Acknowledging Ancestors and Spirits

Today dawned a spectacular late autumn day, the sun hitting bright foliage with an illumining, slanted light. Autumn continues to unfurl ever so slowly and we are enjoying the leisurely spread of colorful foliage. After a very chilly start,the fall has been much warmer than the historical norms, further evidence that New England is more impacted by climate change than is most of the country. We continue to receive rain and are officially out of drought, but we continue to run at a significant deficit so drought remains a very real threat.

Today marks the day in the Americas when many cultures acknowledge the ancestors, dear ones, and others who have crossed into spirit. The most famous celebrations are in southern Mexico, but “celebrations” are actually culturally quite diverse. This evening several of us will gather on Zoom to feed and sit with the spirits.

Many traditional cultures share the belief that beings who pass into spirit remain connected to us. That connection can be supportive or problematic. One of my Mayan teachers summed it up nicely when he said that ancestors and other spirits who are not acknowledged and fed often become vengeful and ravenous, thus very dangerous; they will lead us into an illusionary view of the world and devour us. For that reason, most traditional cultures have rituals for acknowledging and soothing the spirits of beings taken to meet our basic needs.

One of the key mandates in our “initial instructions” from the Creator is that all beings deserve to live and, therefore, we must reign in our desire to consume. That’s also the message we are now hearing from climate scientists. This idea, however, is incompatible with unbridled economic growth; we simply can’t have both continued growth and a habitable planet. Even should we manage to hold global temperature rise to 2C, unlikely as that is, our consumption patterns will inevitably soon lead to the collapse of many systems; we can’t consume our way of our predicament. Of course, many people don’t want to hear that as we tend to equate wellbeing with growth and consumption.

On this day when we acknowledge our ancestors and other beings who have journeyed into spirit, it is good to stop for a moment and be grateful for their making our lives possible. We might also remember and offer solace to the ravenous, lonely spirits, notice that their whisperings and our society teach us to be hungry ghosts, and acknowledge that we are literally consuming the planet we depend on for our lives. (Traditional Halloween costumes and archetypes acknowledge that ravenous spirits hover nearby and are influencing us.)

Given our very human experience of desire, I doubt we will ever find it easy to limit our impact on others and the planet. Still, we can think about what we truly need and limit our consumption. We can also acknowledge that our cultural leaders are too often people who are rapacious, ravenous, and largely devoid of empathy, and we can collectively insist on something better. It will take some time to change the course of this enormous ship so we had best get cracking.

8 thoughts on “Acknowledging Ancestors and Spirits

  1. We share important values, you and I, but I really appreciate how you understand our social issues from a Native perspective. I learn a lot from you. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Pat. My perspective is rather complex as I really live somewhere in the middle of settler/Native as fits my heritage and growing up. There are so many cultures and perspectives! It is always risky to make generalizations but of course we have to paint some things with broad strokes. Then too, most North American cultures do not see themselves as practicing shamanism. I do my best to speak from my reference place and not catabolize other cultures while also trying to softly educate.

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