Desperately seeking “hozho”

February 14, 2011

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels, set among the red ochre mesas and dry sheep scrub of Navajo country in the American southwest, will recognize a Navajo word that shows up in many of his excellent stories: hozho. Though difficult to define in fewer than a hundred English words, hozho encompasses the Navajo ideal of living in harmony with all that is, of being in right relationship with the world. It is about balance; about personal and communal beauty that adds its voice to the whole blended ensemble of creation.

Hozho is about real-world harmony and balance in the trenches of life, not the weekend retreat, ”don’t-worry-be-happy varieties.” In Sacred Clowns, Jim Chee—the fictional Navajo detective through whom Hillerman explores what it is like to be born among the Dine’ and live on the reservation—sums up hozho this way:

“This business of hozho…I’ll use an example. Terrible drought, crops dead, sheep dying. Spring dried out. No water. The Hopi, or the Christian, maybe the Moslem, they pray for rain. The Navajo has the proper ceremony done to restore himself to harmony with the drought. You see what I mean. The system is designed to recognize what’s beyond human power to change, and then to change the human’s attitude to be content with the inevitable.”

Hozho says that harmony is a real and realistic destination in life, even when times are hard. But, to the Navajo, it is found only on the map of our inner landscape—in the human heart and mind, in our beliefs and expectations. It advises that adjusting ourselves to reality is a much easier (less stressful) and more balanced way to live than trying to bully the world back in line with our program. It holds that harmony is a choice we must make in stormy weather, one that is not dependent on the return of clear skies.

Most important of all, hozho enfolds a concept that we westerners vehemently and vocally reject: inevitability. We are the people of the fabled “fat lady”—nothing is over till she sings, and even then we hold out hope that game officials will reverse the call on further review and deliver a last-minute miraculous victory for our side. The idea that things just “are the way they are”, no matter what we do, goes against our ingrained, up-by-our-boot-straps belief that we are the masters of our fate. If something ain’t right it’s just because we haven’t fixed it yet. We only need to think harder, work longer, swear louder—and, by God, beat some balance back into this thing.

We could call our way “anti-hozho”. Weaponized harmony. Industrial balance. An irresistible psychological force in search of an immovable object like, say, peak oil or climate change. Having cracked the vault of fossil energy a couple hundred years ago, we’ve been able to convince ourselves that anti-hozho actually works. That it always works, like gravity or electromagnetism, without any modifiers such as “if we don’t destroy the environment” or “so long as the oil holds out…”

However, now we’ve entered the time when the “modifiers” we’ve hidden away like illegitimate children are showing up on the porch all at once, suitcases in hand, past-due bills pinned to their lapels, with hungry looks on gaunt and desperate faces. Every outsourced cost, every off-balance-sheet ledger entry is coming home now. As a way of life, anti-hozho has—literally—run out of gas. That won’t stop the true believers from piling out and pushing the rusting heap another mile or two; but there is no escaping reality: collapse is for real and it is here.

The big trick is to resist anti-hozho dogma in all its forms—and they are plentiful, perverse, and pernicious. All your core beliefs about how the world works have been fertilized since the day you were born with the ripe manure of “infinite growth”, “creative accounting”, and jingles about how “you deserve a break today”. Your task is to think the unthinkable—that most of what you “know” is just plain wrong. That’s a hard, dry mouthful to swallow, but it has this going for it: it’s the truth. And truth always travels with a faithful sidekick, the real object of this essay—hope.

Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”And yet, understand we must; because today there is more at risk than Sinclair’s “salary”. Everything we depend on for life itself is on the line: food, water, shelter, transportation, health care. Hozho is one way to describe the pathway through this harsh understanding to hope. To explain why, let’s add another English word to the basket we’ve already used to define it: flexibility.

Hozho teaches the art of creative yielding, of adapting to what is in time to survive—and even thrive—under radically new conditions. Do-or-die determination to defend the indefensible may make for exciting blockbuster movies, but it isn’t a good long-term survival strategy. Hozho is. The Tao te Ching puts it like this:

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

What does putting hozho into practice look like in these times? First, accept that, from now on, the most important word in your vocabulary is “local”. Very, very local. Accept that responsibility for your basic needs, which our complex economy has allowed you to outsource to others, will most likely revert to you in the foreseeable future, with no chance of pardon or parole. Accept that your present habits, appetites, expectations, and entitlements are all rooted in a paradigm that will be defunct long before you are ready to stop breathing.

Acceptance isn’t about capitulation. It is about seeing what is, so that your work of preparation accrues interest in the world as it really is, and isn’t wasted chasing the figments of a vanishing past. Acceptance prepares the ground for another hallmark of hozho, and a key to its successful practice: gratitude. When we quit pining for what might have been, are eyes are suddenly opened to how much of what remains is truly good. We see all the riches in a balanced life that are not vulnerable to collapse, unless we offer them up ourselves: friendship, shared labor and celebration, music, laughter, the pleasure of a good story well-told, warm sun on a spring day, the thrill of adventure and achievement, romance, a touch of Spirit in the darkness. There is true freedom and wealth in voluntarily letting go of the trappings of anti-hozho, most of which is illusory to begin with.

As Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

An attitude of grateful, flexible acceptance is not everything. But hozho says that it’s the only place to start if you want to keep your balance and live well, even in the worst of times.

Alan Wartes

Alan Wartes is a writer, award-winning journalist, media producer and podcast host. He currently produces a family of three podcasts called ThinkRadio Presents. Each weekly show — ThinkPeople, ThinkPlanet and ThinkBusiness — presents a positive, triple bottom line conversation with thought leaders and innovators on important issues. Alan can be reached at

Tags: Building Community, Culture & Behavior