-Building an Ancestral Altar

blog-29-11-16-2In an earlier blog, I discussed how to turn your wounds into sources of power by shedding the stories of your past. We can also dump our historical baggage, the narrative we inherited over the course of thousands of years and many lifetimes – the story that drew us to our current family; the saga of our parents; the wounds they were unable to heal, and which were passed on to us, and through us to our children. In the Amazon, they call these “ancestral curses.”

To break this curse, we must first honor our ancestors. By respecting and celebrating them, no matter how awful their legacy, we can move on … and so can they. Otherwise, or they’ll continue living through us and haunting every endeavor and relationship in our lives

Most anthropologists still believe that the ancestral altars found in every traditional culture are used for “worship.” Their true use is somewhat different. These traditional societies understand that when you celebrate your ancestors, no matter how terribly they might have behaved, you find forgiveness and compassion and can break free of their karma and stories. The Laika, for example, believe that if you don’t honor your ancestors with an altar, they will run amok in your house. That is, it’s better to know where they are than to ignore their legacy.

The following exercise can spare you many years of psychotherapy by working through your mother and father issues:

Find a spot in your home (such as a shelf, windowsill, or fireplace mantel) where you can make a small altar, and place a cloth on it. Next, arrange photographs or symbols of your ancestors on top. If you don’t have a picture of your great-grandfather, you might put his ring or some other object he owned on the altar. Or, you can use photographs of homes where your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were raised. If nothing else, use slips of paper with their names.

Make a habit of stopping at the altar to reflect upon the gifts of your ancestors. Honor them with incense or fresh flowers in a vase. You may also want to bring your family members offerings from nature as the seasons change, such as shells or stones you pick up from the beach in summer, pinecones and dried leaves in the fall, and so on. Every time you change the offerings, thank your ancestors for the gifts they gave you, no matter how harsh it was for you to experience receiving them, or how difficult it was to perceive them as gifts at all. Remember that history is not what actually happened but how you choose to remember it – that is, how it lives within you.

Working with this ancestral altar, you can change your family story at the mythic level, where tales are epic journeys, not the same old tired sagas of emotional or material success or failure. Keep in mind that this altar must be a representation of the one you build inside of yourself: What you create in your home should serve as a sort of spiritual Post-it note, reminding you to feel gratitude for the legacy you’ve been given and the lessons your ancestors taught you.

When we drop our dreary stories of victim, rescuer, and perpetrator, we become storytellers and mythmakers and are provided for in every way. We no longer have to live in fear because we’re have stopped being the victim of our ancestral or cultural stories about scarcity, intimacy, aging, or creativity.

Regardless of what we own, we go from scarcity to abundance. We see what everyone else sees but think something different about it. We become like the lilies of the field, who neither toil nor spin but have all that they need. We may still have to punch a time card, but we can live the life of the artist or poet, with many creative resources available to us.

This exercise, part of the ancient knowledge of the Laika, helps us to transform ourselves and our world. You can learn more in my book, The Four Insights: Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers.