By David Kelly
AURORA, Colo. - When Michelle Kahn-John’s mother died, the joy seeped from her life and despair began to creep in.
As a psychiatric nurse, she knew the signs of depression yet there was something more going on - she was out of harmony, she had lost Hózhó.
Kahn-John, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado College of Nursing and member of the Navajo Nation, grew up in an extended clan on the tribe’s reservation in Arizona.
For years, she worked as a nurse at the tribal hospital in Fort Defiance, Ariz., where she studied the Navajo concept of health and wellness known as Diné Hózhó.
She is currently doing her dissertation on the subject.
“We are already using it to treat adolescents on the reservation,” said Kahn-John who launched Arizona’s first inpatient psychiatric clinic for Native American teens. “We are trying to teach them to apply these concepts to their own lives.”
Hózhó is as complex as it is ancient. It is a state of mind and body defined as beauty, balance, peace, wellness and harmony. Achieving it is difficult, losing it can be disastrous.
In a paper she wrote for Advances in Nursing, Kahn-John quoted a tribal elder as saying Hózhó “holds my extended family like a tight weave in a Navajo rug.”
“This faith, embedded like stone into our young Navajo hearts, minds and souls protects us,” he said. “Iina, life, we were told by our elders, is full of bad and evil. And to fend off the bad, Hózhó helped us to think positive.”
Kahn-John’s mother was a respected medicine woman and the family was steeped in traditional healing. But when she fell ill and died, her daughter grew listless and detached from her work and relationships.
She consulted a medicine man on the reservation who prescribed a purification and restorative ritual known as the Hozhooji Ceremony or Blessing Way Chant, one of the most revered rites of the Navajo people.
What happened next remains largely secret at the request of her tribe, but Kahn-John described it in general terms.
The ceremony was held in a Hogan, a tribal home characterized by its round shape. It began at 10 p.m. when the healer and his attendants arrived. Kahn-John knelt in the middle of the room, surrounded by family who sat against the walls.
“I felt very powerful,” she said.
Throughout the night, the medicine man sat beside her whispering questions about her state of mind, gently guiding her toward a path to self-awareness. As the blackness outside gave way to twilight her journey neared its end.
“The Navajo say there are blessings to be found between dawn and sunrise,” Kahn-John said. “When the morning star appeared in the sky they told me to go out to meet the dawn. I made a corn offering and prayed to all of our gods. I also talked to my mom.”
And then it was over. The next four days were `days of reverence’ where she could not shower, cook or harvest. This was a time to be mindful, perhaps the most important attribute of Hózhó.
“After the ceremony I felt totally different,” she said. “I had been indecisive before but I made major life decisions. I quit my job and last September moved here. There was a distinct, tangible healing effect. I had been pulled from a state of discomfort, pain, sadness, anger, loneliness and fear and brought back into harmony."
Kahn-John, who hopes to complete her doctorate this year, has distilled the tenets of Hózhó into six distinct principles – discipline, respect, reciprocity, relationships, spirituality and thinking.
“Unfortunately, some of our younger tribal members have lost our traditional teachings,” she said. “My intentions are to remind the Diné (Navajo) of our ancient wisdom so we can bring our relatives and community back to a state of physical, psychological, spiritual, social and environmental wellness, a state of Hózhó.”
And Hózhó, she said, embodies universal truths.
“The principles can be followed by anyone,” she said. “The benefits enjoyed by all.”