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Date: 01/01/2014
  • Practices
  • Deep Time
  • Emerging Facilitators
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Harvesting the Gifts of the Ancestors (original version)

from chapter 9 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown; second edition, published 2014. Lightly edited. Please acknowledge the source when you use any of these practices.


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, and the centuries of colonization and empire that led up to it, comprise a small portion of the history of humanity — and that, by moving beyond that more recent history, 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.

A revised version of Harvesting the Gifts, written by Ann Marie Davis, reflects the perspective and experience of the colonized, oppressed and enslaved people whose resources and labor built and sustain the Industrial Growth Society. We suggest that facilitators study that version as preparation for offering this exercise.



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, repeating them to make an hour of background music.

In order to keep walking without hitting a wall, people circle around a central point, erected with a high stool or chairs visible to everyone as they walk. Have people 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. They will then move forward in a clockwise direction. They will be harvesting 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 the guide says 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.

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.  

Reading the script word-for-word may sound contrived, even mechanical, and makes it harder for people to get into it. However, since there is so much to remember, feel free to work from extensive notes, using your own words whenever possible.

Here is a rough rendering of cues we have offered, with dots to indicate pauses. You may not want to say so much.

From this present moment on (date) in (place), begin to walk slowly backwards in time.   Move back through the events of this day… to your waking up.… Walk back through the last week, the last month… the times at home, and at work, and in your wider community.… Move back through the months to the turn of the year. Now you are walking back through last year through its seasons and encounters….

Keep moving back through the decades of your adult life — many decades for some of us, or just one for others — back through the journeys you made, the places you lived and cared for, the work you undertook. See perhaps the loss of someone close, perhaps the birth of a child, or children…. Encounter again the passions and adventures, disappointments and accomplishments…

Walk back into your teenage years, with their hopes and heartache… back through the surprises and anguish of your adolescence…. You’re entering your childhood, seeing the places and faces you knew, the lessons in school, the games, the lonely times…. 

Your body is getting smaller and smaller, and pretty soon the grown-ups are so tall, you have to reach up to hold their hands. Soon you’re so small you’re carried in arms…. And soon so small you’re inside your mother under the beat of her heart, your body simplifying, fewer and fewer cells… until you are just one cell and you’ve reached the moment of your conception.

Yet the life that is in you did not begin with your conception. It was there in your mother and your father. And even if you do not know your birth mother, your birth father, you can step back into their lives now — or you may choose to step back into the lives of the people who raised you.… Walk back now through their young adulthood, the choices they faced, the dreams they held. Move back with them into their adolescence, their childhood, their infancy….

Continue walking back, back into the lives of your grandparents and your great-grandparents…. Back through times before the internet, the telephone, before electricity. In the shadows of gas lamps, move into the lives of ancestors whose names you no longer know, but a gesture of theirs, a smile or turn of the head, lives on in you.

Moving back along this river of life, back through the industrial revolution, through the seizure of land and wealth through colonization, through wars and upheavals, through genocide…. The generations move by more swiftly as you walk back through the centuries.

You’re walking back through ancestors’ lives as peasants, as magistrates, scholars, artisans, thieves, beggars, enslaved people and those enslaving others, generals and foot soldiers.… Even then they carried you within them like a seed….

You’re moving back through ancient empires, through the rise and fall of entire civilizations back through the mists of time…. You come now into the longest chapter of our human journey, when we moved in small groups across the face of Gaia, gathering and hunting what we could, and no more than we needed.… Keep walking back through the millennia when we were nomads, treading with each footstep the soil and rock, the desert and forests of our planet home, through a time unmarked by wars….

Keep walking back to our beginnings, some thirty thousand generations ago. Can you remember, was it in the heartland of Africa?…

And now you stop. Now with the very first ones, you’re standing at the edge of the forest, looking out over the savanna. The journey of your people lies ahead. You and your kin don’t have the strength and speed of the other animals, or the fangs or claws, or the heavy pelts to protect from cold and heat. You’re naked. All you have is each other, and throats that can call out to each other.

You cannot imagine what your journey together will bring or the challenges you will face…

Walk forward on that journey now. Enter the long treks of your ancestors across the continents, their voyages on rafts, the long marches in the ages of ice. You come from an unbroken line of survivors and each has gifts to bestow. Open your arms and hands to receive these gifts; gather them in.

Take their physical endurance… take gifts of the one with the courage to lead; sending out scouts, choosing the way to go, keeping an eye on the little ones, the aging ones, those heavy with child; keeping the group together. 

Take the gifts of the storytellers around the fire at night… those who watched how the stars moved, so clear, so mysterious.

Walking with these ancestors, harvest their keen senses — their observant eye, their knowing fingers gathering leaves and roots for fever and for childbirth. Harvest the knowledge of the healers and midwives….

Harvest the wild knowing of the shaman who dances between realities, between seen and unseen worlds, and brings back instructions for the people.… Harvest the beating of the drum and the chants as we buried the dead and welcomed the newborn….

Walking up through the centuries, see the trust in the eyes of the children, the passion in the eyes of the young….  See the wisdom in the eyes of the aged.… Hear the laughter of two young girls splashing in a stream….

Harvest our kinship with the other animals, watching and learning their ways — our teachers, our totems… 

Receive the ingenuity of your ancestors, making tools, weaving cloth, fashioning homes…. Know their love of beauty, music of a flute coming from the hills, hands carving jewelry, feet dancing on the packed earth….

We are entering the time when some of us start to settle down, sowing seeds and returning to harvest. Then staying to cultivate, perhaps at the confluence of two rivers.… And we begin to grow a surplus — our numbers increase, our settlements expand. We build granaries and temples….

Some of us become owners of land, build walls to demarcate our fields.  And some of us are landless, sell our labor to feed our children, or become enslaved by others….

Walk with the ancestors who take to trade and travel over great distances, overland by caravans and by sea on ships….

You are moving into recorded history; cities are growing, along with institutions of government and ecclesiastical power… and imperial colonial power. Empires with vast territories and vast armies, invading other lands, committing genocide… perhaps with some of your ancestors in command, others as foot soldiers, who know the fear and blood of battle, some dying in the wars….

Some ancestors may enslave others; perhaps they have gifts for you of regret or repentance. Some of your ancestors may be enslaved, women raped and their children sold at public auction…. Perhaps they have gifts to give you of endurance, of suffering and sorrows survived…. 

And among your ancestors, those who rise up to claim the human right for dignity, for food…. Harvest the gifts of ancestors who sing songs of freedom and fight for justice…

Walk with the ancestors who stay on the land, tilling the fields, generation after generation, knowing the soil and the seasons of growth, times of plenty, times of want. Harvest their gifts….

Moving onwards through time, walk with ancestors caught up in crusades and pogroms, inquisitions and witch-burnings…  And they all have gifts for you, gifts of knowing how greed and fear warp the mind, gifts of steadfast faith and solidarity….

You are moving up into times of great exploration, ancestors leaving familiar worlds to voyage into new worlds, some seeking wealth, some seeking religious freedom, some brought in bondage…  These ancestors have gifts for you; take their daring and resolve, take the bitter gifts, too…. 

Harvest as well the wisdom of those ancestors who dwelled in these lands for thousands of years…. Take their deep knowing of forests and plains and rivers….

Walk with your ancestors into the age of the machine — cotton gin, steam engine, railroad — perhaps some ancestors, whose highland farms and grazing lands are taken, migrate into the cities and work in factories, mills, and mines.… Some are children, working dawn to dark.… Harvest the courage of those who speak out for a fair wage and the right to organize, who speak out for all people….

You are stepping now into the lives of ancestors whose names you may know.  Move with them into the 20th and then the 21st century, with its world wars and breakthroughs of technology: flying machines, cars, electronics, cell phones and the Internet — centuries with bitter fruits… the splitting of the atom, death camps, nuclear bombs, proliferation of weapons, nuclear power, refugee camps, rampant racism.…  And perhaps some of your kin sent to the death camps, and others in charge of them. But they all have gifts for you, if only broken hearts and the plea to be remembered….

Move now into the lives of your parents, the children who grew to be your parents, who gave you your own life. Take this gift of your own life; step into it….

Walk into the radiance of the child who is you, greeting this world afresh. Step into your teenage years, with their dreams and betrayals. Walk into the beckoning world… and now through the adult years of your life, through the choices you made, the people you loved, the tasks you gave yourself to….

Take the anguish ripening you as you open your eyes to the world’s suffering and understand the history of suffering of your own people.… the war making, the spreading hunger, the racism, the lost species. Harvest the gifts of your own deep desire for the healing of our world….

You are stepping into this last year, moving through these last months… and through this last week… until you come to the dawning of this present day… Come to this present moment and stop.

Here in this Now, going no further than your next breath…. You cannot imagine, really, what lies ahead, and you cannot know exactly what will be asked of you or of your people. But you know one thing: you do not go empty-handed. You go with the gifts of the ancestors.



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.

Contributor/Author: Joanna Macy & Molly Brown