How I use the teachings of the Medicine Wheel in my healing journey
The Medicine Wheel is an ancient symbol used by some of the Native people of North and South America. I’ve learned that not all Nations use the Medicine Wheel because it can be viewed as a colonialist structure, but those who do follow it, do so according to their own teachings and what has been passed down to them through their Elders and medicine people.
The Medicine Wheel teaches us that we have four aspects to ourselves: the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual. Each must be in balance and equally developed in order for us to remain healthy, happy individuals. According to the book “The Sacred Tree,” written by Phil Lane, Jr, Judie Bopp, Michael Bopp, Lee Brown and Elders “there are many different ways that this basic concept is expressed: the four grandfathers, the four winds, the four cardinal directions, and many other relationships that can be expressed in sets of four,” and “the medicine wheel can be used to help us see or understand things we can’t quite see or understand because they are ideas and not physical objects.”
As a First Nations woman, I find this to be quite different from the Western modality of medicine in which I was raised. I feel that the Western model of medicine pushes the concept that if “you take this pill, you’ll feel better,” or “if you don’t participate in this treatment, then shame on you.” The Western model of medicine lacks the spiritual connection that is often sought when an Indigenous person is struggling or ill.
In the early stages of my healing journey from eating disorders, depression and anxiety, a psychiatrist I see brought forth the concept of self-care. She said “Christine, when it comes to recovery and healing, don’t be afraid to put yourself first. Take time for yourself, do what you need to do in order for you to feel good about yourself.”
I looked at her and said, “But self-care, that’s being selfish!”
My therapist smiled, shook her head, and said, “No, that is what you have been raised to believe by some people who don’t know themselves and what healthy boundaries are.”
It took me awhile to digest that thought. I was afraid of upsetting people, and of them being angry with me. I thought the worst of myself because instead of putting others first, I was taking the time to pay attention to myself, and the feedback I got was not always the greatest. I had to learn how to build myself up and keep myself strong.
I started to adopt the teachings of the Medicine Wheel. I physically and mentally had to keep a picture of what I had been taught, not only in my mind but also on my bedroom wall. I had to remember the teachings I had been given by the Indigenous professor who originally taught me about it and by other mentors and Elders I had seen over the years.
It is said that the Northern aspect of the Medicine Wheel deals with the spiritual. As an introvert and someone who deals with high levels of anxiety, it is easy for me to keep myself isolated and alone. I have had to learn to reach out when I need to. This means getting together with friends or calling them. It means making myself get out of my apartment, even when I don’t want to, and learning to socialize with others. I volunteer, not for recognition, but as a part of selflessness. I use sage (one of the four medicines) and smudge when I need to, which allows me to clear any negativity away I may be harboring inside or around me.
In the Eastern sphere of the Medicine Wheel, I have learned to take care of myself physically. In order to function in a balanced way, I had to learn about proper rest, setting a specific time to go to bed at night and get up in the morning. Keeping a balanced diet has been harder because I still carry a lot of phobias about certain foods from my childhood and eating disorder days, and I also have type 2 diabetes and a low thyroid condition. Recently I have had digestive issues, and that meant changing my diet completely. Because I subsist on ODSP and freelance work, it is hard to buy the foods I need—organic and gluten-free—but I make the extra effort to do so, even if it means I run short on monies for other things I want to do. I make sure that I go for walks every day, and even invested in a Fitbit watch so that I am motivated to keep above a certain number of steps.
The Southern aspect of the Medicine Wheel deals with the mental side of health. This is where I have learned to take time for myself in a balanced way, to read a good book, watch my favourite television show, paint my nails or be creative through writing, painting, beading or sewing.
Lastly, the Western aspect has to do with how you express yourself, self-esteem, the ability to cope, having a positive attitude, having healthy relationships and feeling adjusted. This aspect of the Medicine Wheel can be the hardest to enact because I still have old ways of wanting to express myself or feel about myself, but I have come a long way. Though I may still be down about myself from time to time, I don’t dwell on it as much as I used to, and sometimes people come to me for advice instead of the other way around. I know and understand what healthy relationships are, but other than a few friends and acquaintances, I remain single because I choose to for now.
I adopted the Medicine Wheel teachings to help me come off high doses of medications for my depression and anxiety. I wanted to learn to deal with my emotions instead of masking them with medications that made me feel numb and zombie-like. Sure, I still take certain medications, but the amount is a lot lower than it used to be, and this has helped me to start living instead of walking around in a daze and not feeling anything.
When my mom was dying last year, I travelled back home to see her. Instead of taking pills that would keep me numb, which was an old response to trauma and grief, I had to consistently practise positive self-talk and self-care. I kept my emotions in check while with her, and I would take breaks and go back to my motel for bits at a time. I allowed myself to cry, write or bead, which were coping mechanisms I had learned through the years, and then I would walk back to see her again.
Losing my mom has been the hardest thing for me to go through. It’s still very fresh and I’m still mourning. Following the Medicine Wheel and its teachings has been very difficult because I have often questioned my place in this world since her passing, and the spiritual aspect of what I have been taught and/or what I believe in has been shaken. Luckily I have some friends who have been really supportive, and they remind me that my mom wouldn’t want me to give up, and that she’d want me to continue the healing path that I’m on.
Therefore, I remind myself daily to keep writing, beading or whatever hobby catches my fancy and I smudge with sage to cleanse myself—my heart, so that I can continue to love; my mouth, so I can speak good words; my ears, so I can hear good things, and so on. The Medicine Wheel and its teachings may not be for everyone, but it has helped me to stay on my healing path, and to not give up.
Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith is a Saulteaux woman from Peguis First Nation. She is an emerging writer, graduated from the University of Toronto with a specialization in Aboriginal Studies in June 2011, and graduated with a Master in Education in Social Justice in June 2017.