One of the central teachings of the medicine wheel is that human beings experience life in four distinct but connected modes. Those modes are feeling/emotional (east); thinking/mental (south); spiritual (west); and body/physical (north). Each of these directions symbolically holds a pattern of life experience and offers teachings that facilitate the healthy development of the whole individual. Thus, the medicine wheel is at the heart of a philosophy called “Whole Health Recovery”, which embraces the concept of the human being as an integrated whole, in which each experiential mode affects the whole self.
Let’s take a closer look at the experiential modes in the context of the wheel:
The East, the direction that encompasses our feelings, contains a broad range of emotional states, from happiness and excitement to anger or apathy. This direction also contains our attitudes and biases, our relationships with others and our sense of self-esteem and capacity to esteem others. As the east is connected symbolically with the first light of day, springtime and birth, all symbols of new beginnings, we may find hope, unconditional love, and warmth of spirit there as well.
The South encompasses our capacity for thinking and intellectual/mental pursuits. Here, we find learning, creativity and all-important imagination. Education, both in the traditional academic sense and in the sense of life experiences finds it place in the south of the wheel as well. Most hobbies find their origin in curiosity and a desire to learn something new. Moreover, the south allows us a rational detachment from potentially destructive emotional states such as rage and terror.
The West is the domain of spirituality, here described as the personal experience of connection to the greater world and universe. It is important to state that spirituality does not necessarily mean religion, though the two concepts may share many of the same practices and experiences. There are, however, many people who describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ but who do not identify as members of an organized religion. It is the experience of spiritual connection that is a human need. This connection may be pursued through traditional practices of praying, fasting and meditating or through art, music, dance and other experiential contemplation. A healthy spiritual life brings a sense of meaning to our lives and informs our morality, fostering a deep respect for life.
The North is the direction of the physical body, and includes our physical health and how we feel about our bodies. It is here that we must address any health concerns that may be arising from our lifestyle. We may need to make changes to improve our fitness, such as adopting an exercise and diet regimen, or addressing target behaviors such as quitting recreational use of drugs or alcohol. As we have seen, the relationship between the physical body and the other directions on the medicine wheel is profound. Our body-image may impact our emotional state and in turn inform may affect our decisions and our behaviors.
If a person becomes ill in one direction, physically for example, they experience that illness across every experiential mode. We have all experienced this phenomenon: we get the flu and our attitude crashes so that we just want to be left alone or we are moody. Our thought processes suffer because we are entangled in the web of our symptoms, possibly in pain, and our thoughts are consumed by our illness. Our sense of spiritual connectivity suffers as well. It’s difficult to feel connected to the greater community of living beings when we feel physically disconnected from life itself. To put is simply, “A flat wheel won’t roll.” In becoming ill in one direction, we have become ill in every direction. The same is true of any kind of illness. If we experience the pain of a relationship ending, especially if it ends badly, we may feel physically ill or may not be able to eat. Our thoughts might be consumed by the former relationship and the emotional pain we are experiencing. We pray, but our prayers are filled with heartfelt petitions that we might find some happiness. These are common examples that we have all experienced, probably several times in our lives.
Since the medicine wheel is used in mental health recovery, the relationship between feelings and thoughts deserves a closer look. Current behavioral therapies reveal an amazing interaction between our thoughts and feelings. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT demonstrates a model of behavior causality in which our irrational thoughts are negatively empowered by our feelings until we ultimately react with a negative behavior that leads to a negative consequence:
An event, something beyond your control, happens to you. For example, you’re passed up for a promotion at work. You immediately experience negative automatic thoughts resulting from this event. You may think, “The boss doesn’t like me.” Unless you have heard your boss say that they don’t like you, or you have some other evidence to support this conclusion, then this thought is a cognitive distortion, an irrational thought with no solid basis in reality. Nevertheless, you experience emotions as a reaction to the cognitive distortion. In this case, you might feel angry. After all, you’re a good person and you work hard. Why wouldn’t the boss like you? Your anger feeds into the cognitive distortion and empowers it so that it becomes something much more powerful: a belief. Now you “know” that your boss doesn’t like you, and moreover, you know that this is the reason you didn’t get promoted. In turn, this belief makes you angrier. You become trapped in the feedback loop that continually escalates feelings so that your anger burns into rage, which reaches a tipping point that ultimately results in a negative behavior. You might tell off your boss and quit your job. There may have been any number of rational reasons why you didn’t get the promotion, including lower seniority, educational credentials, etc., but acting on a cognitive distortion results in unemployment and suffering the negative consequences of lost income and lost benefits. Though this is a dramatic example, everyone experiences this cycle to some degree and it does have the power to destroy lives. CBT teaches that we must break this cycle by carefully examining our thoughts to determine if they are irrational cognitive distortions or if they are evidenced based. This process is called ‘reality testing’.
Another behavioral therapy, DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, describes a balanced mental state called ‘Wise Mind’, in which our behaviors are informed both by our feelings and by rational thought, which balance each other. The invoking of ‘Wise Mind’ through DBT practices, which are based on Eastern Buddhist spirituality, allows for clarity of thought and the ability to restructure our cognitive distortions so that our behaviors are based on realistic perceptions. The ‘Wise Mind’ is illustrated below:
To use the medicine wheel as a tool for recovery, we might look at each direction individually, first to obtain an honest appraisal of our current state and then to determine any areas that we need to work on to improve our health. We may look at the east and discover that our relationships suffer because we are very often angry. It follows then that we must work on anger management to bring ourselves into balance and to improve the quality of our relationships. There is no need to judge ourselves. There are no winners or losers here, only healthy or unhealthy. We are not terrible people if we find that we are not perfect. We just have to work to do so that we may improve our whole health. After we have gone through the wheel and identified those areas in which we need to work on ourselves, we should then pick one thing from each area to work on. If we try to “fix” everything all at once, no matter how good our intentions may be, we will become frustrated and fail to change anything. One thing from each direction is enough. Then another and another, and so on until we have recovered our health. The goal is harmony and balance within our self and with the greater world and universe.