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  • Jesse Williams, LPC-MHSP

The Unfinished Journey: A Walk Around the Medicine Wheel

Have you ever started off on an adventure, only to realize that you won't be able to finish? Maybe you started training for a marathon, only to discover that you just can't physically do it. Maybe you got halfway through a degree program, only to realize you chose the wrong field. Maybe you got three weeks into a New Year's resolution, only to find yourself ready to throw in the towel. Maybe you finally got your dream job, only to uncover the reality that it wasn't what you were expecting. Maybe you tried breaking a habit, only to land yourself right back in the same old pattern.

Then enters the feelings of disappointment, resentment, frustration, and guilt. Then enters the reality of false starts, unfinished plans, and dreams broken by reality.

This feeling of disappointment and not finishing was exactly what I was dealt this morning. I had been checking the mountain forecast for the past few days, planning for a Sunday morning hike on Old Sugarlands Trail--- a trail that I have done multiple times yet never completed in its entirety. Every time I had attempted to finish this hike in the past, something has prevented me from completing the last 2.4 miles. Last time, it was due to my hiking partners being tired after going a few miles off the main trail to an old stone house. We were planning on finishing it off once we got back onto Old Sugarlands Trail, yet when the time came, we decided to just go home in interest of energy and time. The attempt before that, we ran out of time after staying in the old cemetery for too long.

Little did I know, today would be no different.

I had everything planned out with the bags packed and clothes laid out for the early morning hike. I knew that we needed to get on the trail early, as there was supposedly a front coming through the area for the afternoon, bringing with it a high chance of high wind and lightning (not ideal trail conditions). The kids and I woke up early and got on the road, and I happened to check the weather forecast one last time before leaving town. To my surprise, there was a huge blob of rain/storm heading towards our area, probably about 2 hours away. I pulled up the mountain forecast and saw where they had changed the chance of lightning from starting at 2pm to 11am. I questioned if we would be able to complete the hike before the front hit.

We went ahead and decided to get on the trail with the intention of just keeping an eye on everything (and hope I had some cell service at spots so that I could check the radar again). About 1.4 miles in--- the point that is the turn off to the cemetery and the old stone house---the point I've never hiked past--- we realized the sky was getting uncomfortably dark. The kids were starting to worry over the fear of a possible thunderstorm, so we made the decision to turn around. As I walked back to the truck that 1.4 miles, I was faced with the reality of disappointment and the feelings associated with not finishing a goal. I realized this was becoming a theme for this easy trail, and internally, I felt a Medicine Wheel starting to turn.

I've mentioned Medicine Wheel work in past blogposts. For those of you unfamiliar, I typically think of the Medicine Wheel as a way of processing situations and emotions. The Medicine Wheel is a large circle separated into the four cardinal directions: East, South, West, North. And for each of those directions, there is assigned an aspect of life: East = Mental; South = Emotional; West = Physical; North = Spiritual. The premise behind the Medicine Wheel is that as you move through these directions, you grow. You learn about yourself. You deal with difficult situations/emotions. Oftentimes, we start in the Mental East with a thought, that then triggers some Emotional South internal feelings. As we sit with those thoughts of the East/emotions of the South and allow ourselves to feel them in their entirety with our bodies, we move with through the Physical West and into the understanding and enlightenment of the Spiritual North, where we gain perspective and insight.

As I walked back the truck, I felt myself moving into the Mental East as various thoughts began popping up in my head:

What if we made the wrong decision? What if it doesn't even storm? What if we continue, and it actually does storm? Are we giving in to fear? Are we being overly precautious? Was this wise, or was this fearful? Did we get up early for nothing?

As I moved through this Mental East territory, I began shifting into the Emotional South. The feelings started to come up. Feelings of frustration over the weather. Feelings of anger at the situation. Feelings of guilt over "wasting" my time. Feelings of resentment towards the trail.

It is at this part of the Medicine Wheel that people often get sidetracked. The emotions feel unpleasant; the thoughts feel unhelpful. So, we try our best to get it all to go away. We distract. We lash out in an attempt to pass the emotion to someone else. We blame. We internalize the feelings but never deal with them. We think we are dealing with the situation, but oftentimes, because we are actually running from the Physical West. Because we are not wanting to sit with the feelings and the thoughts, we are instead left in an unfinished Medicine Wheel cycle that ends in crammed emotion, unresolved guilt/anger, and no insight. Even as I typed this blogpost, two hours later, I realized that I battled with that Physical West for a bit. For such a seemingly simple situation, it brought forth quite a challenge for me! I tried to dispel the emotions instead of feeling them. I tried cramming the emotions and thoughts instead of addressing them. I felt the desire to blame. Internally, I was sitting with my arms crossed refusing to cooperate with the process. I felt resistant to feeling the anger. I hated the thought of possibly walking off that trail after not finishing yet again.

It was not until I sat in the Physical West, feeling the weight of the situation, that I was able to move through it. I had to sit, feeling the possibility of making the "wrong" decision. Feeling the reality of an "or" decision, where only one choice is an option. Feeling the finality of turning around and "not finishing." I had to accept the fact that this happens. I had to embrace the fact that it brings up anger and frustration. I had to accept the fact that this was my path today and that it wasn't exactly what I expected.

That's often how that Physical West piece goes. You have to find some way to engage the thoughts and emotions, whether it is through meditation, journaling, going for walk and facing it, writing a blogpost, talking it out with a friend, or exploring it with a therapist. Physical West demands that we feel the emotion fully, accepting that it exists, and allowing it to have physical place within our lives. And it is through that process that we move into greater perspective. Into greater understanding. Into the Spiritual North.

And as I typed this blogpost, as I embraced that emotion, as I moved into acceptance--- I felt myself shift out of that Physical West and move into the Spiritual North. I felt understanding come over me. I felt insight awaken. I suddenly realized that there was a lesson here. I saw that there was a Medicine Wheel to be worked with. And it's not about just typing up another blogpost, it's about pushing myself towards acceptance that sometimes we just don't finish what we start. Sometimes life twists a way we weren't quite expecting. That there's a lesson in every challenge we face if we look hard enough.

And that is the power of the Medicine Wheel. It brings us to enlightenment. It moves us to understanding. It shakes us up a bit, allowing us to see the bigger picture and move into acceptance. It teaches us a lesson about ourselves or about life. It leaves us feeling at peace.

So although I didn't finish that hike, I did finish that Medicine Wheel. I didn't make it to the end of Old Sugarlands Trail, but I did make it to my Spiritual North.

It doesn't matter if it's as complex as questioning your identity or as simple as not finishing a hiking trail, consider how you can apply the Medicine Wheel when faced with feelings of disappointment or frustration around unfinished goals. Use it to challenge yourself to find completion, even amidst life's unfinished journeys. Push towards completion. Push towards acceptance and understanding. Push towards your Spiritual North.


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