Ancient Hawaiian forgiveness ceremony used for modern healing

One peek at Hawaii's natural landscape, with its spectacular beaches, breathtaking mountain ranges and lush greenery, makes it easy to see why visitors flock to the islands in search of relaxation.

But beyond the exterior of this Pacific paradise lies an ancient tradition that also inspires internal peace and psychological well-being.

Ho'oponopono, which stems from the words ho'o ("to make") and pono ("right"), is an indigenous Hawaiian forgiveness process that involves letting go of all resentment and clearing out preconceptions about others.

The system flourished in isolation before outsiders came to the islands and became a deeply integrated way of life, as locals recognized that harbouring resentment against others only ended up hurting the person who couldn't let go.

"When the first Westerners got here, many of them wrote in their journals that they'd found a group of people who were almost devoid of any mental or physiological disease," says Dr. Matthew James, who has studied and taught the tradition for more than two decades.

"And one of the things that really contributed to that was there was a level of forgiveness that was practiced here with regards to transgressions and having been wronged."

Clinical research shows that people who exhibit rigid and unforgiving behaviour tend to have more stress, get sick more often, sleep less and face an elevated risk of heart-related illness.

Despite their lack of advanced scientific knowledge, ancient Hawaiians knew on an intuitive level that by eliminating these stressors, they could reduce the unnecessary risks linked to "unforgiveness."

Curious as to whether he could ground this concept in science, James set up a series of tests to measure unforgiveness in control and test groups. He then led the test group in a forgiveness process based on the ho'oponopono rituals.

He found that even after one session, members of the group averaged a 40-60 per cent reduction in unforgiveness, and several people even experienced a complete elimination of avoidance and revenge symptoms.

"One of [the participants] emailed me after and said she'd been holding on to this with a man who had wronged her for 10 years and after she did the process, she was able to talk to him, she was able to talk to others about it, and there was no negative charge there. She finally moved forward with that freedom," he says.

Of course, this doesn't mean you need to remain in an abusive or dangerous relationship. James stresses the importance of removing yourself from toxic situations before initiating the process.

"Once you're out and once you're safe, then these are the types of techniques that can help you begin to look forward in your life," he says."

In its traditional form, the ho'oponopono ritual, much like the healing circles of certain North American aboriginals, tended to take place in a large group and was often facilitated by a mediator.

There were a few rules involved in the proceedings: even if you had anger, sadness, fear, or guilt, the purpose was not to yell or point fingers, but to express these emotions earnestly with the intention of working them through.

If tempers flared, the mediator would call a time out to let people cool down before bringing them together again. Because each circumstance brought its own unique dynamics, the process would last as long as needed in order for all parties to come away satisfied.

When Christian missionaries came to Hawaii in the early nineteenth century, many perceived the ritual as a threat to their religious doctrine, and ho'oponopono, along with other indigenous rituals, became an illegal practice.

These teachings went underground, carefully preserved by a few families, and have only begun to return to mainstream consciousness in recent years. Since Hawaiians couldn't practice out in the open, much of the process became internal, with individuals using visualization techniques to work through their anger.

This is the modern practice James now teaches in his workshops, which have started to attract enormous interest on the mainland. "The common thread we've seen for every one of our students is [that] it's for the person who's looking for a connection to a purpose in life," he says.

"I have people of Islamic faith, Jehovah's Witness, Baptists, Catholic, Mormon, Buddhist, and they all go through it. The system doesn't conflict with their beliefs and that really enhances your own belief system."

As for why he feels ho'oponopono has undergone a sudden resurgence in the 21st century, James believes a mixture of globalization and an interest in alternative healing practices have set the stage.

"I remember in the '90s people were saying this is just woo-woo crazy stuff and fast-forward ten years it's very different," he says. "[But] If anything, it's more of a psychology; more of a personal growth approach to becoming a more empowered individual."

So even if you never get the chance to tiptoe through Hawaii's silky sands or chill out on one of its sunny beaches, you can still channel the calming effects of the island in your own day-to-day life.

(Photo credit: Kent Nishimura-Pool/Getty)