Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma and PTSD by David Kopacz, MD and Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow)


Can Indigenous Healing Systems Resolve Complex, Modern Clinical Problems Such as Trauma and PTSD?


Can Indigenous Healing Systems Resolve Complex, Modern Clinical Problems Such as Trauma and PTSD? (A Review by Michael Cohen)

My previous book, Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine focused on the dehumanizing aspects of contemporary medicine for both clinicians and patients. I sought to find a holistic framework that we could use to create a “counter-curriculum of re-humanization” within ourselves as clinicians so that we could transform the way that we work with patients and to influence the culture of medicine through a “compassion revolution.” I have long been interested in trauma and its effects on personal identity, relationships and culture. The first research project I worked on as a medical student, with Deb Klamen and Linda Grossman was on the traumatic aspects of medical training, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms in Resident Physicians Related to Their Internship,” Academic Psychiatry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 142-149.

In this book with Joseph, we focus on trauma, specifically for returning veterans. Much of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be understood as the conditioning of the nervous system to function in a combat-ready mode. This nervous system conditioning is part and parcel of the acculturation process that occurs as civilians go through boot camp and become warriors. Upon returning home, the nervous system conditioning persists and the acculturation process is challenging. We know that people who have spent time immersed in another culture often experience “reverse culture shock” on returning home.

As I sought a holistic framework in my first book for re-humanizing medicine, in this book with Joseph we use another holistic framework – the medicine wheel – which is an organizing framework that can help us bring together within ourselves and society experiences that are difficult to go through. Joseph teaches us about the medicine wheel from his own personal visions and experiences. The medicine wheel consists of four external directions: the north, the south, the east, and the west. It also has four internal directions: the spiritual, the emotional, the mental, and the physical. Walking the medicine wheel means that we seek to experience all of these aspects of our being in order to be whole people, or as Joseph calls it “Becoming a True Human.” We can use the medicine wheel to re-orient ourselves when we become lost in the outer or inner landscapes of our lives. Trauma is one way that we can become disoriented, but Joseph teaches that disorientation and even pain are necessary and that when we approach our pain intentionally we can use it in a transformative way to guide us through the initiation of who we were into who we are becoming. A large part of healing from trauma comes through changing our orientation toward pain and the role it plays in our lives.

As Joseph teaches us in the beginning of his book, Sound: Native Teachings + Visionary Art, “Enter this book of my teachings as if you were climbing down into a kiva for a sacred ceremony. Do not come to be instructed. Come to be initiated,” (Rael, 3). The path of the medicine wheel that we offer in this book should be approached in the same way – as an initiation which is a transition between roles and cultures.

Joseph and I have greatly enjoyed the process of writing this book, so much so that we have already started on our next book together, Becoming Medicine. In this next book we will travel to the center of the medicine wheel, into the center of the heart, in order to learn more about what it means to become a healer and a visionary. -David Kopacz, MD


Joseph Rael, whose name, Tsluu teh koy ay, given to him as a child at Picuris Pueblo, means “Beautiful Painted Arrow,” is widely regarded as one of the great Native American holy men of our time. He was born in 1935 on the Southern Ute reservation to a chief’s granddaughter and a Tiwa-speaking Picuris native. At about age 7, shortly before his mother’s death, he went to live in Picuris near Taos, NM, where his visionary powers were developed until, at about age 12, he began to assist the village holy man in curing practices.

He was educated both at Santa Fe Indian school and public high school before getting a BA in political science from the University of New Mexico and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For a number of years he worked in various capacities in Indian health and social services in both New Mexico and Colorado.

At age 45 he quit his social services job to devote full time to teaching and following his visions wherever they might lead. In 1983 Joseph had the vision to build a Sound Peace chamber, a kiva-like structure where people of all races might gather to chant and sing for world peace and to purify the earth and oceans. He built the first such chamber at his then-home, a trailer park in Bernalillo, NM, and shortly like-minded people began to build Sound Peace chambers in other locations.

At present, Sound Peace chambers have been built around the globe. Writes Joseph, “My vision is that through sound we will bring about peace and other important vibrations. Sound can teach us a way to create without destruction.” Meanwhile, Joseph began leading ceremonial dances, based on his visions, with participants from all races and nationalities. “When you dance you are expanding the vibrations of insight and manifestation,” he writes. “I created three dances — the long dance, the sun-moon dances and the drum dance—for these spiritual gifts.”

Joseph teaches that “Every dance, every ceremony, is both for you and for the cosmos.” In 1999, Joseph retired from active leadership of the dances he had begun, turning them over to a new generation of his students. Joseph Rael is the author of a number of books, including Being and Vibration, Way of Inspiration, Ceremonies of the Living Spirit, and House of Shattering Light, and Sound: Native Teachings and Visionary Art, He is also an artist. His paintings, like his ceremonies and teachings, are based on his visions. They have been called “portal” art, because they open a doorway into alternate dimensions of reality. As a Native American elder Joseph Rael has spoken before the United Nations and addressed a conference of military officers at the Pentagon on the role of the warrior in the modern world. More about Joseph Rael’s life can be read in his autobiography, House of Shattering Light.