“I call on my ancestors because I must become aware of how deeply we are affected by them, even though they have changed form. In many ways their death hasn’t stopped their meddling in our world, to the point where one must wonder if they ever really died at all. Their wisdom and stories are embedded into the fabric of our reality and this has vast implications.” – Mathieu Thiem “Interanimism”
(Image from Disney’s Mulan.)
In the last part of this series, I touched upon some ideas that need expanding. Just to recap, I am going to reiterate the points I made in that post;
“1) That we are limited in the quality and quantity of relationships we can build.
2) In building meaningful relationships, how we connect and network with other people (human and non-human) matters.
What follows from these two ideas is that we need to be both mindful of our limits, as well as how we connect to others. It also implies that we are stronger together than we are alone. As individuals, we can only do so much, but as groups we have much more potential. That is why communities and networks are so important.”
These are the key points for building meaningful relationships. On the first point, our capacity and ability to maintain meaningful relationships is limited, mostly because we as human beings have very real limits. As an introvert, maybe I feel this more acutely, but there is only some much “social” I can do without feeling exhausting, like feeling I have expended a good deal of my personal energy. There is only so much I have to give to maintain a decent quality of relationships.
This is important, because it means that we as individuals can only do so much on that scale. We have to be selective about the number and quality of relationships we keep.
Having to be selective about how we connect with others leads nicely into the second point, because how we connect with others is vital to creating meaningful relationships and networks. As in the first point, we can only make so many connections as individuals. But as part of a network our capacity manifolds. As members of a community, we have a nearly exponential capacity to create relationships with others. Maybe we alone can’t create all the relationships we need, but in a community we may be able to!
You would be right to be wondering what exactly creating networked communities looks like?
I am hoping to illustrate what I mean by using more concrete examples about what that community might look like, and how those relations are created. This brings us to today’s topic, where I want to to talk about building community with our ancestors.
To me, building a solid relationship with the ancestors is one of the foundations of a modern animistic practice. It is part of process of building a relationship with where you came from, as much as a process of building a relationship with yourself and who you are. It is creating a bridge to the past in order to help create the present, and to gain insight about the future.
Learning about the my own ancestors has helped to connect me to a sense of history, and to a sense of self. It has embedded myself in the present in a unfolding story that goes back as far as we can see in the Cosmos at large. Learning about my ancestors has connected me with the Big Bang, the narrative of our Universe, and the planet as a whole.
As far as ancestors are concerned, we are related to every living and non-living being on this planet. The Earth itself (I choose not to assign genders to such a complex being) becomes an ancestor, as does the land, the lakes, and the sky. The seas and oceans are in our blood, the rocks and stones are in our bones. The Sun at the center of our Solar System is an ancestor, from which the Earth emerged.
The ancestors connect us with everything that was, and in many ways what will be. The ancestors are in my very DNA, and have given me many of the traits and characteristics of my mind and body. It is a web of connection that connects every being on this planet, an unfolding story in which we are all part.
But that is not to say for a second that every one of our stories are the same. As I have said above, as individual beings, we have to be selective about the quality and quantity of connections we can make, because we can only maintain so many. Each relationship asks different things from us, and each connects us in a different way to the Whole of it all.
I have spent a fair bit of time learning about my own ancestors through genealogy and genetics, through history and archaeology, and I like to think I have gotten pretty good at it. I have started a series here in which I discuss some of those topics, and tell the stories of my ancestors to the best of my ability. It connects me more deeply with them, and embeds me in the stories that they began. In the time of my ancestors, they were the main characters. Now it is my turn to take a central role in that Story.
So what exactly does a meaningful relationship with the ancestors look like, and how to we begin shaping that relationship? That is the real question that we need to face.
As I have said, sometimes we have to be selective. I don’t work with all my ancestors at once, or at any one time. I have cultivated a select few relationships that contribute to the usefulness and meaningfulness of my spiritual path.
I started by learning their stories with all the best information available to me. The best way I can suggest to start is to begin with an ancestor that you knew in life. Someone that has passed on, but that you knew when they were alive. That gives you an important starting point, because some of the groundwork has already been laid.
For specifics, maybe you knew Uncle Joe in life. You have pictures of him, and you have memories of some of the memories you created together. You could start by building an ancestral shrine to Uncle Joe, and placing upon it items that speak of that relationship. Maybe you have a picture of the time you and Uncle Joe went fishing. Place that item on the shrine, because it will help you make a stronger connection to Joe.
I think I need to stop here for a moment, and put out a standard disclaimer. I am glossing over a lot of the technical aspects of shrine building; such as cleansing, “spiritual space”, dedication and so forth. I am assuming you the reader have some knowledge of how to do these things. If you don’t feel free to ask questions, or find someone you know that will help you approach these things. The processes for shrine building can vary a lot between different paths and traditions, so I am just talking in generalities here. If you don’t know, ask. If you want me to elaborate my own processes, I will be happy to do so!
Okay, where were we? Okay, so you have your shrine to Uncle Joe set up, and you want to call on him as an ancestor. You had a relationship with him in life, and that will carry over even though he has passed on. If Uncle Joe decides to answer, you immediately have several advantages over someone you didn’t know. You will have the advantage of discernment, as you will have a pretty good idea if it is actually Uncle Joe or not. (Hint, spirits can and do lie.)
In addition, you have gained a fundamental ally that can help you assist you with discernment in latter relationships. For example, Uncle Joe can now tell you about his Mother, and how to approach her. He can also tell you if something is NOT his mother, and is a clever trickster in a mask!
You will also have the advantage of knowing how to approach Uncle Joe with respect and reciprocity, because you already had that relationships with him in life. When you finished “speaking” with Uncle Joe, you know that he always loved a certain type of cigar. Probably wouldn’t hurt to leave that as an offering on his shrine. The little things matter even to the dead.
I have hit on some key foundations to any relationships; respect and reciprocity. Any meaningful relationships, whether family, friend, lover or what have you; usually has some measure of these things. Relationships are not a one way street, and often fall under some version of the golden rule; treat others the way you want to be treated.
To refine that even further, be respectful to others, and be willing to exchange in the dance of give and take that constitutes many deeper relationships.
I can only speak in generalities here, because the exact dynamics of any relationship will be determined by the parties involved. Boundaries will be negotiated, customs will be hashed out. Perhaps you and Uncle Joe had a very cordial, friendly, and informal relationship. You joke, you laugh, maybe you play games with one another.
A point I can’t stress enough is that you will NOT be able to approach every being like Uncle Joe. Some relationships will be very formal and have specifics that need to be observed. Natural spirits may not understand human habits. Gods may demand a certain level of ritual and ceremony to approach them. The dynamics of any relationships can vary quite a bit. It would not be wise to approach a stranger the same way you would a lover.
Those are topics I will explore in more depth in my next posts, as I talk about our relationships with the natural world, and with those beings we call gods.
As always, thanks for reading!