Posted in Disability, Essay, General Interest, Mental Health, Michael Watson

The Olympics, Polio, and the Medicine Wheel, Part Two

community-seatingThe Olympics have come to a close; the Paralympics follow. Saturday evening Jennie and I watched a Gimp DVD. She is planning to show it to her Expressive Therapies class, along with some material from Bill T. Jones. Its been a while since we last saw Gimp in performance so revisiting their work was a revelation.

The Paralympics is a much-needed, if under-reported competition for athletes who happen to be disabled. The Gimp Project is a collective of dancers, able-bodied and disabled. The Paralypics is a contest; Gimp is a collaboration exploring the world of disability experience.  The first seeks perfection, the latter revels in the beauty of imperfection. The Paralympics pursue inclusion, abet separate and unequal; Gimp tells stories, often casting light on the processes that marginalize and exclude.

There is a remarkable invisibility surrounding these processes, although many activists, academics, and artists have sought to illumine them. It matters little whether these forces  exclude persons on the basis of ethnicity, race, disability, or other difference, the effect is consistent. The systems are pervasive and largely invisible; they are also profoundly human.

The Medicine Wheel holds all of human experience, offering us a view of life as a whole. There is a place on the Wheel for everything that can be encountered, even a space for our collective fear of otherness and contagion. The Wheel reminds us that we will each encounter all that is, whether directly or through the experiences of others. Our fates are inexorably woven together; the fate of each is that of all.

As we meditate on the Wheel we are encouraged to consider that while they seem real, both safety and isolation are illusory, transitory states. The last few months I have found myself wandering the wilderness that is part of the Post Polio experience. Recent health concerns continue to bring up ancient unresolved feelings, along with worries about the future. I have been repeatedly thrown back to the fear and pain of the acute illness and post-illness recovery, and the social isolation imposed on me as a Polio. I am also reminded the effects of the virus continues to impact my life and thus the lives of those I hold dear.

I’ve been exploring the experience of Post Polio through the wisdom of the Wheel. For me, now, Post Polio lies in the North, the place of aging, teaching, and eventually, making preparations to return to the Spirit World. (The North is also the place of preparation for rebirth!) The journey is complicated as I find myself trying to make sense of my nearly lifelong disability from a place on the Wheel where it is also my task to embrace a declining body.

Part of the task is to acknowledge my fear of erasure. We live in an epoch in which Polio was eradicated; we are, for most purposes, a Post-Polio world. I was taught I had survived the virus and should get on with life, ignoring, as much as possible, the devastation to my body and psyche. Yet the path of forgetting and ignoring is fraught with difficulties; the way of assimilation or “passing” is thorny. The normative prescription offers the possibility of inclusion, yet to follow that road is to participate in a collective act of erasure, to become invisible, and thus lose Self.

Every human being comes to a place where s/he is vulnerable; each of us eventually faces the treat of erasure and the powerful emotions that accompany that threat. In a culture addicted to perfection, and dismissive of difference and need, such moments carry added fear and shame. How odd such an essentially human experience is marginalized, leaving so many to face the North filled with loneliness and dread.

As a society we increasingly relegate the task of accompanying folks on the journey through the North to the health care profession and the clergy. As a result, we have marginalized the insight and wisdom that may accompany disability, experiences of trauma, and aging.  In doing so we create great suffering for the very young we profess to idolize, for we deny them context. How are they, in the face of ceaseless messages about the centrality of competition and perfection, to know they are all loveable, all sacred, beautiful, and desirable in their humanness and imperfections?

Our collective focus on perfection sells products and drives our economy, yet blinds us to the fate of our neighbors and the world. Our deeply held collective desire for safety encourages us to abandon our elders, young people, and children, threatens our very being as a species, and steals our Souls. Still, as prophesy insists, we have options. We can risk relearning the wisdom of the elders, symbolized by the Medicine Wheel, accept the complexity and terror of being human, and journey together into a Sixth World. There are, if we make it so, seats for all at the table.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 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.

14 thoughts on “The Olympics, Polio, and the Medicine Wheel, Part Two

  1. This has made me consider once more our obsession with perfection in this body. I experience shame about being ill. What’s that all about? Shame seems to surround getting old and dying. Could it be that very few accept the limitations of the body. I know the body is temporal and I believe that spirit is our true nature and that is perfect. Most of us cannot bear to see and feel frailties in others. I guess it reminds us of our own fear.


    1. Gretchen, In Traditional Native culture being aged was seen as an honor, meaning one had lived life well and been blessed by the spirits. Aged ones were valued for their knowledge, wisdom, and hesitation to act brashly. They were also cared for, even in illness and decline, for as the valued beings they were. Elders were often given the task, along with the shamans and other healers, of keeping the community in balance. Not too shabby, eh?


  2. This is difficult Michael as it is filled with potential fear and significant pain. I do not believe a whole lot about being here, just that we are all one and I should act in that manner and that we are here to love one another. And one must do so without allowing others to walk upon you. And, I am ready to go now or when ever the time comes. Then I will come back.


  3. Stephen Fry did a tour of America, which was filmed. At one point, he was watching people on a beach in Florida. There was clearly a lot of nip-and-tuck and obsessive exercise, sunbathing, and body-decor. His reaction was, “They’re so perfectly beautiful that they’re ugly.”

    Illness and death are part of all our lives and no shame in it, but you are right that we are made to feel so.

    Thank you, Michael. Wishing you every blessing as you journey.


  4. Being so impressed with Part 1, Michael, I wondered where Part 2 would take us. I’m not disappointed. You moved us all on to a place of reckoning, and through the truth of it all to a recognition that … and I quote you again: ” Our collective focus on perfection sells products and drives our economy, yet blinds us to the fate of our neighbors and the world “. This is a ‘wake up world’ moment, truly.

    Can we ever hope for a time when everyone of all nations, all creeds, all sections of the human spectrum and all abilities will not only understand but also be able to engage with the principles espoused here? That it is not our physical appearance that truly matters, nor is it the acquisition of unnecessary wealth, but what lies deep inside us, as represented by our spirits and souls, both collectively and individually, and, above all, a recognition that we all have a responsibility both to articulate and help deliver this … dream?


  5. Michael, having read both parts of this and all of the comments, I am at a loss for words. I learned much about you and the people who commented, and I wanted to thank you for that opportunity. I don’t watch the Olympics. I’ve never cared about them. I have family members with Down’s Syndrome and Craniodiphyseal Dysplasia (Lionitis) and so I know how cruel the world can be to those who are deemed “less than perfect”. I’m so very sorry that you have had to endure such trials. 😦 Perfection IS an illusion and unfortunately, this world, this realm, panders to the Ego, not the Spirit. Perhaps, like Paula, that is the main reason I don’t watch the Olympics. Celebration of the human body is fine, and I’m happy for those who revel in it, but it’s a shallow, fleeting thing, isn’t it? It is nothing when compared to the celebration of Spirit, which connects us all. To “stand on the shoulders of giants” is most certainly not referring to anything physical…the body is only a shell. It houses something much, much more important…in my limited experience, those without “perfect” bodies have an overabundance of what those vessels contain. 🙂 Thank you, again. I feel as if I am in the presence of “giants” here in The Bardo and it overwhelms me.


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