Issue 8.3: 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.

After drifting for an hour in the warm ponds, I’m feeling lighter, more open. Back on land, Aunty Mahealani and I talk in the shade of a coconut palm. Roughly translated, she tells me, hooponopono means "to make right, more right." It developed to help people release self-limiting thought patterns and emotions and become more connected with their highest selves. "You can’t let the manao [intellect] and puuwai [emotions] run amok; they’re destructive," says Aunty Mahealani. "If you don’t train ’em to become skillful parts of you, they’ll lay you right out."

To newcomers to the Islands, hooponopono might not seem too different from advice you’d find between the pastel-colored covers of the self-help books at Borders; at the surface level, perhaps it isn’t. But there are two approaches, Aunty Mahealani explains. "Hooponopono, the modern form, is more influenced by Christianity and Western psychology. Hooponopono keala, which I practice, comes from the time of the original Hawaiian culture, before the Tahitians brought the kapu system, when all things were in aloha lokahi, love and unity." Unlike the modern form, hooponopono keala draws directly on the spiritual resources of the aina, the land, and the wisdom of the ancestors; when Aunty Mahealani teaches or treats a patient, she says, her guides quite literally speak through her for she is an elele o na kupuna, a messenger for the ancestors. "I just show up, and my grandfather, my mother, a bunch of them come. They do the teaching."

Some may have trouble accepting such things, Aunty Mahealani says, but for many Hawaiians, guidance from the spirit world is a familiar miracle. "Our way of talking about it would be to say: Oh, yeah, grandma came to me in a dream and told me this...’ or The honu [turtle] come up from the water and blow bubbles. He look me in the eye and tell me this...’"

Kaniela "Danny" Akaka

Eating breakfast at a café in Kona, I overhear a family of visitors at the next table. They’re talking about a television show on which one of the characters sees a hallucination.

"What’s a hallucination?" asks the son, a boy of about eleven.

"It’s when you see something that’s not really there," his mother explains. "It means you’re crazy."

Two hours later, I’m talking with the director of cultural affairs at the Mauna Lani Resort, Kaniela "Danny" Akaka, and his wife Anna at the Eva Parker Woods Cottage on the hotel’s grounds. On one side, the serene Kalahuipuaa fishponds reflect the sky; on the other, the distant, cloud-hung summit of Haleakala seems to float. A pair of visitors drifts in to check out the cottage, now a museum. Danny welcomes them with expansive warmth, encourages them to look around. "Careful, that’s the haunted room," he laughs as they peer into a small chamber off the living room. After they leave, I ask if he was serious.

"There’s a procession that used to walk right through this house," says Anna. "I don’t see them, but I can sense when they’re around." But her son, she says, can see them. "As he’s gotten older, he’s realizing that not everybody has that ability. He’s apprehensive of it," she adds. "I tell him: It’s just our kupuna—our ancestors—coming back to do their work. No problem.’"

The contrast couldn’t better illustrate the differences between Western and native beliefs. "We now call things abnormal’ that at one time were very normal because they were accepted," Danny says. "I tell people: Now you’re in Hawaii; you have to open yourself to these experiences. You’ll miss the whole thing, everything Hawaii is about, if you close your mind.’ Two hundred years ago, the elders spoke prophecies; they said the ancient ways and understandings would begin to reappear now, in our time. Those prophecies are coming to pass, and now Hawaii is becoming a spiritual magnet, drawing people seeking a deeper, more profound sense of their being. They’re seeking out a place of healing where values that have been passed on for generations are balancing the rest of the world. Some come looking for healing; others are led here by some force they don’t understand. It’s a place they’ve been searching for all their lives and found by chance." He pauses thoughtfully, then asks, "Or was it chance?"

Aunty Margaret Machado

At eighty-eight, Auntie Margaret Kalehuamakanoeluuluuanapali Machado is known throughout Hawaii as a true kahuna lomilomi. Although currently wheelchair-bound and frail, Auntie Margaret received me warmly one voggy afternoon to teach me about this now-world-famous form of Hawaiian massage. We met at her house, nestled among the coffee and macadamia nut trees above the town of Captain Cook.

No discussion of modern lomilomi, or Hawaiian healing in general, can go on very long without mention of Auntie Margaret; she is partly, perhaps even largely, responsible for the survival of the technique and for teaching many of its contemporary practitioners. In 1965, Aunty Margaret became the first lomilomi teacher certified by the state of Hawaii; in 1973, she was among the first to teach non-Hawaiians the ancient art.

True lomilomi is more than just massage. When Aunty Margaret looks at a patient, she seems to see something most of us don’t, perceives subtle imbalances, blockages in a person’s energy field. She’s now retired, but her daughter Nerita carries on the tradition. I watch them do a quick lomilomi demonstration together; the willing volunteer is my fiancée, Andrea. Nerita seats her upright, facing Aunty Margaret, whose eyes snap into sudden focus as she scans Andrea’s face. Nerita stands behind Andrea, and before she touches her, bows her own head for a short pule, or prayer to Ke Akua, to God. Aunty Margaret was orphaned at a young age and raised by missionary parents, and she prays to the Christian god rather than to Hawaiian gods, but the intent is the same: to call on spirit to guide the healer and infuse the touch with love. Nerita begins to massage with rhythmic, gentle strokes along Andrea’s neck. Auntie Margaret directs, "A little to the left, a little more..." The distinctions are too fine for me to detect. Though she speaks in fragments these days, the few phrases Auntie Margaret repeats illustrate the underlying principles of lomilomi. "You have to give a lei of light," she says. "Gotta bring love. More love."

The actual massage is only one part of lomilomi, Nerita explains. There’s also setting intention, establishing trust, offering the pule and using hooponopono to release one’s kaumaha, or burdens, by releasing them each evening toward the setting sun and asking forgiveness. Though Nerita’s strokes were gentle, Andrea’s face has changed after just a few minutes: it’s flushed and filled with gratitude.

In the misty rainforest near the Nuuanu Pali overlook on Oahu, Butch Richards gives me a brief education in laau lapaau, the use of plants in Hawaiian medicine. Butch is a member of an ever-dwindling number of kahuna in direct line of transmission for this knowledge; he trained with his great-grandfather, who was a respected kahuna laau lapaau. Butch is careful to point out that proper training is key; healing with plants is more complex than simply knowing their properties. "Anyone can rattle off lists of medicines," he says, but the true role of the healer is to establish a connection between the plant and the patient. And for the healing to be effective, the healer must first find the right plant for that particular patient. Not simply the right plant species, but the right individual plant. Different plants of the same species, Butch explains, may have different properties depending upon a variety of factors, such as where they’re growing or how old they are. It may take days of searching before the right one reveals itself.

Looking at a patch of non-descript lawn, he picks out five or six different grasses—all of which appear identical to my untrained eyes—and recites their uses. "It’s only now that scientists are beginning to look at what makes these things medicinal," he says. "The Hawaiians didn’t have microscopes and chromatography to check it all out. How did ancient people find out this grass was medicine? How did they learn the right way to prepare it?" The questions hang in the air. The implied answer challenges my logic: The plants told them. I’m curious about what form the communication takes. Butch smiles. "I guess you call it mental telepathy. My great-grandfather taught me to go out and spend time in an area. Let out why you’re there. What’s your purpose? Then, ask permission. Which of you plants can help me to help this person who is sick?’

"Why are we asking permission from the plants first? We’re working not only with the physical part of the plant, but with the spirit of the plant and the spirit of the person. This is the difference between how I’ve been taught and how others practice." Without permission and intention, he says, you’re just handing out drugs.

Dane Silva

Together, hooponopono, lomilomi and laau lapaau form the holistic triad of contemporary native medicine. Dane Kaohelani Silva, who practices integrated holistic Hawaiian medicine, is one of the healers putting them all together. Dane is president of the Hawaiian Lomilomi Association and a respected kumu of native healing arts. Chosen by the elders to become a healer because he demonstrated unusual powers of intuition and sensitivity, he trained rigorously for years, learning lomilomi and laau first from his family and later from masters like Uncle Bill Kanui and Papa Henry Auwae, one of the Big Island’s most respected kahuna laau lapaau.

"But understand: It’s more than technique," he tells me over drinks and grinds at his home near Pahoa on the Big Island. "The training develops something inside. You need to have empathy and aloha. You need mana." Dane is careful to point out that mana is often mistakenly thought to be "life force," similar to the Chinese concept of chi. "Mana is spiritual power," he says, "Everyone has life force, but if it’s unfocused, it works against you. If you can compress and focus it, it becomes an awesome power. In the traditional way of training, we learn to focus, accumulate mana and use it for healing." As these abilities develop, so does what Dane calls the "wireless" in your head, the ability to communicate with spirit, with nature and with others, both living and dead, who supply information or come to assist in the healing. Echoing Aunty Mahealani, Dane says, "When I work, I’m surrounded by ancestors. Not only my family lineage, but the lineage of teachers as well. And their teachers." Well aware that to the uninitiated, this might sound like so much wishful delusion, he adds: "We risk being called nutcases when we talk about what we’ve seen. The only way to justify it is to say that many of us have seen it together."

Dane stresses that this ability to focus mana is not reserved for any priesthood or spiritual elite. "It’s just an increased awareness; anyone can learn it," he says. Still, there are risks, one of which is the growing number of people who have imperfect, diluted or fragmentary understanding of what they’re practicing. While Dane sees it as part of his kuleana, his responsibility, to promote Hawaiian healing, he also has accepted its corollary: protecting it from inauthentic practitioners. I ask him how the average person can know if someone’s a true kahuna? "If someone tells you they’re a kahuna," he says leaning into his words, "they’re not."

"There’s always a risk that native healing can be taken out of context or misapplied," agrees Pat Linton, executive director of Five Mountains Hawaii. Five Mountains is a small non-profit headquartered in Waimea whose mission is, in part, to promote the Big Island as a healing destination and to support indigenous medicine—in the twenty-first century. "Modifying the tradition to keep it relevant has always been an important part of that tradition," says Linton. "Papa Henry taught his students that laau lapaau began as a way of treating injuries caused by accidents and war wounds. Post-contact, the Hawaiians encountered infectious diseases, so they had to adapt laau to deal with new ailments. Today, the question is: How do we use laau to deal with the diseases of modern civilization, like cancer and chronic illness?"

A quick Google search on Hawaii and healing unearths a mind-numbing gamut of healing practices in the Islands: Chinese herbalism, Tibetan energy work, color therapy and holotropic breathing. Shamanic journeying, ayurveda, yoga, Reiki and Vipassana meditation. The Islands have become a cultural nexus between East and West, drawing healers (and patients) from both worlds. At the same time, the state has begun to actively promote the Islands as a global leader in wellness tourism, and Hawaii is now poised to receive a new kind of visitor—one seeking health.

In the midst of all the information and change, how does a seeker find Hawaii’s true kahuna? At the moment, there is no repository or database of native healers, though Dane is working to create one. Some can be found on the Internet (Aunty Mahealani, for example, can be found at Susanne Sims, who recently authored Healing Vacations in Hawaii, has started a company to put together wellness vacations ("I like to use the term transformational travel,’" she says. "If we can send somebody back more whole, healed, more happy, what a great service we’ve done.")

After what I’ve learned about native traditions, the formula for experiencing the healing power of the Islands seems to be this: Keep an open mind, an open heart, set the intention to heal, and the Islands will reach out through the hands of dedicated healers drawing fresh water from an ancient well.

"Understand what aloha really means," says Aunty Mahealani. "Alo means 'knowing,' 'presence’ and 'spirit.' Ha is the breath of life. Together it means love. Already this island, its people, our belief systems are putting out love to you, this malihini, this newcomer. I mean, come on, where else can you go in this world and get love as your first introduction? Embrace it."    HH