Together at the Poles

Michael Ligtenberg: My Bipolar Medicine Wheel

In this blog I would like to talk about the Native symbol known as the Medicine Wheel, the concept of the Seven Directions and how I use them to make daily adjustments.

Do you see things? I do. Seemingly incoherent and random shapes become images. I can sit outside for an hour and watch the clouds drift by seeing dozens of animals…but only animals. When I look for rocks on the Arctic Ocean shoreline, I keep the ones that have faces…and again, I only find faces. Driftwood can also be fascinating, the curving forms molding themselves into strange beasts, some pleasant and some scary. Nobody else sees them, until I point them out.


Copyright © 2012 Michael Ligtenberg

Presently I am fascinated by the circle, using it to help me cope and prevent episodes. But have you really thought about the circle and its implications to your outside world and your inner self? Certainly I have never given it much thought, until I lived here on a Native reserve. The Medicine Wheel is a powerful circular symbol, enabling me to keep my precious yet erratic balance under some control. I also better understand my place in time and space.

When you think about how the universe functions, everything moves in a circle – the galaxies, the solar systems, the planets, and the moons. Indeed time is dictated by the movement of the earth. One rotation is one day; one turn around the sun is one year. If you see life as a circle, life becomes infinite…never ending. We are born, we live, we die, and then we become the food of new life, and the circle begins again. I know I am a part of this circle, even when I don’t feel like I do.

The Medicine Wheel has four quadrants, the colours representing the four races of the earth, red, black, yellow, and white. They are given equal place. The four quadrants also represent many other things, like animals, seasons, stages of life and so much more. For me the most important is that they represent the four elements of the self, namely your physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual states (PIES). Again they are given equal place. When the wheel is well balanced it rolls along with ease like a bicycle. But when any quadrant dominates the others, the circle becomes distorted. Think of an egg. What happens when you roll it? It goes all over the place. Or a log, it looks round but it takes a lot of energy to keep it going. Progress becomes difficult.

CN Tower

Copyright © 2012 Michael Ligtenberg

Being born with Bipolar Disease, my wheel was out of whack to begin with; the emotional quadrant had dominance over all the others creating a unbalanced being. When I am in a manic period, the emotions are wonderful and this permits my intellect to function at an amazing level; my spirit sores in the sky rising above any storm and making me feel invincible; I take on back-breaking work with exuberance to challenge my physical strength. When I am in a depressive period, it’s the opposite. My emotions are horrible and control everything: the way I think, the way I feel alienated from the world, and the way every task, even as simple as showering, can feel like a burden.

So what do I do with this circle? Everyday I think about the four areas and try, and not always successfully mind you, to keep as balanced as possible. When I am down, I still go jogging, I still write, and I force myself outside to work in the yard or shovel snow (we do get a lot up here). I eat as well as I possibly can, focusing on fruits and vegetables and not Doritos and Coke. When I am up, I stop to listen to what I am saying…because I often find myself making silly jokes that are insensitive and hurtful. Up means I speak before I think (the old foot-in-the-mouth syndrome except my mouth can hold two feet). I make lists so that I can concentrate on one task, instead of doing 20 things at the same time which is both confusing and exhausting. I bask in the spiritual sensation, the grandeur of the universe, the things I see in the beauty of nature, in Mother Earth. Then I wonder, what is the real purpose of my life? I mean there must be a reason, right? Yes a truly metaphysical question but in fact for me, it is a completely inessential one. In the circle of life, life itself is the purpose. So I use the wheel on a daily basis to check my balance; maybe my tire needs some air, or replacement, or perhaps the wheel even needs a complete realignment.

On the Rocks

Copyright © 2012 Michael Ligtenberg

Another key concept I have adopted from the Native culture is their sense of direction. If I asked you how many directions there are, most would say four…north, south, east and west. But in the Native vision, there are Seven Directions…they also include up, down, and inside. Now, suddenly the wheel becomes a sphere, just like the stars, planets, and moons. Therefore I try to use this concept to keep a balanced perspective of the past, present and future. But yes, this is much easier to say than do. I have a t-shirt that says “If can’t walk the walk, don’t talk the talk!”

Most of the time, I am looking from the heights and depths of my illness, regretting the past with extreme remorse, or riding the sun into the future, unaware that my vision is veiled by the light. It takes so much effort for me to stay focused on the now. I am often looking in only one blinkered direction instead of moving around the sphere to get a complete and honest perspective of the situation or event that has disturbed my balance. And what lies ahead? Well, as for me, it is generally one of two things: either overly-optimistic, unrealistic dreams and projects or a dark dismal view of what must surely come, depending on the mood of the day of course. As I am sure you will understand, I spend way too much time looking inside, trying to understand the reason I feel so insecure, suffer from self-loathing, and become constantly dependent on my spouse. I cower with fear over any change and pace about aimlessly. I can be terribly needy of praise, to be reassured that I am not a total failure. Why can’t I just feel “normal”…yeah I know, what is “normal” anyway?

So yes I do see things. And I would never want to stop seeing these things. I have a racing mind with a powerful imagination, spinning yarns and tall tales on the spur of the moment, often facetious in nature and in the realm of the ridiculous. I have a great sense of humour, mostly improvised, so improvised that I often don’t realize what I am saying is hilarious until I listen to myself. I think my imagination also enables me to interpret and personalize symbols. It’s on the plus side of my T-chart.

12 Responses to Michael Ligtenberg: My Bipolar Medicine Wheel

  • I love what your saying here Michael and about the medicine wheel. 🙂

  • Thank you Angel,

    It has certainly helped me to understand balance, and a road to take to see where I am unbalanced.

    I am happy that you enjoyed the piece.

  • Love it!!!! Makes the wheel come alive a little more than ever before!

    • Hi Lisa,

      I am happy to bring something to life you Lisa. I have always thought there was so many more living things around us then most people are willing to recognize.

      All the best,

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thank you very much for your encouragement.

  • Great article Michael:) Thank you:) Hugs!

    • Hi Sara,

      Thank you for the feedback. It certainly helps dispense with troubling metaphysical questions when you look at it that way. My experience on the reserve made me realize, this is not even a question Native people ask themselves.

      All the best,

    • Hi Calisto,

      Thanks for the feedback. It is this kind of encouragement that allows me to go on and explore writing. Hugs to you too.

      All the best,

  • I can so relate to your every word. Your descriptions fit to a tee!!!

    • Hi Mary-anne,

      Thank you for your comment…it’s heartwarming to hear. I hope you are doing well.

      All the best,

  • This was such an interesting read. My favourite part of this article was when you said: “In the circle of life, life itself is the purpose”. I couldn’t agree more.

    – Sara

  • WOW! I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed this. You hit on so many things that I’ve thought of over the years. I’m not familiar with the wheel but have been working so hard to establish balance in my life and I think that this concept can be a great tool in helping me to do that. Thanks for sharing your insight. Sometimes just knowing that others are going through the same struggles and experiencing some of the same things that I do gives me strength to go on. Often times I feel so alone in the world and although I’m blessed with many good people who love and support me there is no one who understands me.

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