The Four Directions and Medicine Wheel of Native Americans
Life calls to open sacred space during pivotal events, such as birth or marriage, and for healing purposes. Whatever the reason is, the intention must carry an unyielding presence of love and focus for sacred space to open. When sacred space is created, the veils between the physical and spiritual worlds begin to thin and transformation ensues.
The Medicine Wheel
At the heart of the Shamanic path is the contract to live in harmony with nature, self, community, and spirit. The Medicine Wheel, or Wheel of Life, is represented by the four directions.: it symbolizes the cycle of life, without beginning or end, and provides guidance for living. While the Medicine Wheel varies by culture, it universally honors the core belief that all things on earth are living and all things are interconnected. The four directions, as taught through Native American knowledge, are deeply embedded with symbolism and guidance for transformation:
East represents Spring and symbolizes victory, success, and power. After a long winter, the renewed sense of life emerges. The color is red and it symbolizes protection. Red beads were used to call forth the red spirit for strong love relations, to heal from illness, and to pray for longevity. Animals of the East are birds in flight such as the owl, hawk, and hummingbird. Words are offered to the East so they may fly and soar with Spirit.
North represents winter and also a sense of trouble, hardships, and sadness. As winter is the season of waiting and surviving, the Cherokee word for North literally means cold. North is the color blue. The animals representing the North include white buffalo, moose, and bear. These animals are a reminder to be patient with the seasons.
West represents Autumn and the final harvest as the end of a cycle. The West is black and it represents the death of summer’s cycle. The animals of the west include the beaver for teamwork to prepare for winter and the snake to remind us of how to shed our old skin for transformation.
South represents Summer and is a time of great abundance. The summer holds fertility, passion, growth, joy, and peace. The color is white. The animals of the South hold the lesson of strength, courage, and pride. The eagle with her keen sight and the wolf, proud to be part of the tribe.
Above and Below
There are three more Sacred Directions: up above to the stars is yellow, down below to the earth is brown and the center is green. The place of self or the “sacred fire” of the self which is the center of all paths. The medicine wheel holds meaning to life, death, birth, aftermath, rebirth, and the sacredness of place along the path.
Assignment: Find Your True North
Knowing the cardinal directions and where you stand in relation to them is an essential aspect of connecting to the natural and spirit worlds. Ancient cultures of the world, in tune with the cycles of the seasons and the stars, knew how to orient themselves if lost and likely intuited their location naturally due to practice.
Set a reminder to locate true north intermittently throughout the day; for example, at sunrise, midday and sunset, use a compass to find north. Stand facing north and notice the angle of the sun and landmarks that may guide you without a compass.
Four Directions Ceremony: Open Sacred Space
Call upon the four directions in this invocation from the Q’ero Shamans of Peru to ask for a blessing from the spirits in your endeavors. Consider creating an altar representing each direction. To begin, take some deep breaths, let go of mental preoccupations and align with your heart’s intention to create sacred space. As you face each direction, smudge or fan sage, blow scented water, or shake a rattle and say the prayer aloud.
Face the south with one arm up and the other palm open to receive
To The Winds of the South
Mother of the Life-giving waters
Wrap your coils of light around me
Remind me of how to let go and shed old ways of being
Teach me to walk the way of beauty
Face the west with one arm up and the other palm open to receive
To The Winds of the West
Support me as I see my own fears
Teach me how to transform my fears into love
Remind of how to live with impeccability
May I have no enemies in this lifetime or next
Face the north with one arm up and the other palm open to receive
To the Winds of the North
Teach me about your endurance and your great joy
Come to me in the dreamtime
With honor I greet you
Face the east with one arm up and the other palm open to receive
To the Winds of the East
Eagle or Condor
Great visionary, remind me to lead from my pure heart
Teach me to soar to new places, to fly wing to wing with Spirit
Place one palm on the earth and the other arm up
Mother Earth- Pachamama
I pray for your healing
Let me soften into your wisdom
May I take great care of you so that my children and my children’s children
may witness the beauty and abundance you offer me today
Raise both arms to the sky
Father Sun, Grandmother Moon, to the Star nations
Great Spirit- you who are known by a thousand names
And you who are the unnamable One
Thank you for bringing me here at this time
Close the Ceremony
When you have finished your ceremony, sacred space must be closed. This can be done silently or spoken aloud, but it must be intentional. Thank the serpent, jaguar, hummingbird, and eagle for their wisdom. As you release their energies back to their four directions, take a few deep breaths, acknowledge yourself back in the space you are in, and witness any changes in your being. Take any inspiration gleaned from your sacred space and share them with the earth, your family, and your community.
Updated by Gaia Staff 9/17/2020
Crocodiles and Plant Medicine: Lessons of the Modern Shaman
Crocodile came to me recently in ceremony. At first I was startled by his appearance, feeling I have already embraced every shadow aspect of myself he represents. Since his visit, however, I have spent time welcoming him and examining the teachings he now brings.
Crocodile/Snake holds our basal self, our deepest fears and lesser-evolved leanings which are held in the reptilian brain. In sacred ceremony and spiritual initiations, it is snake or crocodile who confronts you to face and embrace that which you fear most. His personal challenge to me: “You’re not a true shaman. You don’t work in the rain forest, you don’t ingest plant medicines, and you’re falsely holding your craft, thereby misleading those you serve.”
On more than one occasion I have been questioned and warned against calling myself a shaman. I haven’t studied in the jungle, I don’t have any hint of bronzed pigment in my Irish skin, and I don’t have a Maestro or don teaching me the ways. My path is unique in devoted past-life reclamation, shamanic journey, and an early proclamation at five-years-old that I would be a shaman. I was born ready and haven’t looked back. However, the thorny challenges still arise.
Enter the internal struggle of spirit and shadow. It’s brought me to a place of deep self-inquiry and an eventual and potent reclamation. It’s also offered me a new perspective on the path of the modern shaman.
What is a Shaman?
When asked, “What is a shaman?” my easiest answer is “someone who works in the invisible spaces to bring peace and healing to those whom they are in service.”
“Shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. Shamans are said to treat ailments/illness by mending the soul. Alleviating traumas affecting the soul/spirit restores the physical body of the individual to balance and wholeness. The shaman also enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community. Shamans may visit other worlds/dimensions to bring guidance to misguided souls and to ameliorate illnesses of the human soul caused by foreign elements. The shaman operates primarily within the spiritual world, which in turn affects the human world. The restoration of balance results in the elimination of the ailment.”
In Cave and Cosmos, Michael Harner suggests it is simply “one who knows.”
Core and Indigenous Shamanism
The big divide in the shamanic communities lies between those who work in the rain forest with the lineage of indigenous wisdom in their blood; and so-called Plastic Shamans who have no connection to the cultures and traditions they represent.
As shamanism has gained prevalence in the modern era, “core shamanism” has become the accepted term for those who use the methods of the shaman but have not been raised in the traditional cultures. The Foundation for Shamanic Studies has reintroduced the shamanic journey for self-healing, while the Psychonauts have lead a revolution through chemically assisted self-inquiry. Both are valid paths that differ greatly from a jungle education. While the efficacy of the practice is all that should matter, there still lies a division.
Another crucial distinction for indigenous shamans is their relationships with the plants. Dietas are ceremonial ingestions of plant medicines that teach the shaman how to walk between and within the astral worlds. Any number of teacher plants are used, from tobacco to ayahuasca. These ceremonies are performed with great reverence and honor and remain within sacred guidelines as sincere spiritual endeavors to deepen the path of the seeker. The illusion of this world fades away and great insights are gained, revealing the true nature of one’s own soul.
Freakin’ awesome when done in this sacred space, right?
I, however, am a different kind of shaman. I traverse the dimensions without the use of hallucinogens. Drums, deep meditation, and the psychic connection with spirits and plant allies, for me, have been enough. And Croc challenged me on this also: “Is your plant abstinence genuinely enough to gain such an alliance with the spirit realms?”
In the modern world, our relationship to the plants is vastly different than that of the indigenous shaman. We don’t commune with them personally, nor do we seek to hone their wisdom. As a result, contemporary seekers often misuse the medicines. In my younger days, I experimented with mushrooms recreationally. I found them an expansive and uplifting dalliance that only affirmed my path as a seer and healer. Yet I took them with no noble intent.
Recently, I found myself called to work more closely with the plants in ceremonial space and felt conflicted. My ego holds my hallucinogenic refrain as a badge of honor — a way of ensuring the purity of the messages received. And yet I found myself deeply appreciating the plant spirits again, in great awe and gratitude for the teachings they shared.
And what they shared was this: I’ve connected more than sufficiently with the plant spirits. I learn and walk beside them every day to offer blessings to my community. I need not ingest them, for they have been my allies all along!
In a recent Aubrey Marcus podcast, Astral Snakes and Binaural Beats (episode 59), Cory Allen shared his most recent devotion is not in using the plant medicines, but rather simply being in the astral plane without any enhancements. Under the influence of the medicine, “The consciousness of the plant is with you in that space and colors your vision of that space. If you get there without it, you are completely you and you are on your own.” Boom, validation! And Croc began to smile.
What I realized was, it all comes back to me not having any allies, any perceptions, any filters on my experience in these worlds. The mark of the shaman is not who they are when they’re on the medicines or how they handle these energies inside of them. It is who they are in the absence of any aids at all!