A Map for the Journey

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein

Sedona Wheel

The circle is a sacred symbol in many indigenous and later traditions around the earth. Gnostic traditions linked the unbroken circle to the “world serpent” forming a circle as it eats its own tail.

Most earth-centered or pagan cultures worshipped the serpent. It represents rebirth (because of its molting), protection against evil, sexuality, rain and fertility, and was considered a mediator between the physical and spiritual world. Because it also represents female energy in goddess worship, sometimes linked to the eastern Kundalini, in the Christian Bible it represents sin, temptation, destruction, and Satan.

Ouroborus (from the Greek for tail-devouring snake) is the circular serpent biting its own tail, and represents the eternal return and the cycles of life. Originating in ancient Egypt and India, Medieval alchemists linked it to the cyclical processes in nature, and it is often associated with Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Hinduism. Carl Jung interpreted the Ouroboros as being the mandala of alchemy and offering an archetypal significance as a representation of the pre-ego “dawn state” of humanity.

“The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness… The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. – Carl Jung

The famous Ouroboros drawing from the early alchemical text Chrysopoeia (Greek: “to make gold”) of Cleopatra  dating to 2nd century Alexandria encloses the words en to pan  (“one the all”), its black and white halves representing the Gnostic duality of existence. As such, the Ouroboros could be interpreted as the Western equivalent of the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol of the unity between complimentary opposites.

Ouroboros (one is the all)According to Cheyenne teacher Hyemyohsts Storm (see Seven Arrows  below), a similar Native American “yin-yang” symbol depicted the two facets of the Creatress Wakan and the Creator Sequan by a circle split by a lightning bolt.

The Crossed Circle

The Sun Wheel or Ring Cross is a symbol found on ancient slabs in Nordic countries, in pre-Columbian America and in Mediterranean countries.

The Celtic Cross is a symbol of the cultural blend of medieval Catholicism and ancient Celtic traditions.

Celtic Cross, County Kerry, Ireland

Celtic Cross, County Kerry, Ireland

The Buddist Dharma Wheel is a crossed circle with eight spokes, representing the 8-fold path to enlightenment: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.


Stone Circles

There are tens of thousands of simple circles of cobble stones which once held down the edges of the famous tipi of the Plains Indians, and are known as tipi rings.

The most intriguing cobble constructions, however, are the ones known as medicine wheels. Stone medicine wheels are sited throughout the northern United States and southern Canada, specifically South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The majority of the approximately 70 documented stone structures still extant are in Alberta, Canada.

Sedona Wheel

Sedona, Arizona Wheel

One of the prototypical medicine wheels is in the Bighorn National Forest in Big Horn County, Wyoming. This 75-foot-diameter wheel has 28 spokes, and is part of a vast set of old Native American sites that document 7,000 years of their history in that area.

Medicine wheels are also found in Ojibwa territory, likely built by the prehistoric ancestors of the Assiniboine people.

As a metaphor, the concept of the sacred hoop of life is also used by multiple Indian nations. A 2007 Indian Country Today article on the history of the modern Hoop Dance defines the dancer’s hoop as symbolic of “the never-ending circle of life” since it has no beginning and no end.

The Bighorn Medicine Wheel

For centuries, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel has been used by Crow youth for fasting and vision quests. Native Americans also go to Bighorn to offer thanks for the creation that sustains them, placing a buffalo skull on the center cairn as a prayer offering. Prayers are offered there for healing, and atonement is made for harm done to others and to Mother Earth.

The structure is located at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, near the summit of Medicine Mountain. It is a pre-Columbian structure, built from roughly loaf-sized stones gathered from the surrounding area, consisting of a circular rim 25 yards in diameter, 28 spokes extending from the rim to the center, and a series of seven cairns. The center cairn is almost 10 feet in diameter, while the cairns at or near the rim and are considerably smaller.

Medicine Wheel in Bighorn National Forest

Medicine Wheel in Bighorn National Forest

Astronomer John Eddy investigated this structure in 1972 and published his findings in “Astronomical Alignment of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel”, Science (1974). He found that one rim cairn and the center cairn were aligned in the direction of summer solstice sunrise, and that another rim cairn and the center were aligned in the direction of summer solstice sunset.

Further, he found that three cairn pairs correspond to the rising points of the stars Sirius, Aldebaran, and Rigel. Observing the first yearly heliacal rising of these stars would have been an effective tool at predicting how many days remained before the summer solstice, as the first heliacal rise of a star occurs on the same date. Rising positions of stars change very slowly over the centuries, due to the Earth’s precession, so the directions of these cairn pairs can be used to project at what date they aligned best with the rising points of these stars. The Aldebaran alignment would have worked best between AD 1200 and AD 1700, which may provide a date of origin of this wheel.

The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and renamed as the Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark in 2011.

The Elements of a Medicine Wheel

In describing the commonalities among different stone medicine wheels, the Royal Alberta Museum cites the definition given by John Brumley, an archaeologist from Medicine Hat, that a medicine wheel “consists of at least two of the following three traits: (1) a central stone cairn, (2) one or more concentric stone circles, and/or (3) two or more stone lines radiating outward from a central point.”

From the air, Medicine wheels often look like a wagon wheel lying on its side.


The most common variation between different wheels are the spokes. There is no set number of spokes for a medicine wheel to have. The spokes within each wheel are rarely evenly spaced, or even all the same length.

Sometimes there is a passageway, or a doorway, in the circles. The outer ring of stones will be broken, and there will be a stone path leading in to the center of the wheel. Some spokes extend beyond the outer rim and some wheels have additional circles around the outside of the rim.

While alignment with the cardinal directions is common, some medicine wheels are also aligned with astronomical phenomena involving the sun, moon, some stars, and some planets in relation to the Earth’s horizon at that location.

One of the older wheels has been dated at more than 4,500 years old, and like Stonehenge, it had been built up by successive generations that would add new features to the circle.

Meanings of the Medicine Wheel

The four cardinal directions are depicted by four colors – yellow, red, black and white – which also represent the four races of humankind.

The Directions can also represent:

  • Stages of life: birth, youth, adult (or elder), death
  • Seasons of the year: spring, summer, winter, fall
  • Times of Day: sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight
  • Aspects of life: spiritual, emotional, physical, intellectual
  • Elements of nature: fire (or sun), water, earth, air
  • Animals: Eagle, Coyote, Bear, Buffalo and many others
  • Ceremonial plants: tobacco, sweet grass, sage, cedar

Seven Arrows – The Wheel Revealed

Seven Arrows 2

Hyemeyohsts (Wolf) Storm wrote Seven Arrows, which was published by Harper & Row in 1972, marking the first time American indigenous religious ceremony, including the Medicine Wheel, was moved from the oral tradition into print, accessible to all. For this, he was much criticized by other indigenous Americans.

Hyemeyohsts Storm was born in Lame Deer, Montana of Northern Cheyenne and German ancestry. He was raised on the Cheyenne and Crow reservations, and attended Eastern Montana College in Billings. His publication of Seven Arrows stirred a widespread controversy regarding the rights of Native American authors to represent and interpret tribal religion without tribal authorization.

The Old World Meets the New Age

Though some Native American traditionalists claim that white culture has “stolen” its sacred rites, the truth is that it was freely shared by carriers of that tradition and that rituals that arise from a place “belong” to all those who are native of that place.

And, while some Native American traditionalists understandably strive to keep their ancient ceremonies true to their history, rituals are living things which evolve over time, just as all life forms must adapt or die.

Some modern teachers of the Medicine Wheel have adapted the ancient symbol to carry greater meaning for contemporary people, incorporating wisdom from other ancient traditions as well as more recent understandings of the cycle of life.

This is not so much a departure from tradition as an elaboration on what has been given us from the ancients and is in keeping with the symbology of the Medicine Wheel as a map of the cycles of the life journey onto the cycles of the natural world and greater universe.

A Map of the Territory

All symbols are abstract “maps” of the territory we inhabit, whether geographic, psycho-social, or spiritual. All cultures use such symbols to help orient its members to their place in the community, on the land, and in the world.

The Medicine Wheel is a powerful tool for understanding our individual and collective journey through life.

What is Medicine?

In Native American traditions, “medicine” is anything – object, word or ritual – which tend to heal, or make whole. “Bad medicine” is anything which undermines wholeness or physical, mental, emotional or spiritual health.

The Medicine Wheel is powerful medicine, if rightly understood and properly used.

The Pan-Cultural Journey

One of my teachers of the Wheel, a Vision Quest guide named Sparrow Hart, introduced me to what is called the Four Shields Teaching.

The Four Shields was taught by Steven Foster and Meredith Little, founders of The School of Lost Borders, and authors of The Book of the Vision Quest and The Four Shields: The Initiatory Seasons of Human Nature.

We began way back when, in the days when revolution was in the air, when rock and roll was filled with protest and the young were sticking flowers in the gun barrels of National Guardsmen. Even then, the answer to the dilemma of culture was clear: True revolution would never come about until the children remembered the way to get to adulthood – and the adults to true elderhood – and the elders to honorable death. And none of this would ever come to pass unless I learned the ancient art of birthing myself, and, by definition, others of my species, through rites of passage in wild nature, our true mother home. – Steven Foster

The idea of the School of Lost Borders began in the late 1960’s when Dr. Steven Foster was fired from the humanities department at San Francisco State University for holding classes off campus and encouraging student dissent. Steven’s search for deeper meaning, growing fascination with pan-cultural mythology, and desire to create his own rite of initiation drove him into the classroom of nature.

After spending much of a year alone in the deserts of Nevada, he returned with a deep commitment to bringing meaningful wilderness rites of passage to the young to mark entrance into adulthood. In 1973, Steven and Meredith Little met, became partners and began leading groups together. Ten months later they returned to Novato, California and founded the non-profit organization Rites of Passage, Inc (which later became School of Lost Borders).

With the support of many who dared to dream with them, they explored the realms of pan-cultural wisdom and how to appropriately create modern initiation rites which addressed the challenges of today’s world. Significant teachers appeared, including Hyemeyohsts Storm and Sun Bear. With cultural anthropologist Virginia Hine, they explored the bare bones of the ceremony that appeared to be shared across cultures and traditions around the world. They also explored the basic components of ceremony itself, to offer wilderness fasters the means to develop and create their own “self-generated ceremonies” within the context of the Vision Fast and their lives.

From their 35 years of teaching, Steven and Meredith Little introduced many thousands to the rite of passage we call Vision Quest and to the Four Shields teaching of the Medicine Wheel.

The Four Shields

A shield is both a projection of one’s heritage and identity (a coat of arms) and a defense against attack (a tool for hiding in the shadows). Each quadrant of the Medicine Wheel offers both a face and a shadow, and both are within each of us.

Blackfoot Shield

Blackfoot Shield

Only by recognizing the existence and source of our own shadows do we have the opportunity to stand in the light. [One of the mistakes of much of the “new age” movement is the desire to ascend into the light without doing the necessary shadow work of descent.]

In descent, we discover that the monsters lurking in the shadows, as cultural mythologist Joseph Campbell informed us, are merely beings trying to attract our attention. Once we learn to love them, they become holy allies in our own hero’s journey.

Jungian psychologist James Hillman tells this story:

Manolete, for eight years the worlds greatest bullfighter, as a little boy hung around his mother all the time. At age nine, he still hung on to her apron, afraid to let go.

According to conventional psychotherapy, he compensated for his childhood weakness by becoming a bullfighter. That’s the dogma of developmental psychology, that we live our lives forwards, our future determined by our past.

But suppose you read the story backwards. Suppose Manolete had the seed of being a great bullfighter in him and he knew that (after all he was the son and grandson of matadors who were also called Manolete). What else would you do if you were a nine-year-old boy but hang around your mother if you knew that you’d have to face a thousand-pound black bull with its horns out.

Manolete’s apparent timidity became his later strength, as if he knew that he must cling to motherly nurturance until he was ready to face his demons alone.

The story, “The Man Who Got Even With God”, by Reverend Marius McAuliffe O.F.M., subtitled “The story of a violent, vindictive cowboy who became a Trappist brother”, is a similar tale of how a young man was mentored to use his apparent shadow as the energy to become one of the most revered members of the contemplative order known for including Thomas Merton.

The Man Who Got Even With God

Thus the “medicine” of each of the four directions of the Wheel offers us a face and a shadow, which assist us in moving around the circle of life and turning dysfunction into maturity and strength.

The Shadow Defines the Face & Contains the Elixir of Life


Face: Innocence and trust.

When we are fully welcomed into the world, and given the nurturance (the emotional food) we need to grow healthy, we find ourselves at home on the earth and at home in our physical, sensual bodies.

Shadow: Egotism, materialism.

If we do not have perfect parents (let alone the extended family and village necessary to raise healthy children), when we do not receive the full measure of love, acceptance and nurture, we find ourselves caught in a whirlwind of conflicting emotions, stuck in immaturity, and developing egotistically. We exhibit sandbox aggression and a need to accumulate things as a substitute for the emotion food we were denied.


Face: Love of self and love of the other, empathy, introspection and intuition, values, meaning.

In the autumn, we reap what was planted in the summertime. If what was planted was trust and acceptance, we harvest a strong sense of self and a balancing ability to empathize with others. We are not afraid to look inward, as we accept what we see there.

Shadow: Victim mentality, anxiety, chronic depression, addiction.

If we don’t have the picture-perfect childhood, then we find ourselves harvesting self-doubt, if not self-loathing, and this can lead to a descending spiral of self-criticism into the pit of depression. On the other hand, it can result in a state of denial of our own shadow, and a heightened egotism bordering on narcissism. Egotism and depression/addiction are both forms of pathological narcissism.


Face: Wisdom, the right use of the mind, generosity of spirit, leadership, connection to the Web of Life.

When we enter the tomb (the “little dying”) of the Western shield and emerge from the Earth-womb reborn, carrying a Vision of our gifts and our destiny that we can then give in service to our people, we become fully mature, contributing adults with a balance of heart and mind and a connection to Spirit.

Shadow: Hyper-rationality, self-centeredness, spiritual shallowness.

If we avoid the inner journey, or explore it on our own (un-mentored by initiated adults, through “recreational” drugs, or within a youth gang attempting self-initiation), we may discover aspects of ourselves we don’t like, and either run from them by denying their existence or diving headlong into the dysfunction to become sociopathic individuals, serving our ego rather than our community.

This may have the appearance of the workaholic, knowledge without wisdom (dismembered from heart and soul), the detached observer or the evangelical atheist.


Face: Enlightenment, transcendence, consideration of the “next seven generations”, embrace of death.

After living out our Vision and giving back the gifts we were given, we can begin to transcend the physical plane and see the Big Picture like the Eagle, preparing to welcome death when our time is complete.

Shadow: Airy fairy, denial of shadow, magical thinking, puer aeternus, fearful of death.

If we do not know or run away from our gifts, do not act with generosity to our people, keep our eyes cast downward, then we complete our earthly journey in denial and in fear of the final transition that awaits us all. By avoiding our own shadow (the source of our discernment), we also avoid proper judgement, right action, and social/ecological responsibility) or we simply remain in a state of constant bliss like the eternal child.

Cycle of Psycho-Social Dis-Ease

Cycle of Dysfunction

Man the Determiner

According to Hyemeyohsts Storm, all creatures know their harmony within the Wheel and how to give-away to all others – except humans. Humans must be born to this life to learn this Great Truth. The special gift given only to humans is self-choice – we are the determiners.

That means that, though it might seem as if we are caught in an endless cycle of dysfunction, humans are the masters of their own destiny.

Master of Their Own Destiny was the title of a 1939 book by Moses Coady, who brought the cooperative Rochdale Principles (set out in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in Rochdale, England) to public attention. In it, Coady describes how adult education was used to transform a significant part of the Canadian economy to a cooperative form, which continues to inform the Canadian national character.

As long as we journey around the Wheel, we can continue to educate ourselves, develop, heal and mature as individuals. Wholesome individuals create healthy communities, which in turn form harmonious nations which then contribute to a peaceful world.

A Confucian proverb (put to music by muse Scott Kalechstein) goes:

When there’s light in the soul
There is beauty in the person

When there’s beauty in the person
There is harmony within the home

When there’s harmony within the home
There’s order in the nation

When there’s order in the nation
There is peace in the world.

The Red Road of Life – the Blue Road of Spirit

The Medicine Wheel is not merely an endless loop, but contains two intersecting straight lines. The Good Red Road of Life connects the southern place of childhood with the northern place of adulthood, while the Good Blue Road of Spirit connects the eastern place of enlightened inspiration with the dark western place of the “little dying” – of the inward metamorphic journey. The two roads cross at the center, which is the place where we stand and which gives us the choice at any time to walk one way or another.

Two Roads

There is Always Choice

We are not victims of a blind fate, but – even when fate seems to impose hardship upon us – always have the option to choose how we respond to what befalls us.

Balance & Choice

Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (originally titled Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp), was an Austrian founder of Logo (Existential) Therapy – the third Viennese school of psychotherapy (after Freud and Adler).

Logotherapy is built upon the belief that it is the striving to find a meaning in one’s life (rather than the Adlerian “will to power” or the Freudian “pleasure principle”) that is the primary and most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.

In his Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The Wheel shows us the paths and the powers that are open to us – both linear and circular – to seek our meaning and purpose in the face of the sometimes great challenges that life has given us.

Prayer and Sin

It has been said that prayer does not change things, but rather changes us so that we might change things.

A Vision Quest (which can be undertaken at any time or many times in one’s life journey) is a lived prayer for meaning and purpose – to know our gifts so that we may be a gift to our people, to the world.

Oh Great Spirit
Whose voice I hear in the winds
And whose breath gives Life
To all the World,

Hear me, I am a man before you,
One of your many children.
I am small and weak.
I need your strength and wisdom.

Let me walk in beauty,
And make my eyes behold
The red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect
The things you have made,
My ears sharp to hear your voice.

Make me wise, so that I may know
The things you have taught my people,
The lessons you have hidden
In every leaf and rock.

I seek strength,
Not to be superior to my brothers,
But to be able to fight
My greatest enemy – myself.

Make me ever ready to come to you
With clean hands and straight eye,
So when life fades as the fading sunset,
My spirit may come to you without shame.

– Tom Whitecloud

The term “sin” from the Biblical Hebrew, meant merely “to miss the mark”. It was an archery term for hitting the target off center.

It is said that the Zen Archer can hit the bullseye blindfolded. The secret of the art is to create an intention so clear and powerful (to put the bow in-tension) that the arrow and the target are one and the same. As such, it is the target which calls the arrow to its center and not the will of the archer. But that is possible only when the archer fully releases the intention (the bow-in-tension) to the Will of the Universe.

To enter any arena, two things are required. First, we must purchase a ticket – the ticket to a hero’s journey or Vision Quest being a clear and powerful intention. Then, we must surrender that ticket at the gate – completely relinquish any expectation or sense of control over the outcome and put our life in the hands of the Universe.

This paradoxical act of clearly intended surrender is what opens the door to power, NOT the personal will, and turns crisis into opportunity.

Crisis Management vs. Initiatory Experience

Life is often experienced as a series of crises which we struggle through, more or less intact. It is easier, in retrospect, to understand those crises as transforming experiences than it is when we’re in the midst of them.

But if we live life with the understanding that those experiences are moments of initiation – of ritual dissolution and resolution – we can more fully appreciate them as they happen without having to wait for the wisdom of hindsight.

To transform crisis into initiatory experience, we merely have to enter them with an attitude of acceptance, gratitude, and surrender. If we can begin each day with a prayer of gratitude for another chance to walk our talk, another opportunity to be tested and tempered by the challenges placed before us, then each day becomes a day fully lived – a “good day to die”.

One can never fully determine the events of one’s life (though some traditions suggest that those events are chosen by your soul prior to incarnation), but one can always choose one’s attitude or response to life’s events. An attitude of gratitude and acceptance turns chaos into ritual and crisis into initiation.

What does it mean to live as an initiated one?

To live life consciously and deliberately;
Not in control – letting go of the myth of control and its consequent suffering;
To fully embrace whatever is given to you – to accept it for the learning and growth it offers.

To live as an initiated adult in the world – to arrive by our own choices at the North gate of the Wheel – allows is to welcome the end of the Journey when it presents itself.


A Good Day to Die

“Live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about his religion. Respect others in their views and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and of service to your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.

Always give a word or sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, or even a stranger, if in a lonely place. Show respect to all people, but grovel to none. When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.

Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”

– Tecumseh (1768-1813) Shawnee Chief

Another View of the Journey – What We Resists Persists

When we fail to periodically visit the West gate, and avoid doing the necessary descent work, the Shadow will find a way to draw us down and make itself known. In other words, according to Carl Jung, “What you resist persists” – that is, resisting feeds energy to what we attempt to avoid, causing it to grow stronger and become more tenacious. Accepting our Shadow diminishes its power and allows us conscious choice.

Hole in the Sidewalk

My Life in Five Short Chapters, by Portia Nelson (1977)
reprinted in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche


I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It wasn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open … I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.


I walk down another street.


by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page
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