by Joan Forest Mage –
The Life Force Arts Wheel
The Life Force Arts Wheel (LFW) is a spiritual teaching based in ancient, universal wisdom, that I received through inspiration. The model as a whole took almost thirty years to develop, from 1985 – 2013, although the core concept, the 4 Skills, has remained consistent. The Life Force Arts Wheel is based on the principle that nurturing the unique gifts of each individual creates healthy, well-functioning community. Life Force Arts Wheel training is carried out through exercises in the arts, personal growth, shamanic journeying and healing ritual.
In 1985, after fourteen years of study and professional performing experience as a modern dancer, I set out to create my own unique artistic expression. I soon found myself “downloaded by the Universe” with concepts and practices that were clearly spiritual and had profound cathartic and healing effects on audiences and students. It was obvious that I was creating something much larger than dance in the usual Western concept of art…. It was finally in 2002, that I fully realized that the system I had synthesized which is called the Life Force Arts Wheel is similar to the ancient indigenous teachings that many cultures call the medicine wheel.
Although in a sense this system originated from one person, it is based in universal principles. It is an honor and a privilege to contribute to manifesting these perennial teachings in this world at this time.
LFW is a model of health rather than pathology, based on principles drawn from both ancient and modern sources, including shamanism, an ancient form of spiritual healing found in virtually every culture. The Wheel guides participants from personal healing through spiritual wellness and finally to live an empowered and contributive life. Through knowing and practicing the principles of the Wheel, people’s lives can be healed and empowered.
LFW is not based in a particular ethnic culture or religious belief. Rather, it is a contemporary combination of both psychological and spiritual practice in a non-denominational approach to greater wholeness. We work with core principles of cross-cultural shamanism, which focus on the direct experience of the intuitive/spiritual realm. LFW seeks to connect people to the spiritual side of life in a way that individuals of various beliefs and life experiences can embrace in their own way, discovering their own truth.
I discovered the Life Force Arts Wheel through practicing dance and theater arts, which I have been involved with since I was a child. The arts are one of the few places in the Western world that never lost the connection to, and the techniques of working with, spirit and energy. Creating ritual and talking to spirits through performance happened to me spontaneously, within the context of very modern, Western approach to dance and performance. I did not seek to do ritual, I discovered that ritual is who I am and what I do.
As I developed as an artist, I found that audiences and students had very powerful reactions to my work. People would run screaming from my performances and classes, or be very upset and angry by them. I came to realize that this was because my work was based in energy and spirit, and that it was catalyzing powerful changes in the observers and participants.
I felt that I had an ethical decision to make. I could continue on as an dance artist and dance teacher, with the attitude that I was not responsible for the reaction of the audiences and students. As an artist and teacher, my role would be to simply pass on to the participants what I experienced and what I knew.
But this did not feel right to me. My work had a powerful effect on people, and if I was going to unleash its power, I needed to take responsibility for it. I needed to find out what part of the audience’s reactions might be me doing something “wrong,” i.e., me infecting the audience with the negative energy released by doing therapy for myself on stage, in the guise of a performance. Could I be doing something even more sinister, such as drawing “evil” spirits to me, and inflicting them on my audience?
Or, was I drawing forth a catharsis of the audience’s own issues? In that case, shouldn’t I become a therapist, and do the work in the context of therapy?
As I explored over the years, I found answers to these questions. The way I answered these questions is not the only way possible. But I feel that these answers have led to a system of ritual art that contains the transformative and cathartic energy that many people, including me, naturally produce, in a way that is safe, effective and beneficial. That system is the Life Force Arts Wheel. Hundreds of students over the last thirty years have had profound insights through learning these principles.
Components of the Life Force Arts Wheel
There are three main components to the Life Force Arts Wheel:
- 4 Skills
- 4 Communities
- 10 Archetypes
The 4 Skills
The core concept of the Life Force Arts Wheel is the 4 Skills. They are what I discovered originally: four different ways that people relate to each other when they improvise with dance, music or theater. These are core life skills that are necessary to be a of life itself; four core modes of being in the world The 4 Skills are:
- Streaming – moving by yourself; knowing what you think and feel
- Osmosis – leading & following; acting on and standing up for what you think and feel; listening to others with respect
- Dialogue – interacting creatively
- Crystallizing– moving with a common form and energy; being a community
Streaming is being aware of one’s own energy field and what you are experiencing. In Streaming, you focus on your own energy, your own thoughts and feelings; you observe what is happening within you and around you. It is not about your relationship with other people, places or things; Streaming is a precursor to understanding relationship. Streaming is knowing what you think and feel as you experience both your inner and outer world. Streaming is the Skill of the Witness and Artist Archetypes.
Osmosis is about standing up for what you think and feel. This step comes after Streaming, which is simply knowing what you think and feel. It is characterized by knowing how to lead and how to follow. It’s about self-identity: identifying yourself by what you’re dedicated to. To be empowered means you know your own strength, understand the impact that you make, and have the power to accomplish your goals. If you are empowered, you are comfortable with your identity and with the work you do. You are at ease wit being yourself, and allowing others to be themselves. You are comfortable with both leading, which involves allowing others to see you, know you, and adapt their energy flow to yours to learn from you; and following, which involves adapting your energy to the leader’s energy flow in order to learn about him/her.
Dialogue is about creating together through interaction. Dialogue is about creativity. To engage in Dialogue, the participants must move beyond simply standing up for what they think, feel and love, which depends on self-identity. Dialogue requires the participants to “park their egos at the door” and commit to creating something new together, something larger than any of them could create separately. Healing, which is one form of creativity, provides a good example of the two phases of creativity: you have to let go of the energy you no longer need, and take in the new energy that you do need. In other words, creativity is about transforming into something new. There is always a mystery about Dialogue; one has to allow inspiration to enter that is beyond what is currently known. This requires a sense of trust, which is based on feeling love for oneself, others and the universe. Within this sacred space of trust, you feel confident to release the old and discover a new unity, a new identity. You find a new form and direction for your life and heart.
Crystallizing is moving with a common form, energy and sense of purpose: it is being a community. A new organism/organization has arisen from the Skill of Dialogue. This new organism may be a reintegration of an individual, a group of people, or any type of community. This new organism has a spirit or energy all its own, and the component parts of the organism know how to follow that common spirit. The members of this Crystallizing (community) are aware of the structures and systems that make up the organism. They also appreciate useful patterns, structures and systems that have been established to carry forth the purpose of the organism. In other words, the community members appreciate both the spirit and the letter of the laws that unite them as a community.
The 4 Skills are essential to a well-functioning community. The 4 Skills are divided into the first two Skills of Streaming and Osmosis, which are the Skills of Youth, and are primarily concerned with the Self and Human Society; and the third and fourth skills, Dialogue and Crystallizing, the Skills of Maturity, which are primarily concerned with Nature and the Spirit Realm.
The Life Force Arts Wheel can be depicted as two concentric circles with eight spokes radiating outward, like a pie cut into eight pieces. One of the best ways of understanding the Wheel is to physically walk this pattern. Doing so is one of the best ways of encountering the spirit guides of each Archetype. An energetic exchange takes place with the Archetype. It is far beyond just an intellectual shift in the participants, and it is even beyond a shift in the emotions or sub-personalities of the individual person. It is an encounter with the transpersonal.
To work energetically in this way with the Life Force Arts Wheel, we begin by creating a sacred space for ritual, with such methods as smudging, singing, drumming etc. Next, through body movement we practice the 4 Skills: Streaming, Osmosis, Dialogue and Crystallizing. These Skills enable us to relate energetically to each other in four basic ways:
- Being by ourselves, within our own energy field. This teaches Streaming: the Skill of the Witness and Artist Archetypes.
- Imitating the movement of other people and allowing the to imitate us. This teaches Osmosis: the Skill of the Companion and Warrior Archetypes.
- Interacting with each other in movement. This teaches of Dialogue: the Skill of the Phoenix and Healer Archetypes.
- Moving with a common form and common energy. This teaches Crystalliing: the Skill of the Tribe and Sovereign Archetypes.
Through this practice, the participants are able to understand how to relate to each other in the different ways needed in a healthy society.
Students of the 4 Skills discover themselves as sentient, or conscious, beings. Living, conscious beings live and move authentically. They have the freedom of fearlessness to move the true feelings passing through themselves. Through teaching and observing improvisation with hundreds of students, I came to the conclusion that only when individuals feel safe and respected within a group will they truly express themselves. To create such a safe and sacred space became the core of the work.
The 4 Skills are levels of consciousness regarding relationship. The 4 Skills define the type and level of communication in a relationship as it impacts both task and social-emotional issues.
The 4 Communities
The 4 Communities that share our planet are the Individual, Human Society, Nature and the Spirit Realm.
The principles of the Life Force Arts Wheel are a guide to achieving greater harmony within yourself, with your fellow humans, with Nature and the Spirit realm.
When they hear this, some people may ask, “I can understand why it would be important to have a good relationship within myself – to have high self-esteem and self-confidence, to appreciate my own talents and abilities, and to want the best for myself. I can also understand why it would be important to have good relations with my family, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Both those things will make my life smoother and more pleasant.
“Yes, it would be nice to spend more time in nature – I enjoy a sunny day, and the sound of waves on the beach! But I don’t understand why it would be important to have a relationship with nature. What does that even mean? And as far as relationship with the spirit realm – I’m not sure what you mean by spirit realm, let alone what it means to have a relationship with it. I was raised a Presbyterian, if you mean what religion I am……”
One answer to that question is that by developing good relationship with Nature and the spirit realm, we can solve global problems that threaten our very existence, such as global warming, pollution, war.
Western culture is based on saying that some things are sentient – alive, feeling and conscious, while others are insentient – not alive, incapable of feeling and therefore lesser beings. A human is sentient, a table is insentient; a cat is sentient while a rock is insentient. A hierarchy came into the concept, with humans as the universally recognized sentient beings. Animals ere considered a lower class of sentient being, but still “on the radar” of feeling creatures. Most philosophers considered plants insentient, incapable of feeling, and almost all Western thinkers would agree beings (“things”) such as bodies of water, rocks, rain, metal, plastic, cloth, etc. are insentient.
When one begins accepting such a hierarchy, it is not a long step to saying that some groups of people (women, people of color, “the enemy”) are lesser beings, not as sentient. This attitude has caused untold misery on our planet.
But not all peoples have thought this way. In fact, most cultures throughout history have not. Ancient peoples did not think of humans as the only sentient beings. Most peoples, especially indigenous cultures, speak of the Web of Life in which everything is included.
Animals, plants, oceans and people are all equal parts of this Web. The plants, the mountains, rivers, lakes, caves, the very spirit of the land, were viewed as living, sentient partners in the life of the human community. The healers and elders of the tribe would communicate with the spirits of place to negotiate harmonious living arrangements.
Through reviving this sensibility and priority, we as modern people will be able to live in cooperation with nature in a clean, safe, abundant and harmonious environment.
The Spirit Realm: The Energy Plane
Michael Harner says, “A spirit is anything you see with your eyes closed.” Our definition of spirit realm is not a set of religious beliefs, but rather the actual experience that people have when they go into altered states of consciousness. People throughout all cultures and history have described experiencing the help of spiritual beings such as angels, ancestors, totem animals, gods, goddesses, fairies, elves, plant people, crystal people. These entities can be thought of as being part of the creation or Creator, just as we humans in physical bodies are. They are not over us, ruling our lives, but are part of us and help us do important work in daily life. Just as we can gather to ourselves helpers and friends in physical form, so the user-friendly universe provides us spiritual helpers.
Why should we be concerned with the spirit realm? Here is one example. Gary Starnes and Karen Hutchins found out when they started a shamanic retreat program for military personnel and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What they discovered is that many of the participants had what are called “spiritual entities” attached to them which needed to be released. In other words, the energy or soul parts of the people the participants had killed was still with them. After releasing this energy, the participants showed amazing recovery from PTSD, even after many years of suffering with this condition.
This is an example of how the spirit realm can affect us, and why we should be concerned with it.
“Nature and Madness” by Paul Shepard
In his brilliant essay “Nature and Madness” (http://www.primitivism.com/nature-madness.htm) Paul Shepard asks the question, “Why are people destroying the planet?” The answer he gives is that the planet is currently being run by children and adolescents; modern culture does not value true maturity. To explain: children and adolescents are concerned with their own interests as humans. Children look for parental figures for protection, and adolescents want to do whatever they wish and don’t believe there will be any consequences. In other words, the focus in childhood and adolescence are learning about themselves as individuals, and about getting along with other humans.
Shepard says that in indigenous cultures, the sign of maturity is when the person is concerned with guiding the human community in harmonious relationship with nature and the spirit realm. In other words, the primary task of the mature human is to take care of nature and the spirit realm. Take a moment to imagine how peaceful and prosperous would be a world where the expectation was that adult humans would spend their time helping nature and the spirit realm.
That is why the first two Skills, Streaming and Osmosis, are the Skills of Youth. is knowing what you think and feel, and Osmosis is standing up for what you think and feel. The third and fourth Skills, Dialogue and Crystallizing, are the Skills of Maturity. Dialogue is about creating together, and Crystallizing is about moving with a common form and energy.
The Ten Archetypes of the Life Force Arts Wheel
There are ten Archetypes on the Life Force Arts Wheel. Eight of them are on the Outer Wheel; two of them are on the Inner Wheel.
The Outer Wheel Archetypes are the Witness, Artist, Companion, Warrior, Phoenix, Healer, Tribe and Sovereign.
The Inner Wheel Archetypes are the Teacher and True Self.
Regarding the Inner Wheel: Many people have a circle of Teachers, usually four: one Teacher for each of the 4 Skills. There will be a Teacher of Streaming, a Teacher of Osmosis, a Teacher of Dialogue and a Teacher of Crystallizing. The True Self also may appear as more than one persona. One may see a Child True Self, a Young Man or Woman True Self, and other manifestations of one’s True Self. In terms of position on the Wheel, the Sovereign, Teacher and True Self are closely related. The reason is that the Teacher guides the True Self, the core essence of a person, to relate to the world as different roles (the Archetypes). With the help of the Teacher, the person stays connected to his or her spark of soul, the True Self. The Teacher instructs the person in what he or she most needs to learn, bringing forth his or her essence and talents to develop fully into the Sovereign, the mature leader, who both serves and is honored by the community.
Here is a way to experience the Archetypes of the Life Force Arts Wheel. First, we mentally mark out the eight directions within the room we are in, the ritual space in which we are working. The eight directions are Northeast, East, Southeast, South, Southwest, West, Northwest, North. Each direction is associated with one of the Archetypes as follows:
NE – Witness
E – Artist
SE – Companion
S – Warrior
SW – Phoenix
W – Healer
NW – Tribe
N – Sovereign, Teacher & True Self
Starting with the Witness in the Northeast, the participants stand in each direction in the room to connect to the spirit of that Archetype. The participants will use various ways of channeling this spiritual energy and information, including chanting, drumming, singing, meditating, dancing, visual art, automatic writing, etc.
We go to each Archetype by standing in their section of the room and doing the ritual work (drumming, singing, etc.). Participants attest to the fact that while doing this Medicine Wheel practice, each place in the room has a different energy, and teaches them different spiritual lessons!
Also, sometimes even though one starts out in one section, there is an impulse to move around the room. It is not so much the actual place in the room, as the spiritual energy we are invoking, that is creating the transformation. For example, I might start out facing East for the Artist, but have the inspiration to move across the room to the place of the Healer, where I will be taught something about the connection of Artist and Healer.
We move in a clockwise direction to each Archetype, as shown in the list above. You can start with various positions, depending on your purpose. One way is to start with the core, with the Inner Wheel of the Teacher and True Self; or, you can start with the Witness, to work with Streaming, the most basic of the 4 Skills. Alternately, you can start with the Archetype related to the season. For example, if it is Summer Solstice, you would start with the Warrior, which is the Archetype of that time of year.
After completing the circle, we take time to record in writing or drawing our insights.
What types of insights and healing occur while doing such a Wheel? Here are some notes I made about what I experienced at one Life Force Arts Wheel Ceremony:
At the Life Force Arts Wheel: Witness Ceremony.
The Witness Archetype showed me its connection to the sacral chakra of sensuality. The grounding of the aesthetic sense in the senses.
Phoenix did a great healing on me. Bear was there, as well as Snake: animals that go into the ground. I felt a great weight or attachment removed from me.
Warrior was both female and male voices, like the male speaking to his feminine side.
The music the participants made together was beautiful. I realized that, in addition to being a healing modality, doing this Wheel ritual is a unique artistic form for me as an artist. It feels like coming home!
A further correlation of the Archetypes is with the Wheel of the Year, the great festivals of earth-centered spirituality that celebrate the solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarters. These would be:
NE – Witness (Feb 2 – Imbolc)
E – Artist (March 20 – Spring Equinox)
SE – Companion (May 1 – Beltane)
S – Warrior (June 20 – Summer Solstice)
SW – Phoenix (Aug 2 – Lammas)
W – Healer (Sep 23 – Autumn Equinox)
NW – Tribe (Oct 31 –Samhain)
N – Sovereign, Teacher & True Self (Dec 21 – Winter Solstice)
As you can see, the Outer Wheel year begins with February 2, the Lunar New Year.
Because of this seasonal correlation, we have Wheel Ceremonies for each Archetype at time of year stated above. The ceremony is the same, going to each Archetype, but asking each Archetype what it has to tell us about the qualities of the Archetype we are celebrating.
The Teacher Archetype is the Wise Man or Wise Woman who guides people, especially youth, to fulfill their mission. The Teacher imparts lessons of life skills ranging from basic knowledge to emotional intelligence, problem solving and common sense to magical workings. The Teacher guides the True Self through the Wheel, teaching the True Self that all the Archetypes of the outer Wheel are just roles that the True Self can play, rather than something to be attached to as an identity. Specifically, the Teacher instructs the True Self in the Four Skills of Streaming, Osmosis, Dialogue and Crystallizing, which are the Skills related to the pairs of Archetypes. The Teacher mentors in an unselfish way, helping the person stay connected to his or her spark of soul, the True Self. The Teacher instructs the person in what they most need to learn, bringing forth their essence and talents to develop fully into the Sovereign, the mature leader, who both serves and is honored by the community.
The Witness & The Artist – The 1st Skill: Streaming
The Witness & The Artist are the first of the four Archetype Dyads on the Life Force Arts Wheel. Both the Witness and the Artist work with the Skill of , the first of the 4 Skills of the Life Force Arts Wheel. The Skill of Streaming involves knowing what one thinks and feels: being alive, feeling, conscious, sentient. It is about sensing what one is experiencing in both one’s inner and outer worlds. This is the most basic skill; one cannot do the other three Skills of the Life Force Arts Wheel without mastering Streaming.
The Witness is about observing from one’s own perspective. It is the place where one is fully in touch with and experiencing one’s own thoughts and feelings, not shutting them out. It is the place of “beginner’s mind”, of being open to experience moment-by-moment.
The Artist is the person who expresses what s/he thinks and feels. The Artist has the craft or skill of formulating what s/he is experiencing into a statement in words, dance, music, visuals, etc. The Artist apprehends energy from the Otherworld and fabricates it into an expression in this world.
The Companion & The Warrior – The 2nd Skill: Osmosis
The Companion & The Warrior are the second of the four Archetype Dyads on the Life Force Arts Wheel. Both the Companion & The Warrior work with the Skill of Osmosis, the second of the 4 Skills of the Life Force Arts Wheel.
The Companion is the follower and supporter of the Warrior. The Companion believes in the same causes and goals as the Warrior. The Companion “has the Warrior’s back,” protecting him/her. The Companion “seconds the motion” that the Warrior makes; through this action, the Companion adds the need momentum that ensures the goals of the Warrior are carried through. The Companion needs to be a Warrior him/herself in order to follow and to support; s/he has to understand his/her own power in order to support. The Companion follows willingly, understanding the important role that a supporter lends to achieving a goal.
The Warrior stands up for what she believes in. What she loves is what she fights for; her heart and solar plexus chakras are united. The Warrior understands his own power, impact and boundaries and takes responsibility for his actions; he or she does not use reckless violence. The Warrior knows how to fight and how to win. This is embodying the positive meaning of fight: to defend oneself, to take action to protect others, and to accomplish a worthy goal. The Warrior allows followers (Companions) to follow her. She is comfortable with seeing and being seen: she has confidence in the actions she is taking, and therefore is happy to lead people and have them model themselves after her, because it will help achieve their mutual goal. The Warrior inspires others, and that is part of why they are willing to follow and support him or her in fighting for a common cause.
The Phoenix & The Healer – The 3rd Skill: Dialogue
The Phoenix is the name for a person going through a Dialogue of transformation or healing. This word is used instead of “patient” or “client”. The Phoenix was a legendary bird that immolated itself every five hundred years and then rises from its own ashes, completely renewed. The Phoenix knows that this cycle of death and regeneration is necessary. Being a Phoenix means the person understands and accepts the Dialogue of change, rather than resisting it.
The Healer is the one who guides the Dialogue of transformation that the Phoenix is going through. The Healer holds the sacred space and time for the transformation to occur. The Healer is an expert in all aspects of Dialogue and healing. The essence of healing is to become a new self, and the healing Dialogue is about letting go of what you no longer need and taking in what you do need to become that new self. Neither the Phoenix nor the Healer knows what the new self is going to be, thus, mystery is the core of healing. That is why the Healer is an expert at asking the questions that guide the transformation while allowing it to unfold in its own way.
The Tribe & The Sovereign – The 4th Skill: Crystallizing
The Tribe is a community. The Skill associated with the Tribe is Crystallizing: moving with a common form and energy. A Tribe forms out of a creative Dialogue. The group of individuals that forms the Tribe has gone through some type of Dialogue in order to form the group/Tribe. In other words, they utilized the 3rd Skill, Dialogue, which is the province of the Phoenix-Healer, as a step to arrive at having a common form and energy. The Tribe is made of different individuals who each contribute their respective talents to do the work of the group. Each individual in the Tribe is valued for his or her contribution, and is respected as an indispensable part of the group. A Tribe values and integrates the talents of each of its members. The work of the Tribe is to sustain the Tribe, its identity and the work it produces, rather than to work for a cause, which is the province of the Companion-Warrior. Each member of the Tribe is a Sovereign in the sense that he/she has the autonomy to make decisions about his/her own participation in the Tribe and its work.
The Sovereign serves the Tribe as its leader. The Sovereign creates peace and prosperity among the individuals of the Tribe, as well as between the Tribe and Nature and the Spirit Realm. Each person in the Tribe is a Sovereign. The Sovereign is the repository of the wisdom of why the Tribe is structured the way it is. For example, how it developed the identity it has, and why the structure (roles, work, etc.) of the Tribe are configured the way they are. The Sovereign is intimately aware of the needs both the people and the land, and feels the people and the land as extensions of his/her energy body. The Sovereign is given the wealth of the land and community to distribute to create the greatest prosperity for the people and the land. The Sovereign does not defend him/herself as the Warrior does. The Sovereign is defended by his/her Warriors. Therefore, the Sovereign never wears armor.
True Self is the core of essence of the individual person. In some ways you can say it is the soul, but the word soul has many meanings so I chose to use “True Self”. The True Self is the spark of energy that is unique to the person, the individuality and originality of the person. There is an innocent, childlike quality to the True Self, and yet all wisdom is contained with it. It is the person before s/he was pressured by others to be someone s/he isn’t. The True Self often appears as a child or young person.
Joan Forest Mage is a shamanic healer, teacher and performing artist. She has studied shamanism and healing ritual with numerous teachers, and is the founder and director of Life Force Arts Center. First awakened to energy work through her life-long profession of music and dance, Joan began doing shamanic healing in 1995 and created an extensive Shamanic Training program. She received a Master of Arts degree from School for New Learning, De Paul University, Chicago, with the focus area “Creating Healing Ritual Through the Arts.“