The Complexity of the Medicine Wheel

Bird-Feeder-In-StormAlthough the calendar suggests we are in mid-March, and thus, deep into maple sugaring season, the weather insists we are not. While yesterday was in the low 40’s F, today is in the low 20’s, and we are in the midst of a significant snowstorm.  It has been snowing all day, although one cannot say how much snow may have fallen as the wind is whipping the snow around, lowering the visibility to near white-out levels. Sugaring is on hold. I’m pleased to be home with the wood stove, rather than out driving in the increasing tempest.

I’ve been asked to say yet a bit more about the Medicine Wheel, especially about exploring the inside of the wheel. I write about the Wheel from my own understanding as a man raised in-between races and cultures and taught by generous elders. I know well the dangers inherent in writing about Indigenous experience, including the Medicine Wheel. Over the years I have noticed  a tendency for writers to emphasize the metaphorical power of the Medicine Wheel as an expression of Self, often at the expense of the rich cultural and ceremonial meanings attached to the Wheel. Many authors focus on the self-help or psychotherapeutic value of  working with the Wheel; certainly the Medicine Wheel can be a powerful healing tool.  Yet, it is also Holy to many Native cultures around the world, an essential spiritual “text” (and lived experience) that holds the social and spiritual framework of entire peoples. Appropriating the metaphor without its substance risks appropriation.

March marks the beginning of Spring in the Western Hemisphere. Here, in the Northeastern U.S., Spring is located in the East on the Medicine Wheel. The East is the place of birth, thought, death and rebirth. It is the home of Air and the flying ones of all kinds. In Spring the Earth awakens, the plant world stirs, then bursts into life, and many living creatures bear their young. The Earth seems reborn. This is a good place to begin the journey through the year.

So far we have spoken about the Wheel as being essentially flat. One travels the hub of the wheel as one progresses through the seasons, the moon’s month, and one’s life. However, the entire area of the Wheel holds meaning, and one’s view of things changes depending on where one is standing: edge, center, or somewhere in-between. There are an infinity of points one might access and learn from.

In addition to the flat aspects of the wheel there are also above and below; the wheel is actually a sphere! We say that Mother Earth and all who dwell in her live in the below, while Father Sky and all the beings and bodes that we perceive as being in the sky live above. Father Sun, Grandmother Moon, and all the stars traverse the above.

Interwoven through the space of this immense orb are innumerable”parallel” dimensions and universes. There are spirit beings who reside in the everyday aspect of our sphere, those that travel alternate dimensions and universes, and those that freely and easily cross between the realms. Animals that move between reals (amphibians, other reptiles, etc.) remind us of these beings, as well as our own innate capacities to move between realms, inner and outer. The Holy permeates all of this.

We are each a part of this grand whole, and are, thus, Holy, something we may temporarily forget.  Ceremony, including Medicine Wheel work, re-places us in the Sacred, re-stores and re-stories us, and in so doing reminds us of our own sacred nature. The spiritual journey that is walking the Medicine Wheel takes a lifetime. The journey cannot be taken by reading, although books may offer maps that help to guide our explorations. Nor is the journey simply personal. The way of the Wheel encompassed body, mind, spirit, and community; it is both personal and collective.

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