Peace in Earth-Based Wisdom Traditions

Editor’s note: The following excerpt is from a book about conflict resolution called Coming to Peace by by Isa Gucciardi.

We are all connected, through the air we breathe, the land we walk on, and the beauty of the earth that supports each one of us from the moment we are born until the moment we die. We are not separate from the earth, and we are not separate from each other. When we forget that, at our core, we all have the same primary yearning to be happy and live peacefully,1 conflict arises. When we forget that others share this yearning, we move further away from our essential nature and become out of balance with everything around us, including those we love.

The resolution process of Coming to Peace is unique because it offers ways of mediating external conflicts with others, as well as methods for recognizing and addressing the places where we may be out of balance within ourselves. It is rooted in the wish for happiness that we all share, and holds the understanding that with conflict comes the lessons we need to learn. It does this by empowering us to tell the truth of our experience of conflict in a setting that is informed by the spirit and wisdom of thousands of years of experience. With the help of a specially trained practitioner, the process helps heal the hidden hurts that, unbeknownst to us, affect how we are in the world, those places where we have become severed from our connection to others and ourselves, and offers us a method for working through conflict with others in a way that is beneficial to all.

Many of us do not even recognize our connection to all living things and how fundamental it is to our happiness. It’s hardly a surprise that we’ve forgotten this link when we consider the culture of war we live in, which has created so much devastation for so long. There are wars that pit nation-states against one another, wars that pit religions against one another, wars that pit genders against each other, the hidden wars we wage within ourselves, and the war against the earth caused by those seeking to profit from it. This last war is so remarkably damaging it’s being called “the sixth extinction.”2 We can no longer deny the effects our disconnection from the earth, each other, and ourselves has on the world around us. Yet in the midst of all this conflict that degrades and splinters us, there is hope. We can find our way back to peace.

Coming to Peace also draws upon the equality and peace-generating practices of “earth-based wisdom traditions.” These are the spiritual and educational systems practiced by peoples of the world who are now most commonly referred to as “indigenous cultures.” For thousands of years, these practitioners have been nurturing relationships with nature, guiding its power and wisdom to effect change in people’s lives. The oldest shamanic culture on record is that of the Australian aborigines, which dates back over 150,000 years.8

Despite the losses these cultures have suffered through centuries of colonialism, expansionism, and the usurpation of sacred lands, their traditions continue to endure. In more recent times, there has been a burgeoning interest in the practices of indigenous cultures, giving us the opportunity to follow the traces of these traditions and learn what they might offer us today. 

Many indigenous cultures have spiritual belief systems and practices that support conflict resolution among their members in a way that fosters equality, and understands that, as humans, we all share common and similar hopes, needs, and goals. As such, these traditions encourage and nurture each person’s ability to connect with this truth of common purpose when they find themselves in conflict.

In Africa, ubuntu is a term used to describe the shared purpose, common goals, and equality that comes from the Bantu language spoken throughout many countries in Central, Southeast, and Southern Africa. It is a uniting force among cultures in these areas and is recognized to have played an important role in the restorative justice processes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission experienced in South Africa at the end of Apartheid. In fact, the South African Constitutional Court stated that ubuntu is “part of the deep cultural heritage of the majority of the population [and] suffuses the whole constitutional order.”9

In his article, “Race Apologies,” University of Hawaii’s Professor of Law and Social Justice Eric Yamamoto further explains the relationship of ubuntu to restorative justice practices:

Restorative justice is reflective of the African notion of ‘ubuntu’, or interconnectedness. Ubuntu is the idea that no one can be healthy when the community is sick. ‘Ubuntu says I am human only because you are human. If I undermine your humanity, I dehumanise myself.’ It characterizes justice as community restoration—the rebuilding of the community to include those harmed or formerly excluded.10

The same egalitarian approach to diplomacy and mediation practiced in traditional African cultures was present in Native American traditions, which was well documented by early European explorers and ethnographers. The most consistent theme in their reports on the social organization of the Native American tribes of eastern North America is one of equality and freedom from social hierarchies. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other shapers of the United States were strongly influenced by the governance espoused by the six tribal groups of the Iroquois League.11 In fact, in 1988, Congress passed Concurrent Resolution 331 recognizing the influence of the Iroquois League and other Indian nations on the unification of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic, as well as the United States Constitution.12

In his book Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World, author Jack Weatherford explains how during conflict resolution ceremonies the Iroquois did not allow speakers to interrupt each other. And if someone were to raise their voice, a period of silence would be prescribed.13 Periods of silence were also imposed after each speaker, in case they wanted to refine or restate what they said. This was a radical change from diplomatic circles of Parliament in England, during which everyone spoke at once and attempted to out-shout each other when trying to come to agreement. Europeans considered the Iroquois system of allowing each member an equal voice revolutionary. According to Weatherford, the overall intent of the Iroquois councils was to encourage unity at each step through the informal discussion of an issue among equals.14

While members of the Iroquois League resolution circles were viewed as equals, they did elect members to facilitate in the process. These leaders were called “Pine Tree Chiefs”15—the Great White Pine, with its sheltering branches is the symbol of peace and unity of the Iroquois League.16 The leaders not only helped those in conflict remain peaceful as they worked through an issue, they also used ritual to support the members and the process. For instance, in their “Edge of the Woods” ceremony, the Iroquois

would use a smoky fire to “clean off” or “clear” someone returning from an activity that caused them to act in a way that separated them from their essential nature. Such activities included war, hunting, and other things not peaceful in nature. As such, the Edge of the Woods ceremony was used before peace councils to prepare participants for the proceedings.17 The use of a facilitator—and their supporting rituals—can be found in other indigenous traditions.

In Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific, in the resolution practice of ho’oponopono, a mediator called a haku was chosen to facilitate the process.18 Meaning “to make good” or “to make right” in Hawaiian,19 ho’oponopono is a healing process that addresses the underlying conflicts at the heart of social disease, political or religious conflict, and even physical disease in individuals.20 Long ago, a haku was most often a kahuna, a spiritual leader and healer of the tribe. But today, a trusted elder from the group not involved in the conflict is more likely to serve as the facilitator.21 To assist with ceremonies and other proceedings, kahunas would call upon helping spirits or totems.22 And after clearing the ceremony space, they would say a prayer to ask for “guidance, strength, clarity, and healing.”23

Historically, ho’oponopono was used to correct imbalances within family systems.24 In her article, “To Set Right—Ho’oponopono: A Native Hawaiian Way of Peacemaking,” Hawaiian and indigenous epistemology scholar and practitioner Manu Meyer explained ho’oponopono’s main purpose: “Because each [family] member played an important role in the survival of the family, maintaining harmony was vital to keeping the family alive and well. Ho’oponopono was the means by which that harmony was maintained.”25

In cases where a person was seeking help for physical illness, the kahuna would refrain from addressing the physical aspects of the illness until all aspects of the person’s unseen experience were explored.26 To facilitate this, the kahuna would call a meeting with the person’s family and close community members. In this meeting, the kahuna would ask everyone if they were holding any grudges, fears, or judgments toward the person or if the person had any grudges, fears, or judgments that they were holding toward the community members.27

Every person affected by the conflict was given an opportunity to express their view without interruption in the resolution process of ho’oponopono, as crosstalk was not permitted.28 Participants would go around the circle, peeling back the issue layer by layer.29 If someone was disrespectful or became heated in any way, periods of silence called ho’omalu were prescribed for all parties—ho’omalu means “to bring under the care and protection of.”30 This period of silence gave participants time to reconnect with the spirit of truth and reflect on their experience before reengaging with the process.31

The essential elements of ho’oponopono, including prayer, discussion, confession, repentance, mutual restitution, and forgiveness, as well as self-scrutiny and discussion of individual conduct and group attitudes carried out in the spirit of oia i’o, or “the essence of truth,”32 are as relevant today as they were in ancient Hawaii. Despite having gone underground in the 1800s due to efforts by missionaries to outlaw all spiritual practices of the people living on the islands,33 ho’oponopono has made a comeback in recent years. Today it’s a common means of solving family disputes in Hawaii, and many family law practices use it in mediation. In his article “Cutting the Cord: Ho’oponopono and Hawaiian Restorative Justice in the Criminal Law Context,” Andrew J. Hosmanek explained the unique gifts ho’oponopono holds for people in conflict:

Ho’oponopono is different from typical mediations because after the session is successfully completed, the participants figuratively cut the “cord” of legal and psychological entanglement that binds them; in other words, the dispute is put to rest forever. When victim and offender come to a true resolution of the problem, and jointly make the decision to move forward without further conflict on the issue, true healing can occur.34

The ancient wisdom of ho’oponopono is also being reignited to aid the youth of Hawaii who are in the state’s judicial and foster care systems. One program, called Wahi Kana‘aho, is run by Wayde Hoapili Lee, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner, and serves as a twenty-one-day residential program for kids who have gotten in trouble with the law or who are experiencing behavioral issues.35 This program and others like it aim to build self-esteem and create a sense of belonging by reconnecting Hawaiians with their roots.  

It is remarkable to see the same principles of equality, common purpose, and truth-telling in ancient Hawaii and other Pacific islands echoed in the Native American traditions of North America, as well as in the indigenous African values of ubuntu. These traditions of peacemaking were developed worlds away from one another in both time and space, yet carry very much the same intentionality.

Like these earth-based wisdom traditions, Coming to Peace embraces the understanding that peace can only happen when we recognize our connection to others and see the value of their experience as equal to our own. It can only happen when we look inward and try to understand our motivations and the effect these have on us and those around us. It can only happen when there is equality, respect, honesty, tolerance, compassion, and the taking of personal responsibility present in human interaction and conflict resolution. When these are present, we can heal disputes and return to a place of wholeness within ourselves and to the peace that is our essential nature.