Native Americans have an approach to health and wellness that stems from the belief that illness is related to more than the body. We believe that sickness is related to imbalance. Imbalance is not limited to the physical body but rather it is an extension of all the bodies – physical, spiritual, mental and emotional. In this article, I will introduce you to the Medicine Wheel and share with you my understanding of this as it relates to our health and well being. We will then go into depth on each of the bodies and you will learn to use and apply the Medicine Wheel in your life to create harmony and balance.
The Medicine Wheel is both a tool and a guide that was given to us by the Creator and used by Indian people for many things, including healing and wellness. In general terms, illness is the physical manifestation of spiritual, mental and/or emotional imbalance. It has been known for some time that stress and anxiety are linked to health. Our happiness and attitudes are an important part of healing when we do get sick. In the Great Wheel, everything is connected; all things are related. The approach to wellness is more holistic – one that looks at a larger picture for possible causes and solutions.
The physical, spiritual, mental and emotional bodies are represented in the four quadrants of the equilateral cross found in the center of a circle. This cross and circle are the symbols for the Medicine Wheel. The circle and/or glyph is symbolic of many things, in fact ALL things. The circle is perfection, balance, life, the Universe, infinite potential; the glyph is neither plus nor minus. All things are in and a part of this circle.
As a tool and a guide we can think of the Medicine Wheel like a map. Like a conventional map, there are reference points that serve as navigational landmarks or may be symbolic starting points that we know as the four cardinal directions – east, west, north and south. (There are actually six directions in the Wheel because there is also “above” and “below” sometimes referred to by Indian people as the “above world” and the “below world”, or Father Sky and Mother Earth.) Each of the four bodies corresponds with the four directions.
The east corresponds with the physical, the south with emotional, the west with the spiritual and the north with the mental. An easy way to remember the way the four bodies relate to the four directions is to think of the Medicine Wheel like a human body. The head or mind (mental) is in the North just as north is always “up” on a conventional map. The heart (emotional) is in the south just as the heart is lower in the human body. To remember the east (physical) and the west (spiritual), just remember that we depend on the sun for our literal physical existence. We need its light, its warmth and its energy to physically survive. Just as the sun rises in the east to provide for our physical needs and then turns into twilight as it slips into the west, so, too, can you think and be reminded of the spiritual connection to the west. You may have heard reference to the “twilight years” or maybe you have heard the term “the sun setting on your life”. Indians believe that when the spirit leaves the body that it goes into the west. The spirit returns to the spiritual realm.
All things are related and all things work together. Such is our health – physical, spiritual, mental and emotional. When you work with this knowledge and place your footsteps in harmony with this ancient wisdom, you will find power!
Our focus will be on the four bodies and their interconnectedness to health. We will also discuss the two other directions – above and below. These represent the social and occupational aspects of our well-being.
THE EAST – The Physical
The sun is a life-giving source that is central to all life on the earth. The importance given to the sun by Indian people is marked by the reverence they show it. The sun is our father in the same way that the earth is our mother. Like a father, the sun provides for us and gives us heat and light – and works with mother to provide food for us. Just as the sun rises in the east signaling the beginning of a new day, of new life, or of a new cycle – so, too, do we put “new beginnings” in the east on the Medicine Wheel. When a child is born, he enters the first of four phases in the growth cycle: infant, child, adult and elder. Because this new life is a beginning, the earthly journey has its start in the east.
First, there is the need to feed and nourish the body so that it has everything it needs to perform at its optimum capacity. Diet and nutrition are an important element. We want to put good things into our bodies while protecting it from the things that can harm it. Our body does a good job of filtering and voiding itself of toxins but when we consume quantities of toxin-like substances, such as those found in drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, the body has to fight hard to restore and maintain balance. Abuse of any of these things generally signals that something is unbalanced in one or more of the other bodies – spiritual, mental and emotional – all of which makes us more susceptible to illness.
In addition to diet and nutrition and the avoidance of toxins, the body need exercise. Exercise should come in two forms – strength or resistance training (weight lifting) and cardiovascular exercise (such as bike riding, swimming, stair climbing or walking). Anything that is aerobic works to elevate the heart rate. With exercise, the body’s immune system is strengthened and its ability to use and assimilate nutrients is enhanced. The body needs blood and oxygen and exercise increases the flow of both.
As with everything balance is the key. The body needs rest in the same way that it needs exercise. Each person is different in their need for sleep just as they are in their need for exercise. Rest is a necessary component to a healthy regime. A balanced portion of each day should be dedicated to proper exercise, good nutrition and rest to keep the physical body in balance and functioning at its optimum level.
THE SOUTH – The Emotional
As the sun travels in a clockwise direction around the earth, so we will honor this by traveling in the same direction around the Medicine Wheel. With that, we enter the south and the emotional body. Our emotional body has both an inner and an outer aspect to it. Emotional health is the awareness of not only our own feelings, but also how we connect to others.
First we must understand and manage our own feelings and sense of well-being. When a person is in a state of balance, there is a general feeling of positivity and even enthusiasm about life. The difference between life and living is the difference between existence and thriving.
There are only a few emotions but a wide variety of feelings that stem from them. Fear, anger, happiness, sadness/grief and love are the base emotions. Emotional maturity comes as we learn to effectively manage and cope with these emotions, as well as related ancillary feelings. In the same way that we must find and dedicate time each day to building and maintaining the physical body, so too must we make time for the care and growth of our emotional body. The daily practice of meditation is a benefit. Take time out of each day to find things that you are happy about and thankful for. Send that gratitude in the form of prayer as it will help you become more aware. Awareness is crucial to growth and development in our emotional health. Focusing on and making time for the positive relationships in our lives is also necessary. When our relationships are stable and healthy, they add to our state of well-being. We can exist without other people, but we can’t thrive. To put it simply, we were created a herd animal and as such, we are meant to work together for the good of the herd. Our relationships are the outward aspect of our emotional body, just as self-awareness is the inner.
You may have noticed that there are different kinds of emotions. I am reluctant to use the terms “positive” and “negative” when speaking of emotions since there can be learning and growth from pain… ultimately making it a positive event in our lives. Fear is a great teacher especially when we work to control and evolve from it. Feelings are clues that we need so we can make adjustments in our lives. When we feel good, we go for more of the same. When we feel bad, we make corrections to feel better. All of this needs to be tempered with good judgment and balance. There are many things that can make us feel good that, in excess, can be negative. Some emotions make us feel good and some make us feel bad, but all are necessary to our emotional state of mind and our learning.
THE WEST – The Spiritual
Why are we here? What is our reason for being? Are we part of something greater than ourselves? What is this greater thing? These are some of the questions asked (and sometimes ignored) by people. We largely accept the need for food, clothing and shelter (our physical needs) and recognize that we feel and are sentient beings (emotional), and that we possess the power of thought (mental) but spirituality is the one thing that people can somehow deny. For those who do recognize and accept that we are spiritual creatures, they also know that there is a need to feed and nourish the spirit just as we need to care for our physical, emotional and mental bodies.
One of the ways we do this is through prayer and meditation. Every thought that comes from our mind and every word that comes from our mouth is a prayer. When we think, we send though energy out into the world and universe. This is why we should be careful with our thoughts. Whether we know it or not, our thoughts are intentions that go out from us even if we are not conscious of it. Our words bring into the physical realm that which we think. Awareness that our thoughts and our words are forms of prayer should have you asking “to what, and for what, do I pray?”
Our spirit is our essence – what we are at our core. To be spiritual is to raise our essence to the highest level possible. We do this through our thoughts, words and deed AND constant awareness! Feed the body, mind and heart good things and you nourish the spirit. Seek understanding and truth and dedicate a portion of each day to prayer and meditation and your spirit will be strong. Another thing that is important to the spirit is the attitude of gratitude. Our thanks is the one thing that we can give to the Creator that isn’t already His. Whatever it is that you are thankful for when you dwell upon it in your mind, we give back to a generous universe from the heart. The spirit is nourished through this.
THE NORTH – The Mental
We have the capacity for endless learning. The brain continues to grow throughout our lives but like our body, heart and spirit, we must feed it good things.
The mental aspect of our being is important because the thought is the start of what we work to create. Change your thinking and you change your beliefs. Change your beliefs and you change your actions. Change your actions and you change your character. Change your character and you change your destiny. It all begins with the thought. This is our opportunity to create, through our intention, the life that we want for ourselves. When you focus on the positive things in life, positive is the outcome. To become aware of thoughts that might need adjustment or change, meditation is central.
In addition to meditation, we want to stimulate and challenge the brain and dedicate a portion of each day to intellectual pursuits and growth. Puzzles, learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, anything that causes the brain to work can be germane to growth.
I can’t stress enough the power of being positive and keeping your focus on the good in life. The term “we reap what we sow” is true. When you send good things out to the universe, you get good things back. The seeds that you sow today are the garden from which you will eat tomorrow.
MOTHER – The Social
I hesitate to assign a direction to this aspect because of the negative connotation association with “down” so I use “Mother” because Mother energy flows upward with Father energy spirals downward. To remember this you can think of “Mother Earth” and “Father Sun”. Together they form a twin helix that spirals through all things. In people this energy travels through the natural channel in our spine.
We should care for our social/communal environment like a mother who cares for her child. In Native culture, there is a strong sense of community because we recognize that “It takes a village”. All that we are as individuals affects the whole, which affects us in return. We need to care about the whole just as we care about the self and all of the dimensions that make up that being. We rely on others for many things. We rely on the creatures and other beings on this earth for our very survival. We are a herd animal and, as such, we were meant to know our place in the great circle of life. We are meant to know how we relate to all others – and how they relate to us. Each person contributes either positively or negatively to his or her environment and community so it is in everyone’s’ best interest to strive for a healthy relationship with the world and all of the creatures in it.
Relating this to the four stages of the growth cycle, when a baby is born everything is done for the baby. He is clothed, fed, cleaned and tended to by someone else. In a sense, the world (at least as the baby knows it), revolves around him. As he grows and his awareness increases, he sees a bigger world and it is a natural inclination to try and master that world so he becomes more independent – going further and doing more for himself. Eventually in his learning, he discovers that the world becomes less about him and more about the whole. If his learning is in balance, he knows the importance of serving the whole because he knows that serving the whole is, in essence, serving the self.
A portion of our living should be dedicated to community service on some level. At the root of this is learning to live in harmony with our environment and the community – receiving from them and giving to them.
FATHER – The Occupational
Occupational is more than what we do to earn a living. It is how we “work” to enrich our lives and how we contribute to the whole of society. It rises above simply performing a task to doing so with a positive attitude.
In our occupation, we can acquire new skills, discover new ideas, all of which can feed our physical, spiritual, emotional and mental bodies. Understanding how work contributes to our own life, our families, our community and our world can elevate a task-oriented position to something more meaningful and fulfilling.
A key to finding this fulfillment is finding something that you like to do… finding something that is in line with your values, morals and beliefs. Barring that, it is about having the right attitude, working with your heart, and finding joy in the achievement and the doing because you know what you do is important on so many levels. Do it like you mean it!
Energy is all around us. We are created from energy. There are many different forms of energy: heat, light, male, female, positive, negative and so on. There is also a Universal Energy – a divine energy – that when we tap into it and align ourselves with its flow, is life changing.
To align ourselves with this flow we must bring all of the bodies mentioned above into harmony. When all of the bodies are in harmony and balance, it is like all of the planets aligning for us and our good.
Energy is about vibration and vibrational levels. If we are to resonate with those things on a higher vibrational level, we must first raise our own. We enter this higher stream by making better choices that affect all levels and all bodies. These choices come from positive thoughts and actions. Our quest for good health and well-being has, at its heart, the quest for a good life. Being well is living well.
In the traditional way, I place this information at your feet. If you should find something good in it, pick it up and walk with it because it now belongs to you. We do this with gifts of this nature because we understand that each person has their own free will. With that free will comes a responsibility for this gift of life that is ours. Each person must take the initiative and be an active participant to his or her well-being. The symbolic “laying at your feet” shows that you have to take it upon yourself to pick up and use this information. Like any other medication, this only work if you take it.
My prayer is that each person will find balance through this awareness which will then spread into the whole of our world and mend the Sacred Hoop of Life that has been broken for too long.
Ralph P. Brown (also known as Tawennihake) is a Mohawk Indian of the Akwesasne tribe. He currently resides in Nebraska, creating his art and delivering his message from Earth Lodge Studios. Copyright 2008.