Author Archives: Maren

Drink Water!

When we think about nourishing our bodies, most of us fixate on the foods we eat. Which diet should I follow? Which will give me the right balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat? Should I take supplements and, if so, which ones? Amidst all this musing, we give little thought to an incredibly important element of our daily intake: WATER.

As adults, we are all roughly 50-70% water by weight. Water is the primary component of all body parts and plays a major role in numerous life-sustaining functions. According to the “rule of threes,” we can survive only 3 minutes without breathable air, 3 days without drinkable water, and 3 weeks without food.

So, what does water do for us?

glass of waterWater produces saliva that begins the breakdown of foods in our mouths. Drinking water before, during, and after a meal supports healthy digestion. It also gives the stomach a means to register fullness, thereby moderating the impulse to overeat.

Water helps dissolve vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from our food. It uses the bloodstream to transport these nutrients to every cell in our bodies. It keeps our cell membranes moist and provides the means for them to grow, reproduce, and thrive. It also helps our skin look its best.

Water helps excrete waste from our systems through sweat, urination, and bowel movements. Appropriate water intake is protective against urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and hemorrhoids. And when we consume the recommended daily dose of fiber to feed our good gut bacteria, adequate water ensures that all this roughage doesn’t turn to “concrete” on its way out of our systems!

Water lubricates our joints and cushions sensitive tissues in our spinal cords and brains. It’s the body’s built-in shock absorber. The brain also uses water to manufacture hormones and neurotransmitters.

Water regulates our internal body temperature through sweat and respiration. And since breath is naturally humidified, we expel water even when our bodies chug along at the optimal temperature.

How much water do we need?

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine deems an adequate daily fluid intake to be 15.5 cups for men and 11.5 cups for women. These recommendations account for water from all sources – water, other beverages, and food. As such, the “rule of thumb” of consuming eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day should generally do the trick.

Water intake needs to increase if living in a hot, humid climate or exercising strenuously to account for the body’s water loss via sweat to lower body temperature. Airplane travel can lead to dehydration due to the dry cabin air. You also need to drink more water if feverish or subject to fluid loss through vomit or diarrhea.

Note: For each pound of body weight lost in exercise, you need to rehydrate with 16-24 ounces of fluid. A high quality sports drink helps replenish fluid and electrolytes while providing a source of calories for fuel.

How do I know if I’m getting the right amount of water?

Check out the color of your urine first thing in the morning. If you are adequately hydrated, it will look like pale lemonade. If there’s very little discharge or it looks like apple juice, it’s time to pour yourself a tall glass of water! Other signs of dehydration include unexpected weight loss, confusion, dry skin that’s hot to the touch, and elevated core body temperature.

Note: There’s a lag time between the onset of dehydration and thirst. If you are thirsty, you are already running low on fluids.

Is it possible to drink too much fluid?

The gastrointestinal track can only handle 1-2 liters of water at a time. Flood your system with fluids and your kidneys can’t keep up with the deluge. The resulting overhydration dilutes sodium in the blood – a condition called hyponatremia – which could lead to a life-threatening medical emergency, such as cerebral edema.

Renewed Focus on Nutrition

For me, the start of a new year always tees up the opportunity to launch self-improvement initiatives. Diet and nutrition head this year’s list. Though I’ve read and have written quite a bit about the subject, there’s always more to learn. My guide for the next several posts will be Dr. Roberta H. Anding, Assistant Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and a clinical dietician with over 30 years’ experience. She teaches an outstanding course entitled Nutrition Made Clear on Great Courses Plus.

What is this topic so important?

As a nation, we’re becoming increasingly unhealthy. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the majority of Americans are either overweight (i.e., their Body Mass Index or BMI ranges between 25 and 3) or obese (i.e., their BMI exceeds 30)… and the trend data are not heading in a favorable direction.

us trend data on body mass index

Excess body fat has been linked to elevated risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and clinical depression. Beyond the deleterious effects on the individual, these conditions result in staggeringly high medical costs.

So how did we get here?

The simple answer: We eat too much food and too much of the wrong kinds of foods.

average daily per capita calories

We’ve gotten the message. According to Pew Research, 54% of us believe that we’re paying closer attention to healthy eating that we did 20 years ago; however, 58% of us think we should eat healthier most days. Mintel’s research tells us why:

  • 43% of Americans believe that it’s difficult to be healthy given our modern lifestyle
  • 80% believe healthy living demands sacrifice
  • 40% find the health information landscape confusing

That last point bears closer examination. There is SO MUCH information about diet and nutrition out there. BusinessWire reports that the U.S. weight loss market is now worth $72 billion. That’s a whole lot of financial incentive to promulgate dietary information that may or may not reflect hard science. Dr. Anding raises warning flags for:

  • Promises of quick and effective cure-alls
  • Claims miraculous breakthroughs, secret formulas, and treatments
  • Bamboozling medical terminology
  • Attempts to equate “all natural” with safety and efficacy
  • Aggressive use of personal testimonials
  • An artifice of scarcity – e.g., “limited supply,” “act now”
  • Money-back guarantees

In short, if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

There’s no substitute for going back to basics – i.e., eating a balanced diet of whole, unprocessed foods in the right amounts consistently. While it takes a bit more investment in time, I’ve learned to multi-task while preparing meals – e.g., watching TV while doing food prep, or listening to an audiobook or podcast while cooking. I’ve found ways to make healthy meals taste really good. (Just ask my husband!) And I watch portion size.

If you’d like high quality information, Dr. Anding recommends the following resources:

To that list, I would add I’ve been watching Dr. Michael Greger’s short videos for years and consistently find them well-constructed, newsworthy, and evidence-based.

How to Beat the Do-Nothing Blues

today's plan

As COVID continues to threaten our health physically, the call for quarantining and social distancing may prove equally detrimental to our mental health. Even perennial optimists may find it difficult to put on a happy face day-after-day, week-after-week, and month-after-month in this altered reality.

For good measure, I decided to read David Burns’ Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and see what he had to say about warding off the blues. (And he has a lot to say!) The book is chalk full of content about the nature of depression, the tools that can be used to combat it, and the clinical research that demonstrates the effectiveness of Burns’ methodologies. My Achilles Heels are “do-nothing-ism” and its twin, procrastination.

I’ll confess that I’ve done a whole lot more binge-watching on television that I can ever remember in my entire lifetime. Of course, I’ve never logged so many hours in Home Sweet Home as I have over the past 9+ months. Yet even with a full complement of high quality viewing options, I find that I feel rather low when I’ve spent too much time in front of the tube… even when pursuing other activities concurrently. It makes me feel like I’m stagnating, and that’s not a concession to COVID that I’m willing to make.

Burns suggest that I create a Daily Activity Schedule with the following elements:

  • A prospective hour-by-hour plan for how I’m going to spend my day
  • A notation as to whether each activity relates to mastery (M) or pleasure (P)
  • A rating (1-5) of the difficulty of the activity
  • A retrospective look at what I actually did

A journal kept faithfully will help me become aware of how I spend my time (which may prove startling!) It provides the opportunity to balance work, personal development, play, and connection. It creates structure to motivate action in the present and provide opportunities for continuous improvement in the future. And Burns claims that laying out and adhering to plan lifts mood.

To address procrastination, Burns asks that I list all of the tasks that I’ve been putting off. He suggests that I give them ratings of how difficult I think it will be to complete each one, and how satisfying it will feel to cross them off the list. Once they’ve been added to my Daily Activity Schedule and completed, he then recommends returning to those predictions to see how the actual experience compared to the predicted one. I may find that I’ve overestimated the level of difficulty and underestimated the reward (or relief!) Again, his research shows that productivity and self-confidence tend to go up when following this simple program.

For larger “to dos,” Burns advocates the tried-and-true method of breaking larger projects into manageable tasks. This strategy combats the tendency to feel overwhelmed and provides milestones at which one can celebrate victories and note progress toward goals. For peace of mind, it may even make sense to simply say, “I’m going to work on this task for X hours today and then put it away.” It alleviates the pressure to make sweeping progress and lets the mind and body know when it’s time for a break. (My husband used this approach to good effect when we moved a dump truck full of fresh fir bark from the driveway to the back yard. He never despaired of how much was left to do; he simply focused on ending each day’s activity with a “cold one” and a good meal.)

While I’m generally not big on using these types of tools, I’m willing to give them a go as I start the new year. I’m quite likely to spend several more months in quarantine, and I’d really like to have something to show for it other than heightened familiarity with Netflix and Amazon Prime series. I’ve got a pretty good start on my “procrastination list,” and several burgeoning file folders with paperwork that requires review and/or action. Let’s see how much momentum I can build for plowing through it all. Of course, I may decide that some things just aren’t worth my time and attention… and that’s OK!

Farewell to 2020

farewell to 2020
It has been a year like no other.

It started out well. My soul was filled with great music and strong friendships in two choral groups. I had the opportunity to perform with a collective of good actors/singers in a Broadway musical. My work and home lives were harmonious. The only dark spot on the horizon was Mom’s failing health.

Fortune favored the prepared. Mom had been a superb manager of household finances and salted away sufficient funds to spend her final days in the best care facilities in Washington County. As Alzheimer’s disease took the last of her cognitive capacity, she had all the supports necessary to keep her safe and comfortable. I spent time with her daily toward the end, and BrightOn Hospice made both of our lives easier. She passed in her sleep on February 6, 2020 at age 96. Mercifully, she transitioned before COVID-19 reared its ugly head.

A short five weeks later, Spike and I went into quarantine as news of the dreadful virus took root in our community. Having taken the Community Emergency Response Team training, our household was in good shape to weather the coming storm. Nonetheless, we took the opportunity to shore up our estate plans – a long-standing item on our “to do” list – and communicate with our next-of-kin to make sure that he could assume the mantle of responsibility smoothly. (Remember: Fortune favors the prepared!) We also built up our household food supplies to allow for longer time intervals between grocery store visits. (Read Meal Planning During the Pandemic.)

September brought devastating fires to the State of Oregon. Over 1,000,000 acres burned, hundreds of structures were lost, 40,000 residents were evacuated, and at least 7 people lost their lives. Our neighborhood was never under threat, but the air quality proved so harmful that we were unable to go outdoors or open windows. The fires leveled hardship-upon-hardship for so many.

In the midst of all this chaos, we’ve had the most acrimonious national election cycle in my memory… and the tension-laden political atmosphere is far from behind us. It has added an extra measure of stress and hostility to a year that that has cried out for relief to its suffering.

Meanwhile, I remain attentive to what scientists have to say about COVID-19, the potential remedies for those afflicted, and the vaccines that are making the way into the market. We’re blessed to live in a state with sufficient controls to keep our infection and death rates relatively low. Unfortunately, the boon to public health also carries the loss of livelihood for so many Oregonians. Businesses have closed; others teeter on the brink of ruin. My heart is heavy for all those who suffer.

Like it or not, we’ve got many more months of quarantine before life can return to some semblance of normal. For those who feel restless and would like to throw caution to the wind, I encourage to read the following excerpt from a holiday letter that a dear friend’s brother shared with his friends and family:

somber holiday message

Finding Happiness

According to adherents of Buddhism and stoicism, pursuing external goods or trying to make the world conform to your wishes amounts to striving after wind. Happiness can be found only by breaking such attachments and cultivating an attitude of acceptance. Dr. Jonathan Haidt begs to differ. In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Haidt argues builds a compelling case for a difference psychological equation:

formula for happiness

The set point refers to one’s genetic predisposition toward optimism or pessimism. Optimists have ready access to positive emotional states (comfort, warmth, contentment, pleasure) and find silver linings in dark clouds. Pessimists expect poor outcomes and experience a higher incidence of anxiety and depression. Though you may not have come out on the winning side of the cortical lottery, studies have shown that said genes only confer a modest (and controllable) influence on one’s mental state. You can counteract your set point! (Read Dr. David D. Burns’ book Feeling Good for more information.)

Our external conditions have a profound impact on our happiness. A noisy and/or unsafe neighborhood can make us feel chronically irritable or anxious. A nasty daily commute can start and end our workdays in an agitated state. Unhealthy relationships can engender chronic stress. And we don’t do well in environments where we lack control or feel shame. By contrast, we generally experience contentment when our surroundings are peaceful, our daily routines are devoid of chronic stress, and our lives are filled with strong personal and professional relationships. Conditions are real, and these externals matter!

Voluntary activities provide opportunities to bolster happiness. Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, PhD argues that people are happiest when they experience a state of “flow.” This state is characterized by total immersion in a task that piques our interest, provides challenges that align with our abilities, fully engages our attention, and provides benchmarks to measure progress. Such endeavors prove captivating in the moment and gratifying in the aftermath. Likewise, we find pleasure when we forge friendships or build community with companionable folks. Strong social relationships make for strong immune systems, faster recovery from illness or surgery, reduced risk of depression, and longer, healthier lives.

NOTE: Haidt makes the point that activities connect us with people while objects often separate us. Spend money on group festivities and you feel enriched by the experience. Spend money on expensive possessions to impress others and you feel impoverished. Word to the wise: Stop conspicuous consumption!

Research also suggests that cultivating virtues through daily practice and repetition leads to happier lives. Benjamin Franklin took this advice to heart and created a weekly checklist to provide focus for his endeavors and hold himself accountable. (Click here to download his list.) According to Haidt, virtues that top most lists today include:

  • WISDOM: curiosity, love of learning, judgment, ingenuity, emotional intelligence, perspective
  • COURAGE: valor, perseverance, integrity
  • HUMANITY: kindness, compassion, love
  • JUSTICE: good citizenship, fairness, leadership
  • TEMPERENCE: self-control, prudence, humility
  • TRANSCENDENCE: appreciation for beauty and excellence, gratitude, spirituality, forgiveness, humor, zest

Haidt conceives the virtues as “excellences that build character strengths.” When practiced faithfully, they become engrained habits that lead us to right speech, right action, and right livelihood. We become persons who are more effective in our personal and professional lives and more appealing to others.

At the end of the day, Haidt argues that happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without. It is clearly within our purview to control many of the conditions, activities, and habits that give rise to happiness. While attachments may bring pain, they can also be the source of great joy. As he says: “Through passionate attachment to people, goals, and pleasures, life can be lived to its fullest.”

Is Happiness All in Your Mind?

“Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.” ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

happy facePersonal development coaches often tell us that we are in the driver’s seat when architecting lives full of purpose, fulfillment, and pleasure. If we control our perceptions of reality, we control the world in which we live. Armed with a rosy outlook and confidence in our ability to co-create the future, we can point our ships toward fruitful destinations and take full advantage of the opportunities that present themselves along the way. At best, we find this perspective empowering and use it to enrich our lives and those around us. At worst, we berate ourselves when we’re unable to find or capitalize on our personal mojo.

In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Dr. Jonathan Haidt sheds light on this mind-over-matter psychology with the benefit of scientific research.

Our brain structure reflects millions of years of evolutionary development. While we have an oversized neocortex relative to other mammals, we retain ancient structures – i.e., the limbic system or “lizard brain” – geared toward ensuring our survival. It responds to stimuli in ways that that call for feeding, fornication, fight, flight, and freezing. It also sets off a gaggle of other bodily responses with the intent of protecting our lives and/or the propagation of our species. When the limbic system runs the show, it takes a good deal of effort for the neocortex to bring our behaviors into awareness and exercise control.

As I discussed in Our Guts Have Minds of Their Own, the human body also comes equipped with a “second brain” (dubbed the enteric nervous system) with 100 million nerve cells to manage our gut’s biochemical activities. Haidt suggests that this lower body intelligence may do more than simply digest food and manage immune function. It may respond to sensory input in a way that drives insights, decision-making, and behavior beyond our conscious control. One might say that there’s “thought” behind our “gut feel.”

As with the enteric nervous system, our brains attend to most of its daily functions without the benefit of conscious thought. The autonomic nervous system regulates bodily functions, such as the heart rate, respiratory rate, pupillary response, skeletal muscular activity, and sexual arousal. We’re also creatures of habit. When learning a new routine, our brain activity remains high from start to finish. Once a routine has been mastered, brain activity elevates only when encountering the initial cue and when reaping a reward for a completed task. We’re on autopilot between points A and B. (That’s why it’s so hard to break engrained habits!)

Finally, our brains are highly adept at rationalization. As Dr. Baba Shiv and others have demonstrated, we make decisions emotionally and then filter all subsequent facts through a lens that supports our previously rendered judgment. Feelings come first; reasons are invented on the fly. Again, it’s how we evolved to survive. Per Haidt, this internal “wiring” explains why it is so difficult to win an argument. Morality is like beauty; it lives within the eye of the beholder. Once entrenched, it’s hard to dislodge and even harder to persuade others of its merits.

So, what does all this have to do with happiness? It tells us that our consciousness is not as powerful as we might have thought. Haidt likens it a rider atop an elephant, where the elephant represents all the parts of the brain over which we have little or no control. The rider has the ability to influence the elephant’s path, but only if the elephant is motivated to move in that direction.

If life is indeed shaped by how we perceive it, Haidt reminds us that such perceptions happen quickly and (largely) unconsciously. Furthermore, our survivalist nature causes us to give far greater weight to perceived threats, setbacks, and violations than it does to opportunities and possibilities. It takes effort and training to overcome this negative bias. We need to work with our “elephant brain” to move it in forwarding directions. Haidt advocates three methodologies:

  • Meditation to focus attention non-analytically and break attachments, thereby taming and calming the elephant
  • Cognitive therapy to catch negative thoughts, name the distortions, find alternate patterns of thinking, and change behaviors accordingly
  • Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) to ease symptoms of moderate to severe depression, as needed

In my next post, I’ll dive into Haidt’s formula for happiness and explore evolutionary responses to achieve it.

When Adversity is Your Friend

My last post took a brief look at three untruths that authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff claim diminish young people’s ability to prepare effectively for the real world. I’ve had occasion to think about one such untruth this week in an on-line class – i.e., what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

sadnessMy instructor asked the group to reflect upon their relationship to failure. He asked: In what ways have you failed in the past? How did you experience it? To what lengths did you go to avoid it? I had no trouble coming up with examples:

  • Romantic relationships that had their moments but then went south (some due to a serious lack of judgment on my part!)
  • Friendships that hit bumps in the road and did not recover
  • Group affiliations that either lost cohesion or left me feeling like the odd-woman-out
  • Promising career trajectories that never reached their potential
  • Would-be avocations for which I simply lacked the talent, drive, or interest

I could go on and on… I’ve had some heart-breaking doozies in there, but I’ve never felt undone by any of them. Quite the contrary – I think they’ve made me a better person. Dr. Jonathan Haidt refers to this phenomenon as the “adversity hypothesis.” It says that people need adversity, setbacks, and even a modest amount of trauma to reach their highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development. Of course, he’s not talking about experiences that would induce Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD) or chronic stress. Rather, challenges, failures, and dashed expectations can have healthy outcomes. Here’s why…

Adversity reveals hidden abilities that change one’s self-concept. We find that we are stronger than we might have realized and have access to coping mechanisms that can help us move forward. We can handle the upheaval and are less likely to become anxious the next time a challenge presents itself.

Adversity strengthens relationships and helps us “separate the wheat from the chaff” in our social circles. We feel love and gratitude toward those who were there for us during the crisis. We recognize that these relationships are the real treasures in our lives. We give less emotional weight to the relatively insignificant matters that temporarily disrupt our lives.

Adversity helps us put on the brakes and take stock of what we’re doing with our lives. We get to ask ourselves: Is this really how I want to spend my time? Am I working toward the right set of goals? Are my values aligned with the people and organizations that currently play central roles in my life? Should I throttle back on my activities and spend more time “being” instead of “doing”?

Adversity can be a great teacher if we take the opportunity to draw lessons from it. I can’t think of any past challenge from which I didn’t learn something about myself, my values, my choices, my environment, and my relationships that proved instrumental for making positive change. Admittedly, some of the insights took time to manifest, and some of the adjustments were painful to put into effect. But I’ve learned to identify and appreciate the upsides of a downer experience.

Haidt serves up a four-part recipe for surviving adversity: (i) Be an optimist. Train yourself to find the positive side of life. (ii) Build a strong support network. Sympathetic friends can be healing balms for life’s wounds. (iii) Have faith. Let it be a source of strength and a guidepost for your response to adversity. (iv) Write about the trauma with the intent of making sense of it. Lessons learned can take the sting out of unfortunate circumstances, ward off future episodes, and provide the impetus for course corrections on life’s journey.

Three Great Untruths

Starting in 2013, Professor Jonathan Haidt and co-author Greg Lukianoff took note of disturbing trends among college students. They witnessed tendencies to exaggerate danger, use binary thinking (e.g., right vs. wrong, us vs. them), and amplify emotional responses. These cognitive patterns manifested in:

  • A rise in political polarization and cross-party animosity, leading students to retreat into self-confirming bubbles
  • Elevated anxiety and depression while fixating on negative feedback, catastrophizing, and experiencing a sense of threat to their well-being
  • A belief that challenge of any nature inculcates weakness, not strength
  • Loss of risk taking in which there is a possibility of failure
  • Excessive parental supervision alongside a growth in campus bureaucracy

These patterns create an environment that Haidt and Lukianoff believe render young adults less able to deal with the world that they’ll enter upon graduation. They present their analysis and remedies in The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. They take aim three great untruths with which this generation has been raised.

Untruth #1: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. This distortion imparts a sense of fragility to its adherents. They fail to view challenges as a means to gain strength, competency, and confidence. In the extreme, they consider ideas that do not align with their worldview threatening and render them easily hurt. When this dynamic overtakes a university setting, the authors argue that it fails to teach students the essential skills of critical thinking and civil disagreement.

This untruth flies in the face of human biology. We build strength by challenging our skeletomuscular frame to lift increasingly heavy loads. Our immune systems elevate their ability to stave off disease by responding to viral loads and developing antibodies to address them. We expand our neural networks by learning new things that stretch our capacity to think critically. And we develop emotional intelligence by exercising mastery over our emotions, believing ourselves capable of meeting challenges, and managing relationships effectively. In short, when we shrink from trials and tribulations, we atrophy… and that’s not healthy.

Untruth #2: Always trust your feelings. This belief deems feelings reliable barometers of truth. While compelling, thoughts and feelings can distort reality when deprived of reliable evidence. Common distortions include mind reading, fortune telling, catastrophizing, labeling (prejudging), discounting positives and overemphasizing negatives, overgeneralizing, dichotomous thinking, personalizing, blaming, comparing unfairly, should-ing, etc.

Ancient wisdom tells us that nothing brings misery unless you think it; nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) leverages this tradition by helping patients break the disempowering feedback loop between negative beliefs and negative emotions. It teaches folks to examine their beliefs and focus on contra evidence. It distinguishes between intent and impact, and promotes polite and respectful interactions.

Untruth #3: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. This tenet establishes “us” and “them,” and invites us to ignore, disrespect, and/or dehumanize “them.” It preys upon an innate wiring for tribalism that “binds and blinds.” It draws upon a deep well of fear and protectionism that leads us to believe that our very survival is at stake. It invites us to display some of our worst behaviors and feel righteous about doing them.

This untruth plays out in sharp relief in our daily headlines; it is tearing us apart as a nation. We need to recognize the underpinnings of these sensibilities and the forces that enflame them. We need to resist their influence. The remedy is simple: Lift up our common humanity and shared interests. Engage in civil dialog with an open mind. Learn to be tolerant of different worldviews and find ways to coexist peaceably.

I will leave it to interested readers to explore the full exposé and note the extent to which the collegiate experience resonates with society at large. At the end of the day, I found Haidt and Lukianoff’s core thesis compelling:

“Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your goals if you… seek out challenges, free yourself from cognitive distortions, and take a generous view of other people.”



When my husband and I gather for our holiday meal tomorrow, we will be guided by the Haudensaunee Thanksgiving Address, provided in edited form below.

Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.

We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time

We give thanks to all the Waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms – waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans.

We turn our minds to the all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We send our greetings and thanks.

Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans, and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them, too. We gather all the Plants together as one and send them a greeting of thanks.

Now we turn to all the Medicine Herbs of the world. From the beginning they were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are those who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines.

We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are honored by them when they give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food for our people. We are glad they are still here and we hope that it will always be so.

We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many people of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life.

We put our minds together as one and thank all the birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life.

We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help us to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength.

We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest brother, the Sun. Each day without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the fires of life.

We put our minds together to give thanks to our oldest grandmother, the Moon, who lights the night-time sky. She is the leader of woman all over the world, and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time, and it is the Moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth.

We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home.

We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people.

Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.

We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.

Restore Relationship with the Land

mountain lakeIn nineteenth century America, Native Americans in the Eastern United States were forcibly relocated from their ancestral homes to lands west of the Mississippi River. Those who remained were forced to abandon their languages, customs, and beliefs and adopt Western European sensibilities. In the process, we quashed their deep reverence for the land and the way of life that kept it healthy and whole.

In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer calls for a return to Native American sensibilities in response to sustained assaults on the delicate ecosystem on which all life depends. As a botanist, she leverages the scientific method to assess the environmental cost of our inattention to the environment. As a member of the Potawatomi Nation, she brings her people’s stories, traditions, and practices to bear on reorienting our thinking and finding a path toward restoration. The book is a delightful and evocative read.

She begins with the story of Skywoman who fell to the earth and worked collaboratively with all of the creatures who preceded her to co-create the world. Each contributed gifts to benefit the common good; some made sacrifices to benefit the greater whole. The story tells us that nothing comes into being without cost. We are admonished to respond with gratitude and a sense of responsibility for what has been given.

While origin stories may vary across tribes, the central tenet of connection to the land and all of its creature remains. Native Americans belong to the land in a way that sustains them physically and spiritually. It provides them with the bounty of its harvest; it is the great teacher that counsels them on how to live in harmony with creation and with one another. Here are some of its admonitions.

Create a home where all life can flourish. All things have a purpose. Individuals, animals, sea creatures, plants, insects, waterways, and elements of nature bestow distinctive gifts that contribute to the well-being of the whole. Never interfere with the sacred purpose of another being. Never imperil any part of this intricate web lest you jeopardize your own survival. Practice kindness and compassion.

See the world as a gift. Live in acknowledgement of an earth that feeds you, quenches your thirst, and provides warmth and shelter. Stop and take note of these rich endowments. Give thanks. When you abandon gratitude, the gifts abandon you.

Pair gratitude with the practice of reciprocity and responsibility. While the earth’s gifts are given freely, they require attentive caregiving to sustain their bounty. Just about everything we use or consume comes at the expense of another life. Reciprocity resolves the moral tension of taking life by returning something of value to restore the balance of nature. Responsibility encourages life-sustaining practices that ensure a healthy ecosystem across the generations.

Reconnect with the landscape by planting a garden. Be mindful of the ways in which food production results from a partnership between the land and its nutrients, the sun, the rain, and the human caregiver who sows the seeds and watches over their development. Consider what it takes to keep this garden healthy and productive year after year. As you work in the garden, let it feed you in body as well as spirit.

Participate in honorable harvests by taking only what you need and using everything you take. Engage in practices that bring forth long term benefits for people and plants. Never take more than half; leave the rest to maintain the health and vigor of wild life. Celebrate and give thanks for every mouthful.

Live in community. Keep one another accountable for your commitments to honor the whole of life. Use ceremony to codify what matters and bind the community together.

In all things, be vigilant against greed. Do not be fooled into thinking that belongings are more meaningful than belonging. Restraint, sharing, and stewardship are essential for survival. Stand against an economy that destroys the earth to profit the greedy; demand one that aligns with life.

Leave the world better than when you found it.

Read the book… or, better yet, check out the audiobook and listen while Dr. Kimmerer shares her wonderful stories and words of wisdom.