Hawaii’s trendy word that’s misunderstood

Leslie Tuchman was visiting the Hawaiian Islands when she came across the concept of ‘hoʻoponopono’ in her Reiki class, introduced by her teacher as a word for self-forgiveness. Tuchman quickly read all the books she could on the subject, fascinated by the idea of empowering and cleansing her spiritual self. But what Tuchman didn’t know at the time – and what most travellers to Hawaii are also unaware of – is the traditional meaning of this word has been somewhat lost in translation.

The Hawaiian term ‘hoʻoponopono’ has been widely interpreted as self-forgiveness (Credit: Niebrugge Images/Alamy)

The Hawaiian term ‘hoʻoponopono’ has been widely interpreted as self-forgiveness (Niebrugge Images/Alamy)

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Rather than simply being about self-forgiveness per se, traditional hoʻoponopono tends to be more complex, and, like most cultural practices in Hawaii, centres on relationships. The roots of the word are hoʻo (to bring about) and pono (rightness). Repeated syllables, as in ‘ponopono’, often express an emphasis in Hawaiian.

It’s about a sense of community and communal feeling of responsibility towards an issue

The relatively new association with self-forgiveness is largely due to the influence of the teachings of Dr Ihaleakala Hew Len, co-author of the 2007 book Zero Limits, which propagates a type of hoʻoponopono known as ‘Self Identity Through Hoʻoponopono’ (SITH). SITH is a self-focused, mental cleansing method based on four mantras: I’m sorry; please forgive me; thank you; and I love you. This method is the definition of hoʻoponopono that is currently most common in alternative healing circles and off-island media.

Traditional hoʻoponopono can be a process that takes a day, or in some cases, years. It’s about a sense of community and communal feeling of responsibility towards an issue. In hoʻoponopono, one person’s issue becomes the entire group’s, and together, with consultation of the group’s elders, they find a resolution that is accepted by the whole community. Practiced since as long as Hawaiians can remember, it is necessary on an island where space and resources are limited and the community is key to survival.

In traditional hoʻoponopono, one person’s issue becomes the entire group’s (Credit: Credit: University of Hawaii – West Oahu/Flickr)

In traditional hoʻoponopono, one person’s issue becomes the entire group’s (Credit: University of Hawaii – West Oahu/Flickr)

It was Aunty Malia Craver, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, who was the first to introduce the concept onto a global stage. In 2000, she made a speech at the 53rd annual DPI/NGO Conference at the United Nations in New York, and spoke about concepts relating to hoʻoponopono. The term, as she told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin before the speech, means “a method to resolve family and personal conflicts and achieve peace”.

Since then, the word hoʻoponopono has been taken out of context and exoticised, as the term swells in popularity both in Hawaii and off-island. As a popular destination for spa-seekers and alternative health practitioners alike, it is not uncommon to see the word hoʻoponopono used in healing circles across Hawaii. One workshop on the Big Island promises a certificate in self-therapy, citing a class in hoʻoponopono for level 1 attendees, while online learning platform Udemy sells a course on this ‘Technique of Forgiveness’. Earlier this July, French Cosmopolitan even published an article on hoʻoponopono, calling it La recette Hawaïenne pour trouver l’amour (The Hawaiian recipe for finding love).

Many Hawaiian cultural practitioners feel it can be harmful when the word is misused or taken out of its cultural context. “Cultural integrity is a big struggle right now for indigenous cultures worldwide,” said Laulani Teale, an activist trained in hoʻoponopono who often applies its concepts in her community work. “When things are taken out of our cultures and applied in ways in which those outside the culture want to apply them, especially for profit, there is almost always a problem.”

Hoʻoponopono is necessary on an island where community is key to survival (Credit: Credit: Chayanan/Getty Images)

Practiced since as long as Hawaiians can remember, hoʻoponopono allows people to find a resolution that is accepted by the whole community (Credit: Chayanan/Getty Images)

As a child growing up on the Big Island, I often heard the word used by government officials, urging people not to escalate conflict. My mother, a cultural practitioner of Hawaiian medicine, recalls a different childhood memory: attending what she believed at the time to be her grandfather’s birthday party. But the party was secondary to the gathering’s real purpose of hoʻoponopono. That afternoon, the adults were deep in serious discussion – uncharacteristic for her jovial family, she remembers – that lasted for hours into the night. The children sat quietly, listening until overtaken by sleep. When dawn arrived, the adults had reached a resolution to their family conflict involving a property dispute. The ritual concluded by breaking fast with specific fishes caught earlier for this purpose.

This decision to not move on until a point of mutual understanding had been reached is a practice that mindful travellers might well learn from. A clear understanding of hoʻoponopono can deepen an appreciation of the Hawaiian culture, and, on a broader scale, help to approach travel more mindfully. Since hoʻoponopono is at its core a tool for communication, the word itself can be a reminder to listen to all voices, have meaningful discussions and make earnest efforts to understand another person, culture or country.

We accept maintaining relationships as essential, whether it’s between people or environment or the greater thought

“We accept maintaining relationships as essential, whether it’s between people or environment or the greater thought,” my mother told me. “In an island community, there’s only so much space, and it has to be shared by all. It has to be perpetuated, protected and enhanced, but as a group, because if you get too self-serving, the group doesn’t really function well.”

Dr Malcolm Nāea Chun, who is the author of numerous books on Hawaiian beliefs, told me that using the term hoʻoponopono to describe a family resolution technique is a relatively recent development. In the 19th Century, the word was chiefly reserved for matters of legal or administrative discussion.

“Back in traditional times, before writing and printing came into place, people didn’t have a name for this… They just did it,” he said.

Hoʻoponopono can be a reminder to make earnest efforts to understand another person (Credit: Credit: John Lander/Alamy)

Hoʻoponopono can be a reminder to make earnest efforts to understand another person, culture or country (Credit: John Lander/Alamy)

As Christianity spread throughout Hawaii, many Hawaiians abandoned ritualistic practices like family conference in favour of more Western ideas of medicine and spirituality. As a result, many Hawaiian families lost the practice in daily life, and it was sustained only in small pockets of the community.

Back in traditional times, people didn’t have a name for this… They just did it

Thanks to the Hawaiian cultural revival that began in the 1960s following the Hawaii Admission Act and statehood, hoʻoponopono is once again a well-known process among locals. These days, it is used as a conflict resolution process in many arenas: in the courtroom, in prisons, leadership programmes and working with troubled youths. In 2015, arrested activists who protested the TMT telescope on Mauna Kea made a formal request to the court to participate in hoʻoponopono in lieu of a trial. As reported by local station Khon2, when Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg filed a lawsuit over land on Kauaʻi in 2017, State Rep. Kaniela Ing criticised his approach as culturally insensitive.

“It’s not Hawaii style to initiate conversation through a lawsuit,” Ing said in a statement. “We’re used to going next door, knocking on the door and saying, ‘Hey, let’s hoʻoponopono and let’s talk about this’.”

Within the Hawaiian community, hoʻoponopono outreach is often offered free of charge as a means to restore the practice within families. Visitors to the islands may encounter the word in newspapers, magazines, books, on TV or while overhearing a conversation between locals. But to really understand the concept, travellers should look at the way Hawaiians treat each other. Hawaiians value unity and harmonious relationships, as seen in the Aloha Law.

Hoʻoponopono is once again a well-known process among locals (Credit: Credit: David L. Moore - HI/Alamy)

Thanks to the Hawaiian cultural revival that began in the 1960s, hoʻoponopono is once again a well-known process among locals (Credit: David L. Moore – HI/Alamy)

However, it is not enough to treat others with aloha. In order to feel unified and part of the community, Hawaiians must have a genuine feeling of connection and justice that only comes through open discussion and dialogue. Though traditional hoʻoponopono usually takes place in private, aspects of the practice are incorporated in daily life all over the islands.

In a restaurant or on the beach, tourists might see Hawaiians engage in kūkākūkā, or ‘talk story’, a genuine discussion. If they want to learn more about how to apply the practice to their own lives, they can take a workshop from health programmes like Hui Malama Ola Na ‘Oiwi. Hawaii Community College even offers a distance-learning course titled ‘Introduction to Hoʻoponopono’.

The best part of Hawaiian values is that they can be applied anywhere you go

“Pono means to be righteous, but it connotes being authentic and genuine in how you are as a person, in how you relate to others,” said Aunty Lynette Paglinawan, who teaches hoʻoponopono classes at the University of Hawai’i West O’ahu. “It means living a righteous lifestyle that illustrates love, respect, concern, following true with promises and commitments. These are values by which you live.”

For decades, the global picture of Hawaii has been one of exotic idyll. Beyond the palm trees and plumeria lei, however, exists a tight-knit community that esteems honesty, forgiveness and harmony. The best part of Hawaiian values is that they can be applied anywhere you go. Though I have lived far from Hawaii for many years, I am still amazed how much of those values I still learn from and apply to my daily life or when travelling in strange, new lands. Whether it is a tool for self-forgiveness or for family conversation, hoʻoponopono is a practice that resonates in every landscape.