Jackie Thomas Swanson

Lesson 4: The Medicine Wheel

As the Co-Culture Map activity shows us, human beings are very complex; a weaving of various experiences, beliefs, values, roles, and dreams. This weaving or connectedness can become apparent through a simple exercise like the map and give us a starting point to look at our lives.

Another way to look at the complexity of yourself is to look at who you are through the traditional teachings and definitions of Native people. There are many profound and important philosophies that guide traditional people and we can turn to them to help us gain a new perspective on who we are.

One philosophy that many Plains tribes follow is called the Medicine Wheel. This system of understanding is very powerful and elegant in its rationale and teachings. It is so complex that it might take a lifetime to fully understand and the true nature of it cannot be fully understood by words alone. This exercise does not purport to give you anything but a simple aspect of the Medicine Wheel that might be useful in our assessment of who we are.

A basic aspect of the Medicine Wheel is the circle. The circle defines much of the order of the world in the views of many Plains tribal cultures. It refers to the cycles of life and the connectedness of all things.

The circle is divided into quarters by drawing a cross or “x” through the center of the circle. Each of these quadrants has designated meaning and powers. Each of these quadrants is complex and rich with philosophy and teachings and wisdom. We cannot share all of these elements with you in this format, but we can focus on a fundamental element in this simple exercise.

What we want to have you focus on is the four elements that comprise a human life. The Medicine Wheel says there are four parts of our being: the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual. The western culture says we have only two: mind and body.

A simple object for these four elements is to create a balance between them. The Medicine Wheel philosophy is also based on the idea of balance. If all four elements are in balance then you are leading a good life. If you have struggles in your life it could be because an element of your being is out of balance and must be brought back into a balanced state.

The North Quadrant is represented by the color white and its animal symbol is the buffalo. It is the physical realm.

The Eastern Quadrant is the color red and its animal is Eagle. It is the place of illumination and is the emotional realm.

The Southern Quadrant is the color yellow and is the spiritual realm. It represents innocence and is the spiritual realm..

The Western section is black. Its animal is Bear and it is the mental realm.

We want you to see yourself as these four elements. On the following chart create a Medicine Wheel. Identify each element quadrant, its direction and power.

Ask yourself, in the physical realm, how are you doing? Do you exercise regularly? Do you eat foods that are good for you? Do you see a doctor on a regular basis? How else might you take care of your physical self? List the things you do that keep this quadrant in balance and the things you feel you should do to maintain the balance of the whole Medicine Wheel. The physical realm can be seen as exercise, nutrition, and stress management.

How is your mental realm? Do you read regularly to keep your mind active? Do you play mental sharpening games like crossword puzzles or sudoku? Do you have a hobby that challenges you to study or keep records of progress? What might you do to keep your mental faculties sharp and active? Consider reading, visualizing, planning, and writing when looking at this quadrant.

The spiritual quadrant is challenging to discuss because it exists in a deep part of yourself that sometimes is hard to explain or recognize. Do you pray or meditate? Do you know and understand the values that drive your life and the lives of your family and community? What can you add to your life that might help you develop sspiritual strength?

How do you feel you are doing in the emotional quadrant? Do you feel you share your emotions with others in a healthy way that respects yourself and others? Do you feel you  can understand and appreciate emotions shared by others in your life? What emotions do you have trouble sharing or expressing? If you were raised in an alcoholic home, as a child you might have learned different ways of either sharing or hiding emotions. Alcoholic parents might demand that children keep their emotions to themselves. The parents don’t want to know if the child is frightened or sad or angry or confused. They want to child to be quiet and express a narrow band of non-challenging emotions.

Look at your chart as a way of assessing how your life is balanced and perhaps where you might need to spend special attention in maintaining or developing your own life balance. Sometimes if this activity draws out confusion or difficult issues, one might need to turn to a mental health specialist or counselor.

Again we stress that this exercise is done only to draw on the most basic aspects of the Medicine Wheel and is not a comprehensive examination of this powerful philosophy. To learn more about this concept you might want to ask a respected spiritual teacher from one of the Plains tribes or read books that teach how to utilize the teachings.