At the beginning of every psychic reading, I was trained to invite in my ancestors and healing guides, as well as those of whomever I’m reading. The ancestors that show up for me are pretty consistent. Jesus and Mary Magdalen are always present. There’s a dragon-being who helps me clear with fire, and a boyish Peter Pan-like youth who keeps her company. Often, too, I have a large-bodied male ancestor who glows red and helps me ground and hold the perimeter of the reading.
Recently, as I finished a reading, one of my clients asked: who are the ancestors?
What a great question! And seasonally suitable, as we approach a time of year when many cultures and spiritual traditions speak of the "thin veil" that brings the ancestors a little more closely into felt presence.
The ancestors are everyone no longer or not currently taking up residence in a physical body. Spiritual traditions worldwide have varying ways of describing ancestors and understanding who and “where” they are. Ancestor remembrance was deeply important to those of my Christian heritage, particularly in the early church when many Christians were dying at the hand of the Roman Empire. The “communion of saints” and the vast “cloud of witnesses” kept martyrs and departed loved ones close at hand and participatory in the real-time paradise-present kin-dom.
In my Celtic druidic lineage, ancestors were remembered at Samhain, an observance this time time of year when the veil between worlds was known to be thinnest. Samhain was a celebration of the descent of the Goddess into the underworld, the pagan new year, and when the spirits of the other worlds came out to visit and play (and cause mischief!). This was later assimilated into the Christian calendar as All Hallow's Eve, All Saints and All Souls Day, a season when the saints and souls of the dead were remembered and honored.
In one of my more favorite pagan-flavored practices of my upbringing, we prayed to saints and loved ones who were passed like they were just in the next room over. “Where are the keys, St. Anthony??!!” or “Mother Boniface, please, we need to find a parking spot.”
These parts of ancestor awareness has a very light-hearted and playful feel for me. But as I journeyed deeper on my spiritual path and into my psychic work, I learned about and experienced the ancestors in an even deeper way. You may have read here of my encounter with Jesus, which occurred even before I began to learn about ancestors, but who I have come to consider to be my most consistent and tangible ancestral companion. The Ancestors are of a busy spiritual world that overlays and impacts our world. Some Ancestors are a part of our DNA lineage—our actual great-great-great-grand-whatever. But there are many ancestors that have “chosen in” to our spiritual lineage—these can be human beings who have passed, other earth beings, elementals (fairies, elves, etc), star beings, beings from other planets and dimensions, ascended masters like Jesus and the Buddha, deities like Quan Yin or Brigid. I am grateful to my teacher Nancy Rebecca of Intuitive Mind for the teachings she shared with me on this topic.
My current growing edge has been exploring ancestral practices at the intersection of anti-racist white identity formation. To be clear, though I think most of my readers know me in person, I am white, and this learning is not emerging comfortably. I owe all credit and deep gratitude to the work of Tada Hozumi and support and mentorship of Yvette Murrell for their guidance and wisdom on this topic, and I encourage you to check out their work.
What I am learning about is that, for many white people, we are generationally so far removed from a spiritually-whole ancestry and ancestral land that we have to reach way back to find healthy ancestors. I mean way back. That’s because imperialism, colonialism, and whiteness as a cultural norm has left its powerful descendants split from any ancestral identity that wasn’t based on domination--which does damage not only to the colonized but also to the colonizer. (This is not at all to make light of it, but for the nerds among you, it's not unlike the horcrux arrangement--one can have immeasurable power over others, but it costs the wholeness of ones soul).
Strangely, the surge of violent "heritage reclamation" and the deeply disconcerting chant of "Blood and Soil" amidst white-supremacist rhetoric--though not the kind of ancestor work I am talking about--actually does shine a light on something true. There is a truly deep psychological and cultural wound that motivates white supremacist rage and violence. The cause of the pain is severely mislabeled, but the wound is there nonetheless.
White supremacy, one could argue, is the most extreme reaction to the deep culture-wide psychological insecurity that results from the soul-split that whiteness has demanded, severing us from any sense of who we were before being colonizers and before "white" existed. Less obvious but also damaging reactions that have now become cultural behavioral agreements occur a thousand times a day in me. Consider "symptoms" such as addiction to perfection, a false sense of urgency, the feeling that "I'm the only one", politeness, conflict avoidance, and overvaluing the hyper-rational at the expense of body/feeling wisdom—I am only just beginning the exploration of how these are all alive and habituated in my own body in a particular way as a result of being conditioned into whiteness. And it makes me a part of the problem in so many more unseen ways than the obviously racist things I may do, say or think. I am immeasurably grateful to Heather Kawamoto for first introducing me to this premise as it relates to white organizational culture.
To be clear, this is not a justification for racist behavior or comparison of the pain it has caused. Colonialism and whiteness/racism/anti-black-and-brownness have done and continue to do immeasurable damage to indigenous people and persons of color worldwide, and the damage is not comparable. There is so much healing, restoration, and reparation to be done. Hozumi, though, suggests looking at whiteness itself as a "cultural complex trauma" caused by a painful separation from ancestry—that has occurred for white, black, brown and indigenous folks alike (though in very different ways and to very different affect). Most indigenous people of the world and persons of color live with the reality of this violent severance from ancestry as an all-too-real daily experience. White privilege, however, has ensured that white folks have had the power to numb from this pain of this severance, and act out our unmetabolized pain violently on black and brown folks. By un-numbing white folks from this pain, the hope is to get us back in touch with our own felt sense of what was lost—as well as awakening our own incentive and agency in what could be restored—for ourselves and our black and brown neighbors. If this framework intrigues you, check out their blog.
This past weekend I gave a retreat at Pacific Lutheran University for white students about anti-racism as spiritual formation. One of the practices I lead folks in was a meditation on various layers and sources of support and nourishment: the earth, community, Spirit/God/dess/Cosmos, body--and ancestors.
Reflecting with at lunch time, one of the participants observed: "I was surprised, when you told us to imagine our ancestors, I just felt...nothing. I felt a complete blank. I mean, I know my grandparents, and I know I'm German. But in the meditation it didn't feel like anything I was connected to."
I invited her to consider that this is one of the consequences of whiteness on white people. Having bought into the white cultural agreement of individualism and "it's just me", many white people do not have a spiritual sense of having a relationship or being supported by the multitudes who have come before.
Why is this kind of awareness important for white folks? As I have observed my own capacity of engagement in anti-racist work over the years, what I have learned is that I do not stay engaged simply by the visible pain of others. I am not proud to admit that, but it's just what I have observed in myself. I may be moved during a time of heightened visible crisis, but my own capacity dwindles and self-interest returns to center. What draws me back into engagement has been when I get a sense that it is my own soul on the line, my own wholeness that is compromised by my numbness to a pain that is my own and the worlds. More and more I am learning about and coming to believe that it is not just apathy—but rather (or additionally) the thick numbing agent of whiteness that continues to keep white folks asleep to the cries of the rest of the world—and from recognizing these as the cries of our own heart's longing for wholeness.
And I don’t mean “those white supremacists.” I mean “good,” progressive, caring, involved, “right”-voting, “right”-talking people like me. I have been wondering about and learning that by addressing whiteness in white people like myself as "cultural trauma", there is a possibility to engage and drawing white folks into anti-racist work in more sustainable way because we have a different understanding of our own stake in the fight. I feel the risk in “centering white folks/white pain” once again—but I invite the consideration to recognize for one’s self and invite others into the awareness that the wound lives in the bodies and souls of white folks just as much as it lives in the world (though the impact/experience of it is vastly different!), and that by tending to it in ourselves we actually free up the emotional energy of persons of color and become more useful to the healing work being done “out there”. I claim no expertise on this, just a learning edge that I wanted to share about because it feels very important.
If you are a politicized white person interested some deeper dives into this topic, I highly recommend checking out the upcoming offering by Tada Hozumi entitled Authentic Allyship Immersion: Connecting with radical white ancestors (starts Nov. 2, read more here.) I have been following Hozumi's work for the last year, and working more closely with them over the last several months and I can't speak highly enough about the work they are doing with white folks integrating embodiment and spiritual practice with anti-racism.
In the meanwhile, here are some simple starting points for connecting to your own ancestors.
Acknowledge the land you are on. What indigenous territory do you live on? If you are white, consider just acknowledging the reality of being on unceded/occupied lands. I live on Puyallup tribal land, and go to school on the land of the Duwamish. Acknowledge the ancestors of the land, recognizing that your ancestor may have been colonizers, and you are guest.
Build an alter. Start with whatever you have and already know about. If you weren’t adopted, and don’t have adopted parents, consider your primary four ancestral lines—the parents of both of your parents. Do you know their names? Do you have any photos? Do you have any heirlooms or tokens from them or their era? Set them on a small table or a windowsill or whatever space you have.
Make an explicit invitation to the healthy ancestors. When I'm working with my own energy field, clearing a room, or setting intention for a reading, I am specific in saying: “I invite in those of my/so-and-so’s ancestors that are of good health and well enough to be of support in this healing.” Not just anyone is welcome. Not all ancestors are healthy and can contribute to your health (see above comments on white ancestors). Some are sick and have flocked to you because they can lean on you or take from you energetically. No harm is usually intended, but it can have the affect of feeling like you are swimming through tar just to get through a day, like your carrying more than your share of the world's burdens, or like you keep repeating a mental or physical pattern of which no amount of vitamins or positive thinking is breaking you out. Not frequently, but it does happen that there are some are of truly ill-will. So make it clear who's invited in and who's not. Often I imagine setting a perimeter around myself or the room--that can be all kinds of images, like a fence or walls or a ring of fire. Then I imagine a door with a little peep window, like a speak-easy--I speak the intention and then peek out to see who's there, and open the door just for those who are healthy and clear.
Spend time with your alter and talk to them. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Start to designate a little time to just sit, ground, not think too hard and notice what you notice. Do you get any physical sensation? What objects or photos draw your attention? Do images or memories emerge? In your mind, just call out: Hello!? Who’s there? And listen for a response. It's ok if you feel like you're just pretending. Get quiet and imagine a door through which you are inviting your healthy ancestors. Does someone/something show up? Who? How? Why? What might they say if they were really right there? At the beginning, you’ll probably feel like you’re just making things up. It’s ok. Just go with it. If you have 15 minutes, you might try the Ancestral Tree meditation I have posted here.
Join me on October 30th for Calling on the Ancestors: A Samhain Chant Circle if you're local and want to explore ancestral spiritual practice as a part of syncing with the quietude of fall or healing our racial/cultural fabric. This event is free, AND donations are not expected but gladly accepted. Please RSVP to me here.
(Please note: this is my ancestor practice BEFORE having done the immersion with Hozumi—so it is simple, not deeply/explicitly tied to anti-racism, and this may need revising! I’ll keep you posted.)
May this season’s change and the Ancestor’s call settle your anxieties, steady your strength, and stir your complacency~