Native Hawaiian Spirituality. Researching When the Words Aren't There

There are downsides to being a graduate student. Debt, for starters. Sanskrit translations take a close second. And of course endless reading that has caused me to despise all forms of outside "pleasure" reading. (As if in my spare time - which isn't as plentiful as my working friends would like to imagine - I want to sit down and read a magazine or book. For fun. Ha!)

There are some upsides as well. Long summers. The opportunity to spend years studying a subject that intellectually stimulates me. And, my favorite of all, research. Oh, how I love research!

You may be thinking, "Oh how great for you, Sarah. We're all so thrilled that you get to leave the bitter cold of the Midwest and study in beautiful, tropical places like Hawaii." I get it, I get it, mainly because I hear it weekly from divinity school classmates who are bundled up in Chicago as I Skype in for class with waving palm trees as my backdrop.

I am here to tell you, however, that contrary to popular belief, sunshine and surfers are not the reason I am in Hawaii. (Although those don't hurt.) I am in Hawaii because I feel drawn to these islands. As I begin to dig into what it means to be Hawaiian, which in one native Hawaiian's words, is to be able to connect to the land, and the water and the sky and the sea, the more I realize that if this is research, I want to be a researcher forever.

It is an immense honor to learn the history, culture, and spirituality of native Hawaiians from native Hawaiians, not from the neatly packaged missionary and colonizer versions. Yet, as I embark on this journey, I am left with a set of nagging questions: What exactly am I researching (I can sense how thrilled my professors are to read this), and how do I quantify my experience? As I mull over these questions, I am reminded of a brief encounter I had a few months back at a hospital in Chicago.

"On a scale of 1-10, what level of pain are you currently experiencing?" the nurse asked me one miserable afternoon as I sat holding my screaming index finger wrapped in a bloody bandage - raw, wounded, and now without a fingernail.

"Well, what's a 10?" I countered, images of torture victims and horrific car accidents and raging fires coming to mind. "The worst pain you've ever experienced," she answered.

My mind, despite the intensifying throbbing sensation in my hand, contemplated for a moment. Did heartache count? Or the death of a loved one? Or the loss of a childhood dream? "I guess a 2.5," I responded sheepishly.

I realized in that moment that it is extremely difficult to accurately describe pain. Medical professionals are certainly making strides to help give language to the varied manifestations of pain in order to provide more effective and appropriate treatment to patients. Yet, with so many types of pain - physical, emotional, and psychological - and so many ways to experience it, how many words do we actually have at our disposal to accurately describe the depth of our sufferings?

I'm finding this same phenomenon - this inability to articulate an inner knowing to others - present in the sphere of divinity studies as I move around these islands attempting to complete research on native Hawaiian spirituality. After all, what is spirituality? How do we describe it? Measure it? Prove its existence? How do we separate it from the study of culture, and language, and institutionalized religion? What makes one person more spiritual than another (does such a distinction exist?) or adamantly "spiritual but not religious?"

As the weeks pass, and I realize that the answers to these questions are both beautifully and exasperatingly elusive, I open myself to the possibility of being on this quest for a while, which, of course is fine by me. While the locale may not always be as beautiful as Hawaii, for now - as my friends back home deal with the aftermath of the first snow of the season and break in their new winter boots - I'll happily soak in the sunshine and aloha spirit from this side of the world. All in the name of research, of course.