I would do all of this work, sometimes going to extremes to delve into the vulnerable, raw parts of my own soul, have an epiphany or release, feel light as a feather for a time, and then. . .the same challenge would arise, sometimes in a different form. It drove me crazy: I had worked so hard only to have the slain dragon revive, zombie-like, to plague me again.
The frustration grew from the stories I’d grown up with that, at least in part, created the lens through which I saw the world. Stories like Star Wars, Any John Hughes Movie, The Goonies. Stories in which a plucky hero overcame overwhelming odds to defeat the dark side. Or get the girl. Or the treasure. Whatever.
After finishing their quest, the hero rode off into the sunset never to deal with those demons again. It was clean, linear, simple. It was the Hero’s Journey.
Eventually the frustration would turn into a mild sense of despair. I’d never win.
Enter The Medicine Wheel.
The Medicine Wheel is a construct that appears in Native American, African and other cultures. It’s a framework for growth and contextualizing both personal and community work.
Before I get into it, a disclaimer: I am not Native American or African. I’m an upper middle class white guy from the East Coast. I’m not an expert on the Medicine Wheel and the version I’ll introduce is one that I’ve worked with. There are myriad others. If you’re interested in exploring it more deeply, there’s a fantastic book called ‘Compass of the Heart’ by Loren Cruden that I highly recommend.
The medicine wheel itself is both a mental and physical construct. To build one in the real world, you can create a ring of stones with markers delineating the four cardinal directions. It looks like this:
- South: Childhood, innocence, physicality, water, red
- West: Adolescence, fear, insecurity, introspection, ‘soul’, earth, black
- North: Adulthood, responsibility, wisdom, work in the world, air, white
- East: Illumination, enlightenment, spirit, fire, yellow
- Center: Learning, self, balance, harmony
As a framework for growth, the medicine wheel creates much more space for nuance, complexity, and cyclicality than the Hero’s Journey. In the latter, we think of challenges as obstacles to be overcome, monsters to slay. For example:
‘I must conquer my fear of public speaking. Once vanquished, I can go on to glory!’
The medicine wheel invites a deeper consideration. What does the fear of public speaking represent? What quadrant does it live in? How can we work with the fear to move it from, for example, the West to the North, translating it from fear into action in the world?
The wheel also allows for the repeated consideration of recurring challenges. Fear of being seen may come up again and again; it’s all part of a circular process of growth. And while the challenge may look the same, we are in a different place. We bring new tools and new perspectives to the challenge and moving through it each time brings us closer to the center, to balance.
There is no one way to work with the medicine wheel. You can work on one direction at a time, diving deeply into a single element or period of life. You can choose one challenge and work on moving it around the wheel. Or you can work the traverses, moving from ‘soul’ to ‘spirit’ or ‘child to adult.’
The wheel also allows for expansion beyond the individual. Unlike the Hero’s Journey, which is inherently individualistic, the medicine wheel invites connection within community as well as with natural world, each direction corresponding with a season, element or animals.
For me, the greatest benefit of the wheel lies in its circularity. As the wheel spins, of course the same challenges will come up. There is no dragon to be slain. Instead, there are directions and journeys to explore as we spiral towards center.
There is much more information about the medicine wheel here. Take a look and let me know what you think!