Leaning on Our Ancestors
Yesterday, on the eve of Samhain (Halloween), I prepared an altar in our living room to honor our beloved dead. On the cedar chest built by my wife Martha’s grandfather, I placed cedar boughs blessed in sacred circles held over the past two months. On top of the cedar, Martha and I arranged photos of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, dear friends, and our sister-in-law who died of cancer three years ago.
Included on the altar is a photo of the Cailleach Beara, a stone located on a cliff near the village of Eyeries, on Ireland’s Beara Peninsula. An Cailleach is Ireland’s fierce crone and earth goddess whose home is in the rocky western mountains overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. According to legend, she turned to stone as she waited there for her consort, Manannán mac Lir, god of the sea. Samhain initiates the darkest, coldest time of year, time of An Cailleach and her powerful winds from the North.
At Samhain, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin. We can communicate more readily between realms and receive the wisdom and support of those who have gone before.
In this last week before the midterm elections, I am leaning especially hard on my ancestors. Our country is in a precipitous slide toward authoritarianism. Words and actions that affirm white supremacy, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, and other oppressive ways of thinking, sometimes in horrifically violent ways, are amplified daily by the man who is now the President. His enablers in the Republican Party are unwilling to do anything to stop him. Achieving Democratic control of the House of Representatives and several governorships and state legislatures will provide a necessary brake on Trump’s ever-expanding, destructive power. Will we pull it off, despite the opposition’s illegal and immoral efforts to suppress the vote? We don’t know yet. We work hard every day.
Some of my ancestors experienced worse. Some fought back against colonialism. Some perpetrated harm themselves. They hold wisdom that I can draw on. And for some of the challenges we face, including climate change, there are no precedents in human existence.
What does it mean to lean back on your ancestors? What if you have been harmed by some of them, or know that they did harm? What if you don’t know much or anything about them?
Lisa Iversen, psychotherapist and Systemic Family Constellations facilitator and teacher, writes about the ways in which disconnection from ancestors was integral to the founding of the United States. In her book Ancestral Blueprints: Revealing Invisible Truths from America’s Soul, she describes how immigrants from Europe were separated from their own families and homelands, often by violence or adverse circumstances. They then perpetrated slavery and genocide, fracturing families and attempting to annihilate whole peoples and their cultures. So it is no wonder that we in the United States have trouble knowing how to connect back.
All of my training and experience in the past two decades convinces me that it is essential, personally and collectively, that we do so.
In this frantic last week before the election, take a few moments and sit quietly. Place your feet firmly on the floor and lean back in your chair. Think of someone who came before you in your family who has passed on, someone with whom you feel especially close. That might be a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, great-grandparent. Imagine that beloved ancestor standing behind you with their hands on your shoulders. Notice how your body feels when you do so.
Over time, the number of ancestors you can visualize behind you may grow. The life they passed on to you flows through every cell of your body. You manifest their gifts in some way every day.
If you can’t imagine one person in your family lineage who can stand behind you and support you, imagine a whole healed ancestor, someone who has done all their own healing and is ready to hold you. To have your back. Every family has at least one! Notice how you feel in your body when you do that.
Healing ancestral trauma and making amends for ancestors who perpetrated wrongs takes time: in my case, years. Help is available in the form of community spiritual ceremonies, Systemic Family Constellations work, psychotherapy modalities that embrace ancestral healing – whatever works best for you. You can release whatever you are carrying on behalf of those who went before that is not yours to carry. In doing so, you can more fully receive and express their gifts.
If we can begin to heal broken relationships with our ancestors, we can begin to heal our broken country.