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Ho’oponopono: “To Make Things Right”

An ancient method of forgiveness can help heal relationships.

Key points

  • Ho'oponopono is a centuries old native Hawaiian method of apology and forgiveness still practiced by many families.
  • The four steps in ho'oponopono are remorse, forgiveness, gratitude and love.
  • Ho'oponopono can be used in person, or even if the relationship seems irreparable, or if the other person has passed away.
Source: bibianagonzalez-pixabay

As November is Native American Heritage Month and one of us is part Native Hawaiian, it feels appropriate to share what we know about an ancient therapy still practiced today.

For centuries, when Native Hawaiians had relationship difficulties, and sometimes other problems, they used a technique known as ho’oponopono to course correct and imua – move forward. Ho’oponopono is the practice of sincere apology and true forgiveness. It is used today by many families, and in the past few decades, it has found its way around the globe. (When presenting on time perspective therapy in Poland a few years ago we spoke about ho’oponopono and were surprised when two Eastern European mental health professionals mentioned they had studied it and used it in their practice.) When heartfelt, ho’oponopono rectifies and helps heal the person asking forgiveness or all the people involved in the process.

The mind, the body, and the spirit are interconnected

Perhaps the most important aspect of an indigenous “psychological system” — one that appears to be universal — is the understanding of the relationship between mind, body, and spirit. In other words, how and what one thinks affects one not only mentally and emotionally, but can also affect an individual’s physical and spiritual functioning. Specifically, in Polynesian cultures, it is believed that one’s mistakes and social trespasses can cause physical illness or mental problems.

Although some don't subscribe to the concept of spirituality (not to be confused with spiritualism, or religion of any kind) or an afterlife, most people do. Mental health practitioners with the former mindset might have a difficult time grasping the importance of the spiritual aspect of a client who does believe. Psychosomatic illnesses are an example of two-thirds—mind/body—of the mind-body-spirit equation.

Western medicine’s standard doctrine is unaware of an accepted “illness” or diagnosis that includes the concept of the spiritual aspect. By contrast, in indigenous healing methods like ho'oponopono, by first healing the spirit, and then the mental/emotional “ailment," sometimes the body also joins in this total healing event. Further, in an indigenous culture, someone suffering from what would be considered an ailment of the spirit would likely be diagnosed in Western medicine as suffering from psychosis, or schizophrenia—extreme ailments of the mind. We would argue that all therapists should keep an open mind and respect their client’s belief system. Doing so can be essential for their healing process.

Four steps in the ho’oponopono process

  1. Remorse. This step happens when you’re on your own and can be very painful. It’s when you realize that you have knowingly—and sometimes unknowingly—harmed someone or something, perhaps the Earth, and therefore harmed yourself. The core belief is that everyone and everything is connected, so you are ready to make amends. Once this realization is fully attained, then in step two you ask:
  2. Forgiveness. This is difficult to achieve for many, especially in person. When asking for forgiveness, it must be sincere. Any “yeah, but’s” won't cut it as this is a sign you may be finding ways to let yourself off the hook or lessen your part in whatever happened. If this occurs, you aren’t ready. The desire for forgiveness must be sincere and come from the heart. If it's impossible to ask forgiveness face to face, or over the phone—maybe the relationship is so far gone there's no way you can communicate, or the person has passed on—then silently ask for that forgiveness. The next step is:
  3. Gratitude. For the other person, or the Earth—for the lessons they've helped teach you. The lesson may have been especially difficult, or appeared negative, but sometimes we grow by leaps and bounds because of these experiences. Express your gratitude with a heartfelt “thank you.” Feeling gratitude leads to the last step:
  4. Love. Love is also nice to express physically, if possible, with a handshake, hug, by planting a tree, whatever is appropriate. If this isn’t possible and you’re going through the process on your own, then imagine you are with the other person doing one of the above or simply smiling fondly at each other, while imagining holding hands.

Once the process is completed, if the other person isn’t receptive, give them time and know you’ve done your best. If they’ve passed on or the relationship is too far gone and you’re on your own, you’ve done what you could and are a better person for allowing yourself to go through this challenging journey.

Additional gains

One benefit of practicing ho’oponopono is its effect on the intrapersonal: In other words, you become more aware of how you affect others and the world around you. Ideally, this leads to greater empathy and compassion.

Following these simple guidelines with clients wanting to correct a misunderstanding or offense works well. For some, ho'oponopono will be too simple, too “woo woo." You are challenged to provide scientific/empirical evidence. The greater culture often denigrates the simplicity of the wisdom of indigenous people. But we hope there are students and clinicians who would consider adding ho'oponopono to their practice. You don't have to take a course, or gain certification in this method; nor is it really even necessary to credit, label, or specify this approach. Just follow the four steps outlined above.

Finally, we would like to recommend that before you use ho’oponopono with clients, you try it in your own life to see how well it feels and if it works for you. We bet it will.

More from Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo Ph.D.
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