When it comes to medicine in the industrialized world, we want results. We want a diagnosis and a cure as fast as possible with quick results. But couldn’t we work in other ways? Aren’t some of us already working in those ways? How long have women as healers, in particular, been engaged in a more circular healing dance?
In this fast-paced age of anxiety, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) herbs like Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) are at risk for being mistaken for linear quick fixes. Brew the tea or take the tincture, fix the symptoms, done. But everything about Passionflower, from the way they grow, to the shape of their blossoms; from the route they took into the modern materia medica to the specific flavor of anxiety they best address, speaks to working in circles.
Native to the Americas, Passionflower is a perennial herbaceous vine, growing in looping, climbing pathways. The roots of this plant were used by both the Cherokee and Houma in poultices and infusions for non-nervous system related ailments, while the Aztecs taught Spanish invaders how to treat insomnia with the aerial parts. The Spanish supposedly brought this knowledge back to Europe with them where Passionflower entered the European materia medica and became known as an effective sedative. From there, Passionflower as remedy circled back around to the United States when the Eclectics incorporated its nervine, sedative, and anxiolytic actions into their repertoire, especially for the treatment of an overwrought mind. (It is unclear why the Native North American root remedies were not adopted by the Eclectics, as well.)
Passionflower remained a well-known and well-used nervine sedative, appearing as a major ingredient in over-the-counter sleep aids, until 1978 when the FDA reversed its position on Passionflower’s safety for general use. While the exact methodology of Passionflower’s success in calming an anxious mind running uncontrollably in circles is still unproved definitively, the best theory to date is that its alkaloids increase levels of the brain’s primary sedating neurotransmitter, GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), reducing the impact of noradrenaline on a hyperactive mind and body.
Interestingly enough, engaging a mandala in some form (drawing, coloring, or meditating with an image) has a similar sedating effect, calming the mind and relaxing the body. The word “mandala” originates from the Sanskrit language and is often applied cross culturally now when we talk about sacred or meditative circular designs. We use it to describe rose windows in medieval European cathedrals, Medicine Wheels of Native North American traditions, Tibetan sand paintings, & Carl Jung’s journal of daily sketches. But what does this word mean, really?
Suggestions vary from the simplest translation (mandala = circle) to more complex suggestions. Perhaps “manda” means essence and combining this root word with “la” or container, creates a word that suggests a mandala is a container for the essence of something. This meaning is reflected in the Tibetan Buddhist use of sand mandalas as containers for Divine resonance. Carl Jung suggested they were representations of the unconscious- a container for the essence of the unrealized Self. Artist & author, Susanne Fincher, calls them “magic circles” filled with personal spiritual potential.
Passionflower as Mandala
The flower of Passiflora incarnata is possibly one of the most nuanced and detailed blossoms in the world, with layer upon layer of structure and symbolism contained within its circle. These soothing plants offer us an array of living mandalas with which to complement our more clinically medicinal uses of their parts.
Emerging from the center, the three styles branch out of the flower’s ovary at its uppermost center point. Spanish missionaries attempting to convert indigenous populations in South America associated those three styles with the three nails that were used in the crucifixion of Jesus. But this is only one of an infinite number of possible symbolic interpretations we could apply to Passionflower’s blossoms.
Meditate for a moment on other possible trinities that come to mind. Trinities are all about expressions of creativity, so release any runaway thoughts driving a sense of anxiety within you and play with the gentle mandala of the Passionflower. Could the three curved styles of the Passionflower represent body, mind, and spirit? Sun, moon, and stars? Animal, vegetable, and mineral? Ketchup, mustard, and mayo?
When you’re finished considering the potential of the blossom’s inner most trinity, move outward to the five stamen with their pollen-covered anthers. What do you see in them? What comes in fives? Perhaps our five senses or the five classical elements. Beyond the styles and stamen of the flower, there is the corona, a display of curly purple and white filaments. And beneath them are the ten petals of the corolla that support the entire structure of the blossom. Trace the pathways of the corona and corolla and let your mind be at ease.
By exploring Passionflower’s blossoms, you can create your own symbolism from their layers of mandalaic design and craft a personalized meditation that restores a sense of calm and eases anxiety. By all means, also brew the tea or take the tincture, but compliment this with a bit of healing in circles as you enter into a richer relationship with Passionflower’s anxiolytic nature.
Find a photograph you love of a blossom, or if possible, take one yourself. Use this as a meditative tool just like you might use any other mandala art. Try your hand at learning to draw mandalas– to include drawing your own Passionflower portrait. Or keep it simple and color another artist’s drawing. The beautiful Passionflower coloring page pictured above is available online for just a dollar from artist, Amanda River.
Healing in Circles
Passionflower and I are becoming fast friends thanks to some of these techniques. The lessons their blossoms bring encourage me to look closely, feel closely, and re-attune myself to the healing potential of circular work. By doing so, I begin to re-establish my faith in the power of the circle. Healing in circles is not speedy, instantaneously productive work. But it is sacred movement in its own right. Passionflower fills the sacred container of the mandala with the essence of the kind of healing I am striving to help bring forth.
Wise healer women throughout the ages leave traces of mandalaic movements in their wake, still detectable today for those who go looking in myth, in art, in how we approach our relationships with healing plants, and in the ways we utilize the people’s medicine. And as difficult as it may be in many anxiety producing moments, we will produce more of the essence of the world we long for instead, if we will work with the gifts of these living mandalas.
Create a relationship with the mandala of the Passionflower and you begin to create an awareness of the living mandalas among us. As we answer the call to create, sustain, & expand circles of powerful, wise, healer women, we ease the anxiety that plagues us.
Kate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, homeschooling mother, member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, & resident of Heartwood Cohousing. Kate is a presenter for Red Tents & women’s retreats. She also hosts seasonal women’s gatherings, priestesses labyrinth rituals, and facilitates workshops on an assortment of women’s healing & spirituality topics. Follow her exploration of herbalism and mandala healing on Facebook at Mandala Dreaming with Kate. Read more of her work in Flower Face: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Blodeuwedd and The Goddess in America: The Divine Feminine in Cultural Context.1