Damiana and the Cauldron of Warming

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer." - Albert Camus

Damiana (Turnera diffusa) is a light at the southwestern horizon reminding us that though the night descending is dark, morning will come.

Bitter, warming, and aromatic, Damiana grounds us into our bodies, stirs our heart to quicken the rhythm of the movement of our blood, and relaxes the tension we hold to allow the blood to flow freely to all of our parts -- and where blood flows, awareness goes.

In winters of snow and ice, winters of the heart, and winters of our collective experience, Damiana awakens the memory of the invincible summer within us.

For my Irish ancestors, the time when ewes' milk came in marked the turning point out of winter, and became a festival honoring Brighid of the Three Fires -- the fire of the hearth, the fire of the forge, and the fire in the head. Her three fires roughly correspond to the three cauldrons the gods are said to have filled in different proportions in each human, spoken of in an old Irish poem, "The Cauldron of Poesy", which is traditionally attributed to the great bard, Amergin. I think of Damiana as stoking the fire of the hearth, which heats the first cauldron, the Cauldron of Warming (sometimes translated as the Cauldron of Incubation), which in turn provides deep sustenance for the Cauldron of Motion and the Cauldron of Wisdom.

The Cauldron of Warming is the cauldron by which life enters the body, animating the flesh, setting us into motion. I associate it with our Wild Self which experiences the world through sensation and emotion, and with the fire of the hearth that warms our bodies. It resides in the pelvic bowl.

The essence poured into it is taken by the gods "from the mysteries of the elemental abyss" -- a reminder that it is our own most primal nature that connects us with the ecstatic birth of the universe, the emergence of cosmos from teeming chaos.

Damiana is well known for its capacity to stimulate pelvic circulation, bringing blood and awareness flowing to the genitals, giving rise to its reputation as an aphrodisiac. And it excels in this manner. Damiana infused in Coconut oil makes a wonderful lube for those who are not using latex condoms (and Kava is a nice addition for those who enjoy the juxtaposition of numbing and tingling sensations.)

But to fully appreciate the stirring Damiana brings to the body, we need to broaden our definition of the erotic. Eros is the force that sets matter dancing, the ecstatic flow of life. By relaxing tension and increasing blood flow and sensation, Damiana invites us to more deeply inhabit our bodies, engaging eros in new ways. It is an herb of joyful embodiment, restoring sensual pleasure in all of its forms -- dancing, touch, savoring delicious food, breathing in the scent of snow and Fir and Pine and woodsmoke. I often give Damiana to elders who are living in a world that forgets that bodies of all ages need and desire sensual pleasure and to people recovering from injuries and illnesses who are learning to be in their bodies again. I often combine Damiana with Corydalis yanhuso to keep the return of sensation from being too overwhelming at first. Damiana is also delicious in honey and amazing in mead.

Like all bitter, warming, aromatic herbs, Damiana is a carminative, stimulating sluggish digestion and relieving gas and bloating. The latter action of carminatives is an important consideration in the timing of the administration of Damiana as an aphrodisiac in the conventional sense.

Medical science is also bringing us to the understanding that the stimulation of the bitter taste receptors in our digestive tracts (and airways and genitals) dilates our airways, and that the light molecules that we experience as scent when they brush against our nerve endings relax muscular tension by stimulating our parasympathetic nervous systems, meaning that all bitter, aromatic herbs can help us breathe more easily and more deeply. Holding a tincture or tea or honey infused with Damiana in your mouth for a moment will facilitate this opening. Damiana makes a wonderful smoking herb as well. I love mixing it with Cannabis and then swimming or lifting weights.

The Cauldron of Motion, which resides in the rib cage, corresponds to the Talking Self, which holds conscious intention and gives direction to our movement in the world. Whirlpools within that very cauldron can lead the mind to spin in circles without being able to engage the body to take in new information from the world, becoming stuck in an imagined perception of how things are based on past experience. By returning awareness and sensation to the body, Damiana allows us to come back to our selves and to the world as it is, reshaping our perception and intention and direction accordingly.

The Cauldron of Wisdom, which resides in the head, corresponds to our Divine Self, the part of us that knows its own infinity. It is important in thinking of this cauldron not to impose our modern understanding of the meaning of the head onto this old Irish framework. We tend to associate the head with thought and language and logic -- but this emerges from Descartes' decision to drink more than 70 cups of coffee and narrow his consciousness to the point where he believed that his conscious thoughts and his existence were one and the same. The old Irish understanding of the head was as the place where the gods would set a fire blazing, bringing poets into ecstatic, direct encounter with the living world. In poetry, Yeats spins the tale of the god Aengus, who tells us:

"I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head"

That fire then took the form of a "glimmering girl" who calls his name and runs -- and Aengus spent the rest of his days wandering the world searching for her, his life devoted to the desire to taste her lips. This is not the stuff of the theologian's contemplation of the nature of the world, but rather of the mystic's drive to make love to the mystery.

In my training as a Feri priest, I learned that our Talking Selves are incapable of directly connecting with our Divine Selves because the knowledge of our own infinity would shatter all our concepts, leaving our minds in incoherent disarray. But, when freed from shame and guilt and fear, our Wild Selves can touch that infinity directly through opening completely to sensation -- finding divinity in the feeling of warm water on our skin, the shining of the stars in the sky, the breath of Redwood and Rose, the line of a lover's collarbone. Damiana invites us into that kind of exquisite presence, bringing us back to ourselves and back into connection with all that is.

Seán has recorded an hour long talk about plants and fungi that can help bring healing, insight, and joy in winter.

Seán is also available to provide personal guidance and counsel for your healing journey.

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