hexagram, Sui-Following Basically means to keep following the energy that’s already in motion, that it’s all moving in a good way.
MBP: Can you tell me more about the shaking technique?
JS: For Daoist practice . . .? So, I first heard about this from a woman who wrote a book called the “Writing Warrior” and she talks about how she was taught to shake her body as a preliminary Daoist practice and by doing that kind of starts the flow of writing for her. She meditates, she does sitting practice, and she does the shaking practice then she writes. And so I started doing that. And because it makes sense to me that you would shake the body to bring the essence out of the joints and to help open things up and I think people do this inadvertently all the time, like they do it when they do yoga, they do it when they run, they do it when they go do stuff they unwittingly actually shake the body up. Actually, I’ve been realizing after I starting think about this that riding on planes, riding in cars that your bodies getting shook all the time and sometimes it actually shakes things loose and there you are like, “stuff’s up.”
MBP: So is that, in particular, a standing meditation?
JS: It is, yup, and you start by sort of pulling everything in and then opening it up and starting to bounce or shake.
MBP: And how did you get into the type of acupuncture practice where you mentioned working with patients in retreat? What’s your speciality with the divergent channels?
JS: Well actually, I first started to do retreats with people in 2003, I actually was motivated to do that, it’s funny, I can’t remember which came first, but I read “In the dark places of wisdom,” which is a book by Peter Kingsley In the Dark Places of Wisdom about Parmenides and a translation of parmenides where he’s basically saying that parmenides is a spiritual text and one of the main practices that he’s pointing to is the practice of lying still in darkness and allowing things to evolve inside you without moving. And basically when I read that I thought, “oh my god that’s exactly what people need to do, that’s exactly what I need to do, I’m going to do this, you know, and in Vermont, I had a house where I had three acres and I had space where people could come and stay with me and I first started experimenting with myself so I started taking three days at the solstices to lie still, at the winter solstice in darkness, without turning on lights and without eating or drinking for the better part of the day and so I started doing that regularly and then at the summer solstice I didn’t lie in darkness, obviously because it’s light, but then I was motivated to offer that to other people.
JS: So it ended up that I also have a strong interest in working with people with a cancer diagnosis and also sort of simultaneously with that my understanding of Jeffrey’s model of the body and the channel systems kind of clicked into place, something about it and I was like, “I personally, prefer to work on the deep level, on the essence level rather, the divergents or the eight extraordinary [ancestral] channels,” because I feel a strong pull to go there myself and also because I feel like I understand that movement on that level is very slow and in order to encourage people to work on that level you have to create an environment where they don’t have to move fast. So I started to do these retreats where the person was basically, no phone, no computer, no outside world contact and I would cook all the food, design the meals for them, they would get treatments, we would do little workshops together, we would meditate together, and they would not leave my property, so that they would get a break from their real life so to speak or their life, and that I would give them the opportunity to experience that kind of connection with themselves. And for me as a person, I always say I’m not a high volume person. I do better one on one and I like to move that slow, like I’m the kind of person that could take one thing and make it last all day, so it’s sort of a special talent. I can accomplish things if I have to but it’s not my preference to go at that speed so now I’m offering that kind of work again because somebody just said to me last fall, “Why aren’t you doing this?” I was explaining how I used to do it and she was like, “Well, I don’t get why you’re not doing it, you know, get creative here.” Because I was saying that I didn’t own my home and all these reasons why I couldn’t do it now and she was like, “No, I think it sounds like you need to be doing this and the funny part is, just at the beginning of this year, in my mind I said, okay I’m going back to doing this, I’m gonna be creative with it, I’m gonna figure out how to make it happen, and now I’m kind of booked through November with retreats and I am doing different types. In other words, the person person who came in March, she came because she wanted to do meditation practice, but the funny part, the really amazing part was that we did not talk about her health, she was not a previous client of mine, but about halfway through the retreat she started talking about her health, like just naturally, and by the end of it, we had done a little treatment and a little intake and it just was funny and she was like, and she was like, “now I can’t imagine why I didn’t include my health in the first reason that I came, and she’s coming back in August and November because one of my visions is that even for a healthy person, it would probably be good, if you spent three days each season, in retreat in this way, to connect with yourself and your life and to stay on purpose, so to speak. So for her, because she was reasonably healthy and not someone who had other big issues, I was like, “this is what I recommend, that you do this at least three times a year.” Three times a year is about as much as people can actually manage even though four times a year sounds great too.
JS: So then I have another client who last fall I did eighteen days, I did a full retreat of divergent release with her, in Nova Scotia, and with her we spent six hours a day together and I cooked at least one meal, and we did that everyday, regardless of whether she was getting treatments or not. And she has two cancer diagnosis she has breast cancer and thyroid cancer and I worked with her for twenty some odd years and she’s been called a miracle by her western doctors because she chose not to do any chemo and radiation, despite the fact that she has lymph nodes that are malignant by testing so they know that they are, she has two of them, they’re basically quiescent, they’re basically doing nothing right now which is pretty remarkable, most of the time breast cancer is not like that.
JS: And then I just did one in May, with a client who has Lung cancer and he’s also has prostate cancer several years before that. Then this month, the one that I’m doing, he has lyme disease, but has had sort of continual fatigue and brain fog and rashes and joint stuff and all kinds of problems.
JS: And now I’m just scheduling, well, I have another uterine cancer and another breast cancer client scheduling in the fall.
MBP: That’s so interesting.
JS: The thing that has been really amazing is that I have been very, what’s the word, selective, maybe selective, but I’ve caused people to self select by asking them really tough questions. So I don’t agree to work with anybody and I don’t charge anybody until we’ve made an agreement and I guess the way that I would talk about it is I’m not charging by the hour anymore, ever. So basically, I’m saying to people, this is a bigger picture, this is an agreement we make for some amount of time, but that time is three months, six months, a year, most of the time. And it doesn’t include a maximum or minimum number of hours, it just includes the agreement to do retreat days, and to have ongoing conversation. And we’ll see what that conversation evolves into, what it needs and all of that. And really, changing the way I was presenting the work, I have this renewed love of what I’m doing now, which is just amazing, because I always hated charging people by the hour, it never felt right to me. I feel like to charge people by the hour is to confuse them about what we’re really doing. Like, “really, you think you can pay me for what you’re going to get from this?” Like, “I don’t think so.” There’s no real way to value what this means to you, or me, in this given hour of our lives, you can’t pay me for that! What I bring to this moment, you can’t pay me for that! And what you bring to this moment, how can you value that? You know what I mean? So money for me sort of had to be taken into a realm where it wasn’t directly attached to the work with their health because I feel like it was an obstacle for both of us, both for me because I was like, “I hate pressure.” And then for them because they thought there was something they were buying. And you know, health is not a commodity, you can’t buy it, I can’t sell it, I can’t make you healthy, you have to decide. So I started asking people, “What does it mean to be healthy, for you? How will you know when you’re healthy? What is it you need to do before you die?” These are the main questions I ask people. And many years ago, Jeffrey talked about this in a workshop he called, three spirits and seven souls. And I never forget that moment when he just basically, it’s up to you to chose how you want to work with people. And then he made that question, he was like, “So you could ask them, what do you need to do before you die? You might want to ask yourself that,” he said, “ you might want to just ask yourself, what is it you need to do before you die.” And you could say that’s another practice of asking myself that, I’ve realized I had to move towards working with people differently because it makes my heart seen, it makes me happy to create the conditions where people can meet themselves in a different way. And I never felt that way about treating lots of people and doing lots of acupuncture, so now I just do the acupuncture that has meaning in that context and that feels perfectly good.
MBP: Interesting involvement.
MBP: And then I wanted to ask you about your role as a teacher, which you brought up a little bit before within the Buddhist context, but how did you decide to become a teacher and what’s the role of a teacher in Buddhism or Daoism?
JS: Yeah, so again, I feel like it’s an accident that I started teaching, but an accident of passion from what I had gotten from my teachers. There’s a prayer in Buddhist practice that says, “the only offering I can make is to follow your example.” You’re saying that to your teacher, you know. So in some sense, that was the only offering I could make at some point, like, “what would I do if I kept it to myself?” Not going to be much help to anybody. So I stopped keeping it to myself, I first started teaching in Vermont, I started teaching Chinese medicine to other healthcare professionals because I also, when I first got out of school, learned to be a midwife. So I started teaching to midwives and herbalists and other people because I had a lot of them in my private practice as well. And I love teaching because it calls me into a different place, like, it calls me into new places with the material. So I really love teaching and for that reason. And before I came here to Asheville and started teaching here at Daoist Traditions, I was teaching in the Buddhist tradition because even as far back as 1989 they started asking if I would be a meditation instructor, so i learned to be a meditation instructor, and then I learned to teach something that’s called Shambhala training and then I kept going further, and that is where I received training on teaching, you could say it was in the Buddhist tradition. And then I started teaching on my own in Chinese medicine and then I came here [Asheville] and started teaching. And then again, it’s such an amazing learning experience for me, because this is the first place that I was teaching in a formal context. But the amazing and beautiful thing about teaching is that it forces you to think about how to communicate what you know and for me that was an amazing exercise, to do that, and also just really fun. At times it’s just so much fun to talk about something you love. So I continue to love to talk about Chinese medicine. I sometimes say to people, it’s kind of obscene how much I could talk about Chinese medicine because I just think it’s amazing and fascinating.
MBP: I also identify as a Chinese medicine nerd because, for the same reasons, I could talk about it all the time.
MBP: So then how did essential oils become part of your focus as an herbalist?
JS: I think that happened because when I met Jeffrey. The herb class in New York was already one year through and he wouldn’t let me join it, like I kind of begged and he was like, “we’re already a year into it, but I’m going to be teaching essential oils, so you should come to that.” So it was almost like my first gem from Jeffrey, was this year long essential oil course and it just felt like it went straight into me, because at that point, I had just met him and because it was so unique and new to have that kind of teaching because he’s such an amazing teacher and it just felt like it went straight into me. And I never stopped using them as a way to work with my own body because it’s so easy to use essential oils on yourself as opposed to needling yourself. So my take away from that year in New York was that these are very powerful and I can used them on myself easily at that point, because that was around 2000 to 2001 and at that point I just began using them as much as possible because they’re so compact and easy and effective when you use them well. And then Cissy asked me to teach at Daoist Traditions, so the first time was maybe about 2007 or 2008, I can’t remember because they didn’t have anybody who wanted to teach essential oils there so that motivated me to start changing how I was doing things. I realized I could offer that as CEUs [continuing education credits] because there are very few people offering that to acupuncturists from a Chinese Medicine point of view. Jeffrey does, but he doesn’t do it reliably, although he’s doing it again right now actually.
MBP To change the topic to the 9 palaces, which ones’ do you think you’re focused on in this lifetime?
JS: Certainly health. I would like to say wealth was going to come in there somewhere but it hasn’t happened yet. I think that career and health have been the main ones that I have participated in. But you know what they say? That actually you should move through all of them so ones that I feel like I’ve done which were the most work, my own health, my career and I guess you could call it wisdom but I would call it self reflection or self cultivation, I’ve done a lot of that. I’ve done a lot of personal retreat and a lot of work on myself, I’ve done a lot of inward reflection which I think is the 9th palace. I’d like to do some of the others, I’ve done a lot of travel. Lately I’ve been traveling a lot. It’s a very interesting things, wind, change, travel is a windy thing to do. And I think of this [Asheville] as a windy place and I’m not always happy about that, I’ve never been very happy about wind in general. Weaverville where I live right here is extremely windy and change happens very quickly and it can be very disorienting. And in some ways I’ve thought of myself as being resistant to the wind but then I realized, “Oh no, you just want to be on the wind, you just don’t want it pushing you.” Traveling for me is huge, it stirs things up and opens things up and creates all this possibility so I like it for that reason.
MBP Where have you traveled to this year?
JS: Well this year I’ve been to Canada which I go to frequently, to Ireland and to Germany. I went to the west coast in March. I’m about to go to Colorado. I’m going to Colorado for what I’m calling the feast of dharma roadtrip. So I’m going first to Crestone, Colorado, where there is an enormous number of Buddhist centers, it’s a very popular place. And there I’m going to see a man named Thrangu Rinpoche teaching on a text that comes from a man named Khenpo Gangshar. And then I’m going to go up to Boulder [Colorado] and will see Pema Chodron and also will see the teacher who’s hosting her, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. I know Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche because I babysat his child when he was younger in Boulder. And then I’m going up to Shambhala Mountain Center it’s for a group retreat for a couple of weeks with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
MBP: Sounds interesting. Can you tell me more about your altar [at home]?
JS: So this is not particularly Buddhist or Daoist, it’s a personal amalgamation of things so there are offerings, there’s light and incense which are offerings and flowers such as they are, they’re a little brown. And then there’s a number of objects that are there because they are part of the work that I’m doing with my own ancestors and I can talk a little bit about that. And then the Daoist feature of this shrine is actually a little bowl of water there on the left that is there to give a home to spirits that are disembodied and perhaps not evolved and I can say a little bit more about that. In the ancestor work that I’ve done, which by the way, revering ancestors is part of both traditions, very strong element of lineage, those who came before. So you have blood lineage, the people who gave birth to you, but you have spiritual lineage, those people who’ve give you teachings and in some ways the ancestor work for me combines those two things in interesting ways. So on the male ancestor side of this shrine, there is an offering of tobacco and a rattle, these were given to me when I was doing a weekend program at a place in Saxapahaw, North Carolina where there is, it’s called watersong peace chamber, there is a peace chamber there and sweat lodge there by a group of people who are of the Sioux indian tribe. And these were given to me and actually, basically said this is where they belong on this shrine as an offering to the male ancestors so that’s where they are. On the female side of the shrine there are bells which were given to me. In Buddhist practice the bell represents, I guess you would say compassion and the feminine capacity to occupy space with love. So the bell has that space inside it and it also has the ability to resonate or spread out through the environment, so there’s bells. Beneath that I have a number of objects and there’s also a mirror there and the mirror is there to remind us that we are made from, some might say a cosmic mirror perspective, that we reflect all that has come before us and in some ways that will continue to be reflected through our lifetime and after we die as we become ancestors. So in that work it’s kind of important to be willing to see yourself as that emanation as that kind of continuous kind of flow. So there’s that and then there’s a number of objects that are for me resonant, one of which came from Taiwan. In the ceremony that they do in Taiwan they release lanterns into the sky and I’ve always felt like that was an amazing way to connect with heaven. So I brought one home. The bowl that’s there I got from my grandma that she got in China and actually there’s several objects from the Orient that she brought back there. And then there’s various other things, stones and feathers and things that I’ve acquired. This is a piece of amber that Jeffrey gave me. Amber is a way to heal ancestral confusion sometimes and you know because of its nature it attracts spirits.
MBP: There’s a pop culture reference to that stone. It’s in Jurassic Park.
JS: Right. The other thing that I think’s important on this arrangement is the skeleton. It’s kind of a personal joke because the teacher training that I did for the second time around, the Buddhist teacher training that went on for three years, it ended on Halloween and we gave out these little things. And as I told you that one of the very first practices that kind of threw me was the practice of impermanence and death and so I keep it there.
MBP: And this little quote [on paper]?
JS: These are what they call lojong cards. Lojong is a Buddhist practice of saying the slogan and letting it remind you of different things, so it’s a reminder. That one says, “all Dharma agrees at one point.” This one says, “when the world is filled with evil transform all mishaps into Bodhi.” Bodhi means awake.
MBP: And do you tend to your altar everyday? Do you change the water and do you change the cards?
JS: Yeah, so I don’t necessarily change the water everyday in this particular shrine I have a Buddhist shrine upstairs. I have two more shrines upstairs. One is a straight Buddhist shrine and one is a Shambhala shrine and they have different offerings. But this water because it is not an offering, I don’t change it everyday. I change it probably once a week when I think it’s time for those spirits to be released. I do make incense offering and then I have a calligraphy board because I like to do it often, but I don’t necessarily do it everyday either but I like to practice. And I make offerings to the four directions and then I do a little calligraphy. And sometimes I start by burning sage, clearing the space and then I offer incense and candles.
MBP: So what’s the difference between a shrine and an altar?
JS: So an altar, as you might remember in the history of most people, is a place where we make sacrifice. And a shrine is a place where we make offering. So you probably want to shrine. Because a shrine actually means that you’re making offering to the sort of innate nature of your own mind which is completely pure and free and open. And an altar is a place where you leave a sacrifice, you give something up. And in fact, many of the outdoor arrangements are altars. Because when we lose something or someone that is a sacrifice in a way. And indoors most of them are shrines. And it is sort of a technicality to do that but I think it’s an important one to just remember that you can use this [points to center of the chest] Dan zhong, CV 17 [Conception Vessel meridian] is considered an altar where you place things that you want to let go of. It’s the movement of qi through the center of the chest. You’re not going to place something there that’s gonna stay there, otherwise your chest wouldn’t move, right? It’s not like a permanent shrine. It’s an altar, something that you’re letting go of. It’s something that you sacrifice, you forgive, you give up, you let go, right? And it allows energy to keep moving and you would want that point to keep energy moving all the time or you would be stuck.
MBP: That’s a good explanation of that [acupuncture] point. Also before I leave I wanted to ask you about tea readings.
JS: So I’ve been exposed to the Japanese tea ceremony which is very, very structured and there’s a very precise way to prepare the tea. But you can read the leaves after all is done if you feel you have the capacity to do that.
MBP: Would it be like fortune telling or using the I ching?
JS: So I think of the leaves and the I ching as a representation of the energy that’s already at play, that’s how I think about it. So it’s not telling the future it’s telling you what’s happening now, in a way that helps you to understand where you might be headed if you don’t change what you’re doing. In other words, “they can’t tell you what’s happening when it’s not happening.” But they can tell you what’s happening now and if you listen and you get that information you can choose wisely how to go forward. So that’s mostly why we do it. And the hexagrams, reading the I ching is the same way that you’re looking at the energy at play and you’re seeing what can help me through my life.
MBP: What would you recommend in doing a tea reading for the first step, with these two herbs Shi chang pu/acorus root and Yuan Zhi/polygala root?
JS: Well, I haven’t actually used these [in tea reading], so I think that I would put little bits of herb into the bottom of the cup and pour the water and see what happens. So do you want to do [each one] of them separate?
MBP: We can do the together in one cup, we can combine them if that’s what you meant.
JS: Yeah, that is what I meant.
MBP: And pour water [over the dry herbs in the cup].
JS: HA! So that’s interesting.
MBP: What are you noticing?
JS: Well, the first thing that I notice is that in this glass there is kind of a configuration at the bottom, of Yuan zhi and I don’t see any Shi chang pu down there. And in this one, there’s only one piece of Yuan zhi down there [at the bottom].
MBP: Ya, that’s the only one [piece of Yuan zhi] that floated to the bottom.
JS: That’s fascinating, right? This one [cup] has a bunch [of Yuan zhi at the bottom ]. Wow, interesting. Huh!
MBP: So besides that maybe one herb is maybe lighter, one herb is dense.
JS: Well this is obviously telling you this can’t be one hundred percent true, right? Because at the bottom of this cup there’s a whole wad of Yuan zhi and at the bottom of this [other] cup there’s only one piece. Two pieces, maybe. Fascinating. And especially this piece is standing up here.
MBP: That piece of Yuan zhi?
JS: Hmm . . . interesting.
MBP: And the color of the water is starting to change. It’s getting more tea brown.
JS: I think it’s much more important to notice that in this cup, everything is kind of stuck over here and in this one there’s just these couple of pieces but they’re kind of standing up.
MBP: Yeah, like in one cup all the Yuan zhi is drawn towards one side.
JS: Right. And when we poured, I poured with the idea that we wanted them all to get mixed up which I think they did. I mean, I poured it fast and tried to get them to mix up. So the other interesting piece, look at that! Now look at this configuration, this is like all over here on the top and all over here on the bottom.
MBP: Yup. So all the Shi chang pu is facing one direction.
JS: So you have this little shape like this. Yeah, you have the Yuan Zhi and the Shi chang pu over here.
MBP: Yeah, they’re sort of on opposite sides but sort of all collected together. And the Shi chang pu is floating towards the top all on one side and the Yuan zhi is floating towards the bottom all on one side.
JS: Yeah, that’s pretty cool. And this one just has a light, open quality, like there’s something about this configuration [one one cup] that is inducing communication and openness and there’s something about this [other cup], that’s more like, “we’re in our corner, obviously.” There might be a little more herb in that cup too because it’s turning darker.
MBP: Yeah, the herbs that are in the cup with the little collections is turning darker. If we had to read anything about the significance of those herbs is there anything that you have to say or share about Shi chang pu and Yuan zhi?
JS: Oh well, I say this about all herbs that they’re my favorite herbs, people who know me when I’m teaching I’ll say that a lot, but anyway. Shi chang pu is one of my favorite herbs because it opens the orifices but also because it harmonizes the stomach and the spleen and because it’s light and not too pushy. So in terms of herbs that do that, both of these open the orifices but neither of them is pushy and that’s a really good thing. Shi chang pu, I just think it’s fascinating that it is middle jiao as an affinity and that at the same time. It’s almost like Shi chang pu has this really interesting impact on postnatal life, it’s affinity for the spleen and stomach which creates postnatal life. Where Yuan zhi, its affinity is for the heart and kidney and lungs and so it’s much more about bringing heaven and earth together in that prenatal way, to my mind. So I would consider Yuan zhi much more important at connecting somebody with their destiny, purpose, anchor in this life. And Shi chang pu, much more important in connecting them with their postnatal life, making relationships with people, being open to relationships with people, for example.
MBP: So then do you think it’s coincidental that they’re often paired together for that reason?
JS: I think it’s on purpose that they’re paired together, right? I mean, it’s not something that we often talk about when we create formulas but I think it’s actually something worth thinking about. Think about at what place someone is in their evolution and where you want to address the formula. And for me, I use Yuan zhi when I think that the core, the kidneys needs attention. That this person needs to be oriented. I use Shi chang pu when I think that they have what they need on that core level but they have not been able to sort it out. Because that’s the spleen work, right? “Can you figure it out here, how are you going to make it happen in this life?” So together that’s a great combination, obviously. But sometimes one is more important than the other.
MBP: And then there’s a reference to the connection to the immortals, either one of those two herbs Shi chang pu or Yuan zhi, have you ever heard that and what do you think that means?
JS: Well, I must have heard it, Jeffrey [Yuen] said it. But I don’t know, I would vote for Yuan zhi in that capacity for the reasons that I was saying earlier. And it’s a very powerful herb for grounding people and helping them connect, again, with heaven. So I think it has that lung affinity which gives it that capacity.
MBP I’ve been curious what that means to connect with immortals?
JS: I think that means what we were talking about a little earlier that to connect with the immortals means to connect with the heaven, with the higher purpose in your world, just exactly a lot of what we’ve been talking about, like, “Why do you do this medicine?” and “What’s important about doing it for you?” . . . “What will continue when you’re gone?” . . . “What are you continuing?” . . . “What are you bringing forward in this life that was given to people in generations before?” . . .”What are you bringing alive in your world now that belongs to the immortals, belongs to humans through time?”
We have in both the Buddhist tradition and in the Daoist Tradition, something called the oral tradition which means it doesn’t come through writing your knowledge, it comes through a person, you heard it through your ears. And Jeffrey [Yuen] doesn’t write anything down for that reason. I myself am currently exploring the tradition of trying to write things down, which is a discipline of its own, but it’s definitely not a Daoist practice, and it’s probably not a Buddhist practice either. The people who did the writing of things were not the teachers and must of what is written by quote/unquote for example by Pema [Chodron] she doesn’t write books, she gives talks, and people write them down. But that’s not the same thing, because when she gives the talks she’s got a group of people in front of her that she’s talking to, and when you write, you’ve got nobody in front of you so they’re very different disciplines that way but I’d say both the Buddhist and the Daoist tradition are heavily influenced by thousands of years of not having writing down capacity or replication capacity, so instead they memorized and orally transmitted what they knew, which is an extraordinarily different practice. I am currently involved in a practice that requires memorization, preparation for dark retreat which is no lights for 49 days or could be a long time. And you obviously have to memorize your texts because you can’t read them through darkness.
MBP That’s something you plan on doing?
JS: Probably at some point, yeah?
MBP: Now that the herbs [Shi chang pu and Yuan zhi] have been sitting for a little bit, what do you notice that’s been changing?
JS: Well, in this cup what we have is the separation between the Shi chang pu at the top, “you’re gonna take some pictures?”
MBP: Yeah, that’s a cool background too.
JS: I know it’s such a beautiful tablecloth, Ann [Wolman] gave it to me. Yeah, I noticed that the Shi chang pu is changing its location and separating, and in this cup a piece has gone to the bottom, and in this [other] cup it’s separated some, so the configuration in this one is changing a little bit, it suggests that it begins to harmonize some. So that’s what I notice that Shi chang pu is starting to change location. This one [cup] is still darker. Now for me, if I was doing this in the context of divination, you know tea readings are generally a form of divination . . . I would be asking a person to voice their interest and commit. So this is something that’s interesting to share because I was just talking to someone yesterday with my client that divination works better when you can create the conditions where you can access the information offered to you. For example, right now we don’t have a question so this could mean anything. “If I had said, I want feedback on the next three months . . . what’s going to happen this summer and how will I understand what happens?” Timeframe and specificity on interest will help any divination offer you something useful. So people say, “Well, I wanna know what’s going to happen when I get out of school?” for example, that’s a popular question, “And, I say that you can’t know that and neither can the tea leaves nor the hexagrams, nobody knows what’s going to happen three years from now.” But, if you want to explore what is the result to committing to doing Chinese medicine for the next three years, now there’s some substance to the question that the universe can respond to. These are a dialogues. I guess that’s the main thing you want to say, this is your dialogue with your world. That’s what divination is. Divination is how you dialogue with the current moment, the spirit, whatever is there, and the more you can sort of bring forward, you could say bring to forward, bring to the light your interest, the more the world can interact with that.
MBP: And so in terms of divination for tea reading, can you set goals, like can you use it almost in the context for asking questions with intention or goal setting behind it?
JS: I don’t know if I would call it goal setting. I would call it commitment. So I ask people to create a timeframe and then commit to whether they want a result, like asking, “What is the result of taking this action?” . . . “What is the result of not taking this action?” I often ask, like, “What is the result of going to this program in July . . . in Colorado?” for example I ask that . . . and then I could ask the opposite of that, “What is the result of not going?” And then I could have an interesting array of information to work with. I also just asked yesterday for guidance the summer because I think energy moves seasonally, so it’s a good timeframe for . . .
MBP: You’ve got the solstice . . .
JS: Right, it’s a good timeframe to do that. And if we just took these, and said these are the energy in play for the season, because we’re still sort of in the solstice range, so you know we could look at that and we could say, in this one [cup] that for the summer there is some stickiness, some heaviness in the picture and that changing your diet or doing something with your muscles, your spleen and stomach will be helpful, but I don’t see that moving entirely in this one [cup].
MBP: Is that according to the reaction between those two herbs or is it just the Shi chang pu because it relates to the spleen and stomach?
JS: Both see, that’s some of the Yuan zhi that’s moved up here, so I think some relationship to it is possible, but it’s not moving a whole lot. And Shi chang pu moved a little bit, it was over here, so I think that it’s possible to engage it, but it’s just not going to move very much, some kind of stickiness. And in this one [cup], what’s interesting about this one now is that this piece has moved over here, right? It started just now collecting over here too, so I think we’ve got some dampness operating, right? But we know that because it’s raining. And what’s also fascinating is look at the Shi chang pu, it’s almost identical the ways it’s oriented [the two herbs in both cups are also floating to the top]. It’s just that they’re turned a little bit but they’re almost identical [the herbs in one cup is face up and the other is face down]. And look at this! There’s two pieces of Shi chang pu one of Yuan zhi in both of them.
MBP: That’s crazy, that’s totally nuts! [how the herbs have moved to appear the same in both cups]
JS: So you know what I think? Okay, so words move, vibrate. Your voice vibrates, water receives the vibration. So these cups heard that I wanted a reading for the summer. Right? Here it is. Well, it basically came to show me that there was a spirit connection and that there was postnatal work to be done in that and that basically there’s still this dampness that’s gonna be there and it’s living there somewhere in the kidneys, somehow, both cups look identical now.
MBP: Yeah, I know, even the color. Even the size and proportion of those ones that have floated to the top are really similar in both cups.
JS: That is so funny, right? Did that happen in any other one [tea reading]?
MBP: No, I never did it side by side, so this has been easier to describe and more interesting.
JS: That is so cool, that they are virtually the same now.
MBP: Do you want to taste them?
MBP: Now I don’t know which was which, but you can take either one.
JS: You don’t know which was which?
MBP: Like, I don’t know if this was your glass, or this was my glass.
JS: Oh, we don’t know, because we didn’t say. But I think again that’s what happened when I started talking about how we would use them, was that I didn’t distinguish and they just showed up exactly the same, it’s like, “Well, that’s fine.”
MBP: Yeah, and they did start out different as dried herbs in hot water and then they moved and now they’re pretty much doing the same thing.
JS: They started out completely different. Yeah, okay, I’ll taste this one. Yummy!
MBP: You like the flavor? What does it taste like?
JS: A little bit spicy, a little bit sweet.
MBP: So if you were referencing these two herbs from classical texts, like the Shennong Ben Cao Jing [The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica] they wouldn’t necessarily include all those properties or affinities but apparently you can just make up the taste. So, is that of interest to you and then how do you use these contexts within reference to other Materia Medicas more currently when they do apply the Spleen or Stomach to the herbs Shi chang pu, or other properties? How do you interpret that evolvement?
JS: Well, I love the Shennong Ben Cao but I find it difficult to use in a practical way, because so much of that information is coded you could say. Like if you were there, and you were a student at that time, there would have been so much more context for understanding it. So I don’t feel well equipped. I have a friend, we’ve talked about doing one herb from the Shen Nong Ben Cao once a day, and kind of experimenting and I’dI love to do that but I also resonate very strongly with the idea of taste and affinity. So this is the same thing that I do with essential oils, is I would just experiment with them for myself, like I would start with the Shen Nong Ben Cao, like these are the herbs with the higher grade, they resonate with a healthy person. I would just start with those and play with them.
MBP: And so your suggestion is to actually take them.
JS: Yeah. Especially as a healthy person, right? Because one of the main teachings from the Shen Nong Ben Cao is that herbs are going to act different in a person that’s ill, from one who’s healthy. And so when you test them on yourself when you’re healthy you have one piece of information. In some ways, that’s one of the learning strategies, is to learn what it looks like to have a healthy interaction with an herb and then you can learn more about what it would do when you don’t feel well.
Yeah, I like this, I would drink this, it’s very tasty. I find it interesting that you could get this much taste out of it as well [Shi chang pu and Yuan zhi].
MBP: Right, because they were dried herbs in a little bit of hot water [prepared as a tea], but there’s lots of flavor. Both of these herbs come from the root part of the plant?
JS: I guess Yuan Zhi is the rootlet. I think these [jars] are labeled backwards.
MBP: How could you tell them apart?
JS: Well Yuan Zhi is like I said, a rootlet, it’s kind of a little round thing. And Shi chang pu is generally sliced, you could get it unsliced. But sliced its lengthwise of the root itself, it’s got the inside exposed.
MBP: And the Shi chang pu is a little bit lighter [in color], it’s got the inner surface of the root itself and the outside is a little bit more dark, so the bark itself is darker and then all together the Yuan zhi is just brown, the same color. Nerding out on Chinese herbs.
JS: It’s good, I like it.
MBP: And in my notes it says, herbs like Shi chang pu which are grown in water have a higher vibrational power so you could translate it to hallucinogenic power, not in the context of drug use, but in how they would change, that’s a question in a sense, what do you think it means for an herb to be hallucinogenic within the context of its vibrational power?
JS: I think the basic meaning of hallucinogenic is that they open the heart orifice. So once the heart is truly open, we are able to host the influence of heaven in this moment. That means we’ve made a space in our physical being and in our psyche for outside interaction and influence. The problem you could say, with hallucinogenic influence is that once you’re open, it’s possible to be open to things that are not of higher purpose. So in theory the hallucinogens, like in the upper grade herbs, would be ones that would point you toward heaven, point you towards the influence of something that had only good at it’s core. But in fact, as is evidenced by many occasions in our culture, people use many hallucinogenic drugs to open themselves to things that are not of higher influence, so they become violent or malevolent under the influence of those drugs. So the difference with herbs like this, is that when you take them in this form, is that the amount of their effect has to do with your openness to their influence. So this is a very interesting point in terms of herbs in general. That, I think it’s one that’s missed a lot. That if a person is not open to the influence of something, than the way in which the herb works inside you is going to be different than when you are. This is the same meaning as when you’re healthy and when you’re sick. It actually is implied in that discussion about that these herbs work one way when you’re sick and one way when you’re well. So when you’re well, meaning your heart is open and your body is free, then the capacity to open is something even higher, more powerful is there, but when your body is sick, and your mind is confused, those same herbs will work to put your issues right in front of you. Like Jeffrey would say, the herbs will bring to you whatever you need to work on and you might not like it, you know what I mean? It might be something kind of negative in a certain sense, for you, but it might also be timely, in other words, sometimes you give people and herbal prescription and they respond by telling you that it made them feel icky, worse, right? Remember, that might mean they’re doing the work they need to do and they just don’t like it. And it might mean that you gave them the wrong prescription, but you need to sort that out, right? But in the context of hallucinogenic herbs, you can be almost certain that if you give these herbs to someone who is confused and not open, that it’s going to put their shit in front of them before it doesn anything else because if it’s an open orifice herb that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to take away those blockages that would prevent you from seeing your higher nature, from seeing your true nature.
MBP: So if Shi chang pu is an herb that grows in water and it has that vibrational power, do you know how Yuan zhi grows, in what type of environment? I’m not sure.
JS: Uh-uh [no].
MBP: As we’re drinking it do you notice any responses like physical or . . .?
JS: Yeah, I feel a little movement in mind head, I’d say it feels prickly, not in bad way.
MBP: Yeah, I’d say it feels lighter, more clear in my head, I’m quoting the notes as I say them. In the area of my head it feels a little bit lighter, more open, expansive, in a clear headed way. And at one point I also noticed that my heart wasn’t beating fast, but it was like I could feel it pump, where I wasn’t noticing that before. Maybe I just got excited about talking about tea, or that the herbs had an effect at the same time.
JS: Well I think again, that more that you talk and potentiate the vibration in the environment, the more sensitive and awake you become. I find this with acupuncture treatment as well. That part of the treatment is not a power over forceful thing, it’s like you open someone up and then they become more aware and then there’s more potential and in a certain sense we create that potential through our conversation and because we’re talking about it.
MBP: Pretty cool effect. Nice conversation.
JS: Very cool.
MBP: Cheers [with tea cups]. Thanks so much!
JS: You’re so welcome!