Years ago, my grandfather taught me my most important lesson in life. It wasn’t some financial secret that would make you rich, nor the ins and outs of understanding women (I don’t think that can ever be taught, nor any man truly comprehend). It was something more deep and meaningful than anything I’ve ever learned as a child or an adult. It’s a lesson I’ll always replay in my mind until I take my last breath.

July on Maui is wonderful. The trades blow at a nice pace, the days are warm and at my grandparent’s place, the sun sets directly into the Pacific between the islands of Lana’i and Molokai. We had a made it a full day, with a trip to Hamai Appliance in Kahului to get a part for the washing machine, a stop at Ace Hardware for necessary odds and ends, and a quick stop to treat ourselves with a pineapple milk shake at Peggy Sue’s before heading back to Honokowai.

That evening as we sat on the lanai, watching the sun dip below the horizon, he asked me if I knew why Hawaiians always seem so joyful? I said, “Because they eat shave ice?” He replied, “That may be one small reason, but it’s really because they live Aloha.”

I had always thought aloha meant hello, goodbye, love, and was the name of an inter-island airline. My grandfather went on to explain that the word meant far more than that, and that living Aloha is about living your life to the fullest, by first loving and respecting yourself and then spreading that love and respect to others. “If you ever want to call Hawai’i your home, you have to respect the aina (land), respect the culture, be humble and live Aloha. If you do, you’ll have blessings beyond your imagination.”

Aloha starts with its literal translation: “breath of life.” The root, “Alo,” means presence, front or face, and “ha,” meaning breath. When I greet my kumu a’o, Lopaka, we touch forehead to forehead, nose to nose, place our right hands on each other’s shoulders and share a long inhale and exhalation of air – the breath of life. Lopaka has told me that to live Aloha is about living in harmony – a sending and receiving of positive energy. When one lives aloha, he or she creates positive thoughts and feelings, which multiply and spread openly to others – the sharing of the Aloha Spirit.

You can see this on a daily basis, at the local coffee shop, walking down the street and even behind the wheel of your car. On a trip to the mainland, earlier this year, I pulled up to a four-way stop, and watched three vehicles try to go at the same time, honking their horns and exchanging nonverbal un-pleasantries. I had to laugh, because on Maui, the typical situation is for all of the drivers to wave each other through the intersection first. The result is a lot of hand waving, shakas, and yelling out of truck windows, “No cuz, you go!” It’s the Aloha.

Once in a while, you run into someone who hasn’t let Aloha into their hearts. Some hold onto their big city mannerisms, debauched driving habits (you know, the classic speed-up-cut-off-get-ahead even though there are 10 open vehicle lengths behind your car) and “it’s all about me” attitudes. Many don’t last but a few years before heading back to the mainland. Others stay and are tolerated, but we know that Aloha will never be returned.

For those who embrace the Aloha Spirit, the Islands become a huge oyster, with a giant pearl of friendship, wisdom, respect and joy that fills your heart and nourishes your soul. I think Queen Lili’uokalani put it best when she said, “…hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen, and to know the unknowable- that is Aloha…”