So many of us modern humans and Westerners and Americans in particular are cut off from our cultural heritages and ancestral traditions. Many people hardly know any stories of their grandparents much less great great grandparents. People who are adopted can know even less (if anything at all). So how do you heal ancestral legacies and stories if you don’t even know what you’re carrying? It is often said that the pain you are carrying is often not yours but your ancestors’ pain that they could not heal.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. So epigenetics is about how genes are expressed and used, rather than the DNA sequence of the genes themselves. It is fascinating and shows how we can carry trauma (and resilience) from experiences that our ancestors carried that we have never even experienced ourselves.
For instance, in the last year of the Second World War in Europe, a food embargo imposed by occupying German forces on the civilian population of the Netherlands resulted in a severe famine, coinciding with a particularly harsh winter. About 20,000 people died from starvation as rations dropped to below 1000 kilocalories per day. Despite the chaos of war, medical care and records remained intact allowing scientists to subsequently study the effect of famine on human health. What they found was that children who were in the womb during the famine experienced a life-long increase in their chances of developing various health problems compared to children conceived after the famine. Even more surprisingly, some data seems to suggest that grandchildren of women who were pregnant during the Hunger Winter experience some of these effects.
When we heal ourselves, we are healing past generations and healing future generations. I saw a cute t-shirt, We are our ancestors’ wildest dream. In this case, when we can heal or transform, we are helping our whole family line frontwards and backwards.
I have found that healing cannot happen on just a mental level. My body contains so much wisdom. Creativity through drama therapy (talking to one’s ancestors and then talking as them) has been a potent practice for ancestral healing. Somatic practices and ritual space and community witnessing are also ways of doing ancestral healing.
Practically, connecting to our ancestral traditions and practices and learning the stories/myths of our cultures also is deeply nourishing. Finding what legacies want to be lifted up and celebrated is important in addition to working on healing those legacies that might be painful.
If you have the chance to do DNA testing to find out where your ancestors are from, wonderful. Talk to your family members to learn family stories. Learn cultural traditions, eat the food of your people. Visit your ancestral homeland. Learn the language.
We are so privileged to be alive at this great turning when we can be the change that our families have been dreaming of.