During autumn and the season opened by Samhain, a celebration of harvest and death, many of us feel our ancestors grow particularly strong in presence. The landscape ushers reflection on decay and death. The dark season rises with the coming of winter, and the underworld seems to find openings into our own. At this time, many of us look to our ancestors for remembrance and guidance in navigating the months ahead.
No matter the pathway you wield, connecting with one’s ancestors holds both cultural and spiritual significance. To carry knowledge of our roots informs our choices in our relationships with ourselves, the land, and the people around us. These connections also contextualize our place in history, reminding us we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves and that we are not isolated in our worlds.
Thich Nhat Hanh has taught that ancestry extends into three lineages: blood ancestors, spiritual ancestors, and land ancestors. Blood ancestors are our physical predecessors, whose bodies have created our bodies. Zen Buddhist monk Pháp Hữu says, “We are a stream, a lineage, and we have roots, and that gives us grounding.” We are physically composed of the lives, experiences, and beliefs within our bloodlines. This ancestry provides many of the skills and narratives we are born into working with.
Spiritual ancestors are our lineage of teachers, mentors, and friends who have helped to shape how we live. Author, teacher, and witch Fio Gede Parma calls these “ancestors of inspiration.” In discussion on Alie Ward’s Ologies podcast, they name bell hooks and Audre Lorde as examples of cultural predecessors who offer brilliant power and insight. “If your genetic bio-ancestry is really not good for you, there are all these other ancestors of wonder and joy,” Parma explains.
Land ancestors are the spirits of the landscapes that carpet our Earth, infused with their own stories, medicines, and teachings. Author and educator Dr. Mathias Nordvig calls this land-based ancestry: “the recognition of our connectedness with the land and the world around us—our communication with the spirits of our world.” The trees and rivers, the mountains and stones, the winds and storms, all inhabit an aliveness like ours. We do not own the land; it is our very cradle of life. The ancient non-human ancestors who compose our planet need respect and recognition just as any other.
Samhain marks a time when the veil between worlds grows especially thin. Many believe that spirits and ancestors of all sorts can move freely between our world and their own during this point in the year, making it an opportune season to reach out. We’ve collected a few easy ways to practice working with your ancestors, and invite you to explore the relationship you have or want to build with your lineages as the season of Samhain draws ever-near.
Header image by Bee Felten-Leidel on Unsplash.
Build an Altar
Photo by Sabrina Roman on Unsplash.
First things first, designate a space where the ancestors can come to nest. Give your connection an anchor and place to grow, be it a table in the kitchen, a corner of your desk, or a share of your garden.
Fill the space with anything that is meaningful to you. This may look like candles, photographs, books, pieces of nature, or memorabilia from or inspired by your departed loved ones. You may wish for an elaborate altar space, but by no means does it need to be so! Fio Gede Parma says an ancestor shrine “can be as simple as having one candle and one bowl of water.” This may also be a space where you leave offerings to your ancestors.
Photo by Odd Fellow on Unsplash.
Leaving offerings can be an integral part of working with spirits. Offerings may take myriad forms, as every individual’s practice is unique and every spirit has their own tastes!
When making offerings to departed ancestors, consider what brought them joy in life: favorite foods, hobbies, flowers, etc. Some common offerings include incense, herbs, food, alcohol, and water. Water is a particularly wonderful offering in nearly any situation, given its associations with nourishment and life. You can give an offering, too, in the form of art: a piece of writing, dance, or song. A gift of your creativity is ripe for relishing.
Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash.
For so many of us, food is a way of coming home. Our ancestors come alive in the foods that we eat. Our Place, an AAPI-owned kitchenware business, writes, “Sharing a home-cooked meal is sharing our stories.” These meals hold vast memories of traditions, old and new.
Share time in the company of your ancestors as you cook their favorite meals or recipes. You may wish to host a silent or “dumb” supper, in which a meal is eaten together in silence, with a seat prepared and left open for departed ancestor spirits to attend and partake of the supper with you. (More on that here.)
Photo by Sergi Viladesau on Unsplash.
Divination is any practice of communication with what lies beyond the veil. Whether you’re reading cards and tea leaves, throwing bones, interpreting dreams, or pulling runes, divination opens up a space for conversation. Especially for those of us who grew up feeling isolated from our ancestors, divination can create an opportunity to become familiar with the feeling of our departed family’s presence, and the warmth of home they can bring. Invite your ancestors to share their insight and wisdom with you during this time of year. Ask questions. Seek guidance. Listen for their response.
Photo by Foad Roshan on Unsplash.
Shadow work is the process whereby we interact with our unconscious selves to create a deeper sense of wholeness within. This often means traveling into suppressed emotions or traumas that may hold the roots of our behaviors or beliefs.
A significant portion of ancestor work intersects this shadow work. Our ancestors form our roots. According to Brother Pháp Hữu, Eastern traditions such as Thiền Buddhism speak to “transforming the suffering of our ancestors for ourselves and our descendants by healing the past in the present moment.” Such a transformation is as necessary for ancestors who suffered as it is for ancestors who may have wielded suffering upon others.
Through epigenetics we know our bodies carry the stories our ancestors lived. Considering this alongside the familial cultures within which we were raised, we can understand a lot more about the unconscious assumptions and perceptions we hold about ourselves and others. Building this awareness grants us the power to recreate the ways we interact with and come to life in the world.
Photo by Bee Felten-Leidel on Unsplash.
Nature is more than a place for joy, wonder, and play: The land is our family. Travel into the spaces where land ancestors breathe, and introduce yourself to the spirits of the land where you are. As with our blood ancestors, Nature is alive in us, too—our bodies are calibrated to her rhythms and regulated by the lifeforce of her presence. Do you feel this connection in the presence of mountains, forest, and sea?
Particularly in the time of our global climate crisis, we are in need of returning to the land. We can begin by building or rebuilding our personal relationships with the ecosystems supporting our lives. Just as our bloodline can heal and transform by the work of dedicated hands, so, too, can the Earth.