By Julian Barnard
Edward Bach (1886-1936) was an English MD and homeopath who developed the 38 Bach Flower Essences. He qualified as a doctor in 1912 at a time when the main thrust of medical research was concerned with immunology and the search for new vaccines. These vaccines would defend the population against pathogens which were seen as the cause of disease. This conception of health saw germs as the main culprits—hence the “germ theory.” Developed by the British surgeon Joseph Lister (1827-1912) in the 1870s, this is still the cornerstone of modern medicine. Medical science looks for the physical presence of disease causing organisms but ignores the invisible factors which control the health of the immune system. Bach made a unique contribution to the study of disease by looking at the way that the mental and emotional state of a person influences their health.
“Health,” wrote Bach, “depends on being in harmony with our souls.” For this to happen we must have some sense for what is our soul, what its purpose is in life and how we may learn to feel or understand its communication. This is hardly the normal stuff of scientific investigation, unless that is a science of the invisible.
Bach’s research was stimulated by his personal experience of cancer which was expected to kill him in 1917. For him, experiments in the science of health were therefore a personal matter. He considered the way his own psychology influenced his illness:
Disease is in essence the result of conflict between Soul and Mind, and will never be eradicated except by spiritual and mental effort.
He was clear and outspoken in his rejection of contemporary allopathic medicine:
The main reason for the failure of modern medical science is that it is dealing with results and not causes. For many centuries the real nature of disease has been masked by materialism, and thus disease itself has been given every opportunity of extending its ravages, since it has not been attacked at its origin.
Disease will never be cured or eradicated by present materialistic methods, for the simple reason that disease in its origin is not material. What we know as disease is an ultimate result produced in the body, the end product of deep and long acting forces, and even if material treatment alone is apparently successful this is nothing more than a temporary relief unless the real cause has been removed.
By 1931, he was to write in his book Heal Thyself—The Real Cause and Cure of Disease:
The modem trend of medical science, by misinterpreting the true nature of disease and concentrating it in materialistic terms in the physical body, has enormously increased its power, firstly, by distracting the thoughts of people from its true origin and hence from the effective method of attack, and secondly, by localizing it in the body, thus obscuring true hope of recovery and raising a mighty disease complex of fear, which never should have existed.
Bach’s studies, however, did not result in proposals for how we should change our lives through exercise, meditation or study. For him, there was no call for a corrective signal from the therapist or teacher. Rather, he asserts that for each of us the only true path to take is the path destined for us as an individual. And that path is something which we must find for ourselves. That is why we must listen attentively to our individual voice: the soul. But he does not leave the matter there. He found that certain flowers carried specific information which can act to amplify that voice and so assist in the process of bringing us to harmony.
What does this mean in practice? To take the first of the 38 flower essences he discovered—Impatiens—he says that if I am a person who feels great tension, irritation and pain then to find harmony in life I must be more gentle, loving and tolerant. This quality he found in the flowers of Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera). Lacking this positive idea causes physical discomfort (maybe headaches, eyestrain, accidents or more serious illnesses) and if once the information of the idea is accepted then the discomfort and disharmony will cease. The consequence will be a return to health as the natural condition of the being. This happens without the interference of pain killers (analgesics) which only serve to mask the problem. Indeed, according to Bach, this will be counterproductive:
…since the cause is still operative and may at any moment again demonstrate its presence in another form. In fact, in many cases apparent recovery is harmful, since it hides from the patient the true cause of his trouble….
What we have to treat, then, is ourselves, our own imbalances and disharmonies of character. As Bach wrote: Ye Suffer From Yourselves.
In the current climate of opinion, faith in science is strong. We believe, as a society, that we have only to take enough blood samples, make enough scans and develop sufficient new drugs and vaccines for everyone to be flourishing in health. But clearly that is not the case. Something is very wrong. In western society our population may live longer but we are certainly not more healthy. So, many of us believe we need to consider a different paradigm for health, a new conceptual framework within which to construct scientific theory—one such as Bach described. A new, invisible, science of health.
Essentially there are two questions which might inform such a scientific investigation into flower essences: why did Bach choose these plants to make his remedies and how do they work? This assumes that we start from the viewpoint that Bach flower essences do work. Extensive anecdotal evidence establishes this as true. Double-blind placebo trials, however, leave the matter in some doubt. But the real problem lies with the confines of what we call “science.” If we extend the boundaries of science to include the invisible then we encounter a fresh set of criteria with which to make an evaluation. We take account of such questions as “How do you feel?”
Bach essences are prepared by floating flowers on the surface of fresh spring water, in a glass bowl. This is left in strong sunlight for several hours. A second method of preparation boils the flowers. In both cases a pattern of information is transferred to the water and from this (the mother tincture) a treatment is prepared by further dilution. This information is not only invisible but it has no basis in chemistry nor any material property which might be tested by conventional scientific means. Yet it carries a message. This message is best read by comparing the emotional state which the remedy describes—with Impatiens the tension and irritability—with the gesture and character of the plant. This has been described as interpreting the form and function of the flower.
To read the message of the flowers requires careful observation. But then it needs careful observation, in Bach’s terms, to read the message from the soul. With plant observation there is much to be learned by simply looking, as an artist looks at a model, as a photographer looks through the lens; not expecting what to see but seeing what is. From this we may read the gesture of the plant. Is it strong or frail? Is its structure upright or procumbent? Is the geometry simple or complex? Each part of the plant describes an aspect of its quality: root, stem, leaf, flower and seed. These can interpret the balance of elements at work. For example: the root indicates attachment to the earth, to the past, to family and physicality. A flower like Water Violet (Hottonia palustris) has little or no root and lives floating freely in water. Of the Water Violet remedy Bach wrote that this is:
For those who in health or illness like to be alone. Very quiet people, who move about without noise, speak little, and then gently. Very independent, capable and self-reliant. Almost free of the opinions of others. They are aloof, leave people alone and go their own way. Often clever and talented. Their peace and calmness is a blessing to those around them.
In many respects this description is applicable to the flower as much as the person. Water Violet, the plant, has a simple clarity and beauty. But it has withdrawn from the world, unable to tolerate the pollution, both physical and metaphysical, which pervades the land.
To follow through with this idea we would need to consider the health problems such people suffer from and how the essence from the flower can help them. In this, we are gathering together the different disciplines involved in counseling and therapy—it is necessary to make the same quiet observation. Bach had a dictum: think of the person not the disease. So it matters little what the medical complaint is. “Take no notice of the disease, think only of the outlook on life of the one in distress,” he says. In the case of the Water Violet type of person the outlook on life is such that they like to withdraw and experience grief and sorrow in solitude.
Bach found 38 flower essences in all—a complete system, he said—and they are of three different kinds. First come the Twelve Healers, the type remedies. Then there are Seven Helpers which he describes as being for long-standing or chronic states. Later came the Second Nineteen. These are remedies for the emotional reactions we experience as a result of traumatic events. In this Bach created a roadmap for the psychological conditions which we may experience. A map of the emotional world. It might be argued that recognition of an emotional condition and naming it is enough to allow for change. If I acknowledge that I am angry, I am half way to controlling anger. In some respects this is true. But the added benefits of taking the essence are considerable. Not least because of the clear and living message from the plant kingdom which sustains our life on earth. “In the presence of the way of Nature disease has no power; all fear, all depression, all hopelessness can be set aside.”
Bach writes with astonishing conviction. But it is a conviction based upon his personal experience. Writing this today, I am again surprised by the radical challenge he presents to our long-held assumptions about life and our personal history. That is why, after more than 30 years, I am still researching, reading and rethinking his contribution to the science of health. Bach spoke of a “medicine of the future” and clearly thought that our health depended upon an ability to understand our life experience. With understanding we may be in a position to take responsibility. If the contemporary scientific view cannot explain everything we experience then it seems logical to look elsewhere for explanation and with that explanation we may develop a new science.
Julian Barnard lives and works on the borderland of Wales, close to the area where Dr. Bach also developed his work. He is an international authority on the work of Dr. Bach and flower essences.
Julian Barnard, Editor, Collected Writings of Edward Bach, Flower Remedy Programme, 2007.
Julian Barnard, Bach Flower Remedies Form & Function, Lindisfarne Books, 2002.
Edward Bach, The Twelve Healers & Other Remedies, 1936.
For a further analysis of Water Violet go to FES website www.flowersociety.org/Form_and_Function.htm.