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4 Elements to Being Human: a Native American paradigm

| #029 | THEORY > indigentology > emotions | 2150 words |

In my practice I will be instilling an indigenous worldview. Nature is viewed not merely outside of ourselves but operating within ourselves, constantly seeking to restore us back into any lost balance. What we call pain or desire is nature’s alarm to draw us back into balance.

This time I am introducing the use of the nature-illuminating 4-quadrant sacred circle. It was twenty years ago when I first start learning about these when I was more immersed in Native culture than I am now. What I learned was liberating, to cooperate with nature instead of resisting nature in our lives.

While passing along this indigenous wisdom, I want avoid reinforcing the stereotype of the Noble Savage dispensing wisdom based on Native American spirituality. Nor do I want to encourage cultural theft of Native spirituality. But I do not want to swing to the opposite extreme either, and keep this from all who may seek and benefit from this nature affirming worldview.

Native elders teach how we can learn many endless things from the sacred circle. However, some of that wisdom is best kept within their own tribal communities. And my focus is geared toward what is applicable anywhere. And quite needful.


Later I will not utilize the ascribed colors but simply illustrate these cyclic processes with a 4-quadrant circle diagram I call the wellness wheel. Here, I’m including the colors to share how I learned these natural cycles two decade ago. You may find different colors ascribed to the four corners, and this does not make one more correct than the other.

To be sure, tribal cultures are parochial in that their sacred practices are integrated deeply into their intimate connection with their local habitat. The four colors in this wheel express their specific connection with this tribal orientation with the broader nature. Other tribal cultures will display different colors, appropriate to their balanced cultural relationship with the land of their home.

Despite being born Oneida of Wisconsin (Iroquois), the colors used in the circles below are specific to Anishinaabe culture. I’ve spent my entire adult life in Anishinaabe country: the land of the Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potawatomi. An Ojibwa helped me realize twenty years ago that traditional wisdom calls us to adapt to whatever environment we are in. Since then I have honored Anishinaabe culture as a long time Michigan resident.

Humanity Cycle

It was in that context I began to learn more about the teachings of the sacred circle. Among the first cycles I learned was what I call the humanity cycle. I’ve seen it also called the growth cycle and healing cycle. It posits the four elements of humanity into each of its corners, with the center illustrating these exist and ideally function in unity.

This wisdom recognizes humanity as having a spiritual dimension at its core, along with an emotional dimension, and mental or cognitive dimension, and a physical or physiological dimension.

Another way of putting it is that the human being consists of a Spirit, a Heart, a Mind, and a Body. Another culture may combine the Heart and Mind into one element, and have a Social element to be the fourth. This encourages perspective, and not to be lost in arguments about which is right or wrong. Native wisdom emphasizes right relationship over right answers.

The order of these four aspects to being–spirit, heart, mind, and body–can be arranged for illuminating a specific purpose. Here they are arranged to illuminate the cycle of humanity that leads to experiences, which shape beliefs, resulting in specific thoughts, which then produce certain behaviors that cycle back into experiences. All human activity can be accounted for in this simple process.

Simple Process

EAST: The SPIRIT takes in experiences as perceptions.

Starting in the east, sensations through the BODY take form as experiences. These experiences become stored deep in the SPIRIT—that non-corporal essence of life experienced in awareness of the self and relation to others.

SOUTH: the HEART reports beliefs through emotions.

These begin to take form as perceptions, which shape and are shaped by beliefs in the HEART—specifically the long term memory in the brain. These beliefs tap into other associated beliefs about such experiences or similar experiences.

WEST: the MIND contemplates a response then makes decisions to act/not act.

This often results in many emotions sent from the HEART’s memory, to report to the MIND what is thought to be true about the sensations and their source. This is where experiences enter full conscious awareness.

NORTH: the BODY engages in a behavior, triggering more sensations.

From little thought behind immediate reaction to slowly contemplating all options, the MIND ponders available decisions on how to act, if at all. The final decision leads to behaviors performed by the BODY. These in turn trigger more sensations, continuing the cycle.


EAST: the SPIRIT takes in an experience of homeostatic threat.

SOUTH: the HEART reports a generalized belief that something ought to be removed/avoided.

WEST: the MIND thinks how to relieve the pain, then decides an action/inaction.

NORTH: the BODY engages in a behavior to relieve or not relieve the pain, leading to more sensations.


EAST: the SPIRIT takes in an experience of homeostatic depletion.

SOUTH: the HEART reports a generalized belief that something is to be drawn in/replenished.

WEST: the MIND thinks how or whether to indulge the desire, decides.

NORTH: the BODY engages in a behavior to indulge or not indulge the desire, leading to more sensations.


Touch. Smell. Hearing. Seeing. Tasting. These are all the body’s avenues for taking in the environment around the body. While much of these sensations are trivial the body is ready to hone in those that affect its many needs.

The sensation of feeling and hearing the wind blow some leaves around you is unlikely to enter into your spirit’s memory of experiences. A gust of wind that blows you down and causes you to twist your ankle will enter your spirit’s store of experiences. In this way your body knows how much wind it can handle, ready to be alert to the next intense sensation of wind.

When the body senses an emergency, such as burning skin when touching an obviously hot pipe, this humanity cycle triggers an instant response to preserve itself. With little if any conscious thought, the body jerks away to avoid any further heat damage. This is a natural self-preservation mechanism.

However, most experiences do not require an instant reaction. The timeframe of needed response ranges from relatively immediate to almost indefinitely. When other needs are adequately addressed, the typical response to a freshly experienced need can typically wait.

When other needs are not adequately being addressed or left to linger indefinitely, the body typically triggers an immediate reaction even when the circumstance would not necessarily require such an instant response. The body is geared to instantly preserve itself, often leading to a false sense of urgency. The degree of urgency would be a matter of perception.


Sensations themselves are generic and nebulous, without inherent definition. When compared to other experiences and beliefs, received input is then ascribed meaning in the form of a definable perception.

I hear a distant sound, but experience informs me such a sound is likely coming from a kitten crying in distress. The sound is the sensation, while the immediate interpretation of the sound is the perception. It is merely an initial impression of what is likely true.

Perceptions are ready to trigger an immediate reaction, like when perceiving a threat. The body is geared to waste no time to preserve its own interests, especially its self-preservation.

The need for self-preservation can be compromised when there is a buildup of unfulfilled needs, leading to a perception of continual urgency. This is usually accompanied by many unpleasant emotions.


Emotions express beliefs. An emotion is merely a messenger sending the message of a belief, processed from storage in the heart to conscious awareness in the mind.

Anger is the messenger for the belief that one is confronted with something unacceptable.

Experience informs this to be invariably true, regardless if it actually is or not. Distancing oneself from what is unacceptable or finding some way to accept it naturally eases the anger, since the body at that point will no longer need to report the presence of this unacceptable threat.

Fear is the messenger for the belief that one is confronted with something it is not convinced it can handle.

Experience advises this to likely be true, whether it objectively is or not. Learning to handle it or distancing self from the challenge naturally relieves the fear, since the body at that point will no longer need to report the presence of something to be handled.

Every emotion serves as an instantly available generalization of what is likely to be true, or at least true enough to reliably serve the body’s interests.

Emotions quickly report what the long term memory considers true, often with a ready action to trigger appropriate behavior. One may choose to act on this immediate impression, or pause to reflect on its applicability for the situation at hand.

When one’s needs are adequately resolved and not piling up to trigger increasing urgency, it is generally easier to patiently reflect on each emotion and contemplate all known options before deciding how to act.

When one’s needs are left increasingly unresolved, triggering increasing urgency, each emotion tends to more strongly suggest a reaction to preserve its own interests.

When one’s very security feels like it is threatened, whether it objectively is or not, emotions strongly compel an immediate self-protective reaction. This can lead to many poor decisions.


Volition is the tiller in the mind. Decisions steer the body. Sensations, perceptions and emotions are all inputs into deciding where, when, why and how to turn the wheel. Contemplation of options allows for considered of the most appropriate behavior in each situation.

Behavior is generally guided toward easing one’s needs or the needs of others, or at least trying to relieve the emotional stress from unmet needs. Such behavior includes strategies to avoid suffering new needs.

This includes decisions to behave in such a way that limits the complexity of inputs the body receives, preferring the familiar over the risk of becoming overwhelmed. Instead of constantly deliberating over decisions, much of behavior is routinized because of the regularity of these inputs. Such uniformity helps to ensure less stress and easier access to relative contentment.

Routinized behavior keeps life easier to regulate. It can also lead to poor habits. When decisions are geared more toward minimizing the emotional stress from unmet needs, instead of decisions to actively recognize and resolve needs, one’s emotional stress actually builds up.

When this emotional stress becomes integrated into one’s sense of familiarity then one becomes habituated to this increased level of stress and problems. Such a situation can be aggravated where there are insufficient resources to attend to all of one’s needs.

The impact of each decision is limited to whatever resources are available to put into them.

A cycle within a cycle

Routinized behaviors typically mean this cycle spins around with practically no contemplation into the decisions behind them.

When reacting to the sensation of your hand burning by jerking it away is a natural self-preserving behavior, requiring no contemplation. While many behaviors do not require much if any contemplation, obviously contemplation often is required for an optimum decision.

Pausing to ponder options for an optimum decision generates a cycle within a cycle. The mind and the heart cycle beliefs into thoughts that trigger other associated beliefs into thoughts, rapidly spinning within this larger cycle.

The immediate thought of how to act is based largely on one’s earliest experiences, and they often result in beliefs that are no longer valid. Holding off on acting upon them allows time to scrutinize these rudimentary beliefs. Newer beliefs formed from one’s maturity can lead to more optimum decisions.

A more optimal decision can lead to a more effective resolution of the underlying needs. Likewise, a rash decision can lead to unresolved needs, leading to more problems and pain.

The difference is based largely upon the quality of this cycle between one’s conscious awareness (mind) and their tapped long term memory (heart).


This hopefully demystifies the depths of being human. Instead of assuming problems occur because we are inherently flawed, we can see the way we are built to function is not properly functioning.

By normalizing the process for relieving our needs, we can potentially resolve our problems more effectively and harmoniously. Otherwise, we risk normalizing our problems as what is to be expected from being inherently flaw.

According to this ancient wisdom, you and I are not inherently flawed. We are naturally being pulled toward our full being, one need at a time. That’s what feelings are for. You feeling it?

Steph is a self-described transspirit, which is a kind of sacred misfit. By transcending conventional limits—gender norms, religious identities, political polarities, and more—Steph experiences a unique connection in life. And suspects others do as well. This blog shares that spirituality, and affirms others of a similar state of being.

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