“The Medicine Wheel Circle is the Universe. It is change, life, death, birth, learning. This Great Circle is the lodge of our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. It is the cycle of all things that exist. The Circle is our Way of Touching, and of experiencing Harmony with everything around us.”
– From Seven Arrows by Hyemeyohsts Storm
Central to the worldview of Native-Americans is the The Medicine Wheel, a symbolic representation of life as a great circle, a hoop, a wheel. Unlike the linear and fragmented universe of European culture, the Native American world is a unity, Spirit manifesting into the myriad but all connected aspects of life. Each of these aspects – the humans, the animals, the trees, the earth, the rocks, the air, the wind, the water – all differing faces of Spirit. So too, each human is a different face of the One Face. This is how the Medicine Wheel mythology becomes an important psychology, an instrument for human healing, much like the mandala of Buddhism.
In the mythology of The Medicine Wheel, each human has a place on the rim of the Great Wheel, a face looking in, representing a unique perspective on Life. Each of the quadrants or directions of the Wheel represents a generalized archetypal perspective reflective of the major qualities of the human mind, very similar to how the psychologist Carl Jung ascertained the four functions of the mind to be thinking, feeling (emotion), sensation and intuition. Differing Native traditions have slightly different ways of representing these qualities, but in the Cheyenne tradition of Hyemeyohsts Storm, they are represented as Illumination (seeing with perspective, thinking about) in the East, Innocence (seeing close up, direct contact) in the South, Introspection (looking within, feeling about) in the West and Wisdom (holding in Spirit or intuition) in the North.
Like Jung who noted that people have major, minor and undeveloped relationships to the mental functions, the Native-American tradition notes that people have differing combinations of the Medicine Wheel attributes in their perspective. And like Jung who noted that a person can only be truly healthy and whole (individuated) by developing relatively equal facility in all four functions, the Native-American tradition says that a person becomes whole only by traveling the four directions and coming to know the Wheel in its wholeness. It teaches that only by coming to recognize and being at peace with these differing, but complementary, dimensions can we move beyond narrow-mindedness and inner turmoil to be healthy, whole and wise.
Each person has a unique place on the Wheel’s rim representative of their predisposition to emphasize or diminish these directional characteristics in their personality. As we approach the experiences of life, the Wheel imagery reminds us that the hub of the Wheel can stand in representation of our life experiences. As people seek to understand an experience, they see it from their unique place on the Wheel, each person seeing from a different angle than another, seeing with the vision of their particular predispositions for illumination, innocence, introspection and wisdom.
In Western culture, we approach life in a linear fashion. There are no circles. When I experience a particular event, I declare it to have such and so a meaning. Another person experiences the same event and declares it to have a different meaning. In the West, we then have the conditions for conflict. Who is right? In order for me to be right, you must be wrong. We cannot differ and both be right. We must resolve this conflict, this contradiction. This unfortunately leads to the condition of, “might makes right”, either intellectually, emotionally or physically. To win, someone else must lose. This is a world perspective that certainly is productive and powerful, but there is no wisdom here.
Likewise when an individual experiences an event, the differing aspects within themselves come into conflict. Which is right? My feeling or my intellect? What I experience directly or the “knowledge” I have been taught? When these differing visions are experienced as in conflict there is disorientation and suffering.
Native-American culture approaches differing views as exactly that, differing views that are natural to differing view-points, places on the Great Wheel. They are not to be fought about; they are to be learned from. If I see this event in such and so a way, and you see it differently, and we live honoring The Medicine Wheel, we don’t shout, “you’re wrong!” we say “Ah-ho,” “tell me more. What does this look like from your place on the Wheel so I may know more of its wholeness.” So too with our personal experience. Wisdom tells us to consult the vision of innocence, illumination and introspection in order to know a thing in its wholeness, its truth.
Like the Persian story of the blind men examining an elephant, when we only hold to our own limited experience, our experience is incomplete and inaccurate. When we only hold our own perspective to be important and right, and fight to eliminate all other perspectives, we become blind and foolish like the blind men of Persian legend. When we seek to know from each other (and the more the better), we can begin to see the whole of a situation or experience with some accuracy and fullness. We begin to see from the center, as if it were a mirror, looking at all the differing perspectives and seeing that each holds a piece of the truth. We begin to approach the understanding of Truth to be found in the totality of perspectives; we honor and uphold The Circle of Life. This is the lesson of The Medicine Wheel.
Whether as an individual seeking to become more whole in themselves, or humanity as a group wrestling with the great issues of peace and ecological sustainability, The Medicine Wheel Way leads to peace and wisdom, while the way of limited personal (or national) interest fighting for dominance leads to strife and conflict. European civilization has conquered the world, only to be confronted with the personal inner and global outer consequences of a worldview that conquers and possesses but does not know how to understand and coexist. The world has become too small for this dangerous, shortsighted way of living. But deep inside our collective consciousness there is a memory of looking within the Circle of Life to find our way. It can be our salvation.
It is time to return to the Circle. It is time to journey the Great Wheel to heal and to find our way to its center, to find in our individual faces the reflection of the one Great Face, before the insanity of separateness, of right and wrong, might-makes-right, wounds us all individually and collectively beyond redemption, and wounds the Great Mother Earth so she cannot bear her children, the people, any longer. The great Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho and other Native-American Nations may be gone, but their Old Way, the Way of the Medicine Wheel, is needed in this modern world before it is too late. This wisdom still lives in our hearts. May it return, the wisdom of Nature, of the One Spirit, a reflection of our own true human nature, to bring us home into the Circle of Life – for as long as there are Human Beings, and the whispers of the Great Spirit, The One, are carried on the Winds. Ah-ho.