Man, the Medicine Wheel

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

What is understanding? How do we arrive at it? For over a century, Western civilization has stressed understanding derived from the mind, and our realities have been determined by popularizations of current scientific theories. In keeping with this scientific emphasis, facts from observations of nature filtered through the intellect have formed the basis for the popular concept of the cosmos and man. We analyze, criticize, and compile findings about the world around us, whether in the physical or social sciences, the arts, or the humanities. These individual data seem somehow valuable in themselves and necessary for human understanding. It is as though an infinite aggregation of them would yield an infinitely exact picture of the nature of things.

At the same time a current of anti-intellectualism flows through Western culture, a current that finds wide expression today. Many are rejecting mind as a road to reality, preferring to find emotional or "practical" methods of discovery. One often hears of the fruitlessness of mere intellectual constructs and the invalidity of conceptual frameworks of the world. Here the tendency is to see intellect as barren, and to identify mind only with the analytical and critical faculties encouraged particularly in the institutions of higher education.

This dichotomy between mind and feeling, between thinking and doing, as pathways to understanding seems always to have existed as a tendency within man himself, and the solutions which have appeared over centuries of human experience have much to offer us today. The various viewpoints found in world cultures suggest very similar concepts of man and the universe -- their nature and purpose -- each expressed in its own distinctive way. The Plains Indians of North America, for instance, have a most beautiful symbol for man and his path to understanding in the medicine wheel (see Seven Arrows, by Hyemeyohsts Storm, Harper and Row, 1972). This symbol serves as a mirror for the universe, man, or any other unity. It consists of a circle marked with the cardinal points or four great directions. To the North lies wisdom, to the South feeling, to the West introspection, and to the East illumination or seeing afar. Each person approaches life from a combination of these directions. A person of the North, for example, is wise but cold because out of touch with his heart; a person of the Southwest is sensitive to his own feelings, but lacking breadth of vision and wisdom. Further, each person's path in life leads through a particular direction, that is, through a particular way of experiencing the world. In time a person learns to experience in all ways and he who desires to know things as they are, consciously seeks to round out his perceptions by cultivating the various ways of vision which he lacks without abandoning those which are more natural to him. The goal is to exist at the center of the medicine wheel with all faculties developed and in balance. Then one truly reflects the universe and therefore is in harmony with it.

The message of the medicine wheel is universal, and can be found in the methods of instruction of the Mysteries of ancient Europe and the Mediterranean. Though records of the specific teachings are extremely few and oblique, enough information has survived to show that theoretical and intellectual training was combined with a process of experiencing and becoming the reality behind the mental symbols. Through a program of discipline and character development the student was enabled eventually to discover at first hand the reality of what he was taught, by consciously identifying with and therefore temporarily becoming that which he had studied. Absorbing data from the world around him was a preparation and orientation -- only one of the methods of training consciousness in all its ranges from physical to spiritual. Undoubtedly different groups offered different approaches, emphasizing the mental, the mystical, the practical work, or perhaps some specific field of study. But the inner impetus was the same: a quest of being and becoming rather than of knowing or feeling or examining per se. And in that becoming, the whole person participated.

Similar systems of training can also be found in India. The raja-yoga or "kingly union" school pictures man as composed of many bodies: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. It prescribes their balanced development so that each assumes its proper role in the cosmos of man. Here all man's powers are seen as necessary to the total person; neither the heart nor the mind can be ignored or overemphasized without cost. It is this balance of faculties, this recognition of the part played by all aspects of the human being, that often is lost sight of in our efforts to find understanding.

This holistic approach to learning, once so universal, seems largely to have disappeared from the modern world, though there are increasing numbers encouraging its revival. Yet any one of us by our approach and inner attitude can attempt to follow out its message within ourselves. In this process the mind is used as the valuable tool it is, for certainly it is the particular gift, as well as the particular challenge, of mankind. And perhaps what we today think of as mind may prove to be but its most rudimentary and crude capabilities when compared to its full development. But surely we will find, as have those before us, that the head and the heart best and most truly express themselves when united. And when we have balanced ourselves in the center of the medicine wheel, uniting head and heart, interior and exterior vision, we may find the meaning of humanhood and our place within the universe.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, February 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press.)

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