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The Equinox and the Medicine Wheel

Early Autumn color, Vermont

Editorial note: My apologies to readers and to Michael for not scheduling this in sooner. An oversight on my part. J.D.

This is a reblog of a recent post to Dreaming The World.

This week marks the Autumn Equinox. The Equinoxes and other aspects of the calendar round are markers made by people; we need markers to make sense of our lives, to place ourselves in relationship to All That Is. Sometimes we forget the markers are of our creation, and we imagine they hold intrinsic meaning, rather than the meanings we assign them. This is a dangerous assumption as it tempts us to believe there is only one story, and it is true for all people, everywhere. Such thinking always causes great suffering.

Next week, in class, our friend, Alicia Daniel, is leading us in the creation and exploration of a Medicine Wheel. Alecia allows participants to explore, and assign values to, the directions.Given the freedom to make meaning opens the students to Mystery and Wonder. Not surprisingly, the values discovered by students often resemble the attributes assigned the directions by the Indigenous peoples who have lived here for thousands of years.

I usually teach the Medicine Wheel using attributes for the directions as I have been taught them by teachers from the Northeast, where we live. While there are small differences between tribal, even band, understandings of the directions, the general framework holds firm. As I understand it: The East is the place of birth and death, sunrise, spring, mentation, air, and all beings who fly. The South is home to fire, warm bloodeds, and the plants. It is the place of healing, noon time, and high summer. It is the direction of physicality, and in some traditions, sexuality. The West is home to water, dreaming, evening, and autumn. It is the place of responsibility and parenting, and of the Dream Time. The North is the home of the Ancestors and the rock people, the place of winter and night, the direction of clearly seeing the big picture, of vision. We journey sun-wise around the wheel, returning to the east to die and be reborn.

My Lakota kin likely say we are born and die in the West. That makes sense to them, where they live. The Medicine Wheel is a teaching about our locale and inner worlds, telling us much about local ecology, culture, and understanding of self. Wherever we are the Medicine Wheel speaks to us of our life journey, a road we share with the people and other beings who comprise the community in which we live.

In Western culture the wheel has a bad rap. Rather than a map for living a joyful, fulfilling life, it is often emblematic of being caged, or of soul killing work. In the East it may be something to be escaped. Yet, in Indigenous cultures around the world the wheel remains a powerful symbol for relationship, connection, and the good life.

This week we take a few minutes to acknowledge the Medicine Wheel that is our calendar year. We will express gratitude to Father Sun, and acknowledge Grandmother Water. Without them we would not have life. It is good to do this, and to have the opportunity to do so openly, for we remember the times, some quite recent, when we could not do so.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

6 thoughts on “The Equinox and the Medicine Wheel

    1. Liz, I’m not sure that any path is right for all people. Indeed, I rather doubt it. I’d like to believe that there are many ways to find the center and the Creator; this is a key teaching of the Medicine Wheel. Of course, we all have to be willing to extend a certain amount of faith and good will to one another for this to work.


  1. Nice post. And I agree that no one path is right for everyone. All such metaphors, including the Medicine Wheel, whilst wonderful maps ~ are not the country. They chart the inner life, which must be lived, tasted and experienced and interpreted according to individuating quest. How we interpret meaning is dependent on Psyche’s root in terms of culture and ancestry. A Totem Pole cannot mean the same to a European as it means to an indigenous native American whose innate imagery will speak to the uniqueness of a root-race ~ to its collective blood and bones.


  2. Maps of inner terrain are beautiful self-organizing principles. I remember my first introduction to the Medicine Wheel in a ceremony conducted by a shaman friend whose father and grandfather and back in time were Native American shamans and whose mother and her line where shamans in Mexico. It was moving and graceful and I have honored this map as a guide since. it is very much in line whith I-Ching, I believe.


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