It was during research for the Camden Children’s Garden in my life as an exhibit designer that I first heard of a Three Sisters Garden and the Cherokee legend.
Once upon a time there were three sisters. The first sister was very tall and strong; her name was Corn Girl, and she wore a pale green dress and had long yellow hair that blew in the wind. Corn Girl liked to stand straight and tall, but the hot sun burned her feet and hurt her. And the longer Corn Girl stood in her field, the hungrier she got. And every day more weeds were growing up around her and choking her.
The second sister was very thin and quick and fast, and her name was Bean Girl, but she wasn’t very strong. She couldn’t even stand up on her own. She was good at making food, but she just had to lie there stretched out on the ground, and she would get dirty and wet, which wasn’t good for her.
The third sister, Squash Girl, was short and fat and wore a yellow dress. She was hungry too.
For a long time, the sisters didn’t get along. They each wanted to be independent and free, and not have anything to do with the other two. So Corn Girl stood there with her sunburned feet and got hungrier and hungrier. And Bean Girl lay there on the ground and got dirtier and wetter. And the little fat sister Squash Girl was hungry too.
So Bean Girl talked to her sister Corn Girl and said, “What if I feed you some good food, and you can hold me up so I don’t have to lie on the ground and get all dirty?” And Corn Girl thought that was a great idea. Then little Squash Girl called up to her tall sister, “How about if I lie on your feet and shade them so you won’t get sunburned?” Corn Girl thought that was a great idea too.
So the Three Sisters learned to work together so that everyone would be healthier and happier. Corn Girl helped Bean Girl stand up. Bean Girl fed Corn Girl and Squash Girl good food. And Squash Girl shaded Corn Girl’s feet and kept the weeds from growing up around them all.
And that’s why the Iroquois and the Pueblo people and the Aztecs and everybody in between planted their corn, their beans, and their squash together in the same field – the Three Sisters.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how, as humans, we have an intertwined, three sisters experience of life. They are three environments within which we live: the inner world environment of the mind with its thoughts and stories; the environment of the physical body, bones and muscles and all the systems that make up the hardware of the body; and the environment of the world outside our bodies, the space of the built and natural environments where we work, live and play. It’s easy to see how, like the sisters, each can seem separate and unrelated to the other two. How much could the time we spend outside affect our blood pressure or our level of happiness?
Through the lens of wholebeing, we, like the sisters, discover all three environments are intimately connected.
In 1968 Harvard researcher Dr. Herb Benson came forward with his radical work and studies about how the mind and body were connected. He actually risked his entire career in making the claim that what we think, and specifically how we manage stress, directly impacts the physical body. Today we know, and research confirms, that how we frame and reframe the experiences of our lives, how much gratitude we express, and the levels of compassion for ourselves and others greatly impacts our physical health.
The latest research on stress shows that stress is not what is killing us. What we think about stress, is it an opportunity for growth or a burden and barrier, is what can be dangerous to our bodies. The power of the mind to choose where to focus, what we believe and our perspective on aging, healing and the ability to thrive is not yet, and may never be fully measurable. Yet, most people have experienced how the environment of the mind can shift the physical and environmental experience. Falling in love, everything seems more vibrant and you feel on top of the world. You see roses are everywhere and birds singing and beauty all around you. The death of a close friend or family members and the sense of loss can leave you staggering even on the most beautiful spring day.
The second environment, the physical body, is also shaping the mind. How we position our bodies, as shown by the work of Amy Cuddy, shifts the way we think and feel. A smile triggers positive hormones and makes us feel good, though we believe that we smile in response to feeling good. In studies about depression groups who exercised, compared to those who took medication has significantly lower relapse rates. How we move, feed and care for our bodies can create an environment that supports health and mental wellbeing, or can equally inhibit and damage the body’s carefully designed systems and compromise health and the ability to thrive.
The third sister, the outside world, including both the built and natural environment also impact the other two sisters. The field of biophilic design is documenting how and why when we interact with nature we feel good, and our bodies systems work better, and how we can bring more of these elements back into our cities and buildings. Little things like more birds singing in the city impact the health of a population (varied birdsong is known to signify a healthy ecosystem, even in a city). How much natural light is in your workspace, and the orientation of your computer monitor in relation to the window are also very subtle, but impactful ways in which the built environment around you has an impact.
Then there is the natural environment, and the research continue. In Japan, a walk in a forest is more than simply a walk. Forest bathing, or merely being in the presence of trees, has proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of wellbeing.
All three environments are intertwined like a beautiful braid. Each affects the other.
Next week I’ll share how this might work for you to use one of these to adjust and impact the others for better wholebeing. This week notice in your current habits and patterns the impact of each of these on the others in your daily life.