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A milo leaf floats in the hands of healer Mahealani Kaiwikuamo'okekuaokalani Henry.photo by Linny Morris Cunningham
Vol. 8, No. 3
June/July 2005


The Spirit Well 

story by Michael Shapiro
photos by Linny Morris Cunningham

Aunty Mahealani Henry, photographed
at the Ahalanui pools

It is another beautiful afternoon in Hawaii. I’m bobbing in the Ahalanui warm ponds on the southeast extreme of the Big Island. Dozens of people have come to float in the pool, where fresh water heated by subterranean magma rises to the surface and mixes with cool seawater, creating a bath of nearly perfect temperature: warm enough to relax you, cool enough to sit in for hours. "This is one of the only spots where Pele’s fire blends with her sister Hiiaka’s cooling water," explains Auntie Mahealani Kaiwikuamookekuaokalani Henry, smiling as we bask together on Styrofoam floats. "Look at everybody here! Why do they come? The complementary energies heal us." Auntie Mahealani calls these ponds her "office"—it’s where she brings those who have come to her for healing. It’s the plushest office I’ve ever seen: Palm trees fringe the shoreline; clear afternoon light shocks the ocean a deep blue. And no waiting room. Adrift in the warm embrace of pure liquid goddess, Aunty Mahealani can barely contain her enthusiasm and humor when she talks about her practice of hooponopono keala, an ancient Hawaiian "talking" therapy that helps to cleanse people of grief, anger and fear and brings them into balance, both with themselves and with others. The best analogy available in the Western tradition is counseling, but hooponopono keala is much more than this, Aunty Mahealani says: The success of the treatment depends not only on the skill of the practitioner and the openness of the patient—it depends on guidance from the spirits.

It’s not unusual to hear native healers talk about the spirit world; in fact, you’d be hard pressed to find one who, after feeling you out a little bit to test your readiness, doesn’t mention it. To these healers, spirit is neither myth nor metaphor nor quaint nostalgia. It is manifest in everything around us: plants, water, rocks, air; the whole landscape radiates mana, or power. The native healer’s job is, in part, to call upon this spiritual resource to help the patients—to literally immerse them in the mana of Hawaii.

To those steeped in rationalism, such talk can smack of superstition, even tease the edge of blasphemy—and in the decades after the first contact with the West, it was those attitudes that drove Hawaiian medicine underground. The practices became kapu; for many generations, Hawaiians passed them down in secret through families, taught them only to other Hawaiians. But now times are changing. As interest in pre-contact Hawaii blooms, many native healers have begun publicly teaching and practicing the ancient forms—lomilomi, hooponopono, laau lapaau—making them available to any who seek them. People are waking up, says Aunty Mahealani. "There’s been a rise in consciousness. My grandfather used to say that there would come a day when people would think, Hmm, we gotta go to the next level, climb a little higher on the coconut tree. Gotta be little bettah fruits up deah.’ So the kapu was lifted when people started feeling that there must be more and wanting to know what it was."

Sensing that there must be more is what first drew me to Hawaii from the bloodless light and leaden winters of New York and then deeper to seek out some of the authentic practitioners of kanaka maoli lapaau, or native Hawaiian medicine. Although there are a fair few pretenders out there, true kahuna aren’t as hard to find as they once were. All you need to do is go looking. What you’ll find are highly skilled healers—people with a sophisticated ability to detect and treat illness—practicing an intuitive medicine that is centuries old.