four directions ceremony

The Four Directions

We utilize an age-old system, based upon wisdom traditions from various cultures throughout the world, for guiding students while on their healing journey at Open Sky.  We have translated the historic teachings of the four directions into a format for our students to use as a tool for their growth and learning while at Open Sky. As each teen accomplishes a set of objectives in the student pathway, we honor this growth with a ceremony utilizing the symbolism of the four directions.

Learn more about the four directions and their application at Open Sky:

A Teaching of the Four Directions*

by Gregory Martin, MA, LPC

former Open Sky Clinical Therapist


Fire ~ Summer ~ Childhood ~ Embodied Aliveness ~ Passion ~ Sexuality ~ Wisdom of the Body

columbine flowersThe direction of the south has to do with the element of fire and the symbolism contained within this element. Fire can be seen as the spark of life itself, particularly in its intensity, heat and expanding properties. Such qualities are further attributed to the season of summer, a time when the earth is flourishing in abundance and growth and all beings have an opportunity for a more carefree and playful existence. The south is also the time of childhood in the human life cycle, which ideally is one of exploration, play, innocence, aliveness and physical growth. The presence of the south often manifests in a sense of embodied passion, much like the play of childhood, where one is engaged in life from a dynamic aliveness that is felt directly in the body and feels good. The south brings pleasure to our activities as well as a certain spontaneity that simply trusts in the moment without any conceptualization of that trust. The south is not a mental realm but one of physical intelligence, simple strength and confidence in one’s being. The south wants to play, to be involved in life and the world, and to love what it does without worry of the outcome.

One of the doorways into the realm of the south is through the emotion of anger. Anger can be seen as life force that has been blocked and repressed, tied up in resentments towards others and/or turned in on oneself in the form of critical attacks and judgment. The process of working through one’s anger, when effective, releases the energy that has been repressed or directed towards self/others and thus makes it available once again to enliven, empower, and expand one’s very life.


Water ~ Fall ~ Adolescence ~ Emotions ~ Wounding ~ Grief ~ Mystery ~ Wisdom of the Heart ~ Visions

sunset in desertAs summer naturally gives way to fall, childhood inevitably loses its innocence and develops into the stage of life we call adolescence. Adolescence being a time of deep transformation, introspection, mystery, pain, confusion, and seeking is a fitting life stage for the west. The west is traditionally seen as the direction of the “little death” or the dying to the old patterns that make way for new life. Water is the element that corresponds with this direction because of its associations with purification, healing, depth, mystery and the unconscious dimension of the psyche. It is in the west that we must go to face our emotional pain, our losses, and the grief we have accumulated through simply being feeling creatures. The west is also the essential direction of the vision quest and other similar rites of passages. For it is here that we are in touch with that part of us that is dying, worn out, no longer serving our life. Just as in adolescence, we must die to our childish ways if we are to discover who we are as young women and men. In the ongoing cycle of life, we are periodically called to the west to feel, grieve, hurt, surrender and heal in order to discover larger dimensions of our essential self and our place in the Great Mystery. If we, indeed, appreciate life and being real within it, we need not fear the west and the suffering it brings. The suffering of the west is what is called noble suffering and is such that it always ushers us into dimensions of being that are far more interesting, fresh and optimal than what we are leaving behind. Thus, the west calls on our faith and our capacity to surrender to a power greater than ourselves and thereby leads us deeper into the mysterious journey we call life.

One doorway into the west realm is through our pain and suffering. It can be accumulated pains and disappointments or a single major loss that ushers us into this realm but the process is essentially the same: we need to simply be with our hurt and allow it to work its way out. Our hearts have a tremendous capacity to heal, if we only allow our feelings to flow uncensored and un-judged. The quality that arises when we are truly in the west is compassion or loving kindness along with objective understanding. What else does our pain need but to be accepted, loved unconditionally and understood? Such allowing often brings in a sensation of relief and movement in the soul, which in turn frees our hearts to expand, deepen and understand ourselves and life in a new way.


Earth ~ Winter ~ Adulthood ~ Will ~ Manifestation ~ Responsibility ~ Wisdom of Giving ~ Nurturing

snowing-on-team-in-desertThe element of the earth brings us to the north with its grounded, solid, manifesting qualities. In the Plains Indian cultures, this direction was often symbolized with the bison whose existence exemplified the earth element. The bison was paramount to the survival of the people for it provided food, clothing, shelter and, in traditional times, was an ever present reminder of the Great Spirit’s benevolence in taking care of the people. The bison hunt also afforded meaning and purpose for the human providers of the tribe and it is easy to imagine the sense of power and pride that the hunters must have felt upon returning to the tribe after a successful hunt. The season of winter is also a fitting metaphor for this direction as again in traditional times hard work was necessary to sustain the people through the time of the year when survival was the most difficult. In understanding the flow of directions in this map, it is important to remember that before the north was the west. In the west, as we saw, healing and initiation take place whereby the initiate is introduced into a larger sense of self and it is in the north that she or he must enact such out if it is to become manifest in the world. In vision quest language, this is phrased as “bringing the mountain down to the valley”. It is as if in the west we are given the vision and in the north we are challenged with the task of living the truth contained in that vision. It is also understood that in doing such, the whole community benefits and essentially one’s “vision” is for the sustenance of one’s people. In this direction, a good question to ask is, “who are my people and whom do I serve?” As we know, to serve naturally engages our will and in the north we are called to become responsible human beings whose presence benefits others. Another way to say it is here we are challenged to respond to life with our full capacities and to simply do our best. The spiritual truth of the north reveals that when we do our best, there is support from Being and when we do less than our best there is no support, we are left on our own. It is a difficult truth, but then again, this is the direction of the winter, adulthood, responsibility and genuine mature action and the salty pragmatics of the earth element.

A doorway into the qualities of the north dimension is through an inquiry into one’s will and one’s capacities. Often our wills have been distorted or even castrated through early childhood experiences that wounded our esteem and sense of confidence in being who we are in the world with our capacities and limitations. People often have either a grandiose or deficient sense of their capacities, neither is true. The north asks us simply what we can and cannot do, no more and no less! Here is where the courage to do our best comes in, for it is in our best that the presence of the north begins to emerge and flow with a guidance and purpose that is not of our own doing, this is sometimes referred to as “doing God’s will”. The poet Goethe speaks of this when he says, “when one commits oneself fully, all sorts of things occur that otherwise would have not, providence moves with us and such boldness has magic, power and genius in it”. Again, it is important to remember we are human and thus limited in our capacities and part of the north teaching is about clearly seeing our limitations and appreciating them, thus tempering our personality with humility.


Air ~ Spring ~ Old Age ~ Wisdom ~ Completion ~ Non-attachment ~ Peace ~ Death ~ Birth ~ Inspiration

mountains-with-students-hiking-and-flowersAlas, the circle comes to a close with the direction of the east where all is released into the openness of Being. The element that is associated with the east is the air and is so because of air’s refined transparency that cannot be captured through any tangible means for it is free to go wherever the wind blows. Birds, in particular, great birds of prey, are often associated with this direction. For here, we come to what has been referred to as eagle vision, the capacity to see the big picture from afar in a way that is clear and at the same time not attached to any specific outcome. The time of life is that of old age, for here, one’s work (the north) has been completed and one’s earthly responsibilities begin to lessen, which gives way to time for contemplation and the harvesting of one’s wisdom of life. In another sense, the east arrives after any period of hard work when we’ve done our best and come to a place where it is time to let go and relax. This is what a true vacation is meant to be: a vacating of our involvement with the world and allowing peace and serenity to wash us clean, thus freeing our minds and letting our spirit fly. Here, in the east, is also the realm of physical death and the great final release from life. However, the quality of the release at death or after engagement with a project or phase of life, is dependent on how sincerely and thus deeply we moved through the previous realms of south, west and north. Any unfinished business in either realm will impede our letting go into the great, spacious peace that the east represents. Finally, the east is also the season of spring and birth because in the paradoxical nature of life, great truths are always a conjunction of opposites: death is but one side of a single coin of which the other side is birth. With spring, comes freshness, delicacy, lightness and potential and thus in life after a release comes new inspiration, dreams and a yearning to get back into the juiciness of the embodied life of the south.

A doorway into the east is through exploring our attachment to people, things, situations and life in general. When we contemplate such with the awareness of death and the sobering fact that we will have to let go of it all someday, it is possible to begin “lightening our grip” on life and begin to live life on life’s terms. In essence, this is the heart of all great spiritual traditions; when we surrender our lives to God then we see that everything is ultimately good and just as it is suppose to be (the eagle vision of the east). Finally, this brings up a paradox: the more comfortable we are with our own death, the less we are attached to life and the freer we are to live and love unconditionally.

Shadow Aspects

grainery with shadowWhile each direction has its gifts and sanity, there is also a neurosis that can manifest when one gets stuck in any particular direction or phase of life. In the south, it is of the eternal child, the adult who refuses to grow up and only wants to play. Their life is oriented towards pleasure and avoiding pain with little interest in contributing to the larger community. The remedy is the north dimension of mature manifestation in the world which is only accessed through a journey into the west and the confrontation with one’s pain and a rite of passage into mature functioning appropriate to one’s stage in life.

Someone who is stuck in the west is mired in their pain and manifests symptoms of depression. Here the remedy is found in the east with its levity and non-attached perspective on life. However, the cycle to the east goes through the north and requires that the depressed soul engage in life and in particular begins to help serve others. For depression is self-centered while service takes us out of our own orbit and into the lives of others.

North neurosis is, of course, exemplified by the workaholic or the one who gives too much without healthy boundaries. Neurosis of the north needs the pleasure and playfulness of the south, which is found after the release and vacation quality of the east.

Finally, someone stuck in the east is too blissed out and probably dissociating from their body and life in general. In transpersonal psychology, this is called spiritual bypassing, where one uses spirituality to avoid living life with all its attendant pains and challenges. This soul needs to head west and enter into the underworld and experience the messiness and richness of life’s sufferings. However, they first need to get back into their bodies and feel the aliveness and connection to life that the south brings.


As mentioned in the beginning, at the center of the quadrants is the symbolic realm of the numinous or the divine. Here is the still point around which all else turns. In many traditions, this is also where our true self or essential being resides. From this perspective, the four directions are seen as seasons of the soul, qualities and experiences that arise in the course of life and give a particular flavor that is attuned to our psycho-spiritual needs at the time. Our True Nature, however, lies in the center, which is formless, pure potential completely free of any defining qualities and yet simultaneously capable of assuming the various dimensions described above (another great paradox). Thus, the moving around the directions is the great wheel of life and the substance of experience in which the soul engages in her journey of love and discovery.

studentart-projectIn using the four directions teachings with students, it is important to tailor each direction to their capacities of understanding using metaphors and examples that are relevant to their lives. It seems also important that the staff involved have at least some personal experience in exploring the directions themselves as it is impossible to transmit what we do not have for ourselves!

*A Teaching of the Four Directions was transcribed from a field guide in-service lecture by Gregory Martin, MA, LPC

More information:

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The Student Pathway

Practical Application of the Four Directions

The Open Sky growth stages are based on the medicine wheel concept and its directions: North, South, East and West. Each growth stage corresponds to specific therapeutic goals and learning objectives. As teens complete various activities and master certain tasks, they advance through the stages. A teen’s movement through the stages is based on individual issues, efforts, and length of stay in the program. As a teen moves through the stages, he or she earns increased privileges and responsibilities. Moreover, our treatment team works with students to tailor assignments to individual needs and issues. The Open Sky stages are designed to challenge students as well as provide opportunities to experience success.

Stage 1: Gateway

Theme: Welcome and Orientation

bodhi-295-close-upPurpose: The main goal of the Gateway stage is for the teen to begin to build relationships and trust with field guides and therapists. The new student works through feelings about being at Open Sky by talking with staff and completing reflective assignments. The student observes the peer group doing chores, having process groups, and participating in the daily routine. By the end of the Gateway stage, the student has an idea of expectations for him or her being a functional member of the team and has reflected on why he or she is at Open Sky.

Structure: In the Gateway stage, the teen interacts with field guides and peer mentors. This stage allows for more focused supervision, assessment, and rapport building. The teen is introduced to the Open Sky program and expectations.


  • Learn basics of self-care in the outdoors
  • Observe group process, routine, chores
  • Complete initial program assignments
  • Show basic understanding of rules, follows basic rules
  • Complete assignments about what led to coming to Open Sky

Stage 2: South

Theme: Focus on Self

student-with-arms-outPurpose: In the South, teens focus on themselves: their issues, strengths, and goals. They also focus on learning the fundamentals of self-care, group chores, and wilderness skills. Being in the South is a time of stretching to meet new challenges while beginning to assess unhealthy habits and patterns.

Structure: The teen becomes a member of the peer group. With this comes more responsibilities such as group chores and communicating in a healthy way with peers and guides. The teen develops trust and rapport with field guides, therapists and peers. Begins to participate in treatment planning.


  • Learn basics of self-care, group chores, and wilderness skills such as making a bow drill fire
  • Follow directions, rules and expectations
  • Learn and begin to practice communication skills and learning about “I Feel” statements through usage
  • Begin to open lines of communication with family via letters
  • Show basic level of openness to learning from others
  • Learn and participate in some personal wellness practices
  • Participate in individual therapy, group sessions
  • Able to receive feedback
  • Read Impact Letters from family
  • Begin to write Life Story outline
  • Complete assignment on setting and reaching goals for self

Stage 3: West

Theme: Focus on Self and Group

students-helping-eachother-make-firePurpose: In the West, teens look beyond the self and begin to see their place in relation to the people close to them: in this case, the Open Sky peer group and staff team. Feedback and assignments are focused on the teen’s actions and how they affect others. Teens begin to practice peer-mentoring skills.

Structure: The teen in the West is earning more trust through demonstrating consistency and growth in behaviors and attitude. Students take on increasing challenges, such as mentoring a Gateway student. They take a more active and involved role in identifying issues, strengths and needs, as well as treatment planning.


  • Success with self-care basics and wilderness fundamentals
  • Follow rules and directions without prompting
  • Practice positive communication skills with more frequency
  • Learn validation/reflective listening skills
  • Demonstrate more open communication with family through letters
  • Develop and further apply personal wellness practices
  • Give and receive feedback appropriately with staff/peers
  • Begin to demonstrate leadership/role modeling in peer group
  • Write responses to Impact Letters
  • Share Life Story with group, therapists, and/or field guides
  • Complete assignment regarding how actions affect those around them

Stage 4: North

Theme: Focus on Self, Group and Family

family-reunitesPurpose: In the North, teens demonstrate their ability to focus on the self, the peer group at Open Sky, and the family system at home. The quality of introspection and ability to take responsibility deepens. Teens demonstrate the ability to make positive choices and behaviors regarding both self and others.

Structure: The teen acts as a peer mentor and continues to develop leadership skills. Therapy assignments focus more deeply on role in relation to family. Teen starts to actively develop relapse prevention and personal wellness plans.


  • Teach self care and wilderness fundamentals to new students
  • Role model to new students the ability to follow rules and taking ownership of behavior
  • Regularly utilize positive communication skills
  • Take a more active role in treatment planning/personal growth
  • Start to identify and acknowledge personal strengths and areas for growth
  • Take more ownership and initiative with personal wellness practices
  • Begin developing personal life vision
  • Show proficiency with map and compass skills
  • Write Impact Letters to parents
  • Facilitate a group session and/or group wellness activity
  • Begin to plan for leaving Open Sky Wilderness and returning to or entering life at home or another program
  • Complete assignment identifying personal power and strengths

Stage 5: East

Theme: Focus on Self, Group, Family and Community

students-with-fingers-touching-in-circlePurpose: The focus in the East is on multiple directions, specifically self, group, family and larger community.

Structure: The teen shows consistency in ability to focus on both self and others. Goal setting is more self-directed. The teen demonstrates strength and readiness to transition out of Open Sky to home or boarding school.


  • Proficiency in teaching and role modeling self-care and wilderness fundamentals
  • Excellence in role modeling ability to take responsibility and be self-directed
  • Excellence in role modeling positive communication skills
  • Demonstrate significant growth in ability to identify strengths and areas for growth
  • Take consistent initiative and motivation with personal wellness practices
  • Lead the group in meaningful activities such as hikes and process groups
  • Mastery of map and compass skills
  • Complete more advanced personal vision projects
  • Demonstrate maturity in planning and preparing for the transition from the wilderness to home or boarding school
  • Complete assignment regarding future vision for self, group, family and community

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Ceremonial Application of the Four Directions

Each teen’s transition from one direction in the student pathway to another is honored by a ceremony. In the ceremony, the teen is honored for the distinct qualities of the state of that particular direction. In order to make the ethereal qualities of these phases as concrete as possible, guides and students often read aloud from each of these excerpts.



Read aloud by a guide to a student upon arriving at Open Sky:

girls team playing gameYou have left behind the comforts of where you came from.  You have entered a new world.  You may feel resistant to accept this new place.  You may feel anger, resentment, loss, sadness or hurt.  We ask you to be willing to do what we ask, to observe, to ask questions, and to try.  We welcome you into this community.
Gateway is a time of welcoming to Open Sky’s tribal wilderness experience.  Time to observe, cooperate, and learn basic self-care.
You are in Gateway, your transition into the Open Sky community.  We ensure your safety as you take your first steps on the path of the medicine wheel.  This is your chance to observe and get oriented to our program.
Gateway is a time for observation.



Read aloud by a student entering the South phase:

drumming-by-firelight-preparing-for-sweatI am South, I will acknowledge my feelings of anger, hurt, and frustration and will root in my body, learn to take care of myself and survive in the wild and unfamiliar place and perhaps discover the joy and play of childhood.
The south is a time to re-discover your inner fire and passion for life.  Through connecting to your fire, you may experience anger, frustration or other emotions.  This is a time to develop confidence to face your life through learning, growth, exploration, playfulness, community, and stepping out of your comfort zone.  You are more in touch and comfortable in your own body and environment.
The south is a time of arriving and of self-discovery, arriving at Open Sky, grounding, becoming aware of your senses, orienting yourself to the program, and gaining a sense of confidence to settle into your ability to be here.
The south is a time for learning how to physically care for yourself. The south is also a time for gaining an awareness of your inner fire.



Read aloud by a guide or student when a student is entering the West phase:

ceremony with mask of blackThe west is a time to allow emotions to flow like water, to express our feelings, the ways we’ve been hurt and hurt others.  The west is also a time to explore our heart, our real self.
The west is a time of wandering and exploring the unknown.  We ask you to question, confront and embrace the suffering and pain you have felt and have caused others in your life.  Expect an ebb and flow of emotions during this long process.  In the end, you will be blessed with a clear, peaceful vision.  The west is a time of surrendering, a willingness to explore oneself through deep emotional work and relationship with others.
I am west. I have the capacity to allow my emotions to flow through me.  I will explore opening my heart to all of my emotions and will cultivate compassionate action towards others and myself.



Read aloud by student entering the North phase:

student beneath a rainbowI am north.  I have the courage to see what needs to be done and do it.  I take responsibility for my actions and myself.  My work is in service to community, family and myself.
The north is a time to root oneself into the earth with humility and purpose.  North is a time of function in the world in right relationship to your community.  
In the north, we become more high functioning individuals.  We are intrinsically motivated rather than externally driven and managed by other directions and instructions.  Grounded and strong, we begin to demonstrate our growth in words and actions.  The vision that inspired us as we began to heal from our wounds in the west serves to motivate this action.  As we become self-reliant, we are naturally able to mentor others.  Calm and focus are matched with humor and humility as our maturity deepens.  Rightfully, there is a sense of celebration around our skills and abilities as we’ve developed a level of mastery in our world, and new beginnings are coming.
North is a time of discovering your true nature:  manifesting, actualizing, leading.



Read aloud by a student entering the East phase:

student contemplatingI am east.  I am beginning to understand my journey.  I accept and let go of my past.  I have developed the tools to trust life as it unfolds.  
The east is a time of celebrating the journey, understanding the big picture:  acceptance, trust, and inspiration.
As our time at Open Sky comes full circle, east is a time to reflect upon our accomplishments from the other directions.  It is a place to harvest the fruits of our labor and the enjoyments that follow.  It is a time to use the wisdom, empowerment, and inspiration to sow new seeds for the future.  It is also a place to “let go” and separate from our community.  It can be frightening to face an unknown future and sad to leave our friends, but despite the difficulty, the optimist and excitement carry us forth.
The east is a time of realization- acknowledging the challenges of the past and applying cultivated wisdom into the future.

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