Reflections on Societal Ethos

Mitakuye Oyasin

Creating Know Stone Unturned while traveling abroad brought us in contact with many different cultures, people, personality types, and of course, face to face with our own reflections.

Before boarding a flight to South East Asia on inauguration day, we had just spent two years working at a wolf sanctuary in rural New Mexico, where the Executive Director is also a Lakota pipe carrier (a Native American ceremonial leader). Under his guidance, we participated in sweat lodges symbolizing purification and rebirth, and family pipe ceremonies in which we put our collective attention on shared intentions like abundance and rain. An oft-used phrase in these rituals is the Lakota saying, Mitakuye Oyasin (pronounced Ma-Tahk-Wee-Ah-Seen), meaning “all my relations” or “we are all related.” Stemming from the belief that our world is inextricably interconnected, the saying means that all of nature, fellow man, plants, animals, earth, water and sky are all our relatives.

While the saying resonates with us, we know that being related to everyone and everything is not always at the forefront of our minds. This is why travel helps so many of us to expand our world view, whether that’s going across the globe or exploring our own country. It pushes us out of our comfort zones and teaches us to accept our human differences while understanding that, fundamentally, we are all the same, all related, and likely all valuing the same things: family, security, happiness and love. At the same time that our eyes are opened to new perspectives and experiences, traveling can also teach us to appreciate what we have – our own culture, loved ones, home, and a myriad of other things left behind.

Honestly speaking, it was a strange and marked time to be an American abroad during Trump's first six months in office. Many people had questions about what was happening in America, what was true versus what they heard on the news, what we knew about the travel ban preventing travelers in Muslim countries from visiting the U.S., and more. We were frequently humbled by the chiding smiles and mocking snickers of those who simply asked, “How’s Trump?” Others still, said nothing of politics, or even if they did, appeared wide-eyed at the word America and revealed that they always dreamed of visiting our country. And so, despite any contentious feelings people may have about our current administration, we realized: 1) the general perception of Americans remains positive, and 2) the American Dream truly resonates with people all over the world.


Tri Hita Karana

Balinese Offerings

Our first stop was Bali, and the place that got us thinking about cultural ethos and the meaning behind the American Dream.

Bali, a tiny island among thousands in the Indonesian archipelago, is quite special. The people of Bali have long sought to retain their cultural independence through the ages, with their unique blend of modern and ancient tribal beliefs mixed with Buddhism and Hinduism.

What struck us immediately was the culture around gratitude and offerings. The practice of dedicating time each day to preparing and delivering offerings was foreign to us. We even witnessed a holiday giving thanks to metal machinery, including cars and motorbikes, all of which were decorated with ornaments for the occasion.

Offerings, usually made from palm leaves, contain a variety of items, but most typically include bits of food – rice, crackers, fruit, even wrapped candy – as well as flowers and a burning stick of incense, which is considered the spirit of the offering. These nature-based offerings are placed in special altars and in front of houses and businesses throughout the island, even on the beach, in the morning and afternoon in order to appease the Hindu gods. You cannot go anywhere in Bali without encountering them.

While this ritual is a special and easily observed aspect of Balinese culture, it may be the Tri Hita Karana philosophy that is even closer to the culture’s core.

Tri Hita Karana is a Hindu philosophy meaning “three ways to reach spiritual and physical well-being,” with ‘Tri’ meaning three, ‘Hita’ meaning happiness, and ‘Karana’ meaning cause or manner. The philosophy directs people to maintain a harmonious relationship between themselves and others, themselves and their environment, and between themselves and spirit in daily life. We first encountered the term at Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, where a swath of jungle and over 600 monkeys are protected within the city, and again outside of Ubud at the Tegallalang Rice Terrace, where Tri Hita Karana has been an important aspect of sustainable agriculture for centuries. Both cultural attractions keep the philosophy at the heart of what they do.

Learning about Tri Hita Karana reminded us of other cultural tenets that have equally profound yet simple meanings to people around the world, and inevitably, drew us inward to reflect on our own country’s core philosophy. First, here are some more of our favorite cultural sayings spanning nations and continents.



Angkor Wat Carvings, Cambodia

Namaste is a common salutation in India and Nepal tracing back to the Vedas. The word has been translated to mean ‘I bow to you,’ ‘I bow to the divine in you,’ and ‘the divine in me bows to the divine in you.’ The word is used as a greeting or farewell, and is often accompanied by the gesture of holding one’s hands in prayer position at the heart and bowing, or holding the hands in prayer at the center of the forehead and bowing from the head. In India, one can use the gesture without saying the word and still be understood.

In the West, we most commonly hear Namaste at the end of a yoga class, but in India it can be heard much more commonly.

Whether it's used with strangers or loved ones, the word is undeniably powerful in that it reminds us to think of ourselves and others as not only human spirits, but holy ones, whether we are in a spiritual setting or walking down the street.


Pura Vida

Kata Beach, Phuket Thailand

In Spanish, Pura Vida means ‘simple life’ or ‘pure life,’ and is felt to embody the spirit of Costa Rica. Like Namaste, it is used as a greeting. It can also mean ‘everything’s great’ or ‘everything’s cool,’ but more than that, ‘Pura Vida’ reflects the country’s way of life.

Costa Rica has been named one of the happiest countries on Earth. Thus, Costa Ricans (known as Ticos) generally live happy, worry free lives because they focus on peace and gratitude rather than on what’s wrong or negative in life.

It is commonly believed that the saying was popularized by the Mexican film Pura Vida!, which came to Costa Rica in 1956. In the film, the phrase is frequently used by the main character, who remains positive despite his misfortunes. By 1970, the term was used widely throughout the country, and continues to pervade the culture today, loved by locals and tourists alike.

While Namaste reflects the divinity behind all life, Pura Vida reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously and to enjoy this time we are given. 



Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Ubuntu is an African philosophy that became a political ideology in Zimbabwe, and a unifying concept in South Africa at the end of apartheid in the 1990s.

Meaning, “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours,” and “we belong in a bundle of life,” Ubuntu can also be used to compliment someone by saying that they are a generous, hospitable, caring, friendly and compassionate person. It can be translated simply to mean “human kindness,” but is truly more concerned with “connection, community and mutual caring for all.” The phrase is so tied into the idea of community, sharing, and mutual benefit that the world’s most widely used free computer operating system is named after the philosophy.

At the same time that Ubuntu is concerned with human connection, Nelson Mandela explained that, “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is, are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you, and enable it to improve?”

Like Tri Hita Karana, Ubuntu shares the importance of being one with ourselves, and with our communities.


The American Dream

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico

The American Dream is the idea that anyone can succeed and achieve their goals no matter their background or circumstance. Founded on the idea that hard work is rewarded, the American Dream purports a system of success based on persistence and merit. It is this very system that has drawn people from all over the world to the US and that has made America the melting pot it is today.

Know Stone Unturned is also part of that dream.

The American Dream is as hot a topic today as ever, with many news sources arguing that the Dream is being gobbled up by the top percentage of earners, leaving little opportunity for the rest. Despite our economic differences, the dream also reminds us that we all share a common thread in the search for prosperity. We are all dreaming, hustling and striving for our goals, whether that’s raising a family, buying a house, writing a novel, recording an album, or becoming the next Michael Jordan.

In this way, the dream is not lost, but it’s likely what we dream about has changed.

Today, the American Dream may be more about living a meaningful life and less about grounded security for young people coming of age in this new world economy. As we were starting Know Stone Unturned, we came across countless travel bloggers with a shared story: that of quitting their corporate jobs to pursue a life of adventure and new experiences. 

With the advent of the Internet, and more Americans dreaming of becoming their own bosses, the IT explosion, boom in blogging, Etsy shops, and charity-based businesses have all been on the rise for years. It seems the American Dream is increasingly returning to its entrepreneurial roots, perhaps more reminiscent of the country’s early days when the Dream represented exploration and the allure of the great frontier.

Regardless of the method or the times, what’s craved has remained the same: a sense of freedom that’s achieved through success. Whether looking to become a big executive or start your own business, the American Dream is about the idea that you can make it if you try.

We all know that capitalism drives competition, which can create a kind of ruthless culture around success. Business can be cutthroat, and anyone who really wants to ‘make it’ is taught to work harder and longer than everyone else in order to achieve their goals. Yet, as much as the American Dream is focused on the individual, it is also fundamentally rooted in inclusion, the whole – that is, the opportunity for anyone to succeed and prosper regardless of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion or ethnicity. As we look around at our friends, neighbors, classmates, colleagues and family members all swimming toward their own versions of the American Dream, it is precisely this national ethos of success for all that can drive empathy, because the health of any society is dependent on the health of the individuals that make it up.

We are living in an increasingly divided culture dictated by differing political beliefs, economic opportunities, access to education, and where we live. Yet the American Dream remains a unifying force that can raise our society to great heights if we begin to value our collective success as much as we value our personal prosperity. This is true inclusion, the road to collaboration and cooperation that can enable us to transcend and evolve together as people despite our differences.



Collecting Hay for Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

What do Ubuntu, Namaste, Pura Vida, Tri Hita Karana, Mitakuye Oyasin and the American Dream have in common? Each points to the individual and the community simultaneously by illuminating the need for balance and connection between self and other.

While any idea, no matter how rich, can lose its potency as we become accustomed to it, all of these philosophies are worthy of remembering on our journeys through life. They inspire us to go for our goals, remain connected, grounded to the earth and to spirit, to see the holiness in all living beings, to remember that we are inseparably linked, and that living harmoniously with humanity and the earth will always take us farther than we could ever go alone.

What other insightful cultural sayings resonate with you? Let us know in the comments.