A Circular Concept of Leadership

In a comment on my last post, Flor Fernandez Barrios talked about medicine wheels:

Native-Americans have the concept of the medicine Wheel, the great circle of life based on the cardinal directions. Every posiition has equal power and unique teachings. The essence of life is movement and as we move through the wheel we learn and unfold….Every stone has a teaching and a valued vision of the world and life. Each stone is a sister or a brother ready to mirror back a part of ourselves. There is no judgment involved in this process. I think adopting this circular concept in leadership is esssential if we are to continue growing and evolving with equality. A system where every one’s voice is heard and no one is discriminated.

Bighorn Medicine Wheel — National Park Service Photo via Wikipedia

What strikes me most deeply is that line about each stone as a sister or brother ready to mirror back a part of ourselves.

That would mean we might well do an inventory of our “sisters” and “brothers.” We might think of everyone we know and have known and let them come into us, to hear their story, their teaching, their vision, and see also the parts of ourselves they reflect. This is no easy task, for while there are many that we like to attend to there are undoubtedly others, perhaps only a few, perhaps more, that we would like to ignore. In my mind’s eye I sit at the center of the circle with some stones behind me, out of sight, facing those I appreciate the most, facing away from those I appreciate the least.

Flor’s comment touches directly on the problem of discrimination, the voices that are heard and those we are conditioned (have conditioned ourselves) to discredit and discount. And there are always a million good reasons to discredit and discount them. It seems to me the power and beauty of the wheel is in the reconsideration of who we think we know — and therefore what we think we know about ourselves. Do we look at those, for example, with whom we have our gravest conflicts or who inspire our greatest fears and see in them an aspect of ourselves? Or do we create a palatable distance? It’s easy to look if we are acknowledging the good, but how about the darkness and dare I say it, our belief in others’ evil?

I once used to think that evil was an outmoded concept; that our undefiled natures were spontaneously good, and I still do believe this in a way. But I no longer hold to such a rose-colored view with simplicity. And this is why the medicine wheel is so important, precisely because within its circuit we cannot claim to see evil in others without knowing that in some way it is also a part of ourselves. Which is to say I note its presence in my own soul as well as feel its presence in my world.

It is only our private and unique forms of denial, our persistent blind spots, our satisfied unconsciousness — in effect our belief that we can face one way only in the circle — that keeps us blaming others for what we ourselves are doing or participating in or avoiding.

This is very hard because we can be quite sure we know what evil is — in others. We can be quite sure we know it when we see it. But, don’t you know, it slips away as soon as it is named, slips out of the noose of our concepts and judgments, transformed again by our own hidden processes?

Milton got as close as possible in Paradise Lost, defining evil with one statement from a fallen angel, “Myself am Hell.” This is a statement that tells, at least, where evil comes from, and how it spreads: insofar as I am hell to myself therefore my attempt will be to stamp out the evil in you. And maybe taking it a step farther, because I can’t stamp out what is in you, I simply try to stamp you out instead. In any event, if you buy in, if I am able to trigger in some way your own inner pain, the cycle continues.


And do we all have a side of ourselves that can be awful to us? You bet. We can all be hell to ourselves, just as we all can be good. Therefore we must sit in this medicine wheel awhile longer, talking with the stones, with our brothers and sisters. We must share our suffering, letting the afternoon sun come down to warm our backs and remind us of the healing that is available. We must find our own self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others, our “growing and evolving with equality,” as Flor says. And we must use our warrior selves to stop at every turn the belief that there’s an “it” out there somewhere, an evil that wants to get at us or destroy us, especially as we believe it is embodied in others. Because in truth, that “it” is no one but ourselves, translated through the interstices of a crystalline world in which every vibration we send out comes back to us tenfold and perhaps in frightening disguise.

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  • Deeply resonant on many levels.

    In the Mankind Project, which derives part of its wisdom and practices from Native American traditions, we have a saying that “each man is my teacher”, which combines the recognition of our relatedness as siblings (on some level) with an acknowledgment that the emotional charge I get in reacting to someone – or something – is typically rooted in a projection onto “the other”, and reveals an area of shadow work … a teachable moment in which I can come to a deeper understanding of myself through processing – and owning – the projection.

    I’m also reminded of one of the kernels of wisdom expressed by James P. Carse, in his book “Finite and Infinite Games”:

    Evil is never intended as evil. Indeed, the contradiction inherent in all evil is that originates in the desire to eliminate evil. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

  • Yes, the Carse quotation nails it perfectly, Joe. But I worry this is so only in an intellectual sense. We do have the additional problem, as you mention, of that very real “emotional charge” that drives the process. It does seem sometimes that evil very much has a life of its own. It’s not so easily put aside. I might know in a way that I’m projecting and experiencing something in the world or in others that’s really part of myself, but the charge can be overwhelming and tap emotions that have been buried and unmanageable for a long time. My sense is that’s why we go unconscious or into denial and why therefore the medicine wheel is essential. If evil is “outside” us, if it does in a way have a life of its own through our unconsciousness, then a certain amount of medicine needs to come from “outside” as well — from community and from nature, from whatever help the local shaman can offer. I don’t think we get there really until we’ve done the evil, accepted that we’ve done it, and wondered why — all the way through. We have to hang on that tree for awhile before the changes come.

  • Glenn R Smith wrote:

    As much shadow work as I have done on myself I really do wonder just how much I am actually missing as being from me. How much of what I see externally is me projected I wonder? And that is just the visual sense. What about smell and hearing? The contraction or dislike away from another is obvious but what about the subtle. It is mind boggling.

  • It is mind boggling, Glenn! And just so. Thich Naht Hanh speaks of “interbeing,” the notion that everything interpenetrates. If I am reading a page in a book, the trees that made up the paper are in that book as well, as is sunlight and rain, as I am, too, as the reader. When we apply that idea to our interpersonal relationships, the notion that we are isolated and alone, projectors and projectees mechanically acting upon one another, breaks down, I think, and we are left with deeper questions and richer insights.

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