Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

The Healing Circle as a Holistic Framework


As can be learned from a Native American healer, to heal profoundly, one must holistically integrate mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of being human.

This is Part II of  “Circle Medicine: A Holistic Approach to Health for Clinicians and Patients.”


Indigenous perspectives on healing

My work with the circle of the Hero’s Journey led me to working with Joseph Rael when I was seeking indigenous perspectives on healing. Since 2014, I have been studying with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), a healer of the Southern Ute tribe who grew up at Picuris Pueblo, New Mexico. Joseph’s teaching about indigenous healing are holistic and go in circles, in contrast to our evidence-based medicine pathways that are linear and reductionist.


The circle of the medicine wheel

In our first book together, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD, Joseph taught me about the circle of the medicine wheel, with four outer directions of east, south, west, and north, and four inner directions of mind, emotion, body, and spirit. Joseph taught me how to use the medicine wheel like a compass, to help reorient veterans to a path of peace after learning the path of war in the military.


circle medicine diagram

The Medicine Wheel of Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), by David R. Kopacz (2016).


Using the circle of the medicine wheel of Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow)

The medicine wheel comes from Native American culture, most notably Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples. We must be aware of the risk of cultural appropriation, while also recognizing that healing circles are found in many different cultures: the Chinese yin/yang, Hindu and Buddhist mandalas, the Celtic tree of life, and Stonehenge, to name just a few.


Psychiatrist Carl Jung developed a similar orienting structure for psychological types, including thinking (mental), feeling (emotional), sensation (physical), and intuition (spiritual). Like the medicine wheel, he also saw that there could be an outward focus (extraversion), or an inward focus (introversion). For a period in his life, Jung would daily draw a mandala, a circular structure with inner and outer elements to understand himself and for personal growth. Jung shows us that we can all use healing circles in our lives.


Joseph Rael was taught the medicine wheel by his parents and has had many dreams and visions about it. He teaches from his own experience, writes about it in his books, and has also encouraged me to talk and write about it. My apologies to any who feel that this is not something that I should speak about, but I weigh the issues and, in the end, listen to Joseph’s encouragement to speak and write about the medicine wheel. If you use these ideas, please think about and refer to them as healing circles, instead of the medicine wheel, to avoid cultural appropriation.


Using healing circles as a compass

A healing circle is like a compass that can help us support ourselves in orienting us in the inner and outer worlds as we move through life. Joseph teaches that when we go around the wheel in a sunwise, or clockwise, direction, we are in ordinary reality, flowing from mental, to emotional, to physical, to spiritual, and then into the heart center.


When we get stuck in life, the flow of energy gets stagnant, and can even reverse in a moonwise, or counter clockwise, direction, moving us into non-ordinary reality. When you come to a place where you feel stuck in your life, reflect on whether you are stuck in a mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual place, and whether it is an inner or outer place of stuckness. Sometimes the answer is not in front of you, and you have to circle back to your roots.


Having difficulty moving forward is part of life. In our Western view of life and world, we think we always need to be progressing. But what Joseph Rael teaches of the medicine wheel and healing circles is that we have cycles in our lives, just as there are cycles of the moon, sun, and seasons.


“We are people of the circle,” Joseph often reminds me. From this perspective, issues are not resolved, so much as they are lived and re-lived as they are revisited. When you get stuck in life, see if you can shift your thinking from an interrupted straight line to a flowing circle.