Understanding the Medicine Wheel

Snowy WoodsI’ve been asked to say more about the Medicine Wheel. This is my understanding and it is by nature limited.

The term Medicine Wheel has been used by anthropologists and others to cover the many traditions from the Americas of seeing life’s journey as a hoop or circle. Over time the name gained common usage. That said, I believe we must remember that each culture has a unique understandings of these things, and we must be respectful of this. 

The concept of Medicine has a similar trajectory. I understand Medicine as having a host of meanings. Traditional  teachings about living the good life are Medicine. So are ancestral ways of living and healing. Relationships with the ancestors, spirits, and community are Medicine, as are our interactions with the natural world. Medicine can be good or bad depending on the intent of the practitioner or the outcome of one’s actions.

The Medicine Wheel, or Great Hoop, represents our relationships with All That Is, with All our Relations. It is the house of our lives, the circle of our communities, and the cyclic nature of the Natural World. The metaphor of the Great Hoop places us firmly in relationship to an immense, alive universe. We are reminded that our lives embody and mirror processes arising in nature, and we are ourselves Nature.

In this view, life is a journey of repetition. We are born and reborn many times during each lifetime. We return to certain life experiences, yet are changed at each encounter. From this, if we are thoughtful and awake, arises wisdom. Perhaps even death is transitory.

The view from the Wheel depends on one’s position, and is inevitably different if one stands at the center or the periphery. The view changes over time, reflecting our perceptions and understandings are altered by our journey. Sometimes we may become the Wheel itself.

Visiting the Medicine Wheel invites us to turn to the natural world and the wisdom of our  ancestors and cultures for guidance in living, facing illness and hardship, and in dying. We are placed in relationship to All, and our journeys and struggles are given meaning. One may say that, as  in many healing ceremonies, we become the ancestors and Holy Ones. Being reminded we belong, that our lives have meaning, and that we are connected to All That Is can be profoundly healing.

To be attentive to our relations with All is to conduct ceremony, and ceremony points us towards an awareness of relationship. It is no wonder the Medicine Wheel is the central metaphor in many ceremonies!

I hope this brief discussion of the Medicine Wheel has been useful. Please share your thoughts and questions.

7 thoughts on “Understanding the Medicine Wheel

  1. Great explanation. The English word ‘medicine’, used to describe the Wheel or Hoop, is as broad and ambiguous as the Greek word ‘logos’ which is translated as ‘Word’ in the Gospel of St. John. We loose a lot of our richness in translation, but language is the only bridge we have to walk in peace. Thanks for your efforts to inform and thus enlighten our brothers and sisters.

    1. Hi Michael! Thank you for the positive words. This feels like a sticky wicket indeed. There is always the dance of generalizing without obliterating the nuanced, and crucial, differences between our cultures.

  2. Thanks for you good explanation. Our world are one big wheel and how we wish to use it, is a different case. We just need to be grateful to the Creator for having all those posibilities.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you Micheal. As always, my Teacher. You spoke of perspective. How one’s view of the wheel changes if at the edge of the center. What is the benefit of either, or both. Is there a balance between the edge and the middle which is transition? I’m not sure I grasp the concept.

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