When you think of “medicine” what is the first thing that comes to mind?
For many modern people, medicine is associated with drugs, surgical procedures, nurses, dentists, or doctors that all improve one’s physical health. However, “medicine” in many past ancient cultures was understood as an interrelated process of physical and spiritual well-being. Medicine was once thought of as a way of being in harmony with the primal energy of nature, and a way of becoming aware of the personal power within each of us that allows us to become more whole and complete.
Before we based our lives on beliefs and interpretations of “holy scriptures,” we looked to the surrounding world for answers and we observed the rhythm of nature to guide our existence. What we discovered is that life behaves in cycles or circles rather than Cartesian “line” that we perceive time and existence these days. We discovered that the seasons came and went in cycles as did the Sun cycles and Moon phases, and we observed that even living beings like humans, trees and animals worked in cycles of births, death and rebirth.
With this understanding of life came a respect for the sacredness of the circle, and its medicinal properties that can heal our souls.
The Origins of the Medicine Wheel
The Medicine Wheel was a tool that was commonly used in ceremonies, teachings, and therapies by the native people of North America. Within the Wheel is a representation of the interconnectedness of humans and nature; the microcosm and macrocosm, as cycles and spirals of energy.
Personally, I understand the Medicine Wheel as a physical embodiment of our spiritual energy; an outward expression of our internal relationship with the great Spirit of existence. You can treat the Medicine Wheel almost like a mirror that reflects back your humanity. Only the courageous are brave enough to truly see an honest reflection of themselves and where they are in life and what needs further developing.
The origins of the Native American Medicine Wheel are not entirely known. Many cultures have used wheels or circle-like structures as magical and sacred ways of organizing and passing on understanding, knowledge and information about existence. Just look at the mandalas of the East, the Neolithic stone circles of Europe, and the South American Mayan and Aztec circles to name a few.
Regardless of the origin, Medicine Wheels are terrific tools for personal exploration, growth and transformation, as well as for processes of a more psycho-therapeutic nature.
The 4 Sacred Directions of the Medicine Wheel
There are many uses for the Medicine Wheel, but the most basic use involves harnessing the Wheel to represent the interrelatedness of life which is expressed in “four directions.” At the very center of the wheel lies that which is indescribable. Some call this indescribable essence the “divine,” others call it the “universe,” “spirit,” “consciousness,” or “totality,” but in Native American cultures they refer to it as “the sacred mysteries” or “all that ever was and all that ever will be.”
The “Four Directions” of the wheel are interpreted differently by different tribes, as each direction can correspond to any element of life. However, the most common interpretation of the Medicine Wheel involves the four cardinal directions of North, South, East and West, and are often represented by distinctive colors such as black, red, yellow and white. Here are some other popular interpretations of the Four Directions in the Medicine Wheel:
1. Stages of life: birth, youth, adulthood, death.
2. Seasons of the year: spring, summer, winter, fall.
3. Human aspects: spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical.
4. Elements of nature: fire, air, water, and earth.
5. Human races: caucasian, black, asian and american indian.
6. Animals: eagle, bear, wolf, buffalo and many others.
7. Ceremonial plants: tobacco, sweet grass, sage, cedar.
The Four Directions use of the Medicine Wheel is the most basic approach, as it connects each direction in a simple circular pattern. However, when you put the Wheel into practice, it grows in complexity as every direction of the Wheel can be finely interconnected to many other elements of life.
How to Use the Medicine Wheel
As a practical example of how to use the Medicine Wheel we will choose to include elements of human nature which are; physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
We will also add the directions of Southeast, Southwest, Northwest and Northeast. When using human aspects in our Wheel, the center of the wheel becomes our sense of “Self,” or “Soul.”
Within this Human Wheel that we are creating, each aspect will consist of the “light” side of who we are as well as the “shadow” side. Each direction will provide a specific area that we can choose to focus on for either ego-centric or soul-centric growth.
Below I will provide a very brief description of the directions that I have mentioned above and how they are interconnected:
East: The East represents the beginning, the ending, and the renewal. The East represents the moment of the sunrise, the blossoming of spring, the candle in the darkness. It is typically associated with the “upper world” of light, “enlightenment,” and returning back to our origin.
South: At the peak of the Sun’s journey through the sky, the South is the place that receives the most light; it is responsible for the growth and flowerings of all living beings. South is most often associated with the “flowing” of emotions as it is the polar opposite of the North. It symbolizes our inner child, our core wounds and the rediscovery of child-like wonder.
West: The West is a place of sunset, the return of the light to the dark. It is the autumn of our humanness, the end of our growing. The West symbolizes a place of transition, the ‘”dark night of the soul,” and the “shadow” within us that requires introspection and confrontation.
North: The North is a cold place of night, the winter of our growing period. To be centered in our internal North requires skill and competence to survive which is why it’s associated with our “mental” abilities, logic and beliefs.
In order to further understand the places in which we need to grow, we will expand on each of the four directions by looking at the “middle ground” between each – the way of the “Tao” if you will:
Southeast: The Southeast is associated with our concept of “self” and how we came to be. It is symbolic of our gifts and talents, as well as the beliefs and mythologies we’ve inherited from our ancestors.
Southwest: The Southwest is our dream reality or how we’ve learned to perceive our world. It is composed of all of our learning and beliefs that influence our perception of life.
Northwest: The Northwest is symbolic of rules, laws and Karma. To embrace the Northwest’s message is to come to terms with, and completely accept your present situation as a lesson you’re being taught by life.
Northeast: The Northeast is seen as a place of energy, spirit, and learning how to control and direct the energy in your life.
If you are to take all of these directions into consideration they can provide a developmental map of your “Self.” Born in the East as a Spirit in a body you move through the Southeast toward the south in order to form your DNA, ancestry, cultural socialization and the emotional and mental “marks” that create your personality. The beliefs you’re left with, learned abilities and thought systems are what form the “unconscious” part of yourself that is the essence of the “Southwest” which creates your “dream reality.”
In the West’s dream reality, we manifest our inner world in our work, with our family, and with our friends. For a time we live complacently, until dusk sets in and we begin experiencing a “crisis” (often in midlife, but depending on our Soul Age it can be earlier). The setting of the sun in the West is a moment of “spiritual awakening” that provides us with the opportunity to re-assess our lives and whether they are out of balance with our soul. It is in listening to, and honoring, the “awakening” process that we progress Northwest toward introspection where we discover the “rules” and “laws” (Karma) that we hold within that have made us arrive where we are.
It’s only by completing this process that we can work toward finding harmony, fulfillment and creativity in our lives. By heeding the call of the soul in the West, and learning the lessons of the North, and making our journey back to the East, we can be more aligned and in-tune with our “Higher Selves,” “True Nature” or “Authenticity.”
Every aspect of the wheel is interconnected, and represents Wholeness. For example, if you work on your core wounds in the South, you will change some of your erroneous beliefs in the North. Similarly, the Medicine Wheel can help you see how imbalanced you are.
For example, in the example we have used above, if you are too “intellectual” and serious, you will be too centered in the North. Or if you are too centered in the South you will be too irresponsible and self-indulgent. Similarly, when you are too centered in the East or West, you will most likely be denying the existence of either the “positive” or “negative” within yourself and the world, and will thus be emotionally and psychologically imbalanced.
The wisdom of the Medicine Wheel framework allows us to externalize our gifts, personality characteristics and social conditioning, helping us to see our limitations, and guiding us to alternative routes of growth.
A beautiful example of the intricacy and power of the Medicine Wheel comes from a client of mine who felt immense isolation in his life and an inability to empathize with others. In this man’s Medicine Wheel, the East was wisely represented by an Eagle. Thanks to the Medicine Wheel, this man came to realize that constantly living with the far-sighted clarity of this bird in the sky came with the disadvantage of never being able to feel close, or touched, by anything or anyone. After making this connection, this man was able to make deep changes in his life and feel more connected with others.
Growing in wisdom comes from moving around the wheel and constantly re-assessing “what we are not”; becoming aware of the ephemeral nature of these cycles. If you perceive life solely from one of the four directions then you will always remain a partial person, never to truly become whole.