Aroha atu, aroha mai

Meanings of words and phrases in italics are at the end of this post. 

For a while I had been thinking about learning to kōrero te reō Māori, both to improve my confidence in pronunciation and as a way of gaining a deeper understanding of te ao Māori. What I didn’t expect to get from it was a way into a better relationship with myself and a new tattoo. 

A couple of parts of my life were falling apart, my mental health and self esteem were at the most fragile they had been for a long time. I was struggling through the days in an ongoing toxic work situation and my self belief was further shaken by the loss of what had seemed a promising intimate relationship. I had not been sleeping, relying on sleeping pills that left me fuzzy, was losing weight, and the voice of my inner critic, the one that tells me how useless I am, that it’s all my fault, that I am unlovable, had become louder, more insistent, and harder to change the record on. 

I needed to make a change, to have a new focus. So, amongst renewed efforts at self care, I turned my thoughts into action and signed up for a summer school course, Introduction to Conversational Māori.

Once I began, attempting to immerse myself in a new language, I discovered that in te reō Māori, I didn’t have an inner critic. It was as simple as not having the words. My negative self talk was replaced by the kiwaha our kaiako wrote up on the whiteboard each lesson and the words of encouragement from friends who were more fluent in te reō.

Mauria te pono
Karawhiua atu
Karawhiua mai
Kia kaha, kia māia, kia manawanui

Me he Te! 
Tohaina ō painga ki te ao
Whītiki taua!

Some of these became my mantra on my morning run, kept me going through the days, replacing the swirling negative and self critical thoughts that had been plaguing me. One particular phrase kept coming to me.

Aroha atu, aroha mai.

Often translated simply as love, aroha also encompasses affection, compassion and empathy as well as romantic, familial and platonic love. Aroha mai, aroha atu can be translated as love received, love returned. The reverse can also be used, aroha atu, aroha mai –  love flowing outwards from us, love flowing towards us. It’s this concept that’s expressed in the proverb:

He aroha whakatō, he aroha puta mai
If kindness is sown, then kindness you shall receive

It’s a kaupapa that speaks to my heart and wairua.

Aroha atu, aroha mai is also used in the karakia below, commonly translated as showing respect/caring for one other.

I found myself thinking of the phrase often, and came to see that as well as an exhortation to project love and kindness into the world, it can be seen as a message of balance. That the love we give must be balanced by the love we receive. That we don’t have to accept relationships – friendships, intimate relationships or otherwise – where the love and respect we give is not returned in equal measure. 

It’s a mistake I have made too many times, staying at the table when love is no longer being served, offering up my heart and forgiveness in return for contempt and disrespect.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt the need to make these kaupapa o te wairua a visible part of me, to have written on my skin a permanent reminder to open my heart to others in aroha, but also to know that I deserve it in return.

On my left arm, the words aroha atu flow outward, away from my heart. With my right hand extended to receive it, the words aroha mai flow toward me. I need only turn my palms upward to know what is important in this world and how to stay true to myself.

Ngā mihi nui ki a;

  • Liesje from The Tattooed Heart, who also did the tattoo above my heart in memory of Zoe
  • Huey rāua ko Jo for the kōrero about appropriation versus the universality of aroha me atawhai 
  • Jo for the inspiration of her te reō Māori journey
  • Kaiako Gabriel for her passion and patience for us ākonga
  • Darryl for conversations that were a catalyst to following my heart and beginning my reō journey, and for joining me on it
  • Ko John rātou ko Mel ko Eleanor ko Darryl, aku rōpū, for your support (and kai) as we learned together 
  • Zoe, taku tamāhine, for teaching me the most about love, for watching over, believing in, and inspiring her māmā


Kia hora te marino
Kia whakapapa pounamu te moana
Hei huarahi mā tātou i te rangi nei
Aroha atu, aroha mai
Tātou i a tātou katoa.

May peace be widespread. 
May the sea be like greenstone; 
a pathway for all of us this day. 
Let us show respect for each other, for one another. 
Bind us all together.


  • Mauria te pono – believe in yourself
  • Karawhiua atu – go for it!
  • Karawhiua mai – bring it on!
  • Kia kaha, kia māia, kia manawanui – be strong, be brave, be steadfast
  • Me he Te! – like a boss!
  • Tohaina ō painga ki te ao – share your passion and talent with the world
  • Whītiki taua! We’ve got each other’s backs (two people)


4 thoughts on “Aroha atu, aroha mai

  1. Beautiful Kiri.. thanks for sharing from your heart. You’re such an inspiration to us all.. angel Zoe will be so proud of her mama.. love your tattoo’s and all they represent x


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