- Undoing Oppression
- Deep Time
- Emerging Facilitators
Harvesting the Gifts of the Ancestors (decolonial adaptation)
This practice has been adapted and revised by Ann Marie Davis to include a deeper decolonial framing. The original Harvesting the Gifts of the Ancestors practice is in chapter 9 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown. Please acknowledge the source and the adaptation when you use this practice.
See Deep Times, August 2017, for a more complete introduction and bio.
Time: 60 minutes
This extended practice connects us vividly with our human past on Earth, and deepens awareness of the strengths it offers us. The expanses of time, which we enter, remind us that the Industrial Growth Society is a momentary episode — and that, to move beyond it, we can draw on a far larger and more deeply rooted legacy. As we progress through countless generations, respect and gratitude arise for our forebears’ capacity to weather adversity, and to respond collectively and creatively to enormous challenges. The process helps us to believe that these capacities have not forsaken us, and can help us now at this crisis point for life on Earth.
Introduction (by Anne Marie Davis)
When I rewrote “Harvesting the Gifts of the Ancestors,” I tried to not equate human evolution with those who lead the movement toward our current industrial growth society. I believe that people who stayed in Africa or anywhere outside of Western culture were constantly evolving in ways that Western culture has yet to value. I know that even though my form of storytelling is written, I don’t believe that written language yields truer or superior stories that lead us to a truer understanding of reality. Nor do I believe that written language leads us to understand what the earth wants of us.
I believe that the earth wants something from us that westerners have yet to discover, and that we desperately need to consider the gifts of those ancestors who may be dying with each indigenous culture and language that gets swallowed up by western capitalism. As well intentioned as we may be to save ourselves, we must learn awareness of the blind spots that cause us to perpetuate the white supremacist belief system.
We may end up beseeching the ancestors to somehow give us back the wisdom that Western culture destroys with each dying language and culture if humanity wants to survive.
Finally, since most of my culture was stripped from my recent ancestors, I realize that my version of Harvesting the Gifts of the Ancestors is limited, but my attempt is necessary.
The process consists of a slow walk through time, first backwards to the start of the human story, then forwards to return to the present. Allow five minutes for set-up, forty minutes or so for the walk and then another fifteen for reflection in small groups.
Deep-toned flowing music, as background to the guide’s verbal promptings, stirs images and “memories” of our long human journey, helping us open to our collective unconsciousness. We like to use portions of Ignacio by Vangelis, re-recording them on the same CD to make an hour of background music.
In order to keep walking without hitting a wall, people circle around a central point. Erect with a high stool or chairs visible to everyone as they walk. Have them space themselves around the room, right shoulder to the center, and wait while you explain the process. They are to move very slowly backwards, after the music has begun and your words give the cue. Their eyes will be half-closed, to invite feelings and images to surface, while permitting enough vision to maneuver. They will feel the others moving alongside them, occasionally bumping and even stepping into each other, for paces vary. That is to be expected and is appropriate enough, because this has not been a solo journey; we made it together. When people get into a clump and feel impeded, they are just to raise their eyes, glance around for an open area, and relocate.
Part way through, they will have reached the start of the human journey. Your words will make this clear and cue them to stop still. Then they will move forward in a clockwise direction. They will harvest the gifts of the ancestors. It helps to make bodily gestures of gleaning, scooping, picking from below and above, as they take to themselves the gifts.
After the explanations, the guide dedicates the ritual to the benefit of all beings. The walk now begins, with music in the background and voice-over from the guide. The guide’s job is to offer a running series of verbal cues. These cues synchronize people’s passage through time, as well as evoke memories, both personal and from the collective unconscious. The tone is steady, assured, and slightly impersonal. What is said varies with the history and culture of the group. How much is said varies with the guide. Better to say too little than too much. You’re not giving a history lesson; you’re opening vistas for the imagination. The knowledge most needed is already there.
[Change dates and other details to fit your time and situation]
We start where we are here today in this moment, this January day gathered in this room. And we walk back through time and remember what it took to get to this spot, how we woke up this morning and dressed and had our meals. We walk back to how we prepared to get to this retreat. The decision to come, the planning. Traveling here alone or with others, the journey across the earth or the sky. We walk back through our week of packing and last minute preparations. And the last 30 days, with the holiday season, the visits, arrivals, reunions, happy or fraught with emotions… departures, journeys, or staying home.
Back through 2016 with its other seasons, how we carried ourselves through this difficult, shifting world, and the time before the fall season, what we worked for and what we hoped for. Through 2016’s spring and winter, our time in offices, homes, getting places on bikes or in vehicles or on public transportation or foot.
Now we move back through the decades of our adult lives. For some, many decades, for some a fraction. We move back through beginnings, perhaps jobs and journeys, relationship beginnings and endings, perhaps wanderings of few or many sorts, perhaps some false starts and some successes. Perhaps you witnessed the loss of someone you never conceived would be gone, or perhaps you lost people you knew would leave you. Perhaps you witnessed the birth of a child, yours or someone’s near to you.
Recall how as you lived, how you experienced the comings and goings of emotions and passions, the shifts in your perceptions and points of view, perhaps changes in your world or your cosmic views. Perhaps you arrived on the other side of situations you thought would end you. Perhaps you came through as a larger person that the former you could not imagine.
Walk back through your teenage years with your new emotions and ideals and opinions of yourself and your world. Walk back through your struggles and anguishes and dramas, your heartbreaks and milestones.
Walk back through your childhood and the people who knew you, how they called your name. Your peers and your elders. Lessons in and out of school, all of the things you needed to learn, the lessons you kept and the ones you unlearned by choice.
You are getting smaller and smaller. You have to lift up your hand to hold someone else’s, or you open a door by reaching up. You climb onto things in the adult sized world, hold onto adult sized objects with both hands.
Perhaps someone taught you how to ride a bike, or tend to a sick animal or read the stars, or the letters of the alphabet. Perhaps you learned to recite a story or a poem. Tie your shoe, comb your hair. Someone may have taught you how to pluck a chicken or crack a coconut and build a fire, or to cross a street, throw a baseball, and make change from a dollar, hold a pencil.
Now you are so small you are carried in arms, someone cleans you and keeps you warm and feeds you everything you eat.
Now, you are in your mother’s womb. Her endless heartbeat is the background and foreground of your world, as are the vibrations that come through salt water.
And now it is the time before your existed in your current form. There was spirit, an energy, a message, carried in your parent’s DNA. Whether you knew your parents or not, it doesn’t matter. You can step back into their lives, into their lives as young adults as they carried the message of your life. These young people made the best choices known to them at the time. Dreams came to them. Some they held onto, some they let go of. They made those choices of which dreams to carry, over and over.
Now, move back into their adolescence, into their childhood, their time as babies and infants when they were carried, and given all of their sustenance and all of their messages for their lives by their parents, someone else, most likely your grandparents.
And so, too, for your great-grandparents and their parents. Sixteen great-great-grandparents carried you. Move back through the twentieth century and before that. Move back to before the automobile, the telephone. Before anyone believed a computer or a cell phone or a flying machine or a trip to the moon could exist. Before electricity. These are your ancestors whose word would be altered by a revolution of industry that changed the way the future of humanity would experience life. As this revolution encroached, again and again, they each must have experienced life with less and less natural surroundings, and more and more human made inventions in the places where they lived, traveled and dwelled.
Every human on earth eventually felt it, this revolution. Some of them experienced the revolution of industry coming through the institution of slavery, as slaves, as governments declared that their bodies no longer belonged to them. They fueled this revolution with their physical labor in fields. Others worked coal mines as they sacrificed their lungs for its fuel. Some would experience the revolution as they lived their days in dark factories and teeming streets. Others, by purchasing the goods that this revolution produced, with the hope that these goods would satisfy their basic human need for love, understanding and security. Some left their people and families to cross seas and built infrastructure in the west. Others experienced the dismantling of their cultures from the viewpoint of reservations and boarding schools and the continuing genocide of tens of millions of their brethren. Some were born into ruling classes as captains of these industries. Across the face of the globe, large swaths of humanity watched their tribes and cultures and sacred landscapes cut up and renamed and turned into cities and colonies. And somewhere around 1770, sixty four great-great-great-great-grandparents carried you.
Some, many or all of the people in these varying human relationships carried the energy that forms you now. All of them live in you now as you as a gesture of your shoulders or hands, or as your smile, your creativity, your humor. Your recognition of your spirit. The tight bend or the curliness or the straightness of your hair. Your laugh. The subtle variation in your eye color.
And somewhere around five hundred and fifty years ago, you had 65,536 14th generation great grandparents. All of them carried you with the energy that drives creation.
You move back more swiftly through time now. All genders and sexual orientations were there, carrying you with them. We walk back through all of the social classes, cultures. We see some villains and cowards, some heroes and she-roes. We walk back through all of the different cultures of origins from which our family sprang.
We don’t know their names. All of our families were there. Inventing, creating a myriad of cultures and languages with mathematics and churchbells and drums and drumbeats, with songs and dancing. Some invented and revered rational thinking. Others were mystics. Some, keepers of the stories of the stars and constellations and the beginnings of time, others measuring the rhythms of the stars and seasons with clocks with instruments. Some living as kings or servants, storytellers and shaman, foot soldiers and leaders, wisdom holders and the knowers of the sacred ways.
Who you would be was carried by ancestors as empires rose and fell. Some ancestors followed the coastline out of the African continent to dwell in new forests over the next ridge. Some returned. Some remained to build kingdoms and queen-doms there, to have them in turn rise and fall. We walk back through the millennia and we find that there were very few of our species, sometimes down to a few thousand, all of us nomads. Walk back to a time before we invented war.
Keep walking back to our beginnings some thirty thousand generations ago. We can’t ever be sure of where we began. But, we can imagine we are in the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa, where we may have begun our human journey. So here is where we’ll stop, at this part of our journeys… the journey of the human family.
We are at the edge of a forest, looking out on a savanna. Our bodies are weak compared to the cats. We have no fangs. We are tiny next to the elephants, our voices small compared to theirs. We have no fur. We stood naked. But we are clothed, like the herds in the grasses, in our precious connection to each other. Walk forward.
They journeyed, without the ability to imagine their journey or where it would end. Whether they journeyed across the grasses to other lands and continents, or whether they remained in the lush rain forests, they journeyed and accumulated gifts to give us with each generation. Hunting. Gathering. Walking and wandering. Praying. Building rafts or ships or shoes. Or shoelessness. The ancestors could not help but gather every piece that we need now. Take their ability to survive and expand who they were with each generation.
Courage, wisdom, Gaia consciousnesses. Take it. We need it all. The ancestors sat across fires and discovered and nurtured and tended to the knowledge of the true nature of our existence, in a way that could not have been tended to in any other way other than across a fire in a forest. So, too, another ancestor that tended fires on a savanna, or in a new land or on an island. Through the expanse of our ancestors’ existence they journeyed and ran up against the mystery of getting lost and finding home, of discovering the universe and themselves over and over, and stumbling upon the uncountable, unfathomable natures that we each encompass. Take this all.
Take physical endurance. Take the gifts of the leaders and the scouts, the climbers and hunters and the ones who knew which game to stalk. Take the wisdom of the leaders who divined which mountain to follow, which river to cross, who learned secrets of every landscape and forest, and the ancestors who had the gift of learning and keeping the wisdom of a single plant.
Take the curiosity and courage of the explorers. Take the courage of the ancestors who believed in dragons and went into the unknown anyway, and the intrepid nature of the ancestors who learned to slay the dragons of their minds. Take these gifts.
Walk forward and take these discoveries with you. You come from a unbroken line of survivors, and at this point in time the only purpose for their existence is for you to have all that you need for your time now. Open your arms and hands to receive these gifts and gather them in.
Take the ancestor’s need for empathy to survive. Take that gift of experiencing kindred’s pain as our pain, and take that resulting compassion that has been a gift of survival that was placed in their hearts and in their marrow since our species learned to walk. Take this gift that the ancestors developed and strengthened during their journey. Take this empathy that maintains our connection to life, that has the power to banish loneliness or sense of separation, potent enough to dispel any apathy or cynicism that the world could foster. This deep drink that quenches so much has been our ancestors’ recompense for being cold and naked and weak. Take it and press it in your heart and know that it keeps well there forever. Find it again and again. Practice finding it with everyone and everything.
As the ancestors journeyed through time, they gained the ability to reflect upon their own existence and all of existence. Take that precious courage to have curiosity and wonder.
As the ancestors journeyed on through time, they found that they were held by Gaia, and in the dark nights of the soul, they learned to not just know, but to know that they knew. Take this learning that outlives our fears and pain.
The ancestors also discovered how they were guided by a wisdom that also guides the seasons and the earth, and by watching the dance of birth and decay and the dance of the heavens, they saw this process of life and learned that this processes is innate to all of existence, beating their hearts and knowing their every eyelash. Take this awareness of the process that drives the molecules and atoms in relationships, and take the awareness of energies of existence and keep its guidance with you.
Receive the ingenuity of your ancestors, making tools, knowing how a baby lies in her mother by the touch of a hand, making instruments for every ritual and part of life. Carving jewelry and creating beauty in cave walls and church ceilings and ceremonial garments and body adornments.
Take shared intelligence that sustained Gaia, this intelligence that told some of the ancestors to stay nomadic and keep those ways, and some of us to encourage a forest to grow food for us and maintain its ecosystem, others to traverse the earth.
Some ancestors settled and farmed the alluvial valleys. They have gifts for us. They grew surplus grain and built temples and settlements. Some owned land and built walls. Some of us have ancestors who were slaves and some of us have those who were slave owners, and some of us have both as ancestors. They are in all of us now, and it is up to us to use what we have learned as gifts. Gifts of endurance, responsibility, sorrow, compassion for our human frailties, humility in the presence of the stretch of time, and the gift of the view of hindsight. Take these gifts. We do not have the luxury of turning away from any of them.
We are moving into a time of many different tribes and cultures having the awareness of many other cultures of the world at once, while at the same time, the many cultures of humanity are dying in order to make way for a culture of consumerism. Take back the gifts that your ancestors took a millennia to grow, the gift of your family’s lost cultures by deepening into, or rediscovering the gifts of your ancestor’s cultures, and preserving it. Let it heal you and fill you up. They grew it for you. We were all indigenous to a place not so long ago. Your culture took millions of years to grow itself into the medicine that you may not realize you are longing for until you taste it. Harvest it now.
Honor the ancestors who fought for the rights of vanishing or oppressed peoples and their cultures by taking their gifts of strength to oppose the power of the state and status quo, take the gifts of those who risked isolation, being outcast, the loss of their freedom, their lives. Take their strength of commitment in their beliefs.
Take the gifts of the ancestors who fought for their own liberation under the rule of any dominant culture who wanted what they had, who wanted their land or their bodies. Take the gifts of the ancestors who died for the freedom of their people. For you. Take the gifts of the ancestors who died for worshiping the wrong god or being of the wrong tribe. Then, take the gifts of the ancestor who refused to die of starvation, or mustard gas, or napalm. Take the gifts of the ancestors from the dominant culture who knew that something was wrong with what they were being told and fought for the rights of their oppressed neighbors in their own cities and towns, the village next to theirs or across the world. Take it all.
You are well into the twentieth century, and moving into the twenty-first, centuries of man-made mass extinction. Mass extinctions of animals, the calculated extinction of humans lives on mass scales, the destruction of biospheres. An age of of weapons of world wars to preceded the next age, that age of drone wars and collateral damage, the age of surgical attacks which call for the killing many times more people than the intended target, an age of a culture of mass consumption of the earth’s resources, a human culture at war with its own survival. Take the gifts of this age, the gift of your expanded awareness and your rapid evolution into a being which has a global heartbeat, a global conscience. Bow to this gift that came at such an awful cost. Take the gift.
Take the gift of your parent’s lives, who made this moment possible. Thank your ancestors, who have given you all that you need to be here, right where you are supposed to be, with everything you need.
Take the gift of your life. Please take the gift of all of the pain and suffering you have experienced. It has expanded who you are, so that you are strong enough to hold the suffering of the world with compassion. Whatever you have come through, it forms who you are now. You, standing here. All of us, having all of the resources we need to stand here today. Each one of us, for an unequaled, vital reason. I stand by this.
This practice can be adapted to focus on the ancestral line of a particular vocation, such as that of healers, teachers, scientists, artists, social justice activists. Then, instead of retracing a genetic line of forebears, we follow a vocational lineage, remembering men and women through history whose devotion to their calling bestows on-going gifts upon us all.
This can be offered as a mediation for people sitting in an auditorium or church. They can still use their hands and arms to gather the gifts.