What is “Ancestral Memory” ?

Ancestral memory is not always easy to identify. It is easy to acknowledge that ancestral memories live in our genes, in our blood, and in our bones, but it also lives in our minds, our cultures, our communities and in our unconcious, intuitive drives.

We know of course, that certain diseases and medical conditions are “remembered” by our genes and passed on in this way. It is obvious when you look in a mirror that your genetic inheritance tells a story about who your ancestors were: green eyes? brown skin? tall? What color and texture is you hair? Each one of us carries the genetic footprint of our forebearers, remembered in our DNA.

We feel and experience these ancestral memories in our body without any conscious awareness. These memories are awakened by sensations. The experiences of our childhood selves, of our parents ,and of our grand parents are stored in the body and often present themselves as aches, pains and illness as we age. I often feel as if the ancestors live in my bones. Especially now that I have developed arthritis in my spine. I know that my spine is the most primitive part of me, the “backbone” of all other parts of me. I sense that my spine carries the burden of generations before me. I wonder if talking with my ancestors can help relieve some of the anger, tension, and despair that I carry there? In some indigeous traditions, it is said that the spine carries the energy of our ancestors. It is the “stairway” of our inheritance.

Ancestral memory can live in the mind as a story based on experience and how we have interpreted the experiences of our lives. The mind needs to remember who is safe or unsafe, who is fun to be with, who is not fun to be with, where we feel good, and where we don’t want to be. The mind focuses on remembering what we need for security and safety, love and belonging. The mind is a place where it is important to learn how to get our needs met and remember what we have learned. We also want to learn how to achieve things, how to create, how to be recognized and how to learn and grow. We remember how we feel when we are with different people,at different places, and having different experiences. The feelings become strong motivating forces which guide us in our choices of what we do, where we do it, and who we choose to be around. The family patterns influence us as we develop responses to life based on our own experience of the adults we live with. If Mom is tense when she is around certain people or situations, we may have a similar reaction based on our observations of her behavior. We learn what types of behavior or words get a positive response from our parents, and our grand parents. We learn about the world by interacting with and observing our family members. In this way, the ancestors have influenced our experience of ourselves as we relate to others.

Our individual memories are not the only ones that affect us though. We live in cultures and communities that have been molded by generations of memories. These reflect family experiences and ways of coping with the challenges of life. The memories carried by members of persecuted communities, or by those who have been forced to abandon their homes, or by those who have been forced into slavery will survive in the communities and families of many generations to follow. The lessons learned by the members of communities and cultures reflect the need to survive and establish some type of security and sense of belonging. When life is difficult for a community, members find ways to cope, and survive, passing on a system of beliefs and strategies to their children. They can impact how we interact with other people and how we perceive the world and nature. The choices and decisions that our ancestors made based on their experience have influenced us, whether we know it or not. This is also how we can inherit biases toward certain racial, ethnic or religious groups.

We may take on a certain role or attitude that is typical of our community, or of the community in which our parents and grand parents live, because we are strongly identified with our culture. Conversely, we may react to our culture by attempting to be different. Communities, whether they are family systems or cultural systems have an interest in maintaining the structure and organization of the system as long as the members feel their needs are being met. We have the potential to become identified with the culture in which we feel we belong, and this of course means we have the potential to feel different from and possibly superior to those in other cultures. Has this been true in your family line?

There is also the realm of memory which is larger than our human cultures, it is the realm of the universal experience. What do we know about human existence? What do we know about the planet as a whole? What are our spiritual beliefs? Which legends and myths do we identify with? These are the beliefs and stories that teach us the larger story of how people and the Earth embody and act from an energy that is large than we are. This is the place many call the realm of Spirit. The focus here is on knowing the lessons learned throughout human history and on finding meaning within them. This place of universal memory can remind us of what motivates us to be the best person that we can. This place also helps us to remember our calling, or passion: what we came to earth to do. The detached observor, or witness resides here: the one who reminds us to watch ourselves, look at what we are doing, and just notice. It is from this place that we remember our deep seated biological need for transcendence. It is the place that recalls our yearning for meaning and purpose.

If you look at your family history, the stories you know about your ancestors, you may be able to discern a larger story or archetypal theme that runs through your lineage. For example are there several warriors in your family line? Are there teachers, or healers, or artists throughout your family? Do the family stories have a theme such as fleeing from oppression, or battling against natural disasters? If you were to write a myth or fairy tale about your family, what might it be? Would it be based on an ancient classical myth or legend?