I love you, I’m sorry, thank you, please forgive me. These four phrases were my introduction to ho’oponopono, an ancient Hawaiian conflict resolution system that modern “seekers” have adopted as a powerful act of self-forgiveness. In its most basic terms, if one has a conflict in their life with someone else, the person takes full responsibility for it through the recitation of this mantra.
Now the idea is stunning. Imagine a scenario in which you wronged someone or were wronged by someone else. Instead of blaming them or justifying the reasons, you bring the person to mind and cut the entanglement of the conflict. I love you, I’m sorry, thank you, please forgive me. Whether you cheated, or someone cheated on you, in the end, the exercise is the same. Imagine, in fact, there was no blame.
But the mantra had nothing to do with the original tradition nor its current applications. At its core, ho’oponopono is an ancient conflict resolution system that came to Hawaii from the South Pacific with confidentiality, commitment, complete honesty, and forgiveness as its foundation. There is a leader that facilitates the process, a haku that is elected by all parties involved in the conflict. Though the actual ho’oponopono does not include the mantra, the popular variation of the practice still retains its essence: you are responsible.
In researching the ho’oponopono tradition, which is more complex that the four phrases would lead one to believe, I came upon a document that outlined each step in the process as it developed into a “clinical” model. The first and last step are hihia and kala. The beginning is entanglement. The end is to untie, unbind, to let go.
But the entanglement. As we know, or at least there exists substantial evidence, trauma is passed down through the genes. That fact alone doesn’t require anymore evidence. Our conflicts are a part of our heritage, history, and personal development. On top of that, we’re born into a world that is made up of a complex web of relationships. Can’t live with, can’t live without. Conflict, come to think of it, unites us as much as it divides us, and might be the only place, it could be argued, that time really does exist. So, how do we deal with it, make peace with it, if that is what we are truly seeking?
The ho’oponopono proposes this. Complete honesty, openness, forgiveness. In order to do that each person has to look within, sweep away all the adjectives and commit to the process.
The root of Ho’oponopono is “pono.” Daniel Malo, a scholar, described “pono” as “the absolute model of good behavior and values in Hawaiian society.” In other words, pono is an ethical code of conduct that covers a lot of ground. The prefix “ho’o” is a causative, “to do something” or “to make something happen.” So together they mean, in this case, “to make right.”
Ho’oponopono: To Set Right First
Mary Kawena Pukui, a translator and consultant at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Hawai’i, framed ho’oponopono as a system “to set right first” mental problems. In Hawaiian culture, all problems, including illness, stemmed from thought forms. Thus one aspect of the ho’oponopono practice stems from the idea that external conflict is an internal dilemma whether that be illness or an actual dispute.
“My people believed that the taking of medicine was of little help without first removing any and all mental obstructions…When a problem arose in the family affecting an individual or group as a whole, every member turned to ho’oponopono…Every one of us searched our hearts for any hard feelings of one against the other and did some thorough mental house cleaning. We forgave and were forgiven, thrashing out every grudge, peeve or sentiment among us. In this way, we became a very closely bound family unit.” -Mary Kawena Pukui
Sickness was “made known through painful physical and mental forms or even through conflicts between individuals, families, and groups.” Thus determining the right treatment required a thorough investigation. The family called in a traditional healer, who was either a member of the family or someone who knew the family. Through observation and dialogue, the healer would gather information from the environment, and immediate and extended family to determine the psychological cause of the sickness, conflict, or problem. The objective was to locate the root rather than simply treating physical symptoms.
Though ho’oponopono is used to resolve a dispute, illness, or problem within a community, the system has its origins in the South Pacific. The Polynesians brought it with them to Hawaii as a method of resolving conflict between warring nations. Within a political context, historian Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau, the great Hawaiian historian, recorded the earliest precursor to ho’oponopono in the political arena, which positions conflict as a communal enterprise. This brings us to a battle that occurred between Alapa’i, the paramount chief of Hawai’i who reigned between 1725-54, and the chiefs of O’ahu. At a certain point, the waters were sufficiently red, and both sides wanted the war to end. In order to do so, the chiefs mutually elected a wiseman by the name of Nāliʻi to help resolve the conflict.
Nāliʻi met with both chiefs independently and privately, and guided them to remember their successes, contributions, but most importantly, their relationships and genealogy. In the process he discovered that the two warring sides were cousins, which led both chiefs to realize that they could not war against each other. Apparently, they did end up battling again, but ultimately met face to face to finally end the war.
In 1819 however the high chiefs ended the state religious system. Reconciliation practices dwindled as a result. When the Christian missionaries arrived in 1820, they discouraged the practice of ho’oponopono. The Hawaiian system was polytheistic thus the Christians considered it a pagan ritual. Furthermore state legislation passed in 1965 prohibited the practice of Native Hawaiian healing. It appears however that Hawaiians still practiced ho’oponopono under the guise of different names. In 1972, a book of Hawaiian cultural practices titled Nānā I Ke Kumu detailed the process of ho’oponopono, which brought the tradition wider recognition.
I love you, I’m Sorry, Thank You, Please Forgive Me.
In the years it was banned came the new construct. I love you, I’m sorry, thank you, please forgive me. A woman healer by the name Morrnah distilled the process to these essential elements. And was widely recognized for it. The story that you’d stumble upon if you were to google it was that one of her students, Dr. Hew Len, apparently cured an entire mentally ill ward at a hospital using ho’oponopono. He never saw a single patient, just sat in his room with each of their files and repeated the mantra. From what I can gather, this wasn’t true. I’m a firm believer in miracles but evidence shows that there isn’t enough evidence to merit the claims.
Modern Application: The Ho’oponopono System
But the system is being integrated into the arenas of social work, group therapy, justice, and global conflict resolution. In a detailed lecture, Beadie Kanahele Dawson, attorney and recognized haku, or facilitator, broke down the process. There are two phases: preparation and session. Like the warring chiefs, all parties must collectively chose a qualified haku, or leader, for his or her qualifications, and knowledge of the parties involved. He or she meets with each person individually, in private, and prepares them for the session. The prep sometimes takes longer than the session, but considering what is required, it comes as no surprise.
First and foremost, the parties must commit to go through this process. Everyone has to want to resolve the conflict, or the haku has to convince them that it is in their best interest to do so. Throughout the whole event, the parties are not to speak to each other at all. There are special circumstances in which the leader will allow words to be passed between the parties. For example, in the case that a person wants to apologize. But overall, the preparation is a private, completely confidential process during which the person internally resolves their conflict first.
The purpose of the preparatory meetings is to guide the individual to the truth, or Oiaʻiʻo in Hawaiian. Oiaʻiʻo, which is little different from the truth as we understand it, means the “meat” or “substance” or “inner workings” of the truth. This truth can only be known to the person and their god, or higher conscience. Thus each meeting begins with prayer, meditation or silence. This self-introspection is fundamental to ho’oponopono–looking within rather than outside for a cause or justification. In doing so, the individual takes full responsibility for their role. All the emotions, the entanglements of “ands,” “buts,” “you don’t understand” is the noise that one can only penetrate through introspection.
Once this process is complete, then the haku brings all parties together. Once again, each session begins with prayer, meditation or silence. And one by one, everyone goes around, and addressing only the leader, states simply and unemotionally what they did or did not do without justification, guilt or blame. So now there is nothing to do but listen. Everyone listens to each other. As Dawson said, “everyone is really just struggling with themselves.” And at the end it’s final, forgiven. That doesn’t mean that everyone does forgive, but the system offers the opportunity to forgive completely. In the end, the participants decide on the verdict, not the haku. Then a celebration closes the process.
In the end, no matter how you spin the technique, the idea is that you create your reality. And forgiving is healing. In the case of conflict, you are facing yourself. It is not to say that crimes are unilateral. It’s a question of value. This is an example of a restorative justice system, not a punitive one. The question is: do we want to live in a society of condemned or redeemed people?
But aside from justice, the ritual of ho’oponopono is the container that allows the healing to occur. That, in my mind, mirrors the psychedelic experience, at least in a ritualized setting. Does it always have to be about healing and self-introspection? No, it doesn’t. But the answers to our dilemmas reside within the self. It is then that we can come together and witness the other cleanly.
Though one does not need a ritual, necessarily, to forgive, to let go, ho’oponopono indicates a value upheld by the community. Ritual and community is just as important as the psychedelic substance in the healing process. The community supports the health of the human being as does the ritual. The exercise may be the same for all of us; we’re all responsible for our problems. But the bonds between us, and the rituals that maintain them, are vital to our survival, growth, and wellbeing.
I love you, I’m sorry, thank you, please forgive me. These words are not a part of the actual ho’oponopono system but they still resonate across the relationships and connections between us a moving message of responsibility and forgiveness.
Artwork: Michele Zalopany. Wahine Kane (Man and Woman). 2019. Pastel on linen. 80 x 29 1/4 inches (diptych).
- *special thanks to Beadie Kanahele Dawson
- Chun, Malcolm Naea. Hooponopono: Traditional Ways of Healing to Make Things Right Again. Curriculum Research & Development Group, University of Hawaiʻi, 2006.