It is striking how many of the cultures that practice shamanism place great emphasis on the importance of ancestors. More than just remembering and honouring those who have gone before them, shamans often communicate with ancestors as real and present beings. For a shaman, the ancestors are very much 'alive', and they are often a major source of shamanic help. They may assist the shaman during shamanic healing, and may be the one of a shaman's major sources of wisdom, advice and information. Shamans also are aware that we, the living, will also become ancestors ourselves, and that what we do will have consequences for the generations that come after us. This is sometimes expressed as the idea that how we live our lives now ripples down and affects the seven generations that come after us. In terms of the the environment, it is obviously true that what we do to the planet will have huge implications to future generations. This is, of course, a hugely important awareness that many people in industrialised societies seem to have lost, and for the sake of our descendants, we desperately need to get this awareness back. However when shamans talk about our affecting the future, they believe that we do so in many more ways than our environmental impact. Shamanism teaches us that we are all profoundly interconnected; part of a web of energy. The very way we live our lives; the thoughts and meanings that we choose; our deeds and actions; all these shape not only the life experiences of ourselves and those around us, but the lives of those who will come after us too.
Interestingly, recent developments in the field of genetics have given a scientific basis for this. The new science of epigenetics (from the Greek: epi = over/above, genetics) is the study of inheritable changes caused by the activation and deactivation of genes (without any change in the actual DNA sequence itself). Briefly, we have somewhere around 20,000 to 30,000 genes as human beings. These genes can be individually switched on or off, giving rise to a staggeringly huge number of possible combinations. What has been discovered is that an experience (or the meanings we take from it) affects our pattern of gene switching. In other words, our thoughts and emotions affect our gene pattern (not the DNA sequence itself, but the on/off pattern of our genes). This pattern is then passed down in our genes if we have children. For example, in one piece of research it was noted that Jewish children in New York suffered a measurably abnormal level of stress (relative to the wider population). Naturally, this had been thought to be the result of their being exposed to hearing Holocaust stories from parents. However, it was then hypothesised that maybe gene-switching might be the cause. In order to test this, pregnant women exposed to the September 11th terrorist attack were tested for stress. As expected, they had measurably elevated stress levels. Consequently, when their babies were born, saliva tests showed elevated stress agents in the babies too. In another study in Sweden it was found that people had a reduced life-expectancy where their great-grandparents had been exposed to famine. Another study on the food embargo imposed by Germany on Holland in the Second World War found that the great-grandchildren of the survivors were smaller than average. Other people have postulated that epigenetics may show that 'the repeated trauma experienced by Afrikans during slavery...had been passed down through the generations and resulted in many of the self-negating and dysfunctional individual and group behaviour patterns that we see amongst Afrikan people across the world today'(1). Further studies have shown that childhood trauma has a life-long effect on an individuals pattern of gene switches. By definition, this pattern is then inheritable. So we pass the experience of our childhood trauma down to our children, and they then pass it on to future generations. Our life experiences literally get passed down to our descendants. So it is quite conceivable that we may be suffering the post-traumatic effects of trauma from one of our grandparents, great-grandparents, or even further back. This may be trauma that we may have absolutely no conscious knowledge of, but which may be nonetheless a factor in issues in our lives such as addictions, anxiety, depression, anger-issues, relationship issues, or indeed a whole host of other problems.
Epigenetics is a new field of research, and it will be interesting to see what emerges from it over the years. Now that we know that our thoughts and experiences literally affect our genes, it seems likely that it may provide a mechanism for the transmission of even quite specific issues. In my work as a psychotherapist, I have had many discussions with colleagues over the years about our experience that some clients have particular issues that seem to have no obvious origin in terms of the client's personal experiences. One client in particular I worked with had been adopted as a child. She had a really strong phobia of boats, and a fear of drowning, that had no discernible origin in her adoptive family life. During the course of therapy, she decided to make contact with her biological family. In doing so, she found out that her maternal grandfather had been a young sailor who had been one of the few survivors of a ship that had gone down in the Atlantic. He had never been able to sail again after his experience, so he left the navy, got married and had a family. His fear was passed down to the granddaughter he never even met. I have had other experiences with clients where some digging into the family history has turned up the explanation for all sorts of issues from jealousy, addictions, commitment issues and so on, where there has been no obvious origin in the clients own life experiences. The problem is of course that very often little may be known of grandparents, and even less, or nothing at all, of previous generations. But we may nonetheless still be being affected by them.
Whilst epigenetics provides us with an interesting physical and biological model of how our ancestors may affect us, it is I believe only a partial explanation. It works in a very linear way, in that things get passed down only to direct biological descendants, down the time line. However I believe that we can be affected by, and in turn affect, people in a family where there is no such linear and temporal chain. Everyone in a family can affect everyone else. One particular striking illustration of this is what is known as Family Constellation work. This work was originally developed by Bert Hellinger, a psychotherapist. In a Family Constellation workshop, a client chooses workshop members (usually, strangers), to represent members of his or her family. The client then arranges these people spatially in relationship to each other (the 'family constellation'), and then steps back and has no further input. The people representing the specific family members are given no information about the person they are representing, beyond knowing that they are the grandmother, eldest son and so on. The representatives then intentionally and respectfully, 'step into' the family member they are representing. Words are kept to a minimum. What happens then is a phenomenon, extraordinary to experience or even just to watch, where the r
epresentatives each begin to experience the thoughts and feelings of the person they are representing. What is even more astonishing to witness is how, as the representatives begin to move and interact, the process reveals previously unconscious dynamics, influences, entanglements, feelings and connections within the family. More extraordinary still is to witness the power that even family members who little is known about can exert on a family: the client's parent who they never knew (through death or the parents separating early on); the still-born sibling; the shadowy great-grandfather; the loving great-aunt; a parent's secret lover or earlier love relationship; and so on. What becomes clear is that the influences upon us in families, and the influences we exert, are by no means confined to those passed down by a parent to a direct, biological descendant; not only do the influences flow in directions that are not necessarily biologically linear, but constellation work shows there does not even need to be any biological connection at all. It is as if the family unit is a web of interconnectedness in all directions. This is, of course, exactly how shamanism describes our interconnectedness; that we are all actually part of a web of energy.
There are a couple of other theories that I will just mention very briefly here. One is the idea of Morphic Resonance, a theory proposed by the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, who says that biological entities that are connected can exchange information through what he calls the Morphic Field. Some example of this information exchange are: knowing when a friend is going to phone before the phone rings; dogs who know when their owners are coming home; knowing when people are staring at you or thinking about you.
The other thing I want to mention is Quantum Entanglement. Very briefly, research in physics has shown that two quantum particles (such as photons or electrons) can be linked together so that they essentially 'know' what each other are doing. You can then spatially separate them as far as you like, but each particle will instantly (literally, instantly) know of any changes in the other.
Both Entanglement and Morphic Resonance point to ways in which we can and do affect those we are somehow connected to. As a psychotherapist, the intimate process of doing therapeutic work inevitably connects me in some ways with a client. Many times I have had the experience of discussing a client with my professional supervisor, only for the client to seemingly spontaneously address the issue before I have seen them again. For example in supervision we may discuss that a client seems to be avoiding the significance of a particular issue, and I may decide to raise this at my next session with the client. When I next see the client, the first thing they then say is that they have been thinking all week on the very issue I was going to raise. In a similar vein, after someone does a Family Constellation, there are often big healing shifts in the whole of the family, even thought the other family members are not (consciously) aware of the constellation having been done.
Families are a web of interconnections. From a shamanic point of view, these connections can easily survive the death of an individual in this reality. There are two ways this may happen. One is that the experiences of our ancestors and family members, their messages, attitudes, beliefs and emotions, can in a very real sense become woven into us. They then becomes part of who we feel we are. They live on in us. The second way in which the deceased may still affect us is that, just because the dead may not be present physically, that doesn't mean that they are not present in a spirit sense. They may very much still be around!
Our ancestors can and do affect us. Our family, biological or not, affects us. And we affect our family, and will affect our descendants for generations to come. Each of us individually may be likened to being an individual knot on a web. What each of us does strongly affects the individual knots nearest to us, and then ripples through the whole web, losing intensity as it spreads outwards to more distant knots.
Both from my own personal history, and from years of being a psychotherapist and listening to people's stories, I am especially aware that not all the ways in which we are affected by ancestors and family are positive! Both psychotherapy and shamanism offer us powerful means of disentangling ourselves from these unhealthy influences. Shamanic work can do this in a very immediate, energetic way, by literally removing the energetic influence. This can be through soul and/or power retrieval; literally taking back part of our soul or power that we either gave away, or had taken from us. It can also involve the removal of 'though forms' from the family member or ancestor. This involves removing the negative or unhelpful beliefs, messages, scripts, feelings, obligations and so on, that we have absorbed or had passed down to us. In doing this, remember that we are literally physically recoding our DNA, by changing the pattern of the gene switching. It is even possible in shamanic work to travel down the back into the past, ancestral lines and do shamanic healing with those ancestors who need it. Shamanism can also help with persuading an ancestor who is still hanging around and literally haunting a family, to move on. This is a specialism of shamanism, and is known as psychopomping – the process of helping the lost or unquiet dead to let go and pass over.
As well as clearing the negative influences from our past, we can also strengthen the good ones, and even bring new ones in. In my own shamanic work, I met two of my distant ancestors, two Welsh wisdom keepers, through shamanic journeying. They have become not only two of my most trusted guides, but over time they have shared with me a huge amount of information about specific areas of shamanic work that I have found invaluable both personally, and in my work as a shamanic healer. Remember, as a species, humanity is around 200,000 years old. For the vast majority of that time, we practised shamanism. Our ancestors were shamans. It is only very recently in human history that we 'forgot' our shamanic knowledge. This is why shamans say that the ancestors are the wisdom keepers. They will teach us, if we ask them.
If you are interested in using shamanic work to help heal your ancestral and family connections please contact Paul Francis. Paul is a shamanic practitioner and psychotherapist in Lancaster. He offers soul retrieval and other shamanic work on a one-to-one basis, either face-to-face, or by distance if necessary. For information on shamanic soul retrieval sessions visit www.paul-francis.co.uk Paul also runs workshops and training courses in shamanism at all levels, from beginner to full shamanic practitioner. For more information on shamanic training courses, including courses on ancestral and family healing, go to www.therapeutic-shamanism.co.uk
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