In Asia and Africa and in many indigenous cultures around the world, venerating ancestors is more than a tradition of the past. It’s a way to live well and prosper today. In the Hebrew Bible, one of the most famous commandments says, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land THE LORD your God is giving you.” Christian and Islamic faiths also see honoring parents as a virtue. All these traditions hold that individuals, as well as communities and even countries, benefit by respecting those who came before. In this blog post, SDI’s new Director of Content and Philanthropy, Steven Crandell, looks at our relationship with our ancestors (and the lack thereof). The ideas that follow are Steven’s own, not those of SDI. We offer them here in our beloved public square of spiritual direction in hopes they may of some use to our members as they guide their directees and as they follow their own spiritual paths. As always, we welcome your comments. How do you honor your own mother and father and the generations that came before? Or do you choose not to honor them? These questions are not always easy to answer, but the process of considering them can be fruitful. — Editor
A tree without roots cannot grow.
When we humans lose our roots, we too begin to wither — losing our balance, our health and our spiritual foundation.
I call this Ancestor Deficit Disorder — the new ADD. And I believe it is a spiritual epidemic.
“Tell the Westerners that they have lost the way. They need to know that the cause of many of their problems is neglect of the ancestral spirits.”
— P.H. Mntshali, sangoma (shaman) from Swaziland as quoted by Dr. David Cumes
The new ADD denies us spiritual support, love and guidance. We need that ancestral support to help us cope with disappointment and difficulty, to help us grieve our losses and find our equilibrium again.
I am no doctor, but here are the spiritual symptoms as I perceive them: low mood, anxiety, lack of wonder, loss of individual destiny, chronic cynicism, low levels of gratitude, spiritual withdrawal, emotional resignation, disconnection of heart and mind, loss of faith and atrophy of joy.
So what can be done?
The answer is the same for everyone on the planet: Connect with those people who have come before us.
In other words, talk to the ancestors. The wonderful irony is that you will never feel more alive and aware as when you regularly chat with the dead.
It costs no money and doesn’t take much time. In fact, the first step is pretty easy because the best way forward is the way that’s most comfortable for you.
Here are some things that work for me:
Talk — Take a quiet moment in a comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed and think of an ancestor that you love or admire. Then speak your love out loud. “It doesn’t matter if you call it the field or God or the collective unconscious,” says Dr. David Cumes, a Stanford-trained urologist as well as a sangoma (shaman-healer) trained in Swaziland. “The ancestors are there whether or not you feel or see them … Our connection with the spirit guides is a relationship. It thrives or withers depending on how much attention we give it. The more you talk to the ancestors, the more you honor them, the more they come into your life.”
Give Thanks — Nothing defeats loneliness and pain like a genuine thank you. It immediately puts you in relationship with the ancestors and helps build a network of spiritual resources to help you integrate love and light with your life. Gratitude to the ancestors is, after all, a logical response to the simple truth that we would not be here without those who went before.
Practice — Find something to do every day which allows you to connect with the ancestors. If you have photos of your ancestors, group them together in a place of honor. White is the color of the ancestors, I’m told. So draping a white cloth by the photos may be appropriate. David Cumes says he has an altar for the ancestors, draped with a white cloth, that holds photos of all those that loved him and that he loves. Photos of other people one may not know can also be included, he says and adds that “some may not want to entertain an abusive ancestor but it’s good karma to forgive them and release them from that karma of theirs.” Another idea is to put out a plate of food on special occasions like Thanksgiving, according to Cumes.
I believe the best practice is one that fits you, your life and your schedule. I talk to the ancestors in my daily prayers. I thank them. Sometimes I sing to them. But I also like to make them a plate of popcorn to share when I make a bowl for myself and my wife. I’m convinced that sharing what I love with the ancestors — by word or by song or by any means — can only enhance my relationship with them and my life.
Of course, bringing ancestors into daily life is a part of many traditions around the world — in Africa and Asia especially. But for those of us in the West, who may feel a real lack of connection — the key is to overcome the inertia of doing nothing. I suggest just diving in and speaking from the heart. Take five minutes and talk to the ancestors. See how it feels and then adjust according to your intuition. You may be amazed at the spiritual feedback you receive.
Does it still seem too hard or too weird? Do you feel like your life is too busy? Then listen to this ancestral wisdom:
“The most needful time for spiritual practice is when you feel you have no time.”
Being rootless and separate from the ancestors is not our natural state. We are not alone. In fact, we always have company:
“Spirit guides are not subject to time and space as are we. They are always around, but not always to be known; always within call, but not always to be heard; always present, but not always to be sensed; always holding us, but not always to be felt.”
Even though the ancestors are always present, we must make the first step to welcome them in our lives. This can have wonderful ramifications — as I wrote in another blog:
“Our modern culture has lost connection with our human past even as it has lost touch with God. What I now understand is that my ancestors — both my direct kin and all generations who have come before — are a conduit to God … Consider sending your love and gratitude to the people who came before you, the people whose genes you carry, the people who made you possible. Such acknowledgement and appreciation can open your heart to God’s light and love, Her story and grace.”
Ancestor Deficit Disorder is harmful to our people and our world. But it can be treated easily. All we need is to exercise our free will and choose to seek connection. The ancestors you connect with may not be recent blood relatives or blood relatives at all. In fact, some of them may hail from ancient times or foreign cultures. In a sense, “everybody is your ancestor,” says Cumes, the surgeon-sangoma.
So why not try to fill the deficit yourself. Pause for a moment and reach out across the veil. My guess is that with access to the ancestors, your life will become deeper and brighter and you will start to understand that isolation is a fiction and connectedness is the truth.
We all belong to the great human family — both past and present. What we do matters — not only on this living planet, but in the spiritual realm beyond time and space. Healing, meaning and balance are ours for the enjoying. All we have to do is find our roots — and care for them — so we can grow.