As diverse as these stories were, they shared a common core: the model of growth that they hung their narrative on was linear.
In all cases, an unlikely hero became aware that they had some Greater Destiny. In order to fulfill this destiny, the hero had to overcome a set of challenges that brought them face to face with their ‘shadow,’ a darkness that lurked within and was made manifest in external enemies. Darth Vader. The Goblin King. The Stay Puff Marshmallow Man. Their own resistance to romantic entanglement.
By the end of the movie, the hero had emerged victorious, a stronger version of themselves. And they lived happily ever after.
With this ‘Hero’s Journey’ hardwired into my brain, I naturally assumed that my own process of personal growth would mirror that which I had consumed throughout my childhood and adolescence. After all, what is the purpose of story if not to prepare us for the challenges of life?
Imagine my confusion and pain when I found myself confronting the same challenges over and over again. No sooner than I would emerge victorious from a battle with, for example, low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness, than the same foe would pop up again, perhaps in a different form. Clearly I was doing something wrong. My inability to vanquish my enemies pointed to some intrinsic deficiency in my approach. Perhaps even in my soul.
The new narrative framework crystalized for me last year during a weeklong workshop revolving around Medicine Wheel Teachings.
The Medicine Wheel appears in cultures all over the world in a myriad of forms. In the United States, we are most familiar with it as part of Native American culture. The people who lead the workshop I participated in confronted the spectre of cultural appropriation right off the bat, tracing the lineage of the teachings they shared from their roots through to the elder who shared the teachings with them and gave them permission to pass them on.
We focused on the Wheel as a way of understanding processes of change and transformation. In concrete terms, the Medicine Wheel consists of a circle anchored by the four cardinal directions and, in the center, the Earth below, the Sky above, and the Heart within.
Each direction corresponds to a different color, emotion, time of life, and animal. Entire books could be, and have been, written about the intricacies of Medicine Wheel teachings. If you’re interested in diving more deeply into Medicine Wheel teachings, I recommend Compass of the Heart by Loren Cruden and Seven Arrows by Hyemeyohsts Storm.
For our purposes, here is an overview of the version that we worked with during the workshop to lay the foundation for the framework I’ll be introducing shortly:
The South is the direction of Summer and Childhood. It is characterized by strong emotions, an earthy sensuality, innocence, play, and an emphasis on basic physical survival. The color associated with the South is Red, the animal is the Mouse. When someone is caught in a whirlwind of emotions or experiencing a ‘fight or flight’ response, they may be ‘stuck’ in the South part of the Medicine Wheel.
The West is the direction of Fall and Adolescence. It is characterized by introspection, fear, self-doubt, and ‘shadow’ elements. The color associated with the West is Black, the animals are Bear and Rattlesnake. When someone, or a community, is caught in a sense of self-reflective despair or a pattern of avoiding parts of themselves that they do not wish to acknowledge, they may be ‘stuck’ in the West.
The North is the direction of Winter and awakened Adulthood. It is characterized by doing work in the world that is aligned with a sense of purpose and service. The color associated with the North is White, the animal is the Buffalo. While the North is the direction of integrated action, it also has a shadow side. Workaholism, an overly rigid mindset, or worked focused on function over purpose may indicate that someone is stuck in the North.
The East is the direction of Spring and both Elderhood and Infancy. Is the direction of both endings and beginnings characterized by illumination, intuition, connection with Spirit, transformation, rebirth, and creativity. The color associated with the East is yellow, the animals are the Eagle and Hawk. People or groups that indulge in ‘magical thinking’ and stay resolutely in the ‘light’ may be ‘suck’ in the East.
The Medicine Wheel and the directions are powerful tools for reframing growth and as a cycle and connecting the personal journey with the cycles of nature.
During the workshop, we did exercises designed to explore each direction. For the North, our task was to incorporate elements found in the desert landscape to create a picture of our Work in the world, almost like a coat of arms for our deeper purpose.
We were to find a spot in the desert and take two hours to complete the task.
The moment that I heard the assignment, a clear image appeared in my head. Not just in my head. It resonated through my body, vibrating at a soul level. The image that came to me is on the left. What I built is on the right:
The spiral implies that growth occurs in a non-linear trajectory. While we may encounter the same challenges time and time again, our relationship to those challenges and the context around them changes with each iteration. For example:
In sixth grade, my best friend (who I also happened to have a huge crush on) padded up to me in the library and whispered into my ear that she hated me and never wanted to speak to me again. My entire body lit up with shame and self-loathing. If someone who I had trusted and, yes, loved had this reaction to me, then I must be a monster unworthy of affection or respect.
The ‘shadow’ in this case was a deep feeling of unworthiness triggered by a capricious rejection at the hands of a pre-adolescent girl.
Three decades later, that shadow extended over me again, this time at a New Years Eve firewalk in the mountains of New Mexico. Just before scampering over red hot coals, we were to shout out a word that held our intention for the year ahead. The rest of the group, 28 people lined up on either side of a 30 foot long bed of coals, would then hold their arms up and chant that word as we ran down the coals, literally burning the intention into our souls.
When my turn came, I called out my word: ‘LOVE.’
In unison, the group started chanting ‘love, love, love’ over and over.
I ran down the coals.
When I reached the end, I did not feel exhilarated or loved. I felt unworthy. Something about running through a tunnel of love over fire had triggered, or enflamed, deep feelings of inadequacy. How could I be worthy of such an honor? Who was I to deserve love? I was a fraud who should be exiled.
These were the same feelings that I had experienced at the age of 12. Then, they had driven me to hide under the bleachers for three months, licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself. Now, though the ‘foe’ was the same, I was different. I had new tools and a wealth of experience to draw on.
At the firewalk, I staggered to the bathroom under the weight of my self loathing, and crashed to the floor sobbing for about 10 minutes. Then I emerged and began writing, working through the sensations moving in my body. I breathed deeply. I accepted a hug. Two hours later, still shaken, I was able to rejoin the group and sing, or at least lip synch, to ring in the new year.
Since then, the shadow has appeared a few more times. Each time the feeling has been more or less the same. But my relationship to that feeling, and the tools I have to navigate it, has evolved.
In the old schema, the ‘Hero’s Journey’ linear depiction of growth, the recurrence of the same challenge could be seen as a ‘downfall’ or even backsliding. The spiral model renders ‘backsliding’ impossible: we are always moving forward and challenges may recur when we reach the same point at a different ‘ring’ of the spiral.
All of this begs the question: if we are growing in a ‘spiral,’ what are we moving towards? What lies at the center?
This is where the second element of the model, the cardinal directions, comes in.
On its own, the ‘spiral’ floats in the ether; each person or situation moving in isolation, not grounded in a greater picture or cosmology. Layering the directions of the Medicine Wheel on top of the spiral provides grounding and a greater sense of ‘location’ within the journey.
No matter where we are in the spiral, we can pause, breathe, and locate our position both within the spiral and in relationship to the four directions.
Returning to the example above:
Examining the feelings of unworthiness, I realize that they grow out of a deep fear that I am somehow not ‘enough,’ a fear that if people really saw me, they would turn away in disgust or, even worse, indifference.
This fear lives in the West the Medicine Wheel. It is a part of moving from the innocent, primal instincts of childhood in the South to the embodied, purposeful action of adulthood in the North. If I were to plot my confrontations with this fear experienced at 12 and 36 on the Medicine Spiral, it might look like this:
Visualizing the story this way helps in a couple of ways:
First, it allows me to see that grappling with my old friend is part of an iterative process, a journey towards aligned action and work in the world (the North) and connection with Spirit (the East) that repeats throughout life.
Second, it reminds me that with each iteration, the movement is towards center.
Center, in this structure, represents the perfect balance between all four directions. It is the place where Earth, Sky, and Heart all align perfectly. While we may stumble into a feeling approximating ‘Center’ from time to time through meditation or other practices, most of us truly reach center only in the moments of Birth and Death.
Earlier, I mentioned that this model works just as well as for social or communal change as it does for the growth of the individual. Let’s briefly look at the recent resurgence of nationalism and white supremacy, both in the United States and around the world. There is nothing new about these movements. They flare up when a group that perceives itself as being in power experiences fear that their dominance is threatened.
Instead of thinking of these flare ups as ‘cyclical,’ what happens if we think of them as iterations along the medicine spiral?
The spiral image, in contrast, presents the opportunity for learning and change. With each iteration, the fear driving those who participate in nationalist movements remains the same but the circumstances around that fear have changed. Today, for example, the internet has made immediate communication through social media possible, allowing voices that have been suppressed during previous iterations to be heard.
Furthermore, the cardinal directions allow us to reframe the current sociopolitical climate. Instead of repeating history, or even taking a step backwards, we are moving through a collective ‘West’ moment, defined by fear, introspection, and sometimes pain. All of which are necessary to move through as we travel towards a more aligned way of Being in the world.
As we each move through our individual journeys within a larger human journey that takes place within an all encompassing universal journey, a mindboggling image of spirals within wheels within spirals within wheels, all interlocking and impacting each other emerges.
All of which is kind of cool to think about. But how is it useful?
Our brains interpret our experience of the world by placing it within a narrative framework. When that framework is linear, or even cyclical, it can lead to feelings of defeat, frustration, and depression when we feel that we are stuck or backsliding. When confronted with a challenge we have seen before and supposedly overcome, we may interpret it as a failure or loss.
The medicine spiral provides a narrative framework that holds space for connection, ongoing growth, and repeated confrontations with blocks and challenges throughout life. It renders the idea of being ‘stuck’ or ‘failing’ meaningless. We are always moving forwards, pulled towards center by the gravity of our lives.
In my experience, it makes life feel much more like an adventure than a series tasks or challenges be successfully completed.
Here are some ways you can play with the medicine spiral:
- Pick a place in your life where you feel challenged or ‘stuck.’ Plot it on the medicine spiral. What direction is it associated with? Where have you experienced this challenge before? What has changed between then and now? Where is the opportunity to move differently with this iteration?
- Pick one direction and notice what parts of your life, past or present, resonate with it. For example, what parts of your life live primarily in the South? Where are you most playful, physical, or embodied?
- Where do you see the medicine spiral mirrored in nature? What natural cycles and iterations can you observe each day?
- See how the medicine spiral construct maps to an organization or company you work or are involved with. How might it help navigate a process of organizational growth or change?