I have been illuminated by many sacred world religious and spiritual traditions. I am grateful for the Diné people and their deep understanding of the Beauty Way. Though a voting member of the Muskogee Creek Nation, in no way am I appropriating Native American customs in the Walking the Beauty Way Retreat or in the Walking the Beauty Way Practice Circles. Rather I wish to honor the original wisdom that inspired me.
Marti Beddoe, October 2017
Hózhó: The Navajo Concept of Balance and Beauty
The following was written by Erik Painter on July 17, 2014 on www.Quora.com.
As a Non Navajo who studied the language and culture and lived on the Navajo Nation in Kayenta for two years, I synthesize the descriptions from several sources. To me it is an idea that encompasses the English ideas and words: Balance, order, harmony, beauty, ideal, goodness, symmetry, health, happiness, satisfying, perfection, wholeness, blessedness all in one holistic dynamic concept and process.
"There are, however, some abstract words, extremely difficult to render adequately in English, which are of the greatest importance for the understanding of Navajo philosophy. Perhaps the most significant of these is conveyed by the Navajo root hózhó . This is probably the central idea in Navajo religious thinking. It occurs in the names of two important ceremonials (Blessing way and Beauty way) and is frequently repeated in almost all prayers and songs. In various contexts it is best translated as "beautiful", "harmonious", "good", "blessed", "pleasant", and "satisfying". As a matter of fact, the difficulty with translation primarily reflects the poverty of English in terms that simultaneously have moral and aesthetic meaning."
The description and explanation that Gary Witherspoon uses in many parts of his work is one I find very useful:
"Hózhó refers to the holistic environment and to the universal dimension of beauty, harmony, and well-being. Nizhoní refers to the particular item or individual that is nice, attractive or beautiful. The difference in these two terms is in the prefixes ho- and ni.
Elsewhere I have described the meanings of the ho- pronominal prefix as fivefold. These meanings are contrasted to the meanings of the prefix ni- .
Ho- refers to
(1) the general as opposed to the specific,
(2) the whole as opposed to the part,
(3) the abstract as opposed to the concrete,
(4) the indefinite as opposed to the definite, and
(5) the infinite as opposed to the finite.
I could add here that the prefix ho- refers to an area, a domain, or a universe, as opposed to the prefix ni- , which refers to a specific item, entity , or being within an area, domain, or universe.
Each culture projects a particular construction of meaning and purpose on the universe, and each particular metaphorical construction colors and molds all experience within it. The Navajo metaphor envisions a universe where the primary orientation is directed toward the maintenance or the restoration of hózhó. Hózhó means “beauty” or “beautiful conditions.”
But this is a term that means much more than beauty. For the Navajo, hózhó expresses the intellectual notion of order, the emotional state of happiness, the physical state of health, the moral condition of good, and the aesthetic dimension of harmony.
The Navajo do not look for beauty; they normally find themselves engulfed in it. When it is disrupted, they restore it; when it is lost or diminished, they renew it; when it is present, they celebrate it. The Navajo say in their own vernacular: shil hózhó , “with me there is beauty”; shii' hózhó , “in me there is beauty”; shaa hózhó , “from me beauty radiates.” The Navajo express and celebrate this “beauty” in speech and prayer , in song and dance, in myth and ritual, and in their daily lives and activities, as well as in their graphic arts. Art, therefore, is not divorced from subsistence, science, philosophy , or theology but is an integral part of both common activities and cosmic schemes
Hózhó is the grand metaphor by which the Navajo understand the world and their place within it. It describes what I sometimes refer to as a grand cosmic concert. Although the Navajo do not in their society present concerts for spectators, they do perform rituals that long term ethnologist of the Navajo, Gladys Reichard, correctly characterized as symphonies of the arts. These rituals contain oral literature, drama, dance, poetry , music, and sandpainting. They are performed to celebrate, to maintain, or to restore hózhó .
When a Navajo gets out of harmony with those other beings with whom he or she shares this world, the ceremonies are there to reformulate aboriginal harmony and beauty. These are participant symphonies, and the patient not only participates in the symphony but also becomes the symphony through absorption. The patient becomes the central figure in the story, sings in chorus with the Singer (ritual leader), repeats the poetic prayers, and is placed directly in the sandpainting when it is finished. The sandpainting is not just to be seen but also to be absorbed. When absorbed, its beauty and harmony heal mind and body. The patient does not just visualize nature or the environment; the patient also becomes absorbed in its harmony and beauty."
The Concept of Hózhó
"Since large chunks of Arizona and New Mexico, and part of Utah, make up the Navajo Nation (the Reservation or the Rez), the Native American presence is strong in the Southwest. Perhaps the most important word and concept in the belief system of the Navajo people is hózhó. Unfortunately, it is not a word that translates well into modern English. Simply put, however, it means to be in balance and beauty with the world. It is about health, long life, happiness, wisdom, knowledge, harmony, with both the mundane and the divine. It means a traditional Navajo person is continually restoring, finding, and practicing balance in his or her daily life.
The Navajo believe that when a person no longer in harmony with the world, they fall ill or begin to act like the biligana (the white man or one who struggles). A ceremony called the Blessing Way will rid the Navajo of the evil wind that has taken over them and return them to hózhó. The ritual is lengthy (several days or more) and requires an hataali (medicine man or shaman) who is able to remember all the songs and sand paintings required to complete the ritual. The ritual itself tells the story of the Navajo as they came forth from the third world and what their guardian spirits taught them about living in the fourth world. It is designed to attract the power of the holy people. In short, if completed correctly, it will reconnect the Navajo individual with their past, their heritage and the beauty all around them.
The concept of hózhó sounds simple, but it isn’t. For instance, while other Native American tribes pray for rain during a drought, the Navajo hold ceremonies to put them in balance and harmony with the drought.
Hózhó ought to be the goal of humanity as it is the goal of holy people of the Navajo Nation."