Psychology Takes a Spin on ‘Medicine Wheel’

Southern California has its share of peculiar rituals. At the Park Newport apartments in Newport Beach last Saturday, people celebrated the coming of the weekend with a ceremonial washing of cars. They performed the rites of mixed doubles on the tennis courts and headed off in search of the sacred champagne brunch.

Anyone who happened to poke his head into the Lido Room at that complex, however, witnessed a ritual that fits less neatly into the scheme of contemporary Orange County life.

In the center of the room, carefully positioned on woven “medicine blankets,” were the wings of hawks, the feathers of ravens, gourd rattles, miniature totem poles, deerskin drums, shells, masks, flowers, crystals, stones and candles.

Indian Chants

Surrounding this “altar,” 20 women sat cross-legged on folded aerobics mats. As rhythmic American Indian chants issued from a large cassette player, the initiates awaited the start of the “Medicine Wheel,” an ancient Indian ceremony which would culminate in a vision quest and the smoking of a sacred medicine pipe.

“I’m expecting something, I don’t know what, but I really am,” one woman said, as the group members introduced themselves.

The teacher of this daylong Coastline Community College class--officially titled “The Path of the Heart: The Native American Indian Medicine Wheel"--seated herself on the north side of the circle: the side of wisdom, she would later explain. But Jane Goldberg--also known as Raven Fire Woman--was straightforward about her credentials as a guide into the realm of Indian spirituality: “I’m not an Indian. I’m not a shaman. I’m a Jewish mother,” she said.

Alternative University

Goldberg added that she is also a licensed marriage, family and child counselor, with a master’s degree in psychological counseling from Cal State Fullerton and a Ph.D. in “transformational psychology” from International College, an “alternative university” in Los Angeles. It’s in her role as a therapist that she uses and teaches “expressive arts therapy,” a technique which, she explains, blends ancient traditions and modern counseling techniques to help people achieve balance in their lives and realize their “own personal visions.”

Goldberg acknowledged that the mainstream therapeutic community tends to circle the wagons whenever ideas that might be seen as flaky come along, and she conceded that transformational psychology is, to say the least, controversial.

‘Newest Form’

“It’s the newest form of psychology, it’s in its infancy, and it’s real hard to define it yet,” she said, adding that the technique is being taught at “at least 15 schools"--some alternative and some mainstream.

Goldberg also pointed out that tradition-minded therapists are not the only people who resist what she and others across the country are doing. “Some traditional Indians feel that I’m betraying or exploiting their culture,” she said. “But my goal is to develop compassion and respect for all people.”

By the time she was introduced to Native American culture, Goldberg already knew from her conventional training about the psychological and anthropological importance of ritual and ceremony. She knew, for instance, that psychologist Carl Jung had said that “neurosis can be caused by a lack of ceremony in one’s life.”

Rite of Passage

Then, while working on her doctoral dissertation, Goldberg said, she discovered that an actual “moment of completion"--a rite of passage of sorts, was important for the therapeutic or creative process to be successful.

Around that same time, an Algonquin Indian medicine woman conducted a medicine wheel ceremony at International College, and Goldberg began to think that this ritual was the sort of “moment of completion” she was looking for.

One of the first things she learned from this woman and her teachers, she said, is that “to Indians, Mother Earth is the most sacred thing.”

The Indian woman impressed upon her that most Americans not only fail to look spiritually at the earth, they “don’t even see it.”

“Before I met this Indian woman, I didn’t know there were birds in Newport Beach,” Goldberg told the group.

Medicine Wheel

The medicine wheel, Goldberg said, changed her view of nature. In that ancient ceremony, she said, Indians would sit around a “sacred circle, symbolic of all life” in which they had placed various sacred objects. The Indians would then head into the wilds on a vision quest to search for their own sacred objects, which, depending on the manner in which they were found, would offer certain “signs,” Goldberg said.

The Indians “empowered” these objects by placing them on the medicine wheel (which could be any place they declared a sacred altar) and then incorporated them into shields. These shields symbolized their life at that moment, and also “protected them, gave them power” and gave them the ability to “transform” themselves, Goldberg said.

After Goldberg had sat around many medicine wheels and had tromped through the woods on many vision quests, the Algonquin medicine women decided it was time she became “a sacred pipe carrier,” she said.

Now, as part of a broader program she conducts in “expressive arts therapy,” the Jewish mother has begun leading her own “transformational journeys.”

Vision Quests

Before sending her students out on their individual quests last Saturday, Goldberg filled them in on the details of why they were sitting around on the floor of the Lido room staring at as odd an assortment of objects as most of them had probably ever seen.

The medicine wheel, as Goldberg explained it, represents the four seasons, the four directions, the four kingdoms--plant, animal, mineral and human--and the four elements--earth, water, fire and air. Wherever people chose to sit on the wheel signified something about themselves, she said.

Goldberg said that in her mind, the objects on the medicine wheel are strictly symbolic. Their power, she said, is that they can give people insight into themselves.

Eagle Feather

The same is true of various aspects of the ritual, she added. At one point in the ceremony, for example, the teacher raised a large shell filled with dried sage. Lighting it with a disposable lighter, she fanned it with an eagle feather then passed it around the circle.

Goldberg said that once she had a client who had gone through a bad divorce. The woman had won the house in the settlement but still “felt her ex-husband’s presence there.” On Goldberg’s advice, the woman went through the house and ceremoniously purified it with the smoke of sage.

“That was metaphorical. It was symbolic. It was not real. But it gave her the feeling that, ‘This is my house,’ ” Goldberg said. “It cleansed the house of feelings of negativity.”

Around noon, Goldberg ritualistically joined the two halves of the long sacred pipe, filled it with cherry tobacco, and, invoking the great Indian spirit Wakan-tanka and reciting a litany of blessings, she passed it around the circle. Then, after everyone had consumed the traditional California meals they had brought--which, for the most part, consisted of such staples as sandwiches, Fritos, and Diet Pepsi--Goldberg pounded the sacred drum which echoes “the pulse of the universe” and sent the group on its quest.

Four Days and Nights

In many versions of this Native American tradition, questers strip themselves naked, paint their faces in bright colors, and venture into the wilds for four days and nights, Goldberg said. She decided, however, that certain aspects of that tradition might be modified for the Park Newport setting. So, advising the women to keep their clothes on, she told them to be back in an hour.

Silently the group streamed through the apartment complex, down San Joaquin Hills Road, and spread out through the Newport Back Bay ecological preserve, where, as jets roared overhead, large flocks of ducks waddled past the silt-encrusted flotsam and jetsam of the 1980s--beer cans, plastic buckets, Styrofoam boxes and fast-food wrappers.

When they returned to the Lido room, the women took the objects they had found and, using paints, magic markers, stained sand and colored paper, created their own “sacred shields” on paper plates.

After considerable drum pounding, rattle shaking and chanting--"Hey-ya, hey-ha, ho-ya, ho-ya"--the circle of students displayed their shields and explained how and why they had selected the sacred objects they had attached to them. Goldberg helped them try to understand the symbolism of what they had created.

Feathers and Wildflowers

Feathers and wildflowers figured heavily in many of the shields, and many of the students told of being inspired by the squirrels, rabbits, red-tailed hawks, red-winged blackbirds, road runners, ducks and other animals they had seen.

Revealing what everyone agreed was extraordinary dedication to the spirit of the day, one woman recalled how she had found the head of a dove, carefully scraped the ants off it, then glued it to her paper plate. “I think I’m going to have to think about what this means for a while,” she said.

Louise Beckerman of Irvine told a tale that seemed, in some vaguely mystical way, to reflect the odd fusion of old and new ways apparent throughout the day. Sitting in the circle with mud on her jeans, she revealed that she had found a dead baby bird beside the bay.

Giorgio Cologne

“I felt real strange and wanted to do the right thing as far as nature goes,” she said. So, after cradling the bird in her hands for a while, she scraped a hole in the sand and placed the bird inside. Goldberg had given everyone a packet of tobacco to leave behind, as the Indians had done, in exchange for what they took. Beckerman sprinkled it into the hole. “I had a vial of Giorgio cologne, and I sprinkled that on, too,” she said. The rock with which she had dug the hole went onto her shield.