Health & Disease

Permaculture and Healing — Part 2

Connecting with inner and outer ecosystems for health

In part 1 (1) of this article, I discussed how permaculture is often used as a lens through which to view systems of food production to spot ways in which such systems are inefficient or damaging to those who participate within them, and then to help us design alternative, hopefully more holistic and beneficial, ones. We can also use this lens to view other systems of human society, such as that of modern healthcare and its emphasis on intrusive cures rather than holistic healing, and in which the social, cultural and treatment methods used are often as harmful to those engaged in the system as they are beneficial.

This so-called ‘iatrogenic society’ (2) as ‘Medical Nemesis’ author Ivan Ilich termed it, provides a drawback to the practice of holistic, regenerative living, as well as an inspiration towards something more. In this article I will discuss some ways in which permaculture as a design tool can help us to engage in our own responsibility for healing ourselves, and so by extension, our communities and our planet.

The body as ecosystem

In permaculture design, it is important to recognise the interconnectedness of all elements present in the design. Every plant has a relationship with every other plant, along with all the animals, energies such as wind, rain, sun and habitual animal movements, and so on, until eventually we can see that invisible lines of connection are present throughout our entire planet and beyond. The art of efficient design involves being aware of these relationships and their ecology and viewing the whole system as a whole, whose health and productivity can be enhanced or depleted by the alteration of different parts.

This holistic view of systems is a perfect starting point on any journey of self-responsibility for healing,which is one reason why permacullture thinking can be applied so easily to healing and health. If we can design our gardens or communities according to a holistic picture, it is a relatively simple step to map this holistic view onto our own bodies.

Most traditional medical scientific theory regards the human body in this way; as part of an interconnected web of both visible and invisible elements. For example, from the point of view of Ayurveda (Life Science), a medical tradition originating in India around 5000 years ago and still widely practised today(3):

“All phenomena lack inherent independent existence. Everything that exists is dependent on its component parts, or the assemblage of component parts, which in many cases is the condition that produced it.” (3)

Modern science, of course, recognises in theory that the human body is a series of interconnected systems which function together; but in practice the healing of specific illnesses is often translated into pinpointing specific symptoms and treating them individually (see for example 2). This may often create short-term cures but ignore or enhance underlying causes which are present in other parts of the ‘ecosystem’ of the body.

Taking responsibility

As Ilich touched upon, one of the main problems with the modern healthcare system is not that the medicines do not work. The problem is that the structure of the system in geared towards encouraging dependence upon that very system, which in turn can create more sickness from individuals whose strength is lost in their lack of faith in their own abilities to heal, so that they need the system even more (2).

It is exactly the same thinking as modern industrialised farming, where one species of crop is chosen to grow in a place where such a monoculture would never naturally thrive, but which can do so with the help of mechanised farming, chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. So the plants become dependent on the machines and chemicals, which are necessary for their survival in this system. If we take the same crop and grow it as part of an integrated polyculture system, it is suddenly no longer as dependent on human-introduced elements and grows in a more resilient and adaptable way (see for example 4).

This iatrogenesis of society is what really needs to be addressed if we wish to create long-lasting, holistic healthcare systems. Luckily, it is very easy to begin, and using permaculture can be very helpful in doing so. By viewing our physical, mental and emotional health as a holistic ecosystem, we are already taking the first steps towards self-responsibility in healing. Any decision we make regarding our health, after initiating this viewpoint, can then come from a centred place of holistic understanding. This is true regardless of whether the decision is to take palliative drugs or engage in the modern healthcare system or not.

Plant wisdom

Using permaculture to view ourselves as ecosystems means that we can become aware of everything entering and exiting the system, and so widen our perspective of what can heal us to include not-only designated ‘drugs’ but indeed anything we ingest. This is the viewpoint taken by most (if not all) traditional medical sciences, such as Ayurveda (see for example 2), Thai (see for example 5) and Chinese (see for example 6) traditional medicine, and Herbalism (see for example 7); that “all food is medicine” (5).

Taking responsibility for our own healing, therefore, includes taking responsibility for our own diet, and so examining the sources of the food we eat and its effect on our physical, emotional and mental health. How far you take the self-explorations depends on how much interest you personally have in learning about plant species and their uses.

Two excellent resources for learning about different plant species and their food and medicinal uses are Ken Fern’s databases Plants for a Future (8) (mainly for temperate-climate species) and Useful Tropical Plants (9) (mainly for tropical-climate species). On these databases is stored information on thousands of plant species, with information about their uses for human diet and health, often including specific nutrient content, as well as information on how they can be cultivated.

Those who wish to dive deeper into explorations of plant medicines may encounter the common problem of the suppression of a lot of plant wisdom by governments all over the world. This is felt perhaps most acutely in Anglophone countries, where traditional plant wisdom of our ancestors was suppressed so thoroughly by political and religious institutions in the past (see for example 10, 11, 12) that even now, our knowledge of herbalism comes in many cases as second-hand information rather than passed down through a direct lineage such as those traditions already mentioned. This can lead in some cases to those raised in such cultures seeking a more complete knowledge from cultures other than their own.

Such explorations can be very helpful in personal healing, but it is important to remember that in connecting to healing plant wisdom of other cultures we are also affecting the ecosystem of said cultures, and it may be necessary to consider how best to keep these ecosystems in balance.

One example is the current trend in North America and other places of ‘Ayahuasca tourism’(13), where people travel from their native country to stay with a South American tribe in order to experience the traditional healing of the Ayahuasca plant medicine mixture as it is practised in traditional culture. Such tourism is now becoming so popular that there is a huge rise in demand for the plant ingredients needed to create the Ayahuasca mix, so that commercial planting involving deforestation of virgin rainforest is now on the rise (13).

Human wisdom

Becoming aware of what we ingest and its effects on our health can be very empowering in stepping away from the iatrogenesis of modern healthcare. Yet even if we are practising a very holistic diet and using plant medicines in a conscientious way which takes into account environmental affects as well as our own physical, emotional and mental health, use of plant medicine is still introducing external elements into our personal ecosystems. If the ecosystem itself is already damaged, there may be only a limited amount that plant medicines can do. Here we come to the next stage, of engaging in human wisdom.

As Ilich pointed out, part of the thing which makes us sick is our mental dependence on the medical system. Our thinking has a direct effect on our physiology, so in order to become healthier and less dependent, the main thing we need to change is our thinking. All kinds of physical responses to mental processes are stored in our bodies. As Ayurvedic doctor Shanti Gowans (2) puts it:

“We carry in our minds and bodies all the events of our personal histories. Some of this history is relevant to our present-day lives but some is quite outdated…We have holding patterns so habitual…that they literally leave a historic imprint. Stored, are our repetitive actions and experiences, along with our solidified emotions and ideas as life impressions. In truth, we are no longer the same people who experienced those original events.” (2)

Permaculture of the mind

So in order to achieve long-lasting and deep healing it seems efficient to address these holding patterns and refresh them if we need to. Just as we can apply the lens of permaculture and view the body as an ecosystem, we can also look at our mental and emotional processes as part of a holistic picture, and introduce methods to encourage the flourishing of this mental ecosystem as a whole.

Each thought that we think is a communication to ourselves. We can allow these communications to affect our emotions unconsciously, or we can enquire into them and decide consciously whether or not to keep hold of them. Of course, trying to think about your own thoughts can be like “trying to lift yourself up off the floor by pulling at your own bootstraps” (14), so it can sometimes be beneficial to use a guide or structure to help. One example is Byron Katie, whose work, which she terms simply ‘The Work’ (15) involves a set of very simple questions which you can ask yourself about any thought. The mere process of inquiry can often be enough to help you to dislodge those thoughts which no longer serve as useful in your mental ecosystem.

Mental flow

In the same way I have written about in previous articles (16, 17), we can treat these communications as energy flows, representing different forms of energy which we either wish to divert, or catch and store within the garden of our minds. One way we can actively engage in using our mental communication flows is by practising any one of a myriad forms of meditation. Through meditation, we can ‘observe and interact’ with our own mental processes, and find out which flows we wish to encourage and which we can allow to flow through us and away.

One of the main effects of meditation is that it allows us to detach from our habitual use of language. As Alan Watts said:

“What we have forgotten is that thoughts and words are conventions, and that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously. A convention is a social convenience, as, for example, money … but it is absurd to take money too seriously, to confuse it with real wealth … In somewhat the same way, thoughts, ideas and words are ‘coins’ for real things.” (18)

Language is an important tool, but by stilling the mind we can connect to the deeper language of our body wisdom and to the communication of the ‘more-than-human’ world (19), thus enabling us to think more clearly about exactly how we are affecting the ecosystem around and within us and how best we can engage in aiding these ecosystems to flourish.

Breath medicine

Recently, there have been a number of scientific studies proving the direct relationship of engaging in deep mental states with physiological healing. For example, the process of taking deep breaths in and short breaths out repeatedly for a number of minutes, as promoted by Wim Hof (20), has been shown to oxygenise parts of the brain which do not normally receive so much oxygen. Hof’s meditation technique involves also holding the breath out for an extended period of time, which triggers release of adrenaline and endorphins (21) into the nervous system and has been proven in scientific studies to help with the body’s natural defences (Hof was injected directly with E Coli virus, which did not affect him at all) (21, 22).

Such techniques are relatively simple to engage in by oneself, since all you are doing is breathing, which in turn can help with feelings of self-empowerment and confidence, so that even if your state of health stays the same, the enhanced confidence can help you to feel better at the very least.

Not throwing the baby out

As I touched upon in part 1 (1), though practising permaculture can help us recognise potential problems in existing systems, that is not to say we need to use it to change such systems. Rather, we can use the problematic systems as inspiration to help us design more regeneratively-functioning and holistic ones. It seems important here to note that the system which we are looking at critically is separate from the individuals who are part of it.

We can recognise that much of modern industrial large-scale monoculture farming is detrimental to the environment and human health alike; but that is not to say that we blame the farmers. Indeed, many of us still base a large part of our diets on food derived from such systems, and so in a very literal sense, we owe them our lives. In the same way, although much of the modern industrial healthcare system can be seen, just simply in the way it is structured, to be geared towards enhancing human ill-health, suffering and chemical dependence, we can separate this criticism from our experience of actual healthcare workers.

Those who choose either farming or healthcare as a profession probably originally became drawn to their vocations through some kind of love of service; of wanting to connect to the land, to provide food for their communities; to help and to heal. A large part of self-healing is the practice of compassion and forgiveness, and it seems the best way we can create lasting systems of healthcare which are structured towards holistic health of people and planet is to show compassion to all those who are already saving lives on a daily basis, in a system which provides many benefits, even if we do not agree with all of their methods.


  1. Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Permaculture and Healing part 1: Looking at Healthcare Through the Lens of Permaculture’. Permaculture News, 01/06/19. – retrieved 07/06/19
  2. Ilich, I, 1974. Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health. Pantheon: New York City, USA.
  3. Gowans, S, 2004. Ayurveda for Health and Well-being. Jaico: Mumbai, India.
  4. Mollison, B; Holmgren, D, 1988 (1997). Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, USA.
  5. Salguero, C.P, 2014. Thai Herbal Medicine. Findhorn Press: Forres, UK.
  6. Huang, T, 2015. Food As Medicine. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: Scotts Valley, USA.
  7. Pursell, JJ, 2016. The Herbal Apothecary. Timber Press: Portland, USA.
  8. Plants for a Future, 2019. ‘Database’. retrieved 07/06/19
  9. Useful Tropical Plants, 2019. ‘Database Search’. retrieved 07/06/19
  10. Allen, D; Hatfield, G, 2004. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press: Portland, USA.
  11. Mckenna, T, 1993. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam: London, UK.
  12. Ashwanden, C, 2016. ‘Psychedelic Times: Some Ideas for How we can Regain our Sacred Medicines’. Abundance Garden, 17/12/16. – retrieved 07/06/19
  13. Opray, M, 2017. ‘Tourist Boom for Ayahuasca a Mixed Blessing for Amazon’. The Guardian, 24/1/17. retrieved 07/06/19
  14. Watts, A, 1965. ‘The Veil of Thoughts 2’. Lecture given in Sausalito, California and available as transcript and audio here – retrieved 07/06/19
  15. The Work of Byron Katie, 2019. ‘The Work’. – retrieved 07/06/19
  16. Ashwanden, C, 2018. ‘Human Permaculture: Communication as Flow part 1’. Permaculture News, 23/5/18. – retrieved 07/06/19
  17. Ashwanden C, 2018. ‘Human Permaculture: Communication as Flow part 2’. Permaculture News, 8/10/18. – retrieved 07/06/19
  18. Watts, A, 1951 (1997). The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. Vintage: New York City, USA.
  19. Abram, D, 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Language and Perception in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA.
  20. Wim Hof Method, 2019. ‘About the Iceman’.
  21. Wim Hof Method, 2019. ‘The Science’.
  22. Ledford, H, 2014. ‘Behavioural Training Reduces Inflammation’. Nature News, 5/5/14.

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for your article Charlotte. Bringing permaculture into healthcare and theapeutic work is also an interest of mine and it is encouraging to see so much more reference to this application of permaculture thinking now.
    I recently attended a Solution Focused Brief Therapy course, to refresh my practice, and had a bit of a revelation as I realised why I have felt so strongly supportive of this mode of ‘talking therapy’ – becasue it’s a no-dig, organic system. What I mean by that, is that Solution Focus is future -orientated – it doesn’t ‘dig up’ the past . It also doesn’t start with any hypothesis on the part of the therapist, the direction of the work is entirely led by the client and draws on their existing resources. It’s not the role of the therapist to advise, fix or direct or try to enhance their own professionally preferred direction of change (no added fertiliser) – they are not the expert in the clients’ life, the client is. Equally, it is not the job of the therapist to judge or attempt to redirect the chosen goals or vision of the client (no added pesticide). It’s a therapeutic approach that seeks to make the very best of the ‘growing medium’ that the client presents and to see everything as a potential resource. It resonates so strongly with permaculture principles – integration, wasting nothing, valuing diversity, using your edges, accepting feedback, creative use of change. I mentioned this to our teacher – Chris Iveson from BRIEF – during the course and will be following up with him to explore the connections further.
    Thanks again for your article – a great read!

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