Registered Herbalist, Richard Mandelbaum, discusses his profession and passion for herbs, the role they play in our lives and touches on his views of traditional vs conventional medicine. MysticMag has the pleasure…
How would you best describe the work of a clinical herbalist?
Herbalism and Herbal Medicine are so diverse that there are many ways to practice, and this is really what distinguishes it from modern biomedical-based conventional medicine which is very hierarchically controlled. Herbal medicine is quite the opposite, and very much grass-roots and drawn from tradition.
Like many of my colleagues, both here in the US and all over the globe, I practice with both traditional approaches to health, as well as modern medicine as this is the world in which we live. I sit with people one on one either face to face or online for an hour and a half or even two hours sometimes for an initial session. The session is very in depth and comprehensive so that we are individualizing everything – i.e. working with the person rather than the diagnosis or the disease per se.
At the same time I engage very much with modern medicine and will look at the blood work and what diagnoses the patient has received from conventional medicine but I also take a more energetic or traditional approach (in my case Chinese traditional approaches). It is entirely holistic, comprehensive and in depth and in addition we will cover the patient’s habits, food and lifestyle and look at what herbs and supplements might better support their health.
Would you say that the medicinal use of herbs is increasing in popularity, and if so, why?
It certainly seems to be. Statistically in the US, it is definitely growing in popularity, and even more so elsewhere in the world. I think the trend was already happening prior to Covid but the pandemic definitely contributed to and accelerated this shift. Generational shifts are also responsible as younger people simply do not have the same prejudices as many from older generations, who were victims of propaganda against holistic and traditional medicine at the time.
As conventional, modern technology-based medicine becomes more advanced – and to be clear it can be helpful and important for individuals – its weaknesses and vulnerabilities become more apparent. It is more and more obvious that there is a lack of attention to prevention and dealing with issues early on before they become problematic; almost everyone has the experience of being told to monitor a problem which is early on, until it is more acute, when it can be addressed, when we should be doing the opposite – proactively addressing things are early on as possible. In addition, the emotional and spiritual well being of patients amongst other things slips through the cracks in modern medicine. People are becoming more aware of this and now want to sit with someone who can help them navigate their health from a preventative, positive, and proactive perspective.
How were you first drawn to this line of work and what life changes became apparent in the process?
It is interesting because Herbalism is so diverse and each herbalist will have been drawn to it for different reasons. For myself, as a teenager I started realizing that I was so disconnected from the natural world around me, and I started reading Buddhist sutras and reading and writing poetry. I was very drawn to birds, and particularly trees, and realized that I didn’t even know what most of them were. I started teaching myself to identify plants so that I was familiar with what was surrounding me.
This path of seeking to regain intimacy with the planet, and along with that the plants, that took me on this long journey that continues to this day – regaining this intimacy with the plant world, including a very transformative traditional Native American sweat ceremony that I participated in when I was in my early 20s, and which opened up my mind to the life that is around us and that we are part of. This eventually led me to Herbal Medicine through a meandering path, coupled with the intrigue of our coexisting relationship with plants that can be resumed as food, breathing and medicine.
What is your approach when working with clients?
On the surface, it is not that different from conventional medicine as I ask for people’s medical records and bloodwork etc…I actually find this incredibly helpful as a piece of how I am assessing what is actually going on. Here in the U.S. I do not legally diagnose or practice medicine, but I take conventional diagnoses and medical information into account in the work I do. Then we sit and get very deeply into how the patient is doing healthwise.
For example, let’s take thyroid disease. I could simply recommend herbs and supplements which are often beneficial, but this would be a “shotgun” approach. If I sit with the person for enough time, I can really learn what they need specifically as well as address the other issues that accompany thyroid disease. Without doing this we are looking at disease as something very mechanistic and materialistic versus a confluence of many different factors that can differ from person to person.
One other aspect of my work, taking a bigger picture approach, is teaching my clients to not need me anymore. This is my ultimate goal. Rather than create a dependency, my goal is to educate and empower people and have them create the tools they need to take care of themselves. This is what a holistic approach is all about and again differentiates Herbal Medicine from Conventional.
Do you believe that most of our contemporary illness and disease can be prevented with the practice of herbal medicine?
I appreciate the question and try to be even-handed in how I talk about these things; I think it is important to recognize the positive in modern medicine. There is a strong underlying fear of death in modern society, which can and does sometimes transfer to alternative medicine as well, such as “anti-aging” approaches, or the belief that all illness is preventable. I certainly try to identify too much dogmatism in myself and around me and turn away as much as possible, and what resonates with me more is to recognize that disease and death are part of being alive so it is an integral part of our existence, and a goal of eliminating illness completely is unattainable.
However, to answer the question more directly, YES – herbal medicine, including the foods we eat and the lifestyles we lead, certainly can prevent a wide range of modern illness. We have co-evolved biologically with plants as food and medicine for millions of years, even before we evolved into the ‘human’ species we are today. Science has documented that our fellow animals, from insects to other mammals, all use herbal remedies. So it is actually part of being human, and why I sometimes refer to herbal medicine as our “original medicine”.
Something I often reflect on is that we are all in this together. We are all part of a web of life and a web of society, locally and globally. There is a limit to what we can address in terms of modern illness and disease as individuals and I think this is important to recognize. Even holistic and herbal medicine can get caught in the trap or the lens of seeing everything health related in a materialistic way as individual choice, when ultimately we have to address health collectively to solve some of our current challenges. For instance we could prevent more cancer simply by preventing the release of carcinogens into the environment than probably any individual choices we can make. We have been indoctrinated to a very deep degree by the capitalist and materialistic framings for society into changing only what we do for ourselves (the food we eat, the herbs we should take) but we are never going to solve the bigger problems in this way.
If you would like to know more about Richard Mandelbaum, visit https://www.richardmandelbaum.com/