By Adam J. Pearson
What is Ho’oponopono?
Ho’oponopono is an ancient Hawaiian art of healing, which developed as a social practice, a way of resolving conflicts between people, families and groups. Inspired by his teacher Mornah Simeona, Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len developed ho’oponopono into an inner practice for individuals, a technique for nonjudgmentally meeting whatever we encounter in daily life. For Dr. Hew Len, ho’oponopono is a way of “cleaning” or “clearing” conditioning and unconscious data–learned tendencies to think, feel, act, and react in certain ways–that we have accumulated over the years so that they no longer run our lives.
According to this viewpoint, we are in some way responsible for everything that appears in our life simply because it arises in our life. This doesn’t mean that we should feel guilty for all of the bad things that happen in the world; rather, it means that we recognize the part we play in the events that happen to us. It means recognizing the unconscious data or conditioning that plays itself out both in our own body-minds and those of others.
From the point of view of ho’oponopono, if we encounter violence and anger in others, there must be something in us that reflects these same tendencies. In fact, from this perspective, the ‘external world’ and the ‘inner world’ of thoughts, memories and feelings are not ontologically separate; instead, they are seamlessly one. Whatever we see outside of our bodies is experienced within us from this point of view. And because it is appears or arises within us, we can work with it. We work with it by doing the cleaning, that is, working through the conditioned data so that it can be released from the mind. In the absence of thoughts that argue with reality, peace is naturally present and we find ourselves at Home within it.
Picture: Dr. Hew Len
The process of working through unconscious memories, conditions, or data is the essence of ho’oponopono practice; at its core, it remains a practice of healing, which operates both on our own minds and on our subjective experience of the universe, which arises, not outside, but within us.
Because we are working with our inner world–the world our brains project as sensation is interpreted through cognition into perception–we can do the cleaning practice as much on the actions of other people as on our own actions and as much on their patterns of reaction as on our own. We can do it on events happening thousands of miles away from where we live, or emotional patterns playing themselves out right here, within us.
This practice can include absolutely anything and excludes nothing.
I will repeat this point for emphasis because it is crucial: absolutely anything can be a focus of ho’oponopono practice.
Zero: The Goal of Ho’oponopono Practice
The goal of ho’oponopono practice is to return to what Dr. Hew Len calls the state of ‘zero.’ At zero, the stories we have unconsciously made up about reality cease to run us and robotically dictate our actions while we mistakenly feel we are choosing these actions freely.
Zero is a state free from conditioned patterns of perception. It is a state of harmony with reality as it is in which we are naturally at peace with whatever appears, at Home in reality as opposed to imprisoned in thoughts we unquestioningly believe.
According to Dr. Hew Len, we can return to zero by means of the practice of ho’oponopono, a word which means ‘to make right.’ At zero, thought, conditioning, and memory do not imprison us. Conditioning factors and conceptual limitations lose their grip on our experience. Instead, we become aware of a deep sense of peace and a heart-opening love without object or clinging, which gradually replaces the neurotic, self-destructive, suffering-ridden life we had lived before.
In this sense, ho’oponopono is a transformative practice; it works on all levels of our being. As we work on ourselves, we work on the world we experience; as we work on the world we experience, we work on ourselves.
Central to the cleaning method is a powerfully holistic view of the universe and of existence in which the ‘inner’ impacts the ‘outer’ and the ‘outer’ impacts the ‘inner.’
Differently stated, when you change the thoughts through which you see the world, the world you see begins to change as well. You shift the roots of the world you experience within you and thus perceive a different universe than you did before. A more peaceful, connected world begins to replace the hostile land in which you felt alienated, isolated, and alone.
Cleaning Conditioning with The Four Phrases
While Dr. Hew Len offers many methods of ‘cleaning’ for working with this conditioning that is pervasively present within us, the one that I have found most powerful and helpful is the practice of the ‘four phrases.’
The four phrases are:
Please forgive me.
and I love you.
We can use literally anything as a focus for the four phrases practice. We can use an emotion, a tendency towards certain kinds of action (e.g. impulsive buys, overeating, or self-blame), a person, a place, an event, literally anything.
We begin by choosing a focus for the practice and then we formulate statements about it using the four phrases as guidance.
Inwardly, we say: “I’m sorry that __________.”
Then “Please forgive me for ____________.”
Then “Thank you for ___________” and end with “I love you.”
We offer this “I love you” both to the focus of the practice and, ultimately, to the greater ‘something’ beyond. Dr. Hew Len calls it “the Divine;” Kabbalah calls it the “Ain Soph” (limitlessness); Ken Wilber calls it “Spirit;” Taoism calls it “the Tao” (the Way); Tibetan Buddhism calls it “Suchness;” Zen calls it the “Unborn;” Advaita Vedanta calls it the “Absolute” or “Brahman;” Sufism calls it “the Beloved.”
I prefer to leave this greater ‘something’ unnamed, a Mystery unfathomable and unclassifiable by the mind. There’s no need to worry about what name to use because it is truly nameless; “the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao,” as the Tao te Ching says. It is enough to simply do the practice, trusting that it will bring clarity, gratitude, peace, deeper love, and appreciation for life. So far, it has never failed to yield these fruits.
You may wonder: how do we come up with what to say to fill in the blanks in the four phrases as shown above?
Extensive thinking is not involved. This is a practice spontaneously guided by intuition in the moment.
We just say whatever feels most honest and natural, whatever comes to mind, without censoring ourselves. If we lie to ourselves in this practice, it is not very helpful. It is more effective to be totally honest with ourselves about our motivations and what we are really doing.
We don’t have to fill in the blanks though. If you can’t think of anything to add, just put your attention on your focus and say simply: “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” Even simply saying these phrases with your focus in mind can work wonders.
I would invite you to try simply repeating the four phrases and see what feelings and sensations arise when you do. Experience is the best teacher here.
We can also use just a single one of the phrases like a mantra, “thank you… thank you… thank you…” or “I love you… I love you… I love you…” This is a way to experience the effect of each of the phrases on its own, which can experientially deepen your understanding of their power. In ho’oponopono, we learn by doing.
Examples of the Four Phrases in Practice
Let us look at some examples of what the four phrases look like in practice.
On one occasion, I noticed that I was comparing myself with other people and that while this compulsive comparing can makes me feel temporarily better or worse about myself, it ultimately doesn’t make me any happier. I chose this as my ‘focus’ for the four phrases practice. I focused inwardly on the tendency to compulsively compare. Then, silently in my mind, I let the four phrases give rise to a spontaneous flow of words in my mind, just allowing the words to come naturally without overthinking or overanalyzing. This is what came:
“I’m sorry for the movement to compare myself to others and to find myself lacking and inadequate. I’m sorry for punishing myself when I find myself ‘less good’ or valuable than the people I compare myself with. Please forgive me for mistaking these mind-concocted stories about my value for realities. Thank you for revealing that these value judgments only have meaning in the mind and not in the world beyond it. Thank you for showing me that when I obsessively compare myself to others and find myself either lacking or feeling ‘better than’ them, this is only the inner child of my unconscious trying to feel good enough and yearning to be loved. Please forgive me for not being caring and compassionate to this inner child and for denying these tendencies rather than accepting and embracing them. Body, mind, heart, and being, I release you from the urge to compare yourself with others. I love you.”
A friend of mine ran the four phrases on the violence she observed around her. She inwardly focused her attention on war and let the four phrases guide the words that flowed out of them:
“I am sorry, war, please forgive me for all unconscious ways I contribute to violence, oppression and ignorance. Thank you for bringing my attention to the impulse to fight, and to re-examine if it actually works, I love you. Thank you to the sadness that arises when I see such violence, for reminding me to care and love. Forgive me, I love you earth, despite all the cruelty, I love you humans, thank you.”
While considering his tendency to laugh at other people for his own amusement, a man ran the four phrases:
“I’m sorry for laughing at people rather than with them. Please forgive me for making myself feel like I’m better than others by belittling them through my cynical laughter. Thank you for opening my eyes to the motivations underneath this loveless laughter so that it can be transmuted into something greater. I love you.”
After talking to someone who said they felt like they had to hold back expressing themselves out of fear of how others would judge them, I inwardly said the four phrases to myself, thinking:
“I’m sorry for whatever it is in me that has given rise to these feelings that you must hold back and fear the judgment of others in you. Please forgive me for whatever I have done to contribute to the problem and not be part of the solution. Thank you for the beauty that you share and the wonders you are. I love you.”
Feeling shame for her sexual desires, one women ran the four phrases on the feeling, saying inside herself:
“I’m sorry I put shame on myself for natural impulses that are built into the human form. Please forgive me, body and brain, for my aggressive authoritarian approaches to your reflexes. Thank you for revealing my resistance to you. I love you.”
After feeling insecure about blemishes on his face, a man ran the four phrases on the feeling and judgment that arose within him:
“Dear face, I’m sorry I often look at you and think you are ugly and that your pimples ruin your whole appearance. Please forgive me for devaluing you and making myself feel unattractive and consequently, insecure in the process. Thank you for allowing me to express emotion to the world and forcing me to be honest by betraying the lies I speak with my tongue. I love you.”
A woman noticed herself needing people to see they were wrong before she could forgive them. She worked the four phrases on this tendency, saying inwardly:
“I’m sorry I feel the need to get people to see the error of their ways before I can forgive them. I’m sorry that my need to forgive people is selfishly motivated; to remove my own discomfort without addressing the reason, within myself, for the said discomfort. Forgive me, Thank you, I love you.”
A man noticed himself often trying to ‘fix’ his loved ones. He ran the four phrases on this pattern of behaviour, saying:
“I’m sorry friends and family for trying to fix you, please forgive me. I love and accept you just as you are. Thank you for existing. Sorry ego, for thinking that unless you’re perfect, then I am unworthy. I forgive you your flaws before I try and change you. I love you.”
A man noticed himself resisting those people he felt were being judgemental around him. He worked the four phrases on this resistance, thinking:
“I’m sorry I feel hurt and disdain when I hear people being judgmental. I guess this is something I don’t like about myself either and so I keep it hidden from myself, and others. Please forgive me, thank you, I love you.”
Thinking about the Japanese fishermen who slaughtered many dolphins in Japan, a woman ran the phrases not only on their killing, but also on the fishermen themselves and the reactions they were experiencing as a result of their actions, saying to herself:
“Dear fishermen, I am sorry, I am sure you are doing the best that you can. I am sure it isn’t easy to feel all the hatred being directed towards you right now. Please forgive me for any way I have contributed to your discomfort. I am sorry that my love and deep connection to the dolphins make me go into a feeling of a protective momma bear, forgive me for any blind rage that has been directed towards you. A mother would throw herself in front of a car for her child, and some people on earth feel that dolphins are equivalent to their children. We don’t mean you any harm, and we don’t want to threaten your livelihood and cause you damage, or threaten your ability to take care of your children; we just love our babies so much. Thank you for this opportunity to bring awareness to the issue so that humanity can evolve and grow and find some maturity amidst all the chaos. I do love you, and appreciate that you are doing the very best you can, please find it within you to stop the killing, and find another way, I am so sure there is another way. Thank you for the ability to listen to your heart, thank you to the creative genius that is working out a solution this very moment. I love you.”
This same woman ran the phrases once more from a different perspective:
“I am so sorry, dolphins. We should be evolved enough to treat you with the respect and dignity that you deserve. I am sorry for all the ways I am not evolved, forgive me for all the ways that I could grow and my stubbornness blocks it. Forgive me for all the ways I resist learning something new becasue my cultural conditioning and old data play so powerfully in my thoughts, words and actions. I am sorry for all the ways I am unconscious. Thank you Japanese fishermen for showing me how much work there is to be done, thank you for the opportunity to raise above this, and open the heart even more. I love you humanity, I love you Japanese fishermen, I love you dolphins.”
A man noticed his tendency to judge his body in ways that made him suffer and he worked the four phrases on this habit:
“Dear body, I’m sorry I often look at you and think you are too thin and not muscular enough. Please forgive me for devaluing you and making myself feel unnatractive and consequently, insecure in the process. Thank you for grounding me in the world, carrying me through life, enabling me to do many amazing things, and being the support and basis of my life. I love you.”
A woman noticed she was feeling guilt and saw it in a new light. She worked with the four phrases from this new perspective, saying inwardly:
“Dear guilt: I am sorry for the assumption that you are a ‘bad thing,’ please forgive me for rejecting your gifts. Thank you for teaching me compassion, empathy and consideration. I love you.”
A girl noticed herself feeling resistance when her parents would ‘meddle’ in her affairs. She worked with the four phrases on this feeling, saying inwardly:
“I am sorry, please forgive me for feeling anger towards my parents when they try to involve themselves in my affairs. Although this translates to ‘interference’ in my mind, they are only trying to help. If they carry fear and attachment to my success this is their own burden to carry. I release them of my resentment and bitterness. Thank you for this mirror, an opportunity to become conscious of my own issues so that I will no longer reject feelings of helplessness, dependency, defectiveness and inadequacy. I love you so much.”
The Fruits of the Four Phrases
Regularly working with the four phrases can produce some remarkable results. The “I’m sorry” phrase encourages us to take responsibility and to own up to what we are doing rather than to deny or seek to avoid accountability. The more we practice the four phrases, the more we begin to own our actions, our feelings, our thoughts, and everything we encounter, however unpleasant, violent, or suffering-imbued it may be.
The “Please forgive me” phrase encourages us to develop an informed sense of forgiveness. About this phrase, Dr. Hew Len used to say: “You don’t say “Forgive me” because the Divine needs to forgive you. You say it because you need to hear it.” As we learn to open ourselves up to forgiveness, we experience the forgiveness we seek. It comes with the practice.
The “Thank you” phrase encourages us to be grateful and to look for the benefits that hide beneath the apparent misfortunes and unpleasantness we encounter in daily life. It encourages us to be appreciative and grateful and to translate these habits into daily life. We tend to be happier and feel more fulfilled as a result.
The “I love you” phrase has the effect of opening our hearts. We tend to close ourselves off from others and from our own feelings in order to try to avoid getting hurt. This is not a fault; it is an innocent error, an honest mistake, an innocently-adopted defense mechanism. Our inner child, the unconscious, makes this mistake only because it wants what is best for us and simply doesn’t know any other better way to go about achieving it. The “I love you” phrase works through this habit. It fosters acceptance, open-heartedness, love, caring, and empathy. It is a powerful phrase indeed. The more we say “I love you,” even if we don’t feel it at first, the more loving we eventually end up becoming. It has a hypnotic, subconscious effect that produces conscious results.
Together, these four phrases have a healing effect on our psychology. They heal and release the things the Buddha called the Three Poisons: clinging, aversion, and self-delusion. The Buddha saw these as the fundamental causes of suffering. The four phrases give us an easy, simple, effective, moving, and beneficial way of working with these causes of suffering so they gradually release their hold on us. As a result, our suffering begins to diminish, and we begin to feel happier and more whole within ourselves. As we work on our suffering and the suffering of the world, we bring greater happiness not only to our own life, but also to the lives of those around us.
These four simple phrases also encourage us to be more mindful in daily life, to pay closer attention, and end help loosen the hold of internalized, conditioned data that tend to take us over and run us without us even realizing it. In this way, the phrases offer us liberation and freedom.
They return us gradually to our original state, to zero, where there are no mental tangles, memory blockages, or pangs of suffering.
Beyond this, they open us up to inspiration. According to Dr. Hew Len, we can either respond from memory, or respond from inspiration.
Working with the four phrases opens up new insights and new inspiration that we never achieved before by means of conscious reasoning. The phrases and the kind of focused, introspective attention they foster, increase our intuition and make us more receptive to subtle and valuable insights.
The Impact of Ho’oponopono on My Life
While this practice may appear cheesy, it can truly be transformative. I was such a cynic about it at first. Since I was deep into the study of science at the time, I attacked people who practice it as ‘woo woo’ lovers of ‘comforting nonsense’ and dismissed it as a waste of time. How kind of me!
However, as I began to feel more miserable in my life, I eventually decided that I had nothing to lose by giving it a chance. After all, science is about gathering information through experimentation and observation. It wouldn’t be very scientific of me to attack and discard a practice without ever having attempted it.
So, I began to work with the four phrases on every stressful, angering, saddening, anxiety-causing thought that arose in my mind. At first, I just repeated the phrases by themselves while simply holding my target focus in mind while I did so.
In time, the blanks began to fill themselves in quite naturally. It was more like I was watching a beautiful creative process unfolding on its own than that I was orchestrating it. As you go deeper into ho’oponopono, your sense of relinquishing control and leaning into the practice begins to deepen with often moving results.
As I gained practice with phrases, I gradually came to feel their benefits. These benefits are accessible to anybody. No special training is needed to work with the phrases. They are simple, familiar, and easy to learn. And they are powerful.
My experience suggests that working with these phrases can open us up to the deep, unspeakable, and powerful love that Rumi wrote about in his poetry. It is a formless love that does not rely on conditions. My experience is that there is a love that wells up from within that isn’t interested in conceptual fantasies or egotistical interpretations, but simply embraces reality as it finds it. It is a love that helps unsnare the tangles in our minds and release the shackles of suffering.
I know how it may sound–trust me–but I can now say with confidence that this love is not a spiritual pipedream; it’s a directly experienceable reality that reveals itself as you work with the four phrases. In the absence of thoughts that argue with reality, the mind is naturally at harmony with what is, and in that state, there is peace and an unobstructed awareness of love’s presence. I invite you to test out this hypothesis by conducting the experiment of working with the four phrases and noticing the results that follow when you do.
It is easy to resist this love-based approach as “hippy nonsense” or “fluffy garbage” or “woo woo” superficiality. I know I resisted and dismissed it in just this way for a long time. However, ho’oponopono opens us up to a love far deeper than the superficial love to which we are accustomed, a love that embraces even the nastiest, most damaged parts of ourselves and our world and leaves nothing out.
Everything looks different when you see it through the eyes of this love. All of the little flaws and points of criticism that the mind obsesses over cease to appear to be problems. They, too, get swept up in the embrace of a love that encompasses the entire universe that appears in perception and excludes nothing.
All of the aversions, attachments, and delusions that cause suffering in the mind are transmuted when they are burned with the fire of a love that holds them without clinging. Resisting resistance only breeds more resistance; loving resistance transforms it into acceptance. When you practice ho’oponopono, you begin to learn to love the mental chains that bind you until they unlock themselves and you find yourself gracefully falling into freedom. Love is the grand opener of all, the master key of Being. And it is the secret weapon of ho’oponopono.
Indeed, ho’oponopono has taken me out of sadness and depression and into a sense of expansive joy and peacefulness that I carry into daily life. Practicing ho’oponopono has revealed to me that I was caught up in patterns of reaction and cynical criticism that I didn’t even realize were operating within me… these habits were really subconscious programs, feedback loops running on auto-pilot in consciousness and only appearing to be free will. In all honesty, there was very little love in me while I was acting out of these unconscious programs. I was very closed off and I didn’t even realize it. I kept everything at an arm’s distance, far enough away to be able to criticize and laugh at it. I was living in fear.
Working with meeting all phenomena that arise within me with the four phrases, however pleasant or unpleasant, has opened the floodgates of inner warmth within me again… it honestly feels like a totally fresh and new way of relating to existence. I’ve fallen in love with love pure and simple again, a love I had cynically discounted before. Working with the four phrases is clearing out a lot of causes of suffering in my life, a lot of unnecessary shadows and mental cobwebs, and a veritable host of unconscious programs grounded in maladaptive habits and memories. In their place, it is leaving only itself and the peace that is ever present beneath the clamor of conflict.
Ho’oponopono denies nothing and incorporates everything into its stream of processing through the four phrases. It cleans the conditioning off of everything and gradually releases it, and us, back to zero. I am not interested in preaching this practice, nor am I trying to convince you to give it a try.
That is totally up to you.
All I can tell you is that it has made all the difference for me. Ho’oponopono speaks, I think, very well to a world besieged by itself, desperate, afraid, suffering, and lost. It offers us a healthy way to encounter the world and navigate through daily life, a way that brings much good both to ourselves and to everyone around us, a way of love in a world of apathy. A way of bold healing.