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Held in a field of love: Connecting with the ancestors and living world

…we don’t have to hold it alone…

The practice of relating with our human ancestors and the wider living world is woven into many, if not every, cultural tradition. In many cultures, it is simply “what is done.” In my own Jewish tradition, for example, we recite daily and weekly prayers honoring our spiritual ancestors, we cite ancient and more recent rabbis as sacred wisdom-keepers, and we share ancestral stories of our people every year at holidays such as Passover, Purim and Chanukah. While some Jews may not think of this as “ancestor reverence,” I can’t help but wonder, then what is it?

As a young person, many of my closest relationships were not with the humans around me. I found myself relating with the trees and soil, stones and waters, and small creatures around me. Here I learned vital lessons in how to listen and to love.

Though no one taught me directly how to form these relationships, I found my way to them, because I believe this knowledge is woven into us. Now, I make friends with the land and the many beings around me wherever I live and go. It is the deepest source of my sustenance.

Our lives cannot be separated from the living world within which we are formed, grow, mature and die. For me, this world includes a host of living beings, nature spirits, the elements and the human ancestors. It goes without saying that our ancestors leave us legacies of disconnection, rupture, loss and many other wounds. Our wounds are not personal, individual struggles but rather are formed in the context of generations of war, migration, oppression, poverty, disease, ecological collapse and the many other challenges human societies face and create. Yet, our ancestors can also be a deep wellspring of blessing, healing and resource. Though we may focus on recent ancestors of the last several generations or even centuries, where there is often more trauma and family complexity, our ancestors go back millennia. Ultimately they include not only the humans who lived, but all the forces who have given birth to us. Whoever we are, whatever our cultures and histories, we can learn to access these ancient sources of wisdom and love.

As we do, we can bring a different level of presence and potency into our lives and into our work with clients.

It is often said that the Self can tolerate any range of emotional intensity. Our task as IFS therapists and practitioners is not to “strengthen the Self,” but to help Parts trust enough to unblend and allow our inherent capacity to come forward. While this is true in principle, and as aspiration, in practice even the most Self-led among us find a place where our Parts become activated and our presence contracts into an old, familiar pattern.

For this reason, many of us may turn to plant medicines and other psychedelics to help us access a deeper level of Self energy, relax our protective systems, and more effectively unburden exiles. While this can be a transformative practice in the appropriate ritual or healing container, it is not the only way to access deeper dimensions of consciousness. This open-hearted presence is available to us in our ordinary waking life, with simple shifts of awareness toward the animate world that thrums all around and within us.

The support of the ancestors can allow us to access and hold even deeper levels of grief, terror, shame and other burdens, both our own and our clients’, with less contraction. This is because we don’t have to hold it alone. In fact, I don’t think we actually can hold it alone. We all know how much easier it can be to access Self energy in the presence of someone else embodying Self energy. Perhaps more than anything else, this is why therapeutic relationships can be so healing. This becomes all the more true when, as practitioners, we access the deep well of presence that the wise ancestors and living world bring.

The more I deepen into relationship with elder ancestors, with elder tree and mountain, water and fire spirits, and with the divine primordial source of all that is, the more I see that “I” am not the one holding anything. As I let go, a deeper presence can come through that can hold all the pain with grace and skillful attention.

Perhaps this is what we mean by Self energy. The distinction evokes an age-old question of true Self “versus” no-self. Without entering those deep waters, the distinction is vital on an experiential level, because it invites a deeper letting go, past our high-functioning therapist Parts, beyond our spiritual witnesses and empathic caregivers, to a much vaster, deeper and more loving presence. The more “I” access this presence, the more the boundaries between “me” and “my ancestors,” “me” and “G*d” blur, and there is simply an organic, flowing presence — creative, attuned and very much here.

There is another vital reason why bringing in the ancestors can transform our lives and our therapeutic practice. Most, if not all, of our deepest wounds come in relationship. We are neglected and ignored, disrespected and interfered with. We face many oppressions as young people and adults. For many of us living in colonized countries, such as the United States where I live, we have a severed relationship with land, place and culture — a relational attachment wound at a different scale, for is not the Earth our primary parent and caregiver?

Since our traumas happen in relationship — including the absence of relationship when it should be there — our healing is often most effective in relationship. As therapists and practitioners, we understand this well, and it is often a primary value in our approach. When we experience relationship with the ancestors, we access a wise and ancient love that can serve as a healing antidote to the cultural isolation and disconnection so prevalent globally and especially in dominant, colonial cultures. Welcoming the ancestors and the wider living world into the relational field brings a greater level of depth, flow and harmony. It can help lessen the complexity that inevitably emerges in human relationships by taking the burden off of the therapist and introducing other sources of healing and support.

Some of us may have Parts who doubt whether the ancestors are “real” or “just psychological projections.” As I began these practices more intentionally, I certainly had Parts with these doubts, and I still do. This is a topic that deserves its own dedicated space, but I will share two perspectives. As IFS therapists, or those interested in Parts work, we know well the power of relating with distinct elements or energies within a larger system. Whether we, or our clients, believe Parts are “real” or not, when we relate to them as distinct, intelligent beings, it is transformative. This same curious, pragmatic approach can be adopted in relating with the spirits and ancestors in the larger collective system. As we acknowledge their presence, as we welcome their love, something transformative happens. Even if the conscious mind (i.e., our managing Parts) may need some updating, when we experience first-hand our connection with the living world, the question of “real” or “imagined” can soften, or sometimes melt away altogether.

I want to share a few examples to ground my perspective. One comes from my own experience and two from working with clients.

I have recently been tending some deep relational uncertainty in my intimate partnership. In the earlier days of this change, it was often much harder to access spacious, calm presence and an open, trusting heart. As I entered a hike in the forest, I could feel the waves of tumult in my life. I attempted to connect with some vulnerable and anxious Parts, but I could not find enough space to unblend or hold them. I remembered then, seemingly spontaneously, that I did not need to do this alone. I softened my awareness, opening to the wise field of presence in the living forest ecosystem and I called out to wise and trusted ancestral guides, with whom I was already in deep relationship.

As I did, my active Parts naturally softened — including the manager who was trying to connect with my Parts to “help me relax.” My awareness rested, my heart opened, and I felt both the space that could hold me and the love that is always here. In this presence, I could fluidly relate to my Parts, remind them to trust my leadership, and hold them with love and care. My trusted ancestors offered important perspective and guidance, but, most fundamentally, tuning in to their presence created the space for this shift to occur.

Was “I” holding my Parts? Were the ancestors holding both “me” and my Parts? Was the forest holding all of us? I think the answer is, “Yes, all of this.”

One client, an experienced somatic IFS therapist, was tending deep grief and early loss in our sessions. The intensity and weight of these wounds made it difficult for her to hold them on her own. As we tuned in together, we invited her wise, trusted ancestors to encircle and hold her with love and protection. In their presence, she could welcome and love her young, wounded Parts with ease and grace. Her young Parts were held by her Self and by her wise ancestors, who could provide a clear and steady source of love in contrast to the inconsistency she had received as a young girl.

Another client, an experienced IFS therapist, was working with early memories of abandonment and harm. As she tended to her ancestral lineages and received healing and support from her wise ancestors, interwoven with direct attention for her activated Parts, her young Parts could unburden spontaneously as layers of the early traumas were released. With the support of her ancestors and mine, together we could hold and heal these tender wounds.

As I open to the field of blessing within which I reside, it is clear how little of it is “mine.” All that I am and all that I have received was a gift, freely offered — and these gifts come from the ancestors, the human and animal, plant and stone, sky and star beings who form our world. May I remember and learn to honor these gifts and share them freely with the world.

I don’t see these perspectives as definitive “solutions.” I am still left with far more questions than answers, and I don’t intend for that to change. We cannot get by with only one tool or modality for supporting ourselves and others. Our world is increasingly complex, our traumas increasingly layered and the needs of our time increasingly vital. We need all the transformative practices we can find. Let us not turn away from any of them.

May we each have support beyond what we think possible. As we hold so much, may we soften and open into that which can hold us.

I extend my gratitude to effortless mindfulness teacher Loch Kelly for pointing to deeper levels of Self leadership and to Daniel Foor and Ancestral Medicine for their integration of the elder ancestors and spirits into healing practice and daily life.

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  • Elah Zakarin

    Elah Zakarin is an IFS and ancestral healing practitioner whose work is rooted in earth-based Jewish ancestry. www.elahzakarin.com

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