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How To Find Meaning When Life Feels Rudderless, Using These Native Hawaiian Principles

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Image by Samantha / Reshot
November 12, 2022
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Hawai‘i is filled with gorgeous beaches and stunning sunset spots—and its culture is incredibly beautiful too. That's why Kainoa Daines, a Native Hawaiian with roots on all the major islands and an executive in Hawai‘i's visitor industry, and Annie Daly, an NYC-based journalist with a strong love for Hawai‘i—came together to write the new book Island Wisdom: Hawaiian Traditions and Practices for a Meaningful Life. In this excerpt, Daines and Daly explore grounding lessons we can all learn from Hawaiian culture.
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Island Wisdom is a guide to the principles and philosophies that have helped Hawaiians live meaningful lives for centuries upon centuries, ever since Ancient Hawaiians sailed to the islands from the South Pacific nearly 2,000 years ago. But it's also a call to action.

Sadly, Hawaiians have endured decades of cultural oppression and appropriation (especially in the West), and Hawai‘i is currently facing so much overtourism that both the locals and the land are suffering. We hope that reading the book will help people understand what Hawai‘i is truly about so they'll know how to respect the culture when visiting—and understand why doing so is more crucial than ever before.  

That said, you don't *need* to visit Hawai‘i to put these principles to use in your life. As you'll discover in the book, they cover universal themes that you can apply to your life wherever you are. And as it happens, many of these lessons are especially relevant right now during these confusing, rudderless, emerging-from-a-global-pandemic times, when we're all just trying to figure out where to go from here.

With that in mind, read on for three traditional Hawaiian philosophies that will help you find meaning when everything around you feels especially unhinged.

Pono

This philosophy is ultimately about living a life of balance. As humans, we tend to sway back and forth on the pendulum of life, and pono is about making moves to course-correct when things sway to the dark side too much. It's both an awareness of how things are going in your life and an intention to address problems before they snowball into a larger issue. In that way, pono is actually a verb, one that's all about acting and reacting to specific situations on a daily basis so that you can ultimately stay as grounded and even-keeled as possible. As Uncle Clifford Nae‘ole, a Maui-based cultural practitioner we interviewed and featured in the book, explains, "The virtue of pono is to practice every day, especially when things are going south." 

Of course, it can be difficult to tell when, exactly, you need to act. But Hawaiians believe that deep down, you always know, because you'll feel it; the signs will be there if you let yourself hear them. "We believe that if you are pono ‘ole—if you are without pono—it throws you so off balance that things can go awry internally, physically, and mentally," Uncle Clifford continues. "You may feel like there is something growing inside you, growing bigger every day, and it may burst."

Part of living a pono life, then, is knowing that it's your responsibility as a member of your family and society at large to address these issues when they do arise. It is not pono to let things slip under the rug when you know, deep down, that there's an issue that will resurface at a later point.

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How to live a pono life no matter where you are.

According to Uncle Clifford, the key is to be observant! Try your best to understand what's happening around you every day.

Make the time to identify your feelings—and then lean into them. Know when to smile when a smile is needed, and allow yourself to cry when you feel like you need to. Don't hold back.

Communicate your feelings as best you can, to everyone who needs to know them. In other words, do not stay silent when you know that there's something brewing.

Kuleana

Though kuleana translates to "responsibility and privilege," it's much deeper than that. It's the act of understanding your life's purpose and then, to the best of your ability, fulfilling that purpose every day. Hawaiians believe that doing so will help you find more meaning in your everyday life.

The idea of kuleana traces back thousands of years, when ancient Hawaiians had very specific roles in order to keep society functioning, and it was their kuleana to follow through on those roles so that the community would survive. Today, many Hawaiians relate the idea back to the Hawaiian phrase He wa‘a he moku; he moku he wa‘a, which translates to "The canoe is our island, and the island is our canoe." In this case, the canoe is a metaphor for how and why kuleana is so important.

When you think of your kuleana as having a seat in a canoe, it means that every seat has a responsibility, and every seat has to be filled with the best possible person to fulfill that responsibility. And an even deeper translation of kuleana is privilege: Not only is it your responsibility to pull your weight in the canoe, but it's also a privilege to even have a seat at all.

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How to find your kuleana in your own life. 

Know that you have to seek it out—it's not going to come and hit you over the head. As Desiree Cruz, a trusted cultural advocate and lei maker on the island of Hawai‘i, explains, "You have to put that energy out there first—it's a reciprocal thing." 

A good way to do that: Find one ancestor who resonates with you more than others, and connect your kuleana to them. Chances are, there's something about them that you're drawn to, so take the time to figure out what that is. But don't worry if it turns out that your ancestor's kuleana is not for you. The key is to keep searching with intention until you have that feeling where you just know: This is what I'm meant to give to the world.

Know that your kuleana doesn't have to be a huge thing; you don't have to run for president to do your part. It can be as small as babysitting your nieces and nephews on the regular. As Desiree explains, "The main thing to know is that you have a responsibility to make everything a better place, whether it's in your home or out in the world." 

Ha‘aha‘a

Though ha‘aha‘a translates to "humility," the deeper meaning is rooted in the Hawaiian belief that being humble is actually all about learning from the teachings of others. While many people may be quick to call themselves "experts" if they have some degree of proficiency in a given topic, for example, many Hawaiian elders are reluctant to ever call themselves experts in anything—because they believe they are perpetual students.

Most Hawaiian children are taught from a young age to Nānā ka maka, ho‘olohe ka pepeiao, pa‘a ka waha, which translates to "Observe with your eyes, listen with your ears, close your mouth." While this may sound a bit limiting, Hawaiians believe that there is so much beauty in the power of just watching and listening first rather than acting all the time. Approaching life through that lens of humility ultimately helps them find more meaning because they understand that the world tends to offer you exactly what you need—you just need to pause long enough to hear it.

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How to be humble, the Hawaiian way. 

Sit and listen to everything around you. You don't have to formally meditate or anything; just do whatever you need to do to step away from the noise and get in touch with what's actually happening all around you. In the words of Uncle Clifford, "Everyone has that mind's eye, if only they would sit, look, and listen. If you want to do something Hawaiian, it is to calm down and listen to the peace. It roars." 

Be sure to find the lessons in your observations. When you listen, you'll see what's happening to yourself and those around you quite clearly. And even though you may not always like what's being said, it's important to determine what those observations can teach you—and what you can learn from them moving forward.

Adapted from an excerpt from Island Wisdom: Hawaiian Traditions and Practices for a Meaningful Life by Kainoa Daines and Annie Daly. Published by Chronicle Prism, an imprint of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2022 by Kainoa Daines and Annie Daly.

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Annie Daly & Kainoa Daines
Annie Daly & Kainoa Daines
mbg Contributors

Annie Daly is a New York City-based journalist and the author of Destination Wellness, an exploration of different healthy living philosophies around the world. She's written for many wellness and travel publications, including Self, Afar, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel Leisure, and more. She grew up visiting Hawai'i with her family, and considers herself a forever student of the islands.

Kainoa Daines is the Senior Director, Brand for the Honolulu-based Hawai’i Visitors & Convention Bureau. He is a proud member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I and the Hawaiian Civic Club of Honolulu. He is a resident of Honolulu, with roots on all the major Hawaiian Islands.

Together, they wrote Island Wisdom: Hawaiian Traditions and Practices for a Meaningful Life.