In 2011, events lined up to compel me further out in the open about my spiritual practice combining Buddhism, Native American spirituality, and esoteric Christianity. A number of experiences and messages led me to creating the Great Medicine Wheel of the New Earth a set of teachings in a weekend workshop format for contemporary spiritual seekers. Because of my initial reluctance to step forward to do this work due to the controversies and ethics surrounding the western adaptation of Native spirituality and religion, I feel it is important to tell the story about how I came into this work.
My spiritual practice and my work as an academic social scientist demand that I rigorously question myself–in particular any so-called visions, dreams, or intuitive leads that come to me. It is far too easy to mistake one’s inner neuroses, unconscious intentions, and even greed for otherworldly messages or spiritual inspiration. Every ethical and balanced spiritual path demands a great deal of discipline and practice to discern with wisdom and insight what arises in the mind, emotions, body, and beyond. Without such a practice, we can believe we are justified in doing anything–including even perpetrating murder and mayhem such as we saw in the 9/11 bombings.
Yet it is also true that we may hear the voices of Creator, Great Mystery, God and of the spirits and beings who work with us from beyond the veil. Therefore, I have learned over years to balance skepticism with testing and ultimately to trust what continues to appear despite the objections of my so-called “rational” mind! This, too, is a keynote of a truly integrated spiritual practice–to know just when to surrender and accept what may not make sense in the more ordinary dimensions of our daytime world.
The Great Medicine Wheel of the New Earth that I have been called to teach is an invitation to join in one place and dance awake with joy the original instructions of all human beings. As such, the Wheel that I now teach I envision as merely the beginning of the planting of the seeds of a profound and powerful blending of practices and ceremonies from many traditions. This work is in alignment with what Native American prophesies tell us is happening as we make a great shift in human consciousness in these times I believe that a world will emerge from out of this transition that is more kind and caring. I must add here that I have never been one to give much energy to prophesies of any kind–despite my long years’ study of the new Native American spirituality. However, the story about how the Great Medicine Wheel of the New Earth emerged in my consciousness will show why I changed my mind.
Last fall, I moved to the historic village of Batesville, about 20 minutes south of Charlottesville, Virginia. Batesville sits in the very center of a river valley between two mountain ridges to the North and South in a breathtakingly beautiful rural landscape. Batesville was founded in the 18th century and is the very essence of the best of American country living. Neighbors mingle casually along the single central village road and offer help and a listening ear. The sounds of Schoolhouse Creek happily fill my senses as I sit at my desk next to an open window in my office. My giant, white Great Pyrenees dog regularly barks from the front porch at a large herd of deer that graze in the wide open field across the creek.
Ever since resettling into this bucolic rural life, I started to have a persistent inner image of putting a Medicine Wheel on the Earth in the capacious yard behind the 19th century farmhouse that is my home. But as with many images and thoughts in my always overly busy mind, at first I did not pay much attention, nor did I speak about it to anyone. I have never built a physical Wheel on the Earth, even though I studied and used the spiritual teachings of the Medicine Wheel for almost 20 years–first with Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo from her Tsalagi, or Cherokee lineage and later the Peruvian mesa tradition with Alberto Villoldo and the Four Winds Society. In fact, when I started to classes with Alberto in 2007, I was stunned to realize that I had been essentially teaching a version of the Medicine Wheel in my undergraduate folklore and anthropology classes at the University of Virginia on healing from trauma and violence–a curriculum I developed over 9 years in collaboration with a dear colleague, John Alexander.
So it is that Mother Life has a way of steering where you are supposed to go, even when you think you’re going in another direction! As the months wore on towards the New Year of 2011, I kept running into people who would casually and without provocation mention to me the name of Sun Bear. Sun Bear was one of the first Native Americans in the 20th century to start teaching a hybridized version of Native American spirituality to both Natives and non-Natives. One of the central tools of his system for developing personal awareness and community building is the ancient system of the Medicine Wheel. His book by that same title, co-authored with his long-time friend and collaborator, Marlise Wabun Wind, has recently been re-released on the 25th anniversary of its original printing. Sun Bear died in 1992 leaving behind a powerful spiritual legacy. I never personally met him nor had even read any of his books until last December.
By Christmas, 2011, the frequency with which Sun Bear’s name popped up began to be outright hilarious. I started to call them “Sun Bear’s breadcrumbs.” However, I still did not make a connection between them and my inner visions of a Wheel on the Earth. I also did not know why Sun Bear, if he was indeed guiding me from the “other side,” as one psychic friend suggested, would be giving me, of all people, these nudges.
In February, 2010, I received a phone call from Larry and Charlsie Baer from Broadway, Virginia. They were looking for someone who could help them complete some previous, cursory studies in the mesa tradition and had been given my name by another shamanic practitioner in Charlottesville. As I have written in another article, the mesa is a kind of personal altar or medicine bundle that is common in and around Central and South America and that has been imported to the West by my teacher, Alberto, and others. Larry, Charlsie and I talked at length about their first introduction to the mesa and their wish to learn more. For the first time, I spoke aloud of my vision of a building a Medicine Wheel on the Earth and they revealed that they also wanted to do the same thing. We were surprised and excited about our common vision and with so much good energy between us, I agreed to take the lead in this beautiful endeavor.
As an academic scholar, I am all too used to getting information from ordinary sources, such as books, as well as, most importantly, from living teachers and colleagues. I picked up Sun Bear and Wabun Wind’s book on the Medicine Wheel several times, but did not feel called to that system, as beautiful as it is. Nevertheless, it had become crystal clear that the Medicine Wheel was calling to me very loudly through non-physical and non-human sources with Sun Bear in the lead! After Charlsie, Larry’s and my first phone conversation, the breadcrumbs continued to appear with greater intensity and frequency, including accidentally coming across a book I had read 20 years ago called One is the Sun, by Patricia Nell Warren. The book had made a deep impression on me at the time, but I had long forgotten the title and content. I recognized it immediately and eagerly opened it up a second time.
I was shocked by what I rediscovered. It was another breadcrumb! The book chronicles the story of a metis medicine woman living in the mid-19th century called Earth Thunder who is a teacher of the ancient system of the Medicine Wheel. She learned this transformational and self-reflective way of living in her homeplace in what is now Guatemala among the Maya. Another character named Oma is the grandmother matriarch of an old and aristocratic German family. Her family has maintained in deep secret over centuries vestiges of the ancient pagan traditions of their Germanic ancestors. In the beginning of the story, Oma sends her daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter, and other companions to North America in search of a Native teacher of the ancient Medicine Wheel. Oma wants and needs the knowledge she has to be augmented by what remains of a similar wisdom tradition among Native Americans. The travelers and spiritual seekers eventually find Earth Thunder. Over several years under her tutelage, they build and create a prosperous and harmonious community around the work and teachings of the Medicine Wheel.
Warren’s book opened my eyes to a vital and important truth about the teachings of the Medicine Wheel. Earth Thunder tells her students that prior to the arrival of Europeans on the American continent, this ancient spiritual system for transformation and community building had existed in every corner of the land. In fact, teachers and students of the Wheel would exchange and share their slightly different versions and systems. In this way, many versions of the Wheel traveled Northward and Southward. In the wake of the spread of war, disease, starvation and the resulting destruction of Native cultures, most teachers of the Wheel were killed or died. Warren’s book, supposedly based loosely on the oral history of a family in Wyoming who have a connection to the famous stone Wheel in that state, tells the story of the demise of one of the last teachers in North America. In South America, the tradition is now retained most strongly in the teachings of the mesa; in North America, it is retained in many Native American tribal traditions, in particular the Lakota people as it was taught by the old holy man, Black Elk whose life story was told in the book, Black Elk Speaks. As with Sun Bear’s system, the Wheel has been resurrected and adapted by both Native and non-Natives alike.
Upon reading One is the Sun, I reflected on the theme of the Wheel in my life and remembered that it went many years back before studying with Alberto. The Ven. Dhyani Ywahoo, who was my teacher in the early to mid-90s, teaches the Wheel. Then, in the late 90s and early 2000s, my sister and brother-in-law lived for 8 years in southern Ireland in the small village of Skibberreen in Cork County. During several visits there, my sister indulged my passion for finding almost every remnant of Neolithic stone circles that dot the landscape. This required reading highly detailed topographical maps on which the circles were notated and then navigating not just down obscure, narrow and windy country roads, but often clambering over hedges, stonewalls and tramping through cow paddies in farm fields.
I remember sitting within the remaining circumference of one ancient circle located on the very top of a bald, small, and yet astoundingly high mountain overlooking a wide bay. It was late in the day and rather cold and windy.
Those explorations in and around the southern Irish countryside are now almost a decade in the past and only now do I understand my feelings. Perhaps it was some deep ancestral memory going back to my own English, German, Irish, and Scottish kin. Perhaps it was some nascent knowing about my future. Nevertheless, recent events had forced me to admit that some non-physical force–perhaps more recently projected outwardly onto the many appearances of Sun Bear–has been for many years telling me to pay attention.
Shortly after reading the last page of One is the Sun where the future of Earth Thunder’s legacy was uncertain after everything she created was destroyed, I took a morning walk with my dogs in an open field down the road from my home. I was feeling incredibly moved and inspired both by Earth Thunder’s story and by the many synchronicities related to the Wheel that had been appearing in my life. That morning, I decided to completely surrender to the spiritual call. I stopped in the center of the field and faced the Rising Sun in the East. I called upon the helpers of the 4 directions, Mother Earth and Grandfather Sky (God, Creator, Wakan Tanka). I then called upon all the ancient teachers of the Medicine Wheel through time and asked for their teaching and guidance.
What then happened should not be surprising to me now given all the many visions and spiritual messages and experiences I have had through the years. Yet, I always am surprised and, initially doubtful. However, I know well enough that there is more than meets the eye than this raw, physical dimension, despite assertions by western science to the contrary. Upon sending out the invocation to the Sun and the 6 directions, a flood of images and messages poured into my mind through what I can only call a deep inner knowing and truth. After they came through, I went several feet ahead on the meadow path and found the feathers of a crow. I was excited. A crow spirit had appeared to me in two previous dreams that had presaged some shift in spiritual direction and calling. It seemed that these messages I was receiving were being confirmed. Here is what I learned from the truth that flooded into me that morning:
Every Wheel built by human beings in the past connected them in a special way with the animals, plants, minerals, water, and stones of the land upon which they stood, as well as to human and star-born ancestors and helping spirits both near and far, visible and invisible. The evidence of these ancient teachings abound: in Europe and across the Fertile Crescent, the people built small circles and large ones such as Stonehenge. In North America, they built mounded edifices out of earth, such as in Newark and Heath, Ohio. In South America, they built great stone temples. In each place, a medicine person might also carry a medicine bundle, or mesa, as their own personal wheel of knowledge to connect them with the Great Wheel. The imprints on the land of these geographic wheels and the widespread persistence of the mesa in South America even in the face of attempts over 4 centuries by western powers and Christianity, in particular, to wipe them out, point to an enduring legacy of hope and healing for humanity.
The message I received from vision and spirit that day told me this: The Medicine Wheel of the New Earth belongs to all of us and is Big Enough to partner with every spiritual and religious teaching in the world to spread healing and peace for all. There is great need now for Wheels to put on the Earth: to stabilize her shaking and heal her body; to teach people what they have forgotten–how to heal themselves through connection with the natural world and to live peacefully in community.
Native American teacher and elder, Sun Bear said this about the Medicine Wheel: “The Medicine Wheel is a magic circle which encompasses all of our relations with the natural world. It is a sacred tool which can teach us how to eat well; how to heal ourselves and others; how to hear the songs and stories that the wind and the water bring to us. It can teach us, too, the most important lesson, which is that we are each a small, unique part of the universe, and that we are here to learn harmony with the rest of Creation. When people feel something is missing in their lives, they often find part of it by working with the Wheel, because it helps them to grow closer to nature, and to the elemental forces” (Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology, with Wabun, 1980, p. 5).
For the past 40 years, many wise teachers on the American and European continents have been reclaiming the ancient teachings of transformation, healing and peace of the Medicine Wheels of their ancestors. Those teachers brought to the table the energies and spirits of their ancestral backgrounds and personal histories. Sun Bear was given his Wheel in a vision by the spirits: “I saw a hilltop bare of trees, and there was a soft breeze blowing….Then I saw a circle of rocks that came out like the spokes of a wheel. Inside was another circle of rocks, nearer to the center of the wheel. I knew that here was a sacred circle, the sacred hoop of my people” (p. 1).
Who are “the people” today, I asked myself as I walked through that field? And what Wheels are needed today as we enter 2012? Hopi, Lakota, Iroquois, Mayan, Inkan, and other prophesies say that 2012 will be a significant turning point in human history. They say that if human beings step up to do the hard work of self-confrontation and consciousness-raising, we will enter a Golden Age of peace and harmony.
My reluctance to embrace these prophesies has changed radically over the past 4 years. I do believe that humanity and Mother Earth are going through a great–even monumental change. The evidence is in what appears before my very eyes. In my private client healing practice, I am noticing that clients are making bigger leaps in self-awareness and healing in a spectacularly short time. In my undergraduate classroom and in workshops for professionals, students are more hungry than ever to engage with big questions about spiritual life and are more willing than students even 10 years ago to self-confront and to do the hard work of inner and outer change. They want an end to violence and hatred that mars our world. They are more open about sharing their spiritual worldviews without imposing them on others.
Then there are the mounting numbers of earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, and strange weather patterns around the world. As one student recently said to me, “Isn’t it strange that no one in the press is making any correlations between all these events?” This is a woman whom I would never expect to be so, well, woo-woo about such things. Native American teachers have called this phenomenon “Earth Changes.” Sun Bear put it this way in his book, Black Dawn, Bright Day: Prophesies for the New Millenium: “To Native people, the Earth is a living, intelligent being. It is capable of making the necessary changes for its own survival. These changes might not be convenient for Humans, but Earth will make them anyway. There will be drastic climate changes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, economic and political problems, and other problems humans have caused for themselves. The planet will survive….Humans are just another species on the planet. We are the same as the deer and other creatures that begin to die off when they get too far out of balance, or out of harmony with the path they’re supposed to be on” (1992, p. 51-51).
I am no proponent of prophesies that predict huge loss of life based on whether a person believes in one thing or another or does one thing or another. However, there is no doubt that rising numbers of catastrophic earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters have in the past 2 or more decades led to much death and destruction. There is mounting and terrible devastation from war, greed and ignorance. Human beings continue to deforest and poison the face of the Earth, to pollute the waters, and to support terrible inequities in access to basic resources such as food, shelter, and medical care. Even here in Virginia where I live–a state in the richest country in the world–there are people whose only access to medicine is when volunteer doctors, nurses, and others hold free clinics for one week twice a year. One volunteer told me that people start to line up the night before to makes sure they get seen. What a travesty! We humans continue to resort to violence to resolve conflict instead of seeking alternative avenues for reconciliation, of which there are many available. Children around the world are starving to death and are being enlisted as soldiers in brutal, mercenary wars. In face of this state of affairs, it is no wonder that my students believe violence is hardwired into our species. How sad that we are suffering so very deeply.
What is important to me is the validation of the Native prophesies which similarly note that in 2012, if humanity so chooses, we will make a giant leap from out of fear and ignorance into greater love and concord. They also say, as do many of the Native American peacekeepers, is that the time is urgent for us to step up to help Mother Earth and one another heal and stabilize.
As a healer, however, I know that often people must hit absolute rock bottom before they change. Every alternative strategy for survival must have failed before the veil of denial lifts. As the Earth shakes and shifts herself back into balance and as disease, starvation and war mar the face of our beloved planet, humanity does have a choice: we can partner with her and shake up our old ways of living or we can stubbornly hold onto them until we are forced to change in the hardest way possible.
Sun Bear’s emphasis in his life was giving people strategies for physical survival in times of Earth changes–going back to the land and learning how to hunt, forage, preserve precious water reserves and other basic skills. He, as well as others, also talk about the critical importance of healing our personal wounds and learning to live peaceably in community. We must cultivate the energies of love and compassion through daily practices. Cultivating love and compassion means we must get to the root of our patterns of anger and discord in mind and body and to heal them. As Cherokee teacher, the Ven. Dhyani Ywahoo puts it in her book, Voices of Our Ancestors: “Recognizing that patterns of mind manifest as one’s individual, family, clan, national, and planetary relationship, the Peacekeepers turns aside anger, doubt, and fear, harmonizing conflicting emotions through complementary resolution” (1987, p. 147)
My work in the world for almost 20 years as both a university professor and healer has been with developing systems and tools to help people dismantle their belief that violence as it exists today in our world is necessary and even biologically hardwired into our genes. I became a healer in a modality adapted from the shamans of Peru because of many visionary experiences and visitations from Spirit over 15 years that called me to that work. I finally surrendered to the call and left my tenured job at the University of Virginia to leap into the unknown. I also believed from my own experience that western methods for healing what ails us fall short. I wanted to find more and better tools to help myself and all of us.
My work as a consultant to organizations and professionals working with problems of violence is motivated by a philosophy that we must find a way to articulate the spiritual dimensions of healing from violence and trauma in order to end violence. This worldview and work arises directly out of my own long path healing from childhood trauma and how my spiritual grounding directly informed and supported that process.
Like many thousands upon thousands of people around the world, but particularly in the West, my spiritual path is an interesting and deep integration of many streams. My young life began in mainstream Christianity and Buddhism. I continued to study with Buddhist teachers in my 20s, 30s and 40s. Along the way, because of going to study with Dhyani Ywahoo who holds both Cherokee and Tibetan Buddhist lineages in her medicine, I then became deeply engaged with the beautiful teachings of the new Native American spirituality. More recently, I am steeping myself in the teachings of the Ancient Mystery Schools once of the Himalayas–supposedly those studied by Jesus during the 12 years not accounted for in the Bible. No matter the source, the consistent core of my spiritual practice is the development of compassion and growing the seeds of peace in my own mind and heart.
I have experienced the Medicine Wheel in my own life as a complex and rich source of knowledge, wisdom, and healing. I have learned that, as Sun Bear himself says, every person’s experience of the Wheel is different. In these times, in particular, what each person brings to the work may be a conglomeration of many, many religious and spiritual beliefs and experiences. Like the many Native American teachers who have stepped up to write about and teach some version of their people’s spirituality to non-Natives, the students who come to me represent a rainbow of races, ethnicities, nations, religious beliefs, and spiritual searching. The key question in face of this sometimes overwhelming diversity as we face the future is: how can we live together peaceably? How can we heal the wounds of our ancestors in the present? So many of us carry these wounds–often without being consciously aware of it. In the world of peacebuilding, the wounds are evident and potentially dangerous to all human life on the planet: all we have to do is look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the present turmoil in the Middle East.
Therefore, my vision of the Great Medicine Wheel of the New Earth is that it will invite all of the spiritual systems every individual brings to its great table of compassion. In this time of the confluence of many wisdom traditions from around the world, their gifts to the Wheel may include the great peacekeepers and teachings of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and many other spiritual and philosophical systems.
The Wheel is teaching me as I go. It said to me one day as I was preparing for my small community of students to l dance it awake that it recognizes that we are like children–we in the West have lost so much of our original teachings that when we finally wake up, we are taking baby steps. I feel grateful for the wisdom of the three wheels I have now helped others build on their lands and dance alive. I am humbled by the power of these practices and the reminder that everything is alive and conscious. The wheels continue to press me to walk my talk and to deepen my trust in the luminous world around us.
The Wheel that I now teach embodies the foundational practices and energies of my long spiritual path: Buddhist, Christian and Native American. Each student is given a full and powerful form within which they are supported in exploring their life’s path and their spiritual journey. Many students who have come have ended up recalling visions and dreams long forgotten that seemed to point the way to a more tribal way of praying and living. Or they remember and tap into a long suppressed Native ancestry in their blood.
Because of my deep love of nature and the obvious connection of all the great Wheels through time to the natural world and the cycle of the seasons, the Great Medicine Wheel of the New Earth is held in the loving embrace of the animal, stone, and plant kingdom. In this way, as a community, we heal any appearance of division, competition, and egotism about any of our paths and beliefs. This is grounded in a deepening relationship with Mother Earth. We learn to honor, respect, and hold each other in the spirit of healing, and love. When conflict arises, we bring those conversations and feelings to the Wheel work to be resolved through individual and community healing.
As I start this work, I hope to take the lead with many others, known and unknown, in the endeavor to build and dance new Wheels to life all over the planet. Every Wheel reflects the landscape, natural environment, and spiritual practices of those who participate. In this way, I wish to help others build and awaken Wheels both on their lands–the Earth–and in their personal medicine bundles or mesas. I then hand over the leadership and teaching role in each of those places so that they can continue the work of healing and transformation, and peacebuilding in their own communities.
In the end, I believe that if Sun Bear has been “visiting” me from the other side–and I presume nothing, as who am I to say I know what anyone is doing on their path after they leave the body?–Yet, I would conjecture that if he were trying to spread his vision now, he is visiting many, many people on Earth today. He, as well as all the teachers of the great Medicine Wheels through the history of Mother Earth would understand that the time is ripe for the Wheels to spread far more widely than they ever have in the past.
So it is that during that morning walk with my dogs, I became a humble and grateful participant in a worldwide movement, as we enter 2012, to call forth a New Golden Age on Mother Earth of peace, healing and sweetness. I am thankful to all my teachers, both in and out of the body, and to Larry and Charlsie for listening to their deep knowing, as well. May it be so for all of us.