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.
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
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.
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.”
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.