Ancestral Memories: Where Do They Live?

Ancestral voices come to us through memories. They are ever present even though we barely notice them. Our ancestral memories tell us how to approach strangers, they tell our bodies how to respond to perceived threat or disease, they tell us how to behave within culturally accepted norms, and they guide us as we navigate the larger story of living a life of purpose and meaning. The voices of our ancestors come to us through the channels of our bodies, minds, cultures and guiding stories or spiritual inspiration. We may not recognize the influence of these memories, but the voices of our ancestors are stored and heard by the memories which live in our unconscious or intuitive parts, in our instinctual being, in our personalities, in our families, communities.

What do you remember about visiting your grandparents’ or other relatives’ home? Bring one of these places to mind and notice the smells, sounds, emotions, thoughts, and physical feelings that pop up….notice how memory works through you. Perhaps it is bringing you stories and lessons about the world, about the people and places around you, and about how you fit in to this place. What does ancestral memory want you to know? These memories are guiding and protecting you by bringing back the lessons of experience. We can learn to notice how our ancestors speak to us in this way.

Ancestral memories live within us and are triggered by feelings, sensations, associations, and thoughts. They come to us as unconcious reactions and responses. We remember where we have felt a sense of being welcome, and where we feel threatened or unsafe. We may also have an unconcious sense of safety or danger. We remember how to communicate with others and who is safe to approach. We remember who we are in the larger context of the world: beings who strive for belonging and connection and who are also focused on survival. We need these memories to remind us what or who is safe or dangerous. It is obvious that life without a memory is very difficult, because you constantly forget who you are and what you are doing. In the same way, life without an appreciation of ancestral memory can sometimes seem like a roller coaster ride through unfamiliar territory. When we can’t remember where we have been, we can’t remember what to expect next. Ancestral memory can give us a sense of the larger picture.

Memories can be triggered by any of the senses: they can cascade into our consciousness when we see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something. They are often unconscious, and the images or emotions that surface when memory pops up can be surprising and baffling. What and how we remember experiences, places, people, and feelings can be mysterious and fascinating.

Personal Reflection : For me, an image is a ticket on the time travel train. The train takes me back instantly to the moment when I experienced something or someone that popped into my mind when my eyes perceived the image: it could be a smile, a certain expression, a color or texture, or a minor detail in the background such as a tree, a house, a car. Something clicks as if these images from my past are floating around on a wheel in my head, spinning, looking for a place to click into consciousness. Sometimes a smell, taste, texture or a sound can trigger a feeling and an emotional response that I don’t understand.

Even as I sit here looking out the window…at the back yard, the sun shining down on the grass, the leaves piling up in the garden, I remember an afternoon day, in the back yard of my grandparents’ house. A place that I visited twice a year as a young child. In my mind’s eye, I see the sagging roof of the wood slatted garage and feel the chill of a cloudy, December day. I sense the loneliness of a young girl, but I also sense relief: a feeling of being ok with being alone in the back yard where I am safe. A back yard is a haven for fallen leaves, little birds, dead flowers, and breezes blowing through the entire neighborhood. I feel the air on my face, smell the rotting leaves, and feel the quiet relaxation, and the security of solitude. I hear the crying of a train whistling in the distance. My body remembers, my mind remembers, my senses remember, and my emotions are triggered. I am eight years old again, and I have boarded the time travel train just by looking out the window. If I were to go on with this story, I could think of many narratives, many experiences to recall as I stay in this place, this back yard. In fact, it was my favorite place as a young child and so there were many adventures there, both real and imaginary. It would be interesting to note which people come to mind as I think about all that happened there.