Ancestors, Ceremony, and Trauma

Late-AutumnToday dawned gray and wet. We took advantage of the clock change, and slept in. Now, to the west the low overcast is raising. The oaks have turned abruptly; the maples have largely dropped their leaves and the breeze moves their bare branches. It is the sort of day that Thomas Hardy celebrated when he wrote of the bleak time.

Tonight we will gather with friends to welcome and honor the Ancestors. It is the beginning of the ceremonial period that has been recast as the Holidays, a time of celebration and danger, for those who came before us draw close, perhaps along with those who are yet to come. In the background lurks cold, and potentially, illness, injury, and hunger.

Our largely urban lifestyles isolate us from the mythic truth of our lives. We no longer come face to face with the deaths of the animals we eat, or the dangers of the harvest. We are largely insulated from the vagaries of the hunt or the growing season, or the presence of the spirits. As a result, we may forget, or ignore, the Powers that shape our lives.

Still, spirits come to us, watching our actions and influencing our decisions, a palpable, if usually invisible, force that shapes our lived experience. I wonder whether our modern religions have evolved to be a barrier between us and them, as though ignorance of their presence would protect us from their desires and hungers even as they also separate us from the knowledge and support of the Ancient Ones.

Recently I’ve been invited to speak to a couple of  college classes about shamanism, anthropology, and my experience living between cultures and worlds. Each time, the instructor asked me to lead a short journey, and, as it turned out that most of the students in the class had some experience of shamanic journeying, this seemed easy. Yet, it was not. This time of year the Powers and Ancestors are close, and some of the students’ experiences seemed difficult.

I have thought a great deal about this, and am reminded that our relationships with the spirits, and particularly, the Ancestors may be heavily influenced by childhood experiences. Persons who lived through abuse and/or neglect may be profoundly afraid of those in the spirit world. It is important to remember this as we invite the spirits to come close. Some who passed into the spirit world after causing deep harm may come back, wishing to make amends. Others may try to extend their old influence by retraumatizing those they harmed.

When we gather to remember and honor the spirits, Ancestors, and the Ancient Ones, may we offer solace and healing to those who need it, both the living, and those who have passed into spirit. As we do so, may we hold the space in such a way as to protect the living who may carry the burden of having been harmed.

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16 thoughts on “Ancestors, Ceremony, and Trauma

  1. Good post, Michael. From my personal and professional experience I found it very necessary to be intently present with the person who had been hurt to understand what the intent of the spirit is and to help the person decide how to cope with the spirit as an adult. The key seems to be helping the person realize the difference between being the helpless child being traumatized and being an adult with greater mental ability and many more options for protecting the self from harmful spirits. We can also help the traumatized person be open to reconciliation with the spirits if that is an option. Our presence helps the person find the strength and courage to face their spirits and find a healing resolution.

    • Hi Pat, I just wrote a post about our Thanksgiving road trip, and though of your posts the entire time!

      Yes, we are here to remind folks that in this moment they are adults and have many skills. Still, for those who suffered greatly as kids, the past is too often present, and it takes a great deal of practice to stay grounded in the moment most of the time. I am daily reminded of their courage, fortitude, and perseverance. Amazing.

      • Oh Michael, your comment flooded my mind with thoughts. Those of us who were hurt as children do recognize just how hard it is to learn to trust others and to give up shame to love ourselves. I had just finished reading your post and imagine going back to the town where you contracted polio nicked an emotional scab or two. Give yourself a hug, friend, for your courage, fortitude and perseverance, along with a big measure of resilience.

      • Pat, Yes, more than one scab opened. I have had a truly complex week. Still, I loved visiting, and know there is potential for great healing. Actually, just visiting was healing, even as it opened the flood gates…..

      • I understand. My daughter was riding with me in the car when she was about 4 years old. She said that she knew why we have tears. I asked why and she told me that they clean out the hurt from our bodies. I marvel at how good those healing kind of “tears of pain” feel. May we continue to welcome the spirits that help us heal.

      • Hi Pat, yes, the body knows much about pain and healing. I hope I am getting better at paying attention to its wisdom.
        The term is essentially over, grades are in, and I can turn, at long last, to the deep dark and mystery of the season. I hope your own healing deepens as we settle into the deep.

      • Thanks, Michael. I can feel it happening – I am responding differently to the endless grey and dark of being in Michigan. I find myself learning a new kind of love for others as I am turning my focus from the outward world to my body, my home, and the people I come in contact with.

      • Pat, I wonder how much simply living a long time helps us to turn inward, and how the growing darkness may support that. I love the way the turning in your life includes others, rather than becoming insular. I was reminded this week of the Pilgrimage nature of this walk through life, and of the necessity for friends and supports. Perhaps one only truly understands this through time, love, and hardship. This morning, there is a skiff of snow on the roof, and a squall gathers over the lake. In a few days, the light begins its slow return.

      • Pat, I smiled when I read your note, and was reminded of T.S. Eliot’s liturgical references, “and all shall be well.” In the end we hope that all will be well; perhaps it will be just as it needs to be. I find this both distressing and comforting…..

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