The Four-Fold Way


Of all human existence 99 percent was life in primitive society, as a fraction remains today. If for no other reason than this, we should be curious about it.

“The Ghost of Our Ancestors”, Elman R. Service

The split from our indigenous beginnings took place all around the world, as land-based cultures grew and developed into towns, then cities, city-states and empires. With larger populations came the need for specialization and a hierarchical social order. Our connection with nature became seriously weakened and eventually nature came to be seen as a force to be conquered and subdued, or placed at our service. A patriarchal perspective took hold and persists to this day as the reigning model.

If we look at these events with a curious eye, we can see them as part of a process that is our unfolding as a species. We may even feel that we are coming to the end of this particular phase of human history. We may wonder what comes next.

Daniel Quinn, in his book Ishmael, suggests that human development took a definite turn when early tribal societies opted to become “takers” rather then “leavers”. Perhaps it is time to explore what the “leavers” have to tell us about that first 99 percent of human existence. These were the peoples who lived in a self-sustaining way, taking no more from nature than they needed, existing as an integral part of a total tapestry, in harmony. This does not imply that we can or should go back to recover their innocence of consciousness or that we recreate some nostalgic version of tribal paradise. But we can go back and look at some of the common beliefs and practices that allowed people to live well in their environment and with each other.

Cultural anthropologist, Angeles Arrien, did just that. She wondered if a cross-cultural investigation of indigenous societies would reveal universal laws of human behaviour. She found that, in fact, there are universal guidelines for living a “good and true” life. The results of her long-term work have been formulated into a model, which she calls The Four-Fold Way. An elegant wheel of life, it offers a synthesis of indigenous wisdom that addresses all aspects of our day-to-day living and is as applicable to contemporary life as it was to life in nature-based societies.

From it we learn that the key to wellbeing lies first in our relationship with ourselves. It then extends to our relationships with others, and finally to our interactions with the larger community. On this medicine wheel, the Way of the Warrior or Leader in the north interfaces with the Way of the Healer in the south, and the Way of the Visionary in the east interfaces with the Way of the Teacher or Sage in the west.

By looking at the teachings of the different directions, we can determine what aspects of our lives need attention in order to achieve an ongoing balance between power and love, vision and wisdom. We are invited to “show up” as the Warrior; to “pay attention to what has heart and meaning” as the Healer; to “tell the truth without blame or judgement” as the Visionary; and to “be open to outcome, not attached to outcome” as the Teacher.

These teachings provide a matrix for self-reflection and transformation that each of us can apply to the particular challenges of our individual lives.

In parallel is the work of Michael Harner, a noted anthropologist who, in addition to his apprenticeship with South American shamans, studied shamanism in indigenous cultures around the world and found that certain spiritual practices were common to all. He established the Foundation for Shamanic Studies to offer courses in “core shamanism”, in the belief that we all have the right to know about the universal elements of spiritual knowledge that have guided humanity since its beginnings. His work demonstrates that we can use these ancient practices in a modern context to bring healing to our lives.

My own work has been guided by these two explorers. Having studied with them both and worked with their teachings, I have experienced and witnessed first hand that our links to universal wisdom have not been broken, merely forgotten. And, this is the time for remembering.

Inspired by the Four-Fold Way and Core Shamanism, I have designed a series of four workshops, one for each season, where we can explore these universal teachings and learn how they can apply to our individual lives.