The Medicine Wheel in Core Shamanism Explained by Jan Engels-Smith
The Medicine Wheel is a universal model for depicting life in order to better understand it. We find it from ancient times in various forms in indigenous cultures all over the world. Being cross cultural qualifies it as a core shamanic concept. In its main form it is a directional circle divided into quadrants, each with its own particular attributes. Some versions have more than four parts. Each nation, culture or tribe has its own particular depiction. Even within cultures, different teachings provide differing versions. In fact, the Medicine Wheel is open to interpretation, and you can develop your own by working with it as a sacred tool to understand and describe your own philosophy. This article describes my personal relationship with the Medicine Wheel, developed in communication with my guides and the spirits, over decades of experience. It is not meant to represent any particular cultural or historical version. I share my unique personal version with you here because it has served me well and aided me greatly in my spiritual development.
There is a striking difference in the way that indigenous cultures viewed life, compared to the modern Western world view. They saw it as a cyclical progression of events, hence best depicted by a circular representation. The modern Western viewpoint sees life as linear, characterized by starts and stops. The right brain finds it easier to imagine eternity and infinity, whereas for the left brain, life is finite and limited. When one sees reality in the circular pattern, then one can understand our progress as the never-ending passage of a point around a circle of infinity.
Each quadrant of the Medicine Wheel is associated with qualities including Direction, Season, time of day, color, element, animal, bird or other creature; and other attributes, such as rebirth, bounty, harvest, wisdom, and so on. Together, these constitute a coherent portrait of the whole quadrant, giving us guidelines to work with for where we are in various aspects of our life.
The reason we work with the Medicine Wheel is so as to develop a lens to understand our life, to make progress within it, and to make peace with ourselves for the stages we find ourselves experiencing, in different areas of our life. Besides the four directions of East, South, West and North, we also honor the directions of Above, Below and Within. After I describe the attributes of these seven directions, I will explain the purpose of the wheel, and how to apply it to your life. Remember, there are as many versions of the Medicine Wheel as there are cultures and teachers. There is no wrong or right. In working with it, you can explore and develop your own attributes for the quadrants. What follows are mine.
Let us begin with the East, as this is where the sun rises. With each sunrise we are blessed with a rebirth of hope and faith in new possibilities and infinite potential.
Season: Spring — a new beginning, first signs of new life after winter
Color: Yellow — the color of the sun
Animal: Eagle — vision, perspective, seeing the big picture
Element: Air — mental clarity, new ideas and inspiration
Moving clockwise, we find ourselves in the South. Here the Sun is in the noontime position in the sky, representing the midpoint of our activities. We see the height of the results of our endeavors.
Season: Summer — the full bloom of trees and flowers in the garden, and of the fruits of our labor
Color: Red — beauty, bounty
Animal: Horse — the freedom and vitality of the wild mustang
Element: Fire — passion, transmutation, transformation
Continuing on our journey, we arrive in the West. Here it is evening time, when the native peoples gathered together to tell stories. These oral traditions held the culture together, with the elders sharing knowledge of what worked and didn’t work, and the wisdom of their experience, with successive generations.
Season: Fall — gathering together, resting after harvest
Color: Black — the darkness inside caves, dreaming
Animal: Bear — introspection, birthing wisdom
Element: Water — emotion, reflection
Now we reach the North. Here, during the night, we die to the old ways that no longer serve us. North is our opportunity to let go of patterns that do not work, so that we can be reborn in the Spring without the burdens of past failures. To do this, we need to bring those patterns into our conscious awareness, to thank them for their lessons, and to consciously get rid of them. This is a season to let go of any behaviors or connections that do not bring us joy.
Season: Winter — quiet, silence, dying to our old self
Color: White — snow, wise elders, ancestors (white hair)
Animal: Buffalo — wisdom, steadfast prayer, and meditation
Element: Spirit — love and healing
ABOVE, BELOW, WITHIN
These directions do not have as many defined attributes as the four cardinal directions.
Above is blue, and it includes all those we call the Sky People, such as the moon, the sun, stars, and the clouds.
Below is green, encompassing the Earth and all earthly beings such as the standing ones (trees), the finned ones, the winged ones, and the stone nation.
Within is purple, sacred space; representing our connection heart to heart, and our connection to the Divine
And so we come to the end of our description of the main attributes of the seven directions. With this explanation, we have described everything that is. The Medicine Wheel represents the birth, life and death process. All experiences in your life fall somewhere on this wheel. You, as a complex living being, have different phases and aspects, and these are at different points on the wheel. For example, chronologically you may be in one position on the Wheel, but professionally or metaphysically, you may be at other positions. By paying heartfelt attention to the seasons and your own natural rhythms, you can gradually come into greater harmony and balance. We move around the Wheel, enter and exit its phases, and go full circle. The Wheel is a dynamic representation of all life and can facilitate our interactive relationship with our own life. As we become more aware of our inner life, our needs, and our strengths, that in turn influences our progress towards restoring balance in our inner and outer life.
In Western culture, there is a tendency to emphasize the East and the South as positive directions. The culture rewards us in times of action and productivity. Outward oriented people find themselves in the majority. The directions of the West and the North, those necessary times of reflection, incubation, and letting go, are labeled with negative attributes, considered anti-social, or seen as depression. Typically as a culture, people tend to burn out, getting sick or injured before admitting to a need to rest and recharge. Refusing to rest or reflect, we are forced into those states by accidents or crises. It would be so much better to live life in a balanced way, listening to the cues sent to us by our bodies, our dreams, and our life, and taking our rest times when we naturally need them, rather than when trouble forces us to take a break. The goal is to experience balance by going around the wheel with the rhythms of nature, participating in all the attributes in turn. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you live your life according to the actual seasons. It does mean that by paying attention to your feelings and by listening to subtle cues from your body, your relationships, and work, you become gradually more aligned with the universe and with your higher wellbeing.
The Medicine Wheel is a gift to us from our wise ancestors who were in harmony with the rhythms of the earth. They recognized that there was a time for everything. They observed that the Earth had natural seasons, and that all things experience cycles, for example the Moon. Nothing that exists can be active all the time, but benefits from rest. By regularly experiencing periods of reflection, we recharge. Energized by these rest periods, the change and rebirth that follow are occasions for celebration. We become conscious participants in all phases of our life.