This heading is more than a lovely Hawaiian word that rolls off the tongue like music.  It is an even lovelier – or rather, a more potent – life-changing cultural mindset, by which the kanaka maoli, the aboriginal Hawaiians, will potentially instruct the world.  It is the means by which these people refused the possibility of war for more than 12,000 years. Ours is a world sorely in need of some guidance. By its smallest measure, ho‘oponopono has been labeled an ancient Hawaiian mediation technique.  By that narrow measure, western psychologists have discovered this ancient cultural gift (just as Captain Cook discovered the 13,000- year-old Hawaiian nation in 1778) and attempted to recast it to fit our modern sensibilities, and fill the vacuum of our spiritual satisfaction.

But ho‘oponopono is much more than another twist and turn in the American academic competition to find a PhD dissertation topic. Psychological adaptations (and recent self-help books) have popularized ho’oponopono at the expense of truth, and to the disservice of the indigenous Hawaiian people.

Ho‘oponopono cannot be lifted out of the deeply embedded context of the culture that birthed it. To embrace the ritual and to understand it in its fullness, one must wander deeply into the heart of these people, their language, and their history – must cut no corners.

Ho‘oponopono is inseparably embedded in community.  Aboriginal community is embedded, in turn, in their ancestors’ spirit as manifest in every part of the natural world. There are no known shortcuts to building such a community. But living in one, we share a compassionate responsibility for one another and for every element of creation. That is the work to be done.  It has been done before.  It can be done again.

The alternative is an opportunity missed to bring peace to our warring Earth; to establish ease in the fearful angry hearts of our modern peoples; to recognize that our isolation from any aspect of nature – animal, mineral, and certainly human – wreaks destruction.

Ho‘oponopono worked wonders on the Hawaiian Islands for thousands of years – during which time there were no wars, no gender segregation, and no hierarchy. 

‘Iokepa speaks of it often.  “Ours was a matriarchal culture. Women gave birth. They believed that our Creator didn’t need help in taking a life.  Men honored that knowing.  There were no wars.

“Only when a violent colonizing sect brought fear and denigration of women to our Islands in 1320 – and enslaved our open-hearted people – did our nation experience the aberration of war.  War happens, when men cease to recognize that they are half their mothers – cease to embrace that wholeness. War is the mistaken search for that wholeness.”

‘Iokepa describes one possible result of ho‘oponopono as a peacekeeping ritual. “When two young men wanted to fight, they were required instead to run a distance – not competitively, but together; then they had to swim a distance in the ocean together; then climb the mountain together.  By the end of it, they had worked their energy down, and they realized that they sucked the same air.”

At a New York Open Center gathering in Manhattan, a most-attentive participant, who spoke in the delightful lilt of his native Africa, extracted a promise. Time had run short; the evening ended without fully answering his questions about ho‘oponopono. I promised to rectify the omission.

I begin with the “mediator.”  Always a woman, she was universally recognized and trusted for her commitment to the whole of the community.   She was, by necessity, drug-and-alcohol-free; her connection to the divine required clarity.

The job demanded that she facilitate the healing of spirit – individually and communally. She did not mete out punishment.

Ho‘oponoponothe ritual mediation at the heart of the aboriginal culture – demanded that every man and woman in a community examine his or her soul for complicity in every other human’s misfortune: illness, emotional distress, physical harm. It had nothing to do with guilt. When we genuinely live these connections, we naturally assume responsibility for every living thing.

A community gathered to examine and clear its collective soul in this way.  All members of the community sat in a circle – always with food. The trusted mediator held sway with a lidded gourd.   When she lifted the lid off the gourd, the ritual began; when she returned the lid, it ended.

Simple enough: a circle, some food, a gourd, and a mediator. But – free of a community that deeply respects every life as a piece of his own life – the circle, the gourd, and the mediator are empty symbols.

And free of the setting – feeling the wind, hearing the sound of the ocean, watching the changing clouds, and then reading these elements and accessing their messages – there is no ho‘oponopono. Finally, there is this all-important acknowledgment:  gratitude for our ancestors’ answers.

So ho‘oponopono is not how we build community; it is how we support existing community. The trust, the clarity, and the purity of intent are the essential foundation for the ritual. Without that solidity of community and trust between souls, ho‘oponopono is meaningless.

In a circle of kindred spirits, it might work like this.  A man voices the distress he’s experiencing in his household.  Maybe the source is a son, a wife, or a mother-in-law – ill, or troubled in some less tangible way. Each person in the communal circle takes time to examine his or her own soul for complicity in that trouble, and in turn (at the prompting of the mediator) speaks it.

Perhaps I’m a neighbor, sitting in that circle. I think in my heart, and then speak aloud when my turn comes.  “Last week, when your son called my son ‘stupid,’ I spoke angry thoughts about your son in my heart. I’m part of your troubles. I ask your forgiveness.”

In the days after this ritual, the entire community slows their ordinary activities to heal the troubling breach. Without a full healing, the community is not whole.

Every word or action within community impinges on every other. Each soul and each element of nature either nurtures or refuses (for one reason or another) to nurture the rest. Ho‘oponopono is an opportunity to claim responsibility for our thoughts, our actions, and give ourselves (and others) a chance at peace.

That cannot be done without the hard work, first, of building a responsible, integrated community and fully acknowledging the divine thread that sustains every aspect of it.  That – now is the work of the world.