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Hozho

Hozho October 8, 2021

With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk

In the above song, the Navajo word, “hozho”, has been translated as beauty, but it has also been translated as peace, balance, and harmony. To be “in Hozho” is to be at one with and a part of the world around you.

The word “hozho” doesn’t  translate readily into English, but I think that the feeling the word expresses is clear to anyone familiar with spiritual experience: it is the feeling of being centered and whole, or in religious terms, of being holy.

Helping people gain something like hozho, the experience of wholeness, is one of the main values of spirituality. It is one of the main reasons that in our fractured times, so many people still seek it. In his book, The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade expresses this desire for wholeness as a “thirst for being.” He provides abundant examples of how earlier societies organized their space and time to keep in contact with this primordial sense of completeness – of being at or near the center of being, which symbolically was thought of as the center of the world.

In Taoism, this sense of primordial being is called “the return to the root.” Of this it is written

Everything upon perishing withdraws into its root…in which the many become the one. From the viewpoint of the Tao Te Ching this withdrawal is not the loss, nor the mere completion of individual life; it is the individual’s recovery of the everlasting universal life. The individual sheds individuality, which has a beginning and an end, to become one with the universal life process. (1)

In a flourishing, creative life, we are always in danger of losing our center, of falling from harmony, becoming worn out. When that happens, in returning to the root we regain our center, our harmony, our hozho.

The quote above continues: :

Activity dissipates life’s energies and leads to murkiness. But in quieting down, signifying a return to the root and a regathering of energies, the murkiness clarifies and one is again prepared for new activity….In the root, all is quiet.

The value of quietness is common to many forms of spirituality, particularly the more contemplative.

In Christianity, the equivalent of “hozho” would be holiness, of walking in the way of God. Christians, particularly in the monastic traditions, found or created quiet environments where they could strive for holiness without distraction.

There is considerable difference between the Navajo concept of hozho and the Taoist concept of returning to the root, and between either of these and the Christian concept of holiness, but all involve an effort to regain one’s centeredness and balance when these have been lost and put great value on this sense of wholeness and inner peace. How very different each of the three concepts are from the near religious value many people place on busy-ness in our modern society.

The opposite of “being,” as Eliade uses the word, is randomness, distraction, inner turbulence. The poet T. S. Eliot uses the apt phrase, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” (2) to characterize the mental state of many people in the modern, secular world. In an earlier section of the same poem he uses another apt expression, “the still point of the turning world,” (3) to characterize a deep spiritual centeredness and quietude. I think the Navajo, the Taoist and certainly the Christian contemplative could all relate to that expression.

In a recent article, I characterized spirituality as turning the noise of life into the music of life. The concept of hozho is a great example of what I mean by that. What makes this effort distinctly spiritual is that it cannot be accomplished by the ego. neither our will nor our intellect can bring it forth. It can only come from a submerging of the ego in some greater otherness.

In the theistic traditions this greater otherness is usually God; in Taoism it is the Tao and in Buddhism, buddha nature. However, such metaphysical entities are not necessary, though they very well may be helpful. I have found that the practice of mindfulness, stripped of any further religious or metaphysical purpose, can also open us to this otherness of which the individual ego is but a small, ephemeral part. As a naturalist, I believe that the world operates on natural law, and the gift of hozho, the return to centeredness and harmony, is from a natural grace resident in our psyche. (4)

To the extent that Spiritual Naturalism is a form of spirituality, I think the spiritual side of it is to help people attain something like hozho: centeredness, wholeness, focus and inner peace. Since our vocabulary for spiritual terms is still not particularly rich, perhaps we should adopt the Navajo word “hozho” to refer to this thing we value. It’s a nice earthy concept.

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Notes:

  1. Quote is from The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, by Ellen M. Chen. It occurs in the commentary on Verse 16. (IMHO, Chen’s translation is the best of the many English translations available and her commentary is full of insights on philosophical Taoism.)
  2. From section III of “Burnt Norton,” part of The Four Quartets.
  3. From section II of “Burnt Norton.”
  4. I provide more details on what I mean by “natural grace” in an article entitled Natural Grace, published on April 13, 2017.

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