Breaking the Spell VII: The Wise Compass

How do we examine, question, discern the ways of the world without breaking it up, compartmentalizing it, severing connection?

We do it the same way every indigenous culture has the world over…we use a model of the world that always relates the part to the whole, that makes them inseparable.

Every culture of place has some way of delineating and relating to the compass directions. Every people has experienced the sun rising in the east, standing high in the south, setting in the west, and the stars spinning around the axis of the north. Every culture, as humans, has a way of modeling these phenomena.

Some models we call “the Medicine Wheel”, some we call “the Mayan Calendar”, others “the Four Directions”, others “the Seven Directions”. If you look deeply, you will find the way any particular animist culture related to the spinning, cyclical world. A world that spins on cycles of day, month, year, and longer.

I call the set of these models, the class of descriptions of the directional phenomena, “the Wise Compass”, because each model does far more than simply point out directions. It hangs principles of wisdom on its axes. The models help the human bodymind, an organism that evolved under the influence of these phenomena, align itself in tune with the way the world works.

I’ve tried writing about this once before, because in understanding the compass you cannot avoid learning about center.

The story of the coyote that I told then (and which I ask you to read before continuing) leads me to where I need to go next. A model of the horizon directions, a Wise Compass, like any good model, should predict the future, should help us see around corners, should illuminate the once-invisible.

A case in point.

If, as Coyote seemed to say, Taoists belong to the animistic world, and watch the wild world like any other indigenous bodymind, then Taoist wisdom should translate into real-world uses.

Let’s rewind a little.

As I mentioned in SHIFT: The Return to Center, it all begins with a horizon circle.


Then, according to our particular tradition, we delineate directions.


We’ve now created the animist’s mental razor. We can look at the entire universe through this lens, safely and wholly. If you look in Tom Brown, Jr.’s the Science and Art of Tracking, you’ll see an excellent example of this at work in his footmaps. How it surprised me to see the cross-hairs of the compass appear there!

This tool has so many profound implications. It protects our minds from many errors of reductivism, of presumptions of objectivity, and more. Because if we discern a single part of it…


We will never forget that it fits into a whole, a seamless entirety. Whether a species, a member of a tribe, a celestial phenomena, or anything, it always exists in relationship to the whole, it cannot exist without the whole. In fact, implicit in this tool we find that, as an observer, we cannot seperate ourselves from our observations.

What else can this model tell us?

In the beginning it will help us with the most basic of understandings, as we rewild ourselves. For example, what would you say, if I asked you to tell me the hottest time of day, and I put it on a 24 hour clockface?


You might say noon (and many urban folks seem to say that), but if you really reflected, you realize that the hottest and laziest time of day falls in the after-noon, in the hours before sunset. Yes, the sun’s rays have the most intense power at noon, but the heat continues to build as the day wears on. Graphing it on the clockface as reaching out from the horizon line to the center, with coolest farthest out, and hottest reaching to the center of the clock, it might look like this.


What about the coldest time of day? Again, some might say “midnight”, but if you’ve ever shivered in your tent in the wee hours of morning, having spent the first half of the night snug as a bug, but now begging for the first frigid rays of dawn to come up and spare you, then you know without a doubt that the coldest time happens right before sunrise. And it might look like this.


Now, if I represented the sunrise as a white circle in the East, and the sunset as a black circle in the West, and I combined both heat and cold into one clockface compass…


Look familiar?

Now you see what Coyote told me that snowy day, something that I’d never heard explained nor read anywhere else (though recently I’ve discovered a celestial interpretation of the yin-yang symbol). Coyote sunk into my bones the understanding that this cycle reflects the powers of the day, the seasons, and beyond. This model allowed me to fit together fragmented experiences into a whole understanding.

Coyote showed me the first two-directional Wise Compass that I’d ever seen.

Written by Willem