The Medicine Wheel: Empathy

East:Spring_BlosomsAs I age I am becoming ever more appreciative of the wisdom of the Medicine Wheel teachings. As a result, I find I am increasingly looking for ways to incorporate them into my work, whether that be therapy, teaching, or traditional healing.

This morning Jennie and I awoke very early, and were soon conversing about the spirituality of the four directions. My view of this is ever-changing, and, hopefully, deepening. Today, perhaps because we are both doing ceremonies for others, I find myself focused on the role of empathy in our journeys around the Wheel.

It seems to me that, ideally, in the East we experience ourselves, and the world, as new, and everything herein as related to us. Thus, children routinely grieve when even dead trees are cut down, perceiving the “dead” trees to have feelings, and thus to experience loss, if not pain. In the East, each loss of another is a loss of self.

From about the age of six, to perhaps twenty-five, we are faced with the twin tasks of differentiating ourselves from our families and learning to be contributing members of groups. Often during our time in the South we lose empathy, at least for a while, or our empathy may become limited and over-focused. In the South, we learn the basic rules of cause and effect, and may lean heavily on threats of punishment to guide our actions as we wait for our minds to become mature. Our youthful ideas about Karma may also promote blame, and inhibit true empathy.

In the West, we focus on nurturing our loved ones, friends, and local communities. We may become more empathic as we understand that those around us are suffering, and that suffering will inevitably visit our families. As a result, we extend ourselves to those we know who are in need. We may also begin to link our fates to that of the wider world.

Finally, in the North, we are invited to face our mortality, understand ourselves as bridges between generations, and begin to grasp the profound connections that bind us to the larger world, the Ancestors, the spirit beings, and the Creator. In the North, we strive to understand the teachings inherent in our journey around the Wheel, and, once again, begin to have empathy for all beings. Yet, even as we acknowledge our mutual dependence with innumerable others, we face the task of letting go of this world, and, possibly, of returning to the East.

I like to remind myself that in each lifetime we make many turns around the Wheel, our understanding changing with each. The grand sweep of our lives is a pilgrimage composed of shorter journeys, each part of an ongoing conversion with Self, others, and the Creator, an opportunity to build meaning, and empathy, from lived experience.

It seems to me that these teachings are good to think about, that they are helpful in our attempts to be truly human. Do they speak to you?

14 thoughts on “The Medicine Wheel: Empathy

  1. Amazon is awash with books about the kind of teachings and posts that you share (and I enjoy) with us. Are there any that you would recommend I read?

    1. Hi Andy! Let’s see. The short answer is “no”. There are a lot of books! The Medicine Wheel teachings tend to be local; that is, each tribe or community will understand the directions in ways that are congruent with their traditions and ecological conditions. (Up and down are more universal in meaning, placing “here” as between Sky and Earth.) I have always appreciated the book, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, which speaks, in a general way, to Lakota ways of knowing.The problem is that when I sit with local healers, we can agree in general terms about the Wheel, but there are tribal and personal differences in experience and teaching. I try to speak about the Wheel from the knowing of Indigenous people in the Northeastern most U.S.., where I have long lived, and is the home of several of my teachers. Even so, I know there are folks out here who see it all a bit differently.

      Many of the books on Amazon seem to present knowledge as global, rather than local. When I sit with people in other countries I invite them to take the spirit of the teachings and let their local conditions shape their understanding. I encourage you to spend time meditating on the directions where you are, getting a sense of how they speak to you. There may well be local traditions as well.

  2. Thank you, this is such a good reminder to pause and assess where we might be on the medicine wheel right at this moment. I appreciate its cyclical (rather than linear) sense of development… For instance, the fact of having shifted from South to West does not preclude the possibility it is that time again..

  3. Yes, this speaks to me too. I try to see our world as one unit and how it can be possible to learn something new every day, also in a spiritual way. It is very different, from where in the world, we look at the medicin wheel and to, how souls do understand and act at this.
    Very interesting Michael

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