My experience at Kalikalos – a community at the interface between Culture and Nature – A herbalist’s exploration of community and healing.
by Owen Okie, M.Sc. Herbal Medicine.
A herbalist arrives in Greece
…Snaking its way up the serpentine roads clinging to the slopes of the Pelion Peninsula. Winding through a tunnel, beneath the overhanging branches of giant plane trees and regal chestnuts, re-emerging at the edge of seemingly sheer drop-offs that reveal, far below, the glimmering turquoise waters of the Aegean sea…
Eventually, the bus stops in a large parking lot. Is this it? I scamper off the bus, along with another venturer who’d also followed the lure from Great Britain to Kalikalos, Greece. Bags collected, I stand and look around, slowly orienting myself. The sign to Kalikalos spotted, we begin to walk…
Who am I to be leading a workshop? To be teaching anything to anybody? It’s a question that keeps repeating itself, and I give it the same old response; it’s happening, you’re committed, you’re teaching. Starting tomorrow. The response isn’t an answer but simply avoidance. The answer may unfold over the course of the next few days. Or not. It doesn’t matter because I’m here. At the centre we are warmly welcomed and I swiftly begin to feel at home.
Shortly after arrival, I head out on my own to reconnoitre. Walking about is what I always do in a new place, whether city or country. I head down the old road, out of the town, past terraced fields and orchards and into the forests. Before ducking under tree cover, I’m drawn to a large rock, a foot-high boulder that stands out of the field next to a dirt track. After clambering up to sit upon this rock, I connect, somehow, to the Earth’s bones — the same underlying structure I stood upon just days before, buffeted by the incessantly cold and damp winds of the Moray Firth. However, the surrounding plants, animals, and weather, accompanied by their indigenous human customs and constructs, have changed. The bones remain the same. The same every-present foundation, the ground upon which I stand and know as Home, no matter where I go.
I’m a bit drowsy sitting here. Some local characters sneak into my mind, colored by long-past readings of the Greek myths, as well as more recent encounters. Apollo, healer to the gods. His caduceus, the green snake winding up the cross, is still a common sight. Perhaps more pertinently, Asclepias, whose approach to healing seemed more integrative and holistic — more oriented to personal growth nurtured within a communal setting. Apollo, symbolizing both the sun and a highly rational intelligence, seems to have many appearances on the field of battle, where he both fights and heals. Gaia comes to mind as well: this Earth and all her manifold energies and expressions of life. All three seem to have an influence over what I intend to do and be over the next few days as a workshop leader and herbalist. Finally, I consider the mythical Centaur, Chiron, who dwelled as a herbalist in these very mountains….
Writing this today, I’m struck by a touch of incongruence. I learned many of these Greek myths growing up, as well as stories from other traditions — such as the folk-tales of Europe via the Brothers Grimm. Yet, at least in my experience, our education system is heavily weighted toward Greek mythology: reading and studying “the Classics,” Greek tragedy and comedy, take precedence over encounters of all other mythologies and folk-lore. Even Shakespeare, an English writer widely studied in schools, retells many of these Greek myths. If I hadn’t sought them out, I would not have been exposed to the native-grown tales of the Ojibwa — even though those people resided in Minnesota, the state where I received most of my primary schooling. That is, with the exception of Hiawatha, a legend most experience as a cartoon of a Native American boy. And after nearly four years living in Scotland, I’ve hardly tasted a wee dram of the local mythological spirits. I am living on top of the largest Pictish settlement in history, but the world of the Picts, and even of the Gaelic peoples of Scotland, Ireland and Brittany, is hidden from me because it was much less preserved and studied than the world of Greek antiquity. I am able to get an “inside view” of ancient Greek culture because there are many extant text written by authors who lived inside it. However, the vast majority of information about other cultures and mythologies are written from the outside. They are recorded by those looking at the Picts or the Celts, for example, through their own cultural and religious (generally Christian) lenses. In addition, the outsiders who told the stories were often “the winners” and they wrote about cultures that had been defeated and assimilated, often explaining why they were not as religiously enlightened or as “correct” as the winning culture was perceived to be. Therefore, our understanding of the cosmology of these historical cultures is comparatively sketchy.
So now I wonder, if I’m standing upon the promontory at the point of the Burghead peninsula, how am I to relate to the home-world of the old Picts — their archetypal images, their gods and demons, and the forces playing out in their lives? Here, the forces of nature are fickle, unpredictable, forceful and swift — ever-present winds driving the incessant alteration of clouds and sky, rain and sun. A plethora of sudden rainbows and the stretched-out liminal realms of sunset and sunrise. Who will answer my questions here and how will those beings look in my mind’s eye? Burghead was an iron-age Pictish settlement, the largest known. What remains, besides the stone-carvings of the Burghead bull? Each January, this town holds the “burning of the Clavie,” which is a barrel filled with pitch, set alight, and carried through town. The tradition goes back at least several hundred years, purportedly purifying the town and bringing luck to those who manage to acquire a blackened piece of the charred barrel. Its origin and the richer context of meaning and ritual around it are not readily knowable. For those in town, the ceremony is imbued with significance, but for many attending as tourists, it is exotic entertainment and an excuse for a party. I’ve heard witches were burned in the Clavie barrel, but this may have been a repurposing of an older ritual. Whether the tradition can be traced back to Burghead’s more ancient inhabitants remains a mystery.
Walking along the sinuous paths on the slopes of Greece’s Mt. Pelion, I encounter a number of plants, both familiar friends and new acquaintances. The hand-shake of the herbalist with a plant, whether new or old, engages all the senses, usually starting with sight, then touch, scent, taste, and lastly the subtle sensations. Here I meet wild-growing thymes and oregano, filled with the heat of Helios, god of the Mediterranean sun. An old favorite, yarrow, or Achillea millefolium, is abundant. Here, in these very hills, myth recounts that Chiron, the centaur, taught Achilles how to use Achillea spp., also known as Soldier’s Woundwort. Achillea has hemostatic, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, making it a valuable ally for warriors or hunters. Achillea comprised part of the first-aid kit found in the 60,000 year old grave of a Neanderthal in Iraq. Additionally, Achillea stimulates circulation, digestion and liver function, and is useful in the management of fevers.
During my stay, I find myself continually amazed by the magnificent plane trees and standing in awe at the feet of the great elders often found in the village squares — their diameter often greatly exceeding two meters. I am familiar with the chestnut trees of Europe and the increasingly rare American chestnut, but those of the Pelion forests are comparatively massive, their chestnuts encased in spiky shells that are significantly larger than their French counterparts. Beneath the dark shade of these trees, I’m keen to scramble up rocky gorges, following the trail of cold rushing water toward its first-source higher up on the face of the mountain. The next curve waits to reveal itself to my hungry soul and senses…
A community-based centre for Integral Healing?
Leading at Kalikalos means participating in the life of this community, nestled in the mountainous and mythical back-woods of Greece. Midway through my master’s of science in Herbal Medicine, a nascent vision of a shared-purpose community began to form. A community full of modalities for human healing and growth, and beyond that, human flourishing and creativity. It would be community-centered, to serve both visiting clients and and resident or visiting practitioners. This was the seed of the vision, which has been dormant, yet dreaming — developing all this time. Now, maybe the first shoot is pushing, tender-green, from the dark Earth, out into the air and light.
Kalikalos is not identical to the healing centre slowly taking shape in the visions my wife and I share. However, it embraces (embodies), many of the elements that I would consider essential for a community-based centre for integral (integrative and holistic) healing and growth. Most of the guests who are here in Greece for the last season’s session have come for a week of walking tours. The small number of dedicated participants, here to attend my workshops, came with a somewhat different purpose.
Finding my workshop meant a leap-of-faith registration, travel planning, taking vacation time, and journeying by car, train, plane, bus, and foot — to find oneself in a remote village of the Pelion Peninsula. It took hope and courage. And for me, it required faith that this “Holistic Vacation Centre” would be able to hold and nurture my workshop participants in the broader context of our environment. The centre would have to provide a nurturing container that could facilitate their healing and growth.
So, what are the vital qualities needed in the creation of a healing centre? Which of these principles does Kalikalos embody, and where might it miss the mark? What can Kalikalos teach me as I shape the vision for the EarthMindFellowship Centre for Integral Healing?
1 ) A centre should have high-quality, nutritious, fresh, whole-foods, cooked with inspiration and love. I enjoyed the food at Kalikalos immensely and found that I functioned very well on this Mediterranean inspired cuisine. From the nutrition perspective, it was well-suited and adaptable to a number of dietary needs (vegetarian, gluten-free, low-sugar, etc.) and followed the most important principles of healthy cooking.
2) It should have a beautiful, vibrant, and healthy natural and human environment. Both the location and the dwelling place at Kalikalos were superb (suitably rustic for a herbalist). Though I thought the tents provided for campers could be upgraded.
3) It should have a caring and self-aware staff. By caring, I mean compassionate and able to hold the needs of both the individuals and the community. By self-aware, I’m suggesting the necessity for a degree of self-awareness — in particular, emotional self-regulation. One must understand the potential impact of one’s emotional and energetic state and the actions which follow. One must be able and willing to modulate one’s emotional state and behavior for the good of other, and to communicate with others with an intention of preserving or returning into harmony. During my week at Kalikalos, I found this to be largely true, and observed such a higher level of individual and community functioning.
4) A centre should have clear and simple rules. The basic structure and rules must be in congruence with the community’s higher vision and principles, and are key to its functioning. Without them, we have anarchy and chaos — one can’t build a cathedral without a foundation or by ignoring architectural principles. The rules must be simple so that they can be easily taken on board by visitors. Conversely, the rules must have a lot of spaciousness to accommodate a transient community of diverse guests. Structure provides safety and space provides freedom. Both are equally necessary. I would never have considered this in these terms if I had not witnessed this in active process at Kalikalos.
5) A centre should be enlivened by a community spirit that brings together guests, leaders, and longer-term community members and staff. A community needs a certain common understanding and shared vision in order to remain coherent. This coherence is key for creating a supportive environment that can enable healing and scaffold individual growth. From the start Kalikalos, brings guests into the functioning of the community through active service – cooking, cleaning, gardening. Guests are thereby invested participants in the community instead of passive observers and “consumers” of the communities products. I found this also strengthened the connections between guests as well as between the guests and the staff, greatly enhancing the overall cohesiveness of the group.
6) In a centre, Community/Communion must be balanced with the Individual/Agency. Within the nest formed by Kalikalos, there must be the freedom for individuals to go through their own process and to do so at their own pace and in their own way. Support can be offered, and it can also be freely accepted, or refused. While I was visiting, Kalikalos demonstrated this tension and the interplay between community and individual in a manner that was both graceful and balanced.
7) A centre should have a balance between learning, work, rest, and play. Certain transformational and healing processes require, for a period, intense and concentrated heat. (A extended silent meditative retreat, for example.) For other work, information or emotional can quickly reach saturation point, at which some time is needed for absorption and processing. Kalikalos provides a nearly ideal structure, balancing “work” time with rest/play time.
8) The general atmosphere of a centre should be open-hearted, welcoming, convivial yet with a “serious” underlying sense of purpose and motivation. Difficulties and challenges that arise must be kept within this broader, more embracing, climate — as clouds in an essentially blue sky. At Kalikalos I rarely saw difficulties within the community obscure more than momentarily, the expansive vision.
9) A centre should be ecologically oriented. As a herbalist, I know that an individual’s health and well-being cannot be optimized without addressing the surrounding environment. The individual and the environment are “coherently coupled,” a term coined by Maturana and Varela in their book, Tree of Knowledge. This means that they are in a constant state of exchange, interaction, communication, to the extent that it is hard to tell where one starts and the other leaves off. There is a to-and-fro of oxygen and carbon dioxide between animals and trees and of nutrients between the self and the soil. Though generally thought of in exterior terms, the concept applies equally well to interior states. For example, an individual and a group’s emotional state can be coherently coupled, and this will be communicated via the constant exchange of information through verbal language, eye movements, posture, and subtler energies. There is an emotional ecology at work as well, with moods rising and falling between the individual and the community, and interplaying amidst the two. Both the “interior” and the “exterior” ecology must be tended to at centre. Kalikalos has much of this ecological orientation, and I believe, will continually strive to embody these principles. I think this is a tall order at the leading edge of the development of truly sustainable and ecological communities, particularly those with a strong healing component.
10) With regards to ecological sustainability, we do run into a major road-block – the question of transport to a centre. There’s no doubt that the small percentage of people privileged with the gift of travel have an inordinately large environmental impact. You can have the lowest-possible environmental impact in your daily life, but take a few flights, and you’ve tossed all your carbon-savings out the window. I find myself personally caught in this seeming hypocrisy, which the purchase of a carbon offset doesn’t seem to solve. (It seems too much like the old practice of buying a pardon.) Justifications and rationalizations arise, valid, perhaps, but founded upon a gamble: the positive impact of my actions (what I teach to others, what I learn, what I gain) will outweigh my negative impact upon the Earth. And that positive impact must ripple out from the direct benefits the participants experience (such as better health and well-being) to their friends, family, community, and (we can’t forgot) the Earth. This triggers the old question: “Who am I, to be leading a workshop?” No answer comes, so in faith, I walk on. This question must also be addressed at the level of the centre itself. It must take responsibility for its operations, along with the impact of the travelers that the centre has deliberately drawn to itself. Kalikalos has made some strives toward this, yet I think more could be done.
Healing Person and Planet
To heal a person, one must heal the planet and to heal the planet one must heal the person. True, and yet too simplistic. This is the very, very big picture, and it misses some vital caveats. But let’s explore this with more actionable terms, where an individual, such as myself, is fully capable of embodying such values in compassionate action. To heal a person and to heal the planet, one must harmonize their interactions. Which makes me feel like a glorified relationship counsellor, whose client is the person-planet relationship. This process of harmonization may happen from two directions: big to small and small to big. Many of the interactions are, for example, shaped by our socio-economic system, our infrastructure. Here is the work on the level of government and visionaries of the new “green” economy. City planning with an eye to sustainability. Within these larger ideas, an individual’s well-being is nestled, and ideally taken into account in a holistic fashion.
From small to big, however, is my province, and that of many herbalists and ecologically-oriented practitioners. Working with the “person” side of the planet-person relationship. From this orientation, one is interested in an individual’s mental, emotional, and physiological patterns and how they affect their interactions and their exchanges with their environment. How does the individual react in stressful situations? How do these reactions and actions affect a person’s quality of life, relationships, and ecology? What are the core values and beliefs upon which one’s physical, emotional and mental patterns rest? What does an individual do with anger, hate, or greed — or conversely compassion, empathy, or generosity? How can we assist an individual in entering into a more harmonious relationship with both an inner and an outer nature?
Perhaps the community is a suitable bridge between the personal and the planetary perspective. At Kalikalos, the individuals tending to the garden are nurturing the community, even as the community plays a role of stewardship over its own lands and its own burden upon the land. The complex mathematical equation, weighing positive and negative impact in quantitative terms, may be irrelevant. The community of Kalikalos and myself as a practitioner are agents of, or catalysts for, healing and transformation. We practice what we preach, taking one step at a time, sometimes stumbling, toward the vision of a harmonious and sustainable planetary community that embraces both the human and the more-than-human world.
Departure and Return
Leaving Kalikalos, I feel both sadness and anticipation. Sorrow at departing from this beautiful region, with its too-little explored mountains and the soft and sensuous embrace of the Aegean sea. A sense of loss when I think of leaving the community and fellowship I’d experienced. Sadness, mixed with contentedness, at the completion of the workshops that I’d lead. Anticipation of my return to wife and children and the willful, wild coast of Scotland. Anticipation of future returns to Kalikalos, this haven in the mountains of Greece. I depart feeling inspirited, renewed and nourished in body-mind-soul and spirit.
For those interested in my work, I’ll be returning to Kalikalos this spring!
Integral Health and Wellness Retreat in Greece
Come to a Heath and Wellness Retreat at Kalikalos.
Leave with some tools that will make your life better.
Enhance your Physical, Emotional and Mental Well-Being
by learning about Herbs, Nutrition and HeartMath®!
Ever feel stressed, time-pressured, exhausted, overwhelmed? Frustrated with a chronic health condition? If you are struggling in today’s high-paced life, experiencing anxiety, depression, specific health conditions, or looking to improve your well-being and vitality, this retreat is for you. Come be rejuvenated in a beautiful holistic retreat centre overlooking the sea and learn techniques for maintaining and enhancing health and wellness. Learn to decrease and prevent stress and its impact on your health, relationships, and work, and to create a health-positive life using herbs, nutrition, stress-management techniques, and the healing power of nature.
When: May 29th to June 5th, 2015.
Where: Kalikalos, Mt. Pelion, Greece.