Many years ago, now, I had my first encounter with this concept of “ancestors”. I was standing in a circle of men, being guided to imagine my ancestral lineage stretching back behind me; a line of beings upon whose shoulders I stand. I liked the image. I was in the midst of an intense transformational experience so, even if I wasn’t actually able to, I imagined I could feel them – those shoulders behind me.
Whether I did or not, from that time onwards I couldn’t connect with any sense of ancestry. In similar ceremonial situations I would feel the absence of any comfort or presence, wondering thinly why that might be, and wishing for the next part of proceedings to begin.
Unexpectedly, a change began in April last year, when I visited the death place of my uncle Martin, in New Mexico, and conducted a ceremony in remembrance of him. I was joined by his son and, equally unexpectedly, given the blessing of my father. My primary lens for viewing myself and the human condition, up until that point, was through that of psychology. Having done lots of therapeutic work on the psychodynamics of my childhood, and come to some understanding of the pressures that formed my own patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour, I carried a fair degree of resentment towards my ancestors. I wouldn’t have termed it so, but in essence that’s what it was.
As I had come to understand and hold a more forgiving attitude towards my parents’ conditioning (that had then contributed to my own conditioning) I had transferred that hurt, anger and distrust towards those that hurt them. Not a very enlightened view! But the best I could manage at the time.
The process of healing is a long one. It involved, firstly, developing compassion for myself, despite the profoundly self-destructive, shame-inducing behaviours I had developed. Gaining insight into the psychological wounds I had sustained over the course of my life was instrumental. The hatred and anger that I felt towards myself was initially redirected towards those who had (in the most part unwittingly and unintentionally) inculcated those feelings in the first place. But as I developed compassion for them the resentment was shunted up another generation, and so on. It had got stuck at the level of those who were no longer here, whose humanity I was less able to perceive.
But a remarkable thing happened after the ceremony for Martin. He visited me in a dream and I felt reassured of both his supportive presence and the fulfillment of his own path, despite the terrible circumstances surrounding his death. A few days later, in the dirt of the rim overlooking De Chelley canyon in Arizona, sacred to the Dine Nation, I found a necklace with a silver wing.
At the end of the ceremony I had left a necklace that was precious to me, as an offering. On seeing this one, with such an apt symbol, a surge of joy from being recognized and related to rose up within me. It remains around my neck as a reminder of Martin’s presence.
The next time I encountered an explicit instruction to connect with the ancestors was in the first week of the Becoming Indigenous course, with Bill Plotkin and Geneen Marie Haugen. Usually at this moment, as I imagined my ancestors stretching out behind me, I would experience a split from felt sense to intellectually-driven imagination – the willful creation of a mental picture for the purposes of the exercise – neither embodied nor authentic. But being a committed perfectionist I wouldn’t dream of letting my actual experience get in the way of how I believed it ‘should’ be!! But this time a choice presented itself in my mind. I could either go on with the exercise as usual – an exercise in imagination. Or I could stay focused at the point that the emotional connection drops away – on my immediate ancestors. I chose the latter.
I was unable to continue the exercise as instructed. An image of my grandfather’s haunted face formed in my mind’s eye. It was painful and distressing to see. Resisting the impulse to look away I slowly began to allow the emotional spill of his perceived presence to enter my body. There was a lot of pain – dread, horror, confusion, fear. It was challenging to stay with but I felt a sense of pressing importance to ‘honour’ his presence by remaining emotionally open and available.
Over the course of the next few days this mysterious exchange between us unfolded. My job was simply to hold myself open to the feelings that his perceived presence stirred within me. My feelings moved from fear and disgust to a weighty compassion for his suffering, and an understanding of where his difficulties arose. It seemed that he needed appreciation, care, psychic holding and healing every bit as much as I do! And that in doing this for him I was doing it for both of us.
My bitterness for the failures that I perceived in his personhood were dissolved in a growing awareness of the challenges he had been facing. They turned to huge appreciation for not only passing on his many gifts to my father but also for simply surviving full-stop. It is hard to explain without sounding like a crazed Romantic, but I honestly feel like I know and love him now. I feel such a tenderness towards him and gratitude for his gentle, kind and playful mind.
Perhaps this kind of contact, resolution and relationship is available to everyone? I suspect so. As I explore the practices taught to us on the Becoming Indigenous course it is spreading into different ancestral lines. It seems to be a question of attuning sensibilities towards it. The indigenous cultures we learnt of exist in constant communication with ancestry, and to them the idea of not being in an ongoing dance of related-ness is baffling and absurd. I will share some of the beautiful ceremonies that I’ve been trying out (and that have been so vividly enriching my life) next time.
Until then, peace of a thousand prayers be upon you.