Conflict Resolution In the Presence of the Spirit: Ho’oponopono
Traditional Hawaiian practices include a structured ritual whereby a family gathers to exchange concerns, reveal wrongs and resentments, and set the family unit right. The practice, ho’oponopono, is often inadequately understood by non-Hawaiians and in certain instances misappropriated (whether intentionally or through ignorance). This chapter attempts to describe the practice, with acknowledgement that non-Hawaiians necessarily labor under spiritual and cultural limitations that prevent full understanding of, and engagement in, the traditions of others.
•A. Derivation and Traditional Use
Ho’oponopono is variously defined as a setting to right; a process of reconciliation; a rebalancing of relationships. The word “ho’o” means to make, or cause, or bring about; “pono” means right or ordered or balanced; and “ponopono” means cared for or attended to. Thus, ho’oponopono refers to “the specific family conference in which relationships were ’set right’ through prayer, discussion, confession, repentance, and mutual restitution and forgiveness.”
Traditionally ho’oponopono takes place only within families. However, as will be noted below, there have been modern efforts to adapt it to therapeutic, delinquent youth centers, or social work contexts.
One author has written, “If it is good, if it is in balance, if it is right, if it helps, if it is righteous, if it corrects, if it is responsible, if it is caring, if it is humble, if it is peaceful, if it honors, it is pono.”
•B. The Attitude Necessary for Healing
A practitioner who kindly took time to discuss ho’oponopono took great pains to explain that the process takes place in a context in which at least two non-Western beliefs are embraced and pervade the event. First, one must accept that all things are invested with the spirit. Each object and each creature that surrounds us has a place in the universe not merely by means of its utility and its function, but also by its immutable spiritual characteristic. One who lives in the physical world unaware of the persistent spiritual attributes of its component parts is, by implication, not prepared to experience the healing of ho’oponopono.
Additionally, one must understand one’s place temporally. Life did not start, and will not end, with us. Rather, we are the descendants of our parents, and their parents, and their parents, from time beyond any reckoning and any imagining. And our children will beget children who will beget children past our understanding. So the family, as it gathers on this day, is a spot in a huge canvas, a tiny sliver of a great thing. It is to be honored and recognized for what it is, but not misperceived to be what it is not.
Thus it is incumbent upon each member of the family to stay in tune with the world around them, and not forget their role in the spiritual world. Neither should a family hesitate to lay bare any dysfunction or enduring harm that festers among its members, but rather lay harms bare before each other in patience, grace, and candor. Ho’oponopono is the ritual by which that rebalancing is achieved.
C. The Ritual Structure
“Ho’oponopono is a highly structured process with four distinct phases: an opening phase that includes the prayer and a statement of the problem; a discussion phase in which all members involved share their thoughts and feelings in a clam manner and listen to all the others as they speak; a resolution phase that enables the exchange of confession, forgiveness, and release; and a closing phase to summarize what has transpired and to give spiritual and individual thanks for sincere participation.”
The process is conducted, or facilitated, by a family senior or by a kahuna - a kind of “family doctor” who is trusted by the family and has compassionate insight into the family’s problems. It opens with a pule, or prayer, by which the spirits are convened and the family acknowledges that, henceforth, their communications with each other will take place in the presence of the spirit.
Then the immediate problem - the reason the gathering was called - is set forth. This is a kukulu kumuhana, a word that in general contexts means a “pooling of strengths for a shared purpose.” Each such problem is then “set to rights” in a discussion and exchange known as mahiki. The kahuna controls disruptive emotions and occasionally calls for periods of silence, rest and reflection, called ho’omalu.
At some point, the wrongdoings (hala) are revealed, repented, forgiven and released in events termed mihi, kala and oki. These are further discussed in the immediately following section. The subject of the healing is not individual hurts, however, but the entire multi-person family unit that finds itself damaged and ensnarled by the acts of certain of its members. “The metaphor of a tangled net has been used to illustrate how problems within a family affect not only persons directly involved but also other family members. The family is a complex net of relationships, and any disturbance in one part of the net will pull other parts.”
Once balance has been restored, ho’oponopono ends by a pani: a summary of what has taken place, a reaffirmation of the family’s bonds, and a closing prayer, pule ho’opau. The matter is then sealed and subject to the silence of ho’omalu forever. Often the family then shares a meal with each other and with the kahuna.
•D. Analysis of Components of the Process
Kahuna: Victoria Shook variously describes the kahuna as “priest, minister, healer, sorcerer, specialist.” Either the kahuna or a respected elder from the family presides over the ho’oponopono process. In either case, whether or not the leader has gifts of healing (as the kahuna has), it is the leader who possesses procedural authority, by which the process (but not the substance) is controlled.
Pule: Prayer. It is used not merely in ho’oponopono but also in other contexts. In ho’oponopono it summons the spirits to observe and protect the family as it enters into the process of admission, confession, forgiveness and healing. The closing prayer is called pule ho’opau.
Mahiki: This term describes the process by which the family body exchanges words and emotions until the hala, or wrongs, are revealed. The term is used to describe the process of peeling the bark off a tree in order to determine the quality of the wood beneath, or to scrape the skin in order to expose and remove a burrowed insect. The term has historical inferences of exorcising demons from those possessed, but is now used therapeutically to describe the process whereby, through skilled and persistent questioning, an individual is led to recognize hurts and ills that had previously been unacknowledged.
Ho’omalu: The first syllable means to make, or cause to be. The second means shelter, protection, or quiet. During ho’oponopono the term refers to periods of silence called at the authority of the presiding kahuna. It is exercised broadly. During the ho’oponopono it may be called in order to prevent intemperate or emotional disruption. It may be called for an entire week before the ho’oponopono is conducted, during which any discussion of the presenting problem is forbidden. This silence is more than mere refraining from speech, and is weighted with spiritual intent. It is resonant of similar practices in certain religions; as Pukui notes, “like the Quaker silences, the Catholic retreat, and the periods of meditation of Oriental sects, ho’omalu recognizes man’s need for calm and prayerful contemplation.”
Hala and Hihia: Hala refers to a wrong that a person has done to another. The sum of all of the hala at issue during the ho’oponopono is the hihia, which Shook describes as “entanglement… the complex net of problems that usually involves a number of members of the family.” Indeed, the term hihia derives from hihi, meaning a fish net, the complex wrongs and resentments that ho’oponopono addresses are perceived as a net that has snarled and entwined the group.
Mihi: To confess; to apologize; to ask forgiveness. There is an implication that true mihi is not attained unless accompanied by a willingness to offer restitution.
Kala: Kala is forgiveness, and more. Pukui colorfully says that, during ho’oponopono, each member of the family not only must acknowledge the regrettable deed, but also “must release himself and the other of the deed, and the recriminations, remorse, grudges, guilts and embarrassments the deed caused.” Pukui strongly intimates that kala is an event that has mutual benefit; she cites a phrase that means “I unbind you from the fault, and thus may I also be unbound from it.”
This concept is strongly resonant of the familiar phrase in the Christian “Lord’s Prayer,” “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Even more interestingly, the image of the family unit being bound up in a snarled net is also consonant with Jesus’ words, which in their original Aramaic refer to tangled threads and cords, and an entanglement from which the speaker seeks to be released and unbound.
Oki: “To sever, to cut. In ho’oponopono the mihi and kala are made complete by the oki, showing that the entanglement and the troubles are really settled and released.” The event of oki - the pronouncement that confession and forgiveness have been thoroughly and sincerely accomplished in every respect - is acknowledged in the closing invocation, the pule ho’opau. Indeed, in certain senses the event of oki is one of severing the bad thing through divine intercession, by “taking it to the gods.” “In any context of emotions and relationships, secular or spiritual, oki was always prayerful appeal or decisive announcement in which God… was a silent participant. Often prayer and an almost legal-sounding declaration were used together.”
Pani: The ceremonial close. In pre-Christian times, the pani was series of rituals by which the end of the process was marked. They might have included ritual slaughter and offering of animals, or a ceremonial bath in the ocean. Today it is marked by a shared meal.
•E. Concluding Observations
1. Self-Determination in Communal Healing: In an interview with the author, an experience practitioner of ho’oponopono suggested that mihi (acknowledgement of harm, request for forgiveness and offer of restitution) and kala (extension of forgiveness, decision to rid oneself of the binding cords of resentment and anger) are not mutually arrived at or simultaneously exchanged. Rather, they are states that a participant comes to in the course of ho’oponopono. Thus, it is possible that, at a certain point, one person may be clear to forgive something another has not yet acknowledged; or, vice versa, one may articulate (and be released from) a fault irrespective of whether one receives forgiveness for it from the person harmed. The prospect is that each person is capable of “making things right” by a spiritually-guided process that is not dependant on another person’s willingness at acknowledge or accept the decision to do so.
2. Conflict Resolution, Spiritual Healing and Therapy: Early on in the study of ho’oponopono one begins to compare it to modern secular practices of family therapy. Victoria Shook notes that the process shares many attributes with therapy while noting that, among other distinctions, “[m]ost Western therapeutic practices are oriented toward relieving an individual’s suffering; ho’oponopono focuses more on the relief of tensions in the relationships among group members.”
Shook documents the use of processes derived from ho’oponopono in eight case studies, in none of which the context was the traditional family unit. These included a program for youths involved in drug abuse; a wilderness program featuring physical, emotional and spiritual challenges; another wilderness program aimed at delinquent adolescent males; with co-workers; with a boat crew; among groups of neighbors; and in the course of agency social work. In these secular applications, the summoning of the spirit may not be involved, and the question arises whether the complete oki - the deep release of past hurts - and complete ho’omalu - the permanent removal of the hurts even from memory - can be achieved without pule - the summoning of protective and authoritative spirits. That is, is ho’oponopono complete within a unit in which not everyone shares certain basic assumptions of the source of the legitimacy and authority of the process itself?
3. Co-Opting Spiritual Influences in an Age of Narcissistic Secularism: Google the term ho’oponopono and you will find proposals for “getting aligned with existence” because “It’s All About You”; opportunities to harness “miracle powers” for “self-healing and self-improvement”; mantras to recite during “cleaning meditations”; methods for “releasing negative energies, allowing a new space for the healing power of your true Divinity in thoughts, feelings, words, and actions”; and opportunities to “solve your problems and take the road to love, happiness, wealth and the life of your dreams.”
For such a subtle, communal, spirit-based, family-oriented, giving, other-directed rite to be thus trivialized as a means of individual benefit is distressing. It is no wonder that practitioners of ho’oponopono are reluctant to discuss the process for fear of its being distorted for personal gain.
Indeed, respect for the process forces the conclusion that no non-Hawaiian could possibly understand ho’oponopono, certainly not enough to engage in it with any hope of reaping its rewards. The spiritual assumptions that the process requires are foreign to those outside the culture.
Nevertheless, its very existence is noteworthy because it is a cogent, effective, rigorous method of conflict identification and prevention that is driven by objectives other than self-interest. It is essential to recognize that it is not a method in which the gods do the healing. The work is done by the human participants, and the authority for the process is lodged in the trusted human elder or kahuna. What powers the kahuna may possess are also not called upon to effect the healing, but rather to keep the process on track. The healing takes place when the individual comes to a point where wrongs, resentments and guilt that entangle her life are released by virtue of her own decision to release them. The spirits witness, the spirits attend, and the spirits carry them off. But it’s the people who do the work, the people who engage in the process to heal themselves.