Road to Envision: Co-founder Sarah Wu talks community, mindfulness, and herbalism [Interview]

As the tenth annual Envision Festival nears, attendees from around the world are readying their packing lists, digging up their passports, and getting ready to make the trek to Costa Rica’s southwest corner for a long weekend of music and healing. Held yearly near the town of Uvita, Envision promises an immersive experience of talented musical acts, world-class stage performers, international yoga instructors and workshops by experts on sustainability, spirituality, and more. As apart of our Road to Envision series, Conscious Electronic will be uncovering the hidden elements of Envision in the days leading up to the festival.


Teacher, educator, practicing clinical herbalist and Envision co-founder, Sarah Wu, has has a long tenure in the growing conscious movement. Currently residing in Costa Rica, she works as the Director and Educational Curator at Punta Mona Center for Regenerative Design and Botanical Studies, in addition to being one of the main creative and administrative forces behind the yearly festival. She has also been instrumental in facilitating the Red Tent women’s space at the event, as well as the Village Witches, the herbal elixir bar which serves healing non-alcoholic elixirs and offers educational opportunities and grounded spiritual connection. We were able to catch up with her during a break in the action as the intensive process behind setting up for the event deep in the Costa Rican jungle is already well under way.

CE: You’ve talked in the past about your role in reconnecting people to their power and independence when it comes to environmentalism and mindfulness. How has that process grown and changed in ten years of Envision?

SW: At least in my experience, in the ten years, working as an herbalist and in wellness…I know that the language and the lifestyle are becoming common, which I really love. We’re looking for these things and the medicine to become generic…generic, meaning from the word gente, the people. It’s not fully normal yet, but it’s being normalized. Which is the overall goal of the work that I’m doing, I don’t want to stay fringe, I don’t want it to be niche…I want it to bring people into the fold, because that’s really how we see change happen.

b616bc56-513e-4238-bbd7-b7f10d58046b

CE: There are some misunderstandings about the place of traditional and herbal medicine in the modern era. What does it mean to be an herbalist in the today’s society or the modern landscape?

SW: Well, we were the medicine keepers for a long time. When you look at human history, there have been quite a few situations which have affected the role of the healer…and we don’t actually use the word healer, we like to say that we facilitate people in their own healing process, because I’m just a guide for other people. So when we look at history, whether it’s from Western Europe and the witch trials, or the Scientific Revolution in the 1700s, which affected a lot of natural medicine, or in China in the 1950s when the Cultural Revolution standardized traditional Chinese medicine and took all the cultural nuances out…there were a few hundred years of systematic elimination of traditional medicine. So people end up seeing it as not legitimate, and the people who practice it are viewed as not accredited, or not real.

One of the limitations of natural medicine is that in the United States, there’s not many ruling bodies depending on the country you’re in. Those of us who live in Latin America are very lucky, because the World Health Organization protects us for practicing traditional medicine, and in the United States, it’s very open, you can just get whatever you want, it’s really a beautiful place to practice, even though we don’t have certain accreditations. But what I’m seeing happen is that the curiosity and the trust are coming back, and a lot of us who have been practicing for years and years feel like we’re in the middle of a beautiful renaissance/reclaiming, and those of us who have been around for a while are being held in higher regard and respect.

CE: You’ve talked about reclaiming natural human heritage as being part of your central mission. What’s the best way for someone beginning their journey on this path to get started?

SW: Find the people who are in practice. There are a lot of copy/paste practices and books out there, which often have good content, but maybe go to the American Botanical Council website. They’re up to date on ethnobotanical research, clinical studies and all of that stuff globally.

I also recommend people going to conferences. There are so many and that’s where you can really find a good teacher, whether you want to get into family practices, clinical work, flower essences, herbs, Chinese medicine, ayurveda, folk traditions…many different things and so many roads. There isn’t really one path, so you can choose which is the most appealing for you and then walk down it from there. In the US, there’s some great places like the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, the California School of Herbal Medicine, and the Florida School of Holistic Living.

There’s also the plant spirit medicine path, where people are really into indigenous traditions…it’s a really beautiful path, but there can be a lot of charlatanism, so I advise to be wary if you’re going to go that route. Look at who really holds space, because there is a high level of responsibility for our practice. The main tenet is “do no harm,” always, and we need to make sure people are holding to that.

CE: Women’s issues are an important facet of environmentalism and the conscious movement as a whole. With ideas like the Red Tent at Envision, how have you seen that grow and how do you see the movement evolving going forward? 

SW: The Red Tent and Temple movement has become more of a global movement and is definitely emerging in the western world. Part of it is the reclaiming path, where we’re taking back the word “witch” and making it normal as well, to make it a word of great identity and empowerment. Women aren’t just witches, either…it’s men and women. So it’s not just female empowerment, we need to rise our men up as well, stepping into our empowerment together and heal men’s generational trauma as well. As a woman in leadership, what I’m encouraging many of my students to do is take care of their brothers as well as take care of their sisters.

I don’t believe in the matriarchy, which is just another form of “power over,” so the real goal is engendering equality, equity and who we are. Rising up together and coming into consciousness is really, really important to me. I love seeing women in power, and I have a lot of female friends in power, and with a lot of young women looking up to me, all I want is to keep bringing the brothers back into it. I think that’s the most important part of the feminine movement, is to not exclude the bros! If we leave men out of this process, there won’t be any balance.

aef93503-d869-4a4b-84a8-b5e06ec19c55 2

CE: What can men do to be more of supportive of women and their empowerment process? Especially in the electronic music scene, where women are vastly underrepresented?

SW: It’s definitely a male-dominated industry. Firstly, to keep seeking out the fresh talent. Make a conscious, strong effort to bring in the female talent, and pay them accordingly. I look at some of the artists we book, and they’re really great, but there’s an inequality of pay scale versus what the female artists are making. This is an alternative community that we’re living in, but there’s definitely a stark 1% that I don’t agree with. One of my dreams, actually, is to put together a core-female production team—we wouldn’t leave the men out—but the dream is to put on a transformational event and to set the budget based around what the audience wants to experience.

So we’d have our base level infrastructure based on what we need. Then, the audience could say what percentage of money from their ticket they’d like to go to various parts of the festival, whether it be towards workshops, decoration, art, space for kids, music, education. Then from there, we build the budget.

I’d love to challenge the talent out there, which takes the budget from everyone else, and to ask them to really think about what’s equitable and what’s fair, and whether they actually feel good, knowing that some of their friends and community members are really struggling. They pop in for one show and make more than some people here make in two years, three years. If I could produce things that way, I would call them all out on that.

CE: If there’s something that you hope people can take back with them, something that they can experience or learn at Envision, what would that be?

SW: I’m really rooted in the principals of Burning Man, and one of those principals is that of radical self-reliance. Which, to me, doesn’t mean depending on yourself so much as knowing who you are, and what you bring to the ecology of the human forest. What’s your skill set? What are your limitations? What challenges you? This is how your community knows who you are, and you can fit into place, so you don’t feel like you’re not enough or too much. If I could challenge everyone to figure out who they are, and become radically self-reliant in their own capabilities, limitations and gifts, and what they bring to the table as a human being, that would be a really beautiful thing.

A class that I teach is called “Forest Ecology as Human Ecology” and models human ecology based on a forest, because in a forest there’s no waste, the forest is perfect. It’s really a challenge to make us think about who we are and how we’re participating, and to not compare ourselves to superstars, influencers, and charismatic leaders. Not everyone is a canopy tree, because then the forest would be a monoculture, and so I ask people to think about themselves in that way and imagine where they fit in, in the human forest.