Earth, Ancestors, and Ritual: Where to Begin?

Over the past two decades of guiding ritual arts, people often ask, “Where do I start?” As my entry into ritual included little guidance or an excess of disorganized instruction, I hold this question as precious and worthy of a thoughtful reply.

Before a more structured answer, know that the path is anything but linear. This is partly due to generations of cultural disruption and the reality that so many seekers must now piece together teachings from here and there to fit their circumstances. This is also because, even in the best of circumstances, the journey is non-linear. We start in one place and circle back to teachings and life lessons, often years later, in unpredictable detours and complex weaving through time.

One can generalize a bit based on cross-cultural teachings and commonalities in ritual pedagogy despite the fact that we have unique life circumstances. Below I’ve sketched four basic stages along with some personal examples, corresponding areas of training, and ways to seek out that support. The framing “layers” or “stages” is somewhat arbitrary; your mileage may vary, and embodiment takes time. Links to offerings that I share in the world are just one form of support to inhabit each stage of practice. These are notes scribbled on a napkin after the first few decades of ritual immersion; please, for the love of the Earth, don’t take this as dogma or some official map of the path.

Layer One: Animist Worldview, Ritual Foundations, and Personal Healing

Animism is a shorthand, academic way of referring to a way of seeing the world that recognizes that living humans are just one kind of person and that all the other people are also legit and worthy of our respect and consideration. These others include our ancestors, the animals and plants, mountains and rivers, planets and stars, the gods, the elemental powers, and 1,001 others for whom English categories often fail us. We’re one face of a complex, living universe and being an adult includes grappling with the implications of that for personal ethics, interpersonal relationships, home and belonging, vocation, and spiritual practice (or lack thereof).

If you weren’t raised with an embodied ethic of inter-being or inter-relatedness, this is a great place to begin as these things are learnable and the path is nothing if not rooted in core values. If you’re open to an academic approach, I find Harvey’s work Animism: Respecting the Living World to be accessible and culturally respectful to Indigenous peoples. For a more poetic work by an Indigenous author, Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass is beautiful.

Animism, Indigenous wisdom, earth spirituality, ecopsychology, shamanism, paganism, eco-dharma, or just Earth-friendly etiquette; find any way to anchor your core values in an ethic of relationship that extends beyond the human realms. This is critical at the start of the path and at every subsequent stage as our humanity and potential is inseparable from the Earth and other-than-human relations. This is part of the inheritance of all peoples, even if it means sifting through centuries of colonialist, imperialist rubble to find the living heart of your ancestral traditions. 

Ritual, ceremony, or spiritual practice by whatever name is the most fundamental way in which core values are transmitted from generation to generation. Whether it’s ritual to thank those whose bodies we eat for sustenance, a practice of honoring our ancestors as our extended cultural body, or diverse forms of meditation and prayer to cultivate grounded power and presence in the world; rituals invite us to embody our core values in intentional and relational ways.

Most often, ritual arts are learned within the vessel of a specific lineage of practice. For many, this is an easeful choice and for others finding an accessible teacher, community, and teachings that speak to your heart can feel daunting or discouraging. Furthermore, the actual pedagogy of ritual arts often proceeds through implicit rather than explicitly learning, meaning “do this and trust” rather than “we do this because of these assumptions and with this intended outcome.”

For folks who have little frame of reference, being able to question and to discuss the basics of ritual in non-dogmatic ways can build trust and feel empowering. In this spirit, I guide a year-long course Initiations: A Life of Ritual that helps participants to learn these fundamentals in the vessel of supportive community. This offering can also be helpful to those immersed for years in established traditions who wish to refine the effectiveness of their practice or for people who want more compelling language and frameworks for talking with others about their experience with ritual.

Personal healing can take many forms and is inseparable from the path in a larger sense. For better or worse, we relentlessly filter our experience of the world through the lens of our personal story, including unresolved traumas, as well as through our cultural filters and the contours of our unique soul-level destiny or calling. When we prioritize our healing around this-life pain and hardship, we not only encourage more love and kindness to flow, we also become more efficient students able to learn without excessive fear or projection onto our teachers.

In my journey, personal healing has been enhanced by twenty-five years of participation in various forms of psychotherapy, mentorship, bodywork, spiritual healing, and community ritual. This is in addition to holding my interpersonal relationships as a terrain of ongoing accountability and essential practice. Healing is often vulnerable and scary and not as sparkly or sexy as spiritual systems or ritual. And there’s no way around the vulnerable mess of actual healing and maturation, especially considering the epidemic levels of interpersonal and cultural violence. In whatever form that’s right for you, prioritizing your healing and wellness is also a way to honor your ancestors and the importance of your unique gifts in the world.

Layer Two: Ancestral Healing, Cultural Literacy, and Personal Integration

Ancestral healing is both selfish and service, personal and cultural healing. When we help those in our lineages who are not yet at peace to assume their place as wise and kind ancestors, we, in turn, receive the benefit of being down-lineage from a more healed matrix of ancestral influence. Ancestral healing focused on blood lineage ancestors also situates our personal healing in a wider family and cultural context. Challenges that seemed personal begin to look more systemic, cultural, and intergenerational, and we experience more connection both through ancestral blessings and also inherited hardships.

Ancestor ritual and reverence has been a significant part of my life’s work over the past fifteen years, and there are numerous ways to engage. The book, Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing is a thorough and practice-oriented manual also available in Chinese, Croatian, and as an audio book.

In-person lineage healing intensives provide a three-day immersion in ancestor work and, in the last year, have been held in eight countries and guided by fifteen teachers of diverse ancestries. The annual five-month Ancestral Lineage Healing Online Course is accessible to anyone with an internet connection and includes abundant additional resources and time for live interaction, including with a team of trained supporters. And finally, personal sessions with people trained to guide ancestral healing work is a great way to get started, to get unstuck, or to stay well resourced on the journey. The ancestral lineage healing practitioners are amazing and, if needed, there are options for low-income sessions. Follow whatever pathway helps you to shift from thinking about your ancestors to directly engaging them and allow for a cycle of ritual repair and tending until your specific lineages are a source of potent, sustained support for your life.

Over the past fifteen years of guiding others in ancestral healing work, I’ve observed again and again that personal and familial healing gradually gives way to more explicitly cultural healing. Of course, the personal and cultural are inseparable, but consider ancestral lineages as you might think of a specific person. If someone is in acute agony due to an injury, it’s probably not the time to deconstruct the gender binary or uproot internalized white supremacy. When enough healing has occurred to reduce the pain to manageable levels, new pathways of reflection and introspection open up. Likewise, if your lineage dead are acutely troubled ghosts, they first need healing and reconnection with the older, healthy collective of the ancestors. At that time, from their new-found place of wholeness, their journey and our own often become indistinguishable, and our ancestors can become more conscious allies for the critical work of cultural transformation.

Cultural literacy includes taking personal inventory of how your education about the world is incomplete or reflects problematic biases. In my case, since my early twenties, I’ve been fairly conscious with respect to the ecological crisis due to immersion in environmental activism, attuned to LGBTQ equality due to coming out as bisexual at age seventeen, and critical of American imperialism due to studies abroad in Europe, Latin America, and North Africa. In the last decade, I’ve had to actively pursue ongoing education concerning legacies of racism in North America, the importance of an embodied feminist ethic as a cis-gendered man, and how my experience growing up middle class shaped my views on socio-economic class, privilege, and accessibility. I’ve also become more able to recognize and respond to anti-Semitism, ableism, and more subtle forms of colonialism and erasure of the voices of diverse Indigenous peoples.

This education is ongoing for me and for anyone else who seeks to be a culturally conscious human being. Staying open to ongoing cultural education is selfishly useful in that we get to enjoy more meaningful relationships and more opportunities to deliver on our gifts in the world. A Yoruba proverb states, “May my character not interfere with my destiny.” Similarly, we can intend that our cultural conditioning and blind spots not interfere with our ability to realize our potential. Where are you already secure in your embodied ethic of cultural healing, and where do you feel more vulnerable and in need of growth?

Ancestral healing is not a substitute for this ongoing cultural education; however, seeing our lives in a broader ancestral context can lead us to ask more insightful questions around ways that systemic troubles like patriarchy, white supremacy, settler-colonialism, and empire intersect our lives and lineages. Although my offerings don’t presume to address this vast terrain of potential learning, I do attempt to weave aspects of cultural literacy throughout, and all ancestral healing practitioners are trained to facilitate lineage-level cultural healing work with the ancestors. Consider identifying one gap in your current knowledge, work for a period of time to remedy that, and in doing so, affirm an ethic of life-long learning.

Personal integration refers in this context to the movement toward congruency between worldview, core values, and everyday life. Sustained personal and ancestral healing combined with increased cultural awareness can lead to significant changes in our relationships, our vocation, and how we chose to spend our time. This reorganization is rarely predictable, but a common theme might be something like embracing the journey or committing to a values-driven life.

One of the most important ways to facilitate these changes is to find allies on the path, people who share your values and can kindly hold you accountable to your potential. This may include work with living teachers and mentors, just make sure this mentorship helps you to come home more and more to yourself in authentic ways. This is also a time to care for your physical health and to honor meaningful long-term relationships with people who truly are able to honor your growth even if they do not have the same experience. Ancestral healing, ritual work, and cultural inquiry can all change our daily flow, our habits, and our very body. Allow for this, and value yourself enough to call in the support you need.

Consider finding ways to deepen your understanding of the intersections of culture and ritual with heart, mind, and psyche, even if you have no interest in the practice of clinical mental health per se. Staring in October of 2020 I’m guiding a new online course in this inter-disciplinary terrain titled Animist Psychology: Earth, Ancestors, and Mental Health. Finding teachers and traditions that speak to your soul in as many ways as possible at the same time can help to unravel harms incurred as a result of cultural fragmentation. Be hopeful there are such voices and guides who can speak specifically to your life path and that you can be well-resourced through the challenges of further psychological, cultural and spiritual integration.

Layer Three: Animist Ritual, Belonging, and Land as Body

Animist ritual refers to a relational orientation to practice that proactively includes the other-than-humans. Insofar as many Indigenous traditions relate at depth with local powers whose bodies are the land and larger webs of kinship, these systems could be considered animist. But place-oriented ritual that respects the personhood of the others is not unique to Indigenous peoples, or rather all of our ancestors at some point could be considered indigenous to somewhere. And relating with other modes of consciousness is a particularly strong and sacred capacity of human form.

I encourage this gradual migration of focus after a cycle of ancestral healing because I find that the other-than-human relations are more inclined to trust living humans who are consciously accountable to and in relationship with their ancestors. There’s something about approaching the mountains and rivers as a more ancestrally whole person that makes a difference in the depth of connection.

There are hundreds of ways to expand into this terrain of relationship; however, I recommend engaging with some instruction, whether with a living teacher, tradition, or some other form. We offer a five-month annual online course Practical Animism: Reclaiming Kinship through Earth-Honoring Ritual. The work is place-oriented, culturally mindful, and well-resourced by a team of supporters. Along with ritual skills to support direct contact with our extended kin, also expand your knowledge of the human and other-than-human histories near to your home. Value the culture of oaks and fungi, lakes and water birds, wind, and weather.

Although belonging often arises as an important theme during ancestral healing work, as we become more settled in our specific cultural skin other layers of belonging often call for attention. One of these is affinity with land and place, and how we feel or struggle to feel a sense of belonging. Do you feel a sense of earth-level belonging with the area where you live? Have you ever felt a deep and sustained belonging in this lifetime?

Belonging can be such a tender and painful topic for other-than-Indigenous peoples because of the harms inflicted by colonialism and empire and how these unresolved aggressions function as an ancestral curse upon the children of the colonizers. One of the drivers of the idealization of and dehumanizing hunger toward Indigenous peoples, especially by those of settler-colonialist ancestries, is the perception that Indigenous people feel a greater sense of belonging, a kind of permission to enjoy sustained devotional relationship with the land.

But belonging can’t be stolen, bought, or transferred; it’s a function of sustained relationship over time. And in the case of those forcibly relocated or those who killed or removed others by force, layers of ancestral grief function as gateways to a more profound sense of connection with land and place. If ancestral healing doesn’t function as a catalyst for grieving, tapping into the deeply human instinct to belong almost certainly will lead to weeping with the Earth for all the troubles of recent centuries.

“Land as body” is to say that the language of relationship is misleading or at least incomplete by suggesting that humans and the land are two, still separate or separable. The illusory split between humans and nature runs throughout modern cultures, laws, institutions, and even the grammar of most languages of conquest. The psychological toll of this false perception is exile from the intimacy we long for and which, maddeningly, surrounds us. The result of this false split is catastrophic as we careen further into ecological meltdown on Earth.

And yet to experience the land as our extended body is differently devastating. There are no longer environmental problems, only human confusion made manifest as horrific desecration of life and the holy. Facing the troubles that we have unleashed as a species on our extended kin and knowing those troubles within these very bodies is part of the deepening of the path and one way in which our sense of self changes through depth animist ritual. Navigating these waters calls for trusted human allies, a fierce commitment to self-love, and a resilient sense of humor.

Layer Four: Clarifying Destiny, Accessing Power, and Leadership

When we’ve engaged in depth healing from this-life challenges and well as from ancestral inheritances, and when we’ve also made an effort to become a more culturally aware and congruent human being, what next? When we know in our bones that we are also the land and we seek, from a place of love and humility, to embody that ethic in our daily lives, where to focus on the path of cultivation?

In my experience, the more integrated and stabilized we become, the more we can receive clarity about our specific destiny or instructions during this lifetime. This is not the same as vocation, although the two may overlap. By destiny, I mean the unique bundle of ancestral blessings and other soul-level affinities that we bring to Earth along with the ways those capacities intersect the specific circumstances of our lives. Self-expression in the deepest sense, self in service.

Clarifying destiny is not typically a singular event but rather an iterative process of receiving guidance, implementing instructions, and circling back for another helping. This may feel straightforward, or it may be deeply intuitive and informed by dreams, visions, or other pathways of spirit contact and communion. What matters is that our sensitivity increases around what is on our path, what is for us, and what is somehow otherwise. And that we find ways to embrace limitation, to surrender to the narrowing of focus, and to accept the taboo on wasting our precious life.

To the degree that we consult the ancestors, the land, and our ancient star-self on the subject of our destiny in this lifetime and we also arrive at some clarity as a result of that inquiry, the focus then shifts to living the vision. The seeker becomes fertile compost for the tremendous effort, cunning, grace, and tenacity required to actually birth something from the realm of vision into the density of this dimension. And this brings us full circle back to the efficacy of ritual.

To manifest something major, whether it be raising a healthy child, founding a successful organization, or overseeing a nurturing classroom, we need people who back us. Often this means other living humans, but these sponsors may also include the ancestors, spirits of place, and other elder powers. Success without relationship is rare and real power is almost always sourced from relationships.

Which relationships you’ll need to cultivate will, of course, depend upon where you’re headed. The Ancestral Healing Practitioner Training aims to fill a niche for the small demographic of people called to guide ancestral healing work as one part of their vocation. Otherwise, you’ll typically need to apprentice with people who have blazed a trail before you or at least those with relevant skills for the journey. Ask your ancestors and other supportive powers in spirit to guide you to the right people and situations to deliver on the goodness you brought to Earth.

Leadership is often narrowly constructed to refer to someone in a position of structural power or authority, such as the president of a company, a politician, or a famous artist. In this sense, it’s not everyone’s path to be an outward or visible leader, nor is that type of role somehow better than any other role. Taken in a more expanded sense, leadership can refer to anyone who responsibly embraces the fullness of their specific destiny with courage, humility, and grace. In this way leaders also inspire and tangibly assist others around them to live up to their potential, irrespective of the outer expression of that potential or whether there is any money exchanged or connection to vocation per se.

Implications of an animist worldview are such that one’s service may not be limited to care for other living humans. Some are called to sustained engagement with plants, animals, or fungi; some focus their ethic of care with the human dead or with those not yet born; some care for systems and institutions or for ecosystems in all their complexity; some work on even more esoteric realms with spirits of place or other unseen powers. The common thread is relationship and learning to express love, wisdom, an ethic of profound interdependence in whatever relational terrain corresponds to our specific life path and calling. There is no personal enlightenment, no awakening apart from others. And if you beg the old gods for more responsibility in service to life and all that’s sacred, they will most certainly provide.

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