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The Medicine Wheel - an introduction

The concept of the Medicine Wheel is a part of Native American Traditions, and yet it has a lot in common with Western esoteric tradition also. I will share my take on this healing system, which draws from many sources.

The Medicine Wheel

There are several variations practised today, and the above diagram shows a more contemporary version. Essentially we have a symbol of a circle representing wholeness, divided into four parts or elements. The cross defines a centre, symbolic of eternal potential; at the heart each one of us is the center of our own compass and have our own cardinal points of North, South, East and West. We are defined not only by our place on the physical level, but by our position in consciousness; and the center principle manifests itself through humanity in the same ways as it does through a plant or galaxy*. From the perspective of personal healing, we take the circle to represent the totality of our being, and by dividing it into four sectors, we acknowledge the four windows of perception: thinking, sensing, feeling and intuiting, which also translates into the four prime bodies within the human energy field: the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. In spite of its apparent simplicity, there are numerous ways we can use this system, which by its very nature describes natural timeless laws. As such aligning with the medicine wheel has the potential to bring us into harmony with nature both at an everyday level and a cosmological one.

*This idea taken from the book Mandala by José Arguelles The Medicine Wheel also appears in Western astrology, where the same four elements manifest through the 12 zodiacal signs: Aires, Leo and Sagittarius representing Fire; Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn representing Earth; Gemini, Libra and Aquarius representing Air; Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces representing Water. Any typical astrology chart is also divided into four quadrants, marked by the ascendant, IC, descendant and MC.

In essence we need to honour all four elements equally if we are to remain in balance. In systems theory if you make one element of any system more important than the others, eventually the system will collapse. This is exactly what is happening today in our current industrial growth society, which has given profit primacy over all other factors. Ecological problems and instability in the global financial system are key indicators that the time is now ripe for a paradigm shift. We can participate and cultivate stability in this change as individuals by paying attention to our personal medicine wheel for it offers us a way to cultivate personal harmony resulting in greater life satisfaction and enjoyment. How do we do this? In any situation balance requires us to use all our elements, and each of us tends to be more developed in some and less developed in others. Here is a basic overview of the elements as a starting point:

In general many of us tend to be mono-elemental with just one element highly emphasised, for example there are those ‘earthy’ types who tend to be very active physically, always busy doing something, feeling uncomfortable when they are idle, or there are those who are predominantly air element who are always busy thinking, worrying, studying or socialising. I knew a man in his 70s who confessed his practical ineptitude with a modest sense of humour; he explained that he had never mastered how to wire a plug! A schoolteacher by profession, it was no surprise to look at his astrological chart to find no planets in earth signs; being predominantly in the air element he quite rightly told me he was good with words. Those who are predominantly fire element can become consummate meditators, yoga fanatics or dedicated stoics who fast often and follow restrictive diets, as a means to keep in a perpetual natural high, while too much water can lead to oversensitivity, depression or melodrama and histrionics. In western culture both Earth and Air are celebrated, while Fire and Water are avoided; our culture rewards doers and thinkers, marginalises spiritual seekers while devaluing sensitivity, feeling, and emotional expression. In Eastern culture there’s a different balance. In India for example there is great respect for spiritual development and mastery, and the average Indian is more active in the fire element than most westerners. Yet wholeness and wellbeing depend on a balance between all four elements. Let’s take a quick look at some of the patterns of imbalance from a 4 elements perspective:

Elements balance each other Negative expressions of the elements occur when we are out of balance, so if you find yourself identifying with some of the above patterns of imbalance, developing your weaker elements will help. For example, if I spend too much time on the computer, which is predominantly in the Air element mode, I am likely to get mentally over-stimulated, I might feel stress, and my mind may be spinning on all sorts of ideas or worries. A good counter-element for Air is Earth, and I find taking a walk, or doing some gardening helps me get grounded, and slows down my spinning mind, and as a consequence I feel much better. Earth happens to be one of my weaker elements so I find it most often brings a balance in for me, but all the elements have this potential; Air could also be balanced by Water, for example my worries may dissipate after I have spent time with my feelings and found a way to emotionally express myself, or equally meditation (Fire) might prove to be effective.

The nature of balance is dynamic; we tend to imagine a set of scales when we think of balance, but I think this is too linear and static. A more expressive image would be a circus juggler, juggling while on a mono-cycle. In this image we can appreciate the 'magical' quality we can have when we are working well with all 4 elements, and get a good feel for the constant natural movement inherent in the balancing act. We can also see the inevitable consequence for the circus juggler if she were to prioritise her juggling over the mono-cycle, or visa versa the mono-cycle over her juggling; in either case the magic and elegance would be lost.

The best way to develop weaker elements is to simply decide to engage in pursuits that correlate to the elements in question – time will do the rest. We can use the medicine wheel to bring balance by adding the missing elements to our lifestyle; if we need more Earth we can consider putting more energy into cooking, gardening, physical exercise or improving our diet; if we need more Water we might consider bringing in more emotional expression into our relationships, or perhaps spend more time alone reflecting on our feelings; if we need more Air, we might consider studying something new, reading more books, or socialising more; if Fire is lacking we could join a meditation group, bring more attention to the spiritual side of our life by introducing spiritual practises, or we could cultivate more creativity. The medicine wheel can be used as a way to map the psyche:

Concept gathered from Bill Plotkin's book Wild Mind

* note for southern hemisphere Earth would be associated with South and Fire associated with North. This is a seasonal metaphor: in the southern hemisphere the cold is toward the South where we are most tested and where we develop the strengths to become nurturing generative adults. **Colour guide: Red for East representing the rising sun, Yellow for South representing the full sun at midday, Black for West representing the darkness beyond the setting sun, and the descent into the underworld, White for North representing the ice and snow of the North Pole which in the northern hemisphere is where it is coldest. The medicine wheel can also be used to honour the elements in a daily spiritual practice. By doing this we bring attention to the four gateways to wholeness. We can make prayer to the four directions in order to come into more resonance with the elements. We can arrange personal altars to include the 4 directions and we can do group ceremony in the same way. We can even apply the same principles to creative projects, for once we know our personal elemental map, it is easy to see if creative groups are missing key elements for success.