Five Ways to Honor Your Ancestors
En Español: Cinco Maneras de Honorar a Tus Ancestros
We all have ancestors, both of blood and of spirit, and each of our lives rests firmly on the foundation of their sacrifice. They are as near to us as our breath and bones, and when related with in conscious ways, they can be a tremendous source of healing, guidance, and companionship. The ancestors we choose to honor may include not only recent and more distant family but also beloved friends and community, cultural and religious leaders, and even other-than-human kin such as companion animals. Our ancestors bring vital support to fulfill our potential here on Earth, and, through involvement in our lives, also further their own growth and maturation in the spirit realms.
Like the living, spirits of the deceased run the full spectrum from wise and loving to self-absorbed and harmful. Physical death is a major event for the soul, a rite of passage we will all face, and the living can provide critical momentum for the recently deceased to make the initiatory leap to become a helpful ancestor. Once the dead have become ancestors, part of their post-death journey may include making repairs for wrongs committed while here on Earth. For their sake and for ours, it’s good to spend a little time now and again feeding our relationships with the ancestors. The five suggestions below, none of which require belief in any specific tradition or dogma, are safe and effective ways to assist our beloved dead and to welcome the ongoing support and blessings of the ancestors in our everyday lives.
Fulfill Your Soul’s Purpose as an Ethical and Loving Person
The most important and most challenging way to honor our ancestors is to fulfill our personal potential and life’s purpose here on Earth. Many cultures maintain that we each have a unique destiny or karma to fulfill and that we ideally make it a high priority to remember these original instructions and do what is necessary to express our gifts, our true will, and our most authentic selves. The ancestors are seen as allies in this process of remembering and a reservoir of power and backing to help us embody our potential in this lifetime. Conversely, when we have lost touch with a sense of greater purpose, if we are fortunate, the ancestors may bring about life changes aimed to jar us into greater contact with our soul’s longing and increased awareness of the agreements made before our birth.
Talk of destiny and calling is all well and good; however, in reality it’s difficult to actualize our full potential until our life and relationships are more or less in order. This gradual and ongoing work of being a conscious person may include things like learning how to express emotions in healthy ways, committing to tell the truth in relationships, reaching out for necessary support to get sober, seeking education to better ourselves, taking better care of our bodies, and generally accepting greater responsibility for becoming a loving and reliable human being. Whatever helps us to become more ethical, balanced, and open-hearted people is one of the most powerful and sincere offerings we can make to our ancestors.
Ironically, the very things that would drag us down are often part of our inheritance from family ancestors. Alcoholism, patterns of physical and sexual abuse, emotional cruelty and dysfunction, religious extremism, racism, sexism, wounds related to money and poverty, predisposition to physical and mental illness, and a thousand and one other poisons can all be passed down along the bloodlines where they lay, seeds in our karmic profile that, if watered with the right conditions, may grow into full-blown dysfunction. If properly understood these challenges may implicitly point us in the direction of the antidote, often an internal resource that we also carry as a dormant ancestral inheritance. For example physical violence can be a distortion of the gift of healthy warriorship, fear of scarcity may mask an unhealed wound in a lineage of strong providers, or addiction could be a way of numbing the sensitivity required of healers, artists, and lovers. In this way, the ancestors can be both the source of the hardship and the remedy, yet every time we make the right choices when faced with these inherited patterns, we elevate both ourselves and their spirits.
Dedicate Positive Actions in the Name of the Ancestors
Nearly all traditions have some way of recognizing the spiritual benefit of good deeds and generosity. Charity in Christianity traditions, sadaqah in Islam, tzedakah in Judaism, and dana in Buddhism and Hinduism are but a few religious expressions of a nearly universal theme of practicing generosity and affirming our inter-relatedness with and care for others. Traditional, indigenous ways of life also tend to emphasize the need for sharing wealth and the blessings that flow from living a helpful, service-oriented life. Mongolian shaman Sarangerel, a friend and teacher who passed suddenly in 2006, half-jokingly described shamanism as the science of engineering hiimori or “windhorse,” and wrote that:
This force is housed within the chest and will vary in size according to how one uses and accumulates it. Very strong windhorse allows one to think clearly and analytically and see through deception. Windhorse is the power which allows shamans and other powerful people accomplish what needs to be done simply and easily….Use of one’s personal power toward harmful ends or to upset the balance of the universe depletes windhorse…Windhorse can be increased by actions to restore balance in the universe and through religious practice.
In this way, engaging in loving and truly helpful actions results in the accumulation of tangible and usable energy in the energetic field or body of the one taking the action.
Most people instinctively grasp a related principle that the energetic effects of actions can, at least to some degree, be directed or linked to others who did not carry out the actions themselves. To illustrate this, imagine someone privately donating ten million dollars in your name toward feeding and housing the homeless in your area. Compare this with someone doing a private ritual to dedicate an impending act of genocide in your name; clearly less cool. In neither case are you the one carrying out the actions themselves. This principle is already widely applied through the practice of making charitable contributions in the name of the recently deceased by their loved ones.
Having a clear focus, a meaningful activity, and personally connecting with the process of elevating the consciousness of your beloved dead all help to enhance the effectiveness of this practice. For example, if you have the sense that your grandmother’s spirit is not at peace or if she is well and you just wish to celebrate her life and spirit, consider specifically dedicating a positive action to her rather than to all your ancestors in general. The more specific the target of the offering, the more concentrated the effects. Also, try to choose a type of service or action that fits the recipient’s unique life and spirit. If your father was racist or engaged in domestic violence, you might donate to a charitable organization working for racial healing or a battered women’s shelter. Likewise, if the deceased loved local wildflowers, a dedicated day of service to the Native Plant Society can enhance the intimacy, emotional charge, and effectiveness of the offering. Finally, taking the time to set clear intent and emotionally connect to the process can help insure the positive energy generated actually reaches the intended target.
Although more involved acts of service are fantastic, more simple dedications can also be powerful. For example, let’s say that I have a disturbing dream about my grandfather who died last month, and I’m left with the nagging sense that he may not have transitioned yet to the realm of the ancestors. Later in the morning I find myself at yoga class and the teacher invites us to dedicate our session of yoga to some specific intent. Remembering the dream, I pause and voice internally or quietly aloud, “I dedicate the positive energy from this session of yoga to the well-being of my grandfather; may his spirit be at peace and united with our loving ancestors.” Throughout the class I periodically hold him in my awareness, seeing him surrounded by love and light, and in this way reaffirm the link between me and the focus of my prayer. Finally, at the close of the class, I take a moment to visualize a sphere of light, the windhorse accumulated from this focused spiritual practice, and I envision this light surrounding the spirit of my grandfather, bringing him happiness and well-being. In this way, I couple the power of focused intent with the usable energy generated from a simple positive action in a way that is helpful and uplifting for my grandfather’s spirit. The dedication of merit from good deeds large and small is an especially effective practice for those ambivalent about the reality of the ancestors or who are not interested in direct spirit contact but still wish to honor the memory of their loved ones.
Stay Open to Direct Communication from the Ancestors
Direct contact with the spirits of the ancestors can be cultivated through ritual practices; however, communication may also happen spontaneously in forms such as dream contact, waking encounters, and synchronicity. When we have a framework to receive their outreach, their work is made easier and we are open to the enjoyment of conscious, ongoing relationship.
Talking or even just listening to dead people, even if they’re your beloved dead people, tends to raise a few eyebrows, and some of the concerns may be legitimate. With respect to hearing voices, the experience of communication with the deceased is almost never an indicator of a psychotic process or break with reality. If you or those around you have any doubts about whether or not you’re coming unglued, consider reaching out for support from a grounded ancestor specialist, spiritually-oriented psychotherapist, supportive mentor, or friend. The more common concern centers on distinguishing mental chatter from direct spirit contact, a refinement that I’ve found only comes with a balance of faith and healthy skepticism combined with practice over time.
Another important concern is making sure that you’re mostly engaging with loving, evolved ancestors and not with conflicted or even manipulative ghosts. If you have guides that you work with in spirit, call upon them to provide a second opinion on the ancestors contacting you to help insure they’re trustworthy. However, evolved and helpful ancestors may still lead with tough love and express themselves in rowdy and enigmatic ways, and telling the difference between the two again is something that comes with practice. Simply taking a moment to consult your personal instinct is often sufficient to determine if any spirit is basically loving and well-intended. As a general guideline, if your relationship with an ancestor is not helping you to be a more empowered, ethical, and loving person, seek a second opinion.
The ancestors can often reach even the most skeptical of descendants with a well-placed, emotionally charged dream. Not all dreams of the dead necessarily involve direct spirit contact, and discerning when an ancestor is actually trying to get through is not always easy; however, contact dreams are often accompanied by the felt sense of actually meeting with the deceased loved one. These dreams may include receiving a message or some kind of healing around the loss that accompanied the loved one’s death. If the dream has the quality of contact and the deceased seems in distress, you may offer direct prayer, healing ritual, and positive energy toward their elevation and happiness. If the ancestor seems well in spirit, simply being open to their visit supports future dream contact and other forms of relationship.