There is a Hawaiian ritual tied to a polynesian belief system which came to my attention during my years of searching for Universal Truth.  The practice is called “Ho’oponopono” (HO-oh-PO-no-PO-no), and it is a ritual of forgiveness.  Practiced as a prescribed ceremony by many polynesian cultures, the principle of Ho’oponopono is actually pretty simple…and can be life-transforming!

The complex meaning of the actual principle is something akin to bringing about or actualizing moral correctness, true condition or nature, and virtue.  The simple, practical meaning is found, however, in the essential components of the ritual itself.  It consists of four basic statements:

  1. “I love you.”
  2. “I’m sorry.”
  3. “Please forgive me.”
  4. “Thank you.”

The idea is that if there is a conflict in your life, you should let go of the attachments we all seem to struggle with such as blame, guilt, shame, and anger.  Instead, to resolve our differences, we should approach each other with these four statements in mind.  By doing so, we shed the conflict-causing aspects of our ego, and focus on reconciliation and healing.  It’s simple, it’s direct, and the application to interpersonal disputes is easy to see.

One thing I’ve realized about Ho’oponopono, however, is that when we say these statements, we’re not really saying them to the other person!  When we truly feel the power of these four simple statements is when we realize we’re saying them to ourselves!  No matter what conflicts exist in our lives, peace is found when we take full responsibility for our circumstances and learn to forgive not just others, but ourselves.  If we have done wrong, we often beg forgiveness of those we have wronged, but how often do we take the time to actually have it out with ourselves and, ultimately, forgive ourselves?  If someone else has done wrong to us, we may choose to forgive them, but how often do we actually take a look at our own role as co-creators of our universe and ask our own forgiveness, too.  And how often do we actually let go of our attachments and truly forgive?

Upon learning about Ho’oponopono, I began using it in my daily life.  If conflict arose, I would silently utter the four statements toward the conflict – whether it was a person I was quarreling with or a situation in my life, I would tell it that I loved it, that I was sorry (even if my ego kept saying that it was their fault), that I would like their forgiveness, and that I was thankful for that forgiveness.

The more I practiced, the more I realized that I was always talking to myself when I did this, even if I had an external circumstance I thought I was directing my statements to.  I was letting myself know that the circumstance didn’t have the power to define me, and therefore was a necessary part of my experience.  When I say “I love you” now, I know that I’m really talking to my true self.  I accepted responsibility for all of the circumstances in my life and when I say “I’m sorry” now, I’m talking about my genuine remorse (NOT guilt or shame) over creating suffering for myself and others.  I began to seek forgiveness from my true self for allowing myself to get caught up in all of the chaos around me instead of remaining in the Now, and so when I say “Please forgive me” now, I know I’m talking to me.  And when I say “Thank you” now, I know it’s because the forgiveness is already there.  If I am truly in the spirit of Ho’oponopono, I can shed my ego and find absolute peace, joy, and unconditional love in any moment and under any circumstances.

The Difference Between Remorse & Shame

Human emotions interpreted through the insidious filter of the ego can create a powerful misconception about ourselves and those around us.  We have a powerful, built-in tendency to define ourselves by our prominent emotions (e.g., a person who is feeling sad thinks of him or herself as a “sad” person), and how we feel about someone else tends to automatically categorize them in our mind (e.g., that person made me angry, therefore he or she is a bad person).  But these conclusions are illogical.  Everyone feels every emotion at some time or another during his or her lifetime, and to say that the feelings define the person is to say that who we are changes moment-by-moment on a whim.  In no circumstance is this tendency of ours more obvious (or more dangerous) than when we feel and misinterpret the natural emotion of remorse. 

With the possible exception of sociopaths, all of us feel this emotion whether we are conscious of it or not.  It arises when our actions, habits, patterns, and interactions are out of integrity with our inner values and beliefs.  It is not our emotions that define us, but it is what we DO with those emotions – the power we give them to control our actions – that determines whether the way we are living our lives is in integrity with our inherent sense of morality.  I’m not talking about a dogmatic set of rules or commandments here, by the way, I’m referring to the divine sense of morality with which we are all endowed, which primarily tells us to do our best not to do harm to ourselves or others.

When something we have done or are doing is causing emotional or physical pain to ourselves or someone else, our natural tendency is to feel remorse.  This is perfectly understandable, and is actually a mechanism designed to help us evolve in our spiritual state by taking better and better care of ourselves and others.  When we are out of alignment with that Purpose, remorse is the signpost that guides us to correcting our actions in order to save each other from further pain.  Making a deliberate effort to make amends for harmful behavior in the past, and then consciously working on breaking habits of harmful behavior in the future, are a few of the ways in which we step closer towards inner peace and enlightenment.

The problem is that when we feel remorse but then use it to define ourselves, the end result is a belief that we are a bad person.  This results in a transmutation of remorse into shame.  And that shame can manifest consciously or subconsciously.  We either sink into a morass of guilt for the way we have been living our lives, or we try to cover our shame with denial, justification or rationalization, and blame.  Either way, by giving undue and unwanted defining power to the natural emotion of remorse, we compound our suffering, and that manifests in continuing harmful behavior.  Which compounds shame, which perpetuates the downward spiral.

Patterns of destructiveness – dishonesty, casual indifference to the pain our actions are causing ourselves and others, rationalization of behaviors which we know are feeble attempts to fill a void in our self-esteem, and constant anger with others for judging us (which is almost always a symptom of self-judgment) – are the evidence that we are dealing in shame or blame instead of remorse.  Remorse is there for a divine Purpose, and healing these cycles comes from a proper understanding of that Purpose.

There is a principal in the twelve-step program promoted by Alcoholics Anonymous which really captures spirit of what it means to be in integrity with our true selves.  It is the ninth step, which is to make direct amends to anyone harmed through unconscious actions whenever doing so will not cause further harm.  In other words, it is absolutely essential to our karmic and emotional well-being that we be willing to set aside blame and shame, and instead feel the real remorse that our shortcomings – and we ALL have them – have wrought in our lives.  When we are in blame and shame, we react, jumping to self-righteousness, denial, anger, or self-loathing and depression.  When we are in tune with the Purpose of remorse, we consciously act, doing our best to apologize, make amends, and change the cycles of behavior which have left in our path a wake of destruction.

Identifying the differences between genuine remorse and ego-induced shame and blame is tricky, and the ego will do its level best to try to keep you from growing.  But swallowing pride and facing the Truth that remorse isn’t telling you you’re a bad person, it’s there to help you continue to evolve into a better one, is the first step towards breaking the habituated cycles of suffering in your life.  Being willing to say you’re sorry, and then changing your behaviors one step at a time, is the key to liberation.