Gratefully received insight through Tzutujil Mayan, Vietnamese Buddhist and Christian ceremony relating to health with the Ancestors and offering interesting parallels to family constellation work..
I wanted to share a couple of different experiences and perspectives I have come across, in relation to the ancestors, that offer interesting parallels to the family constellation work I have been involved in.
First is what I experienced under the ceremonial guidance of Martin Prechtel. Martin is a remarkable shaman who lived and trained for many years with Tzutujil Mayan elders in Guatemala. He had both the good fortune of getting involved in a village deeply connected, through its way of life and ceremony, to its indigenous root; and the misfortune of witnessing a peak of its disintegration, as it succumbed to the many external forces seeking to undermine and fragment it, culminating in the significant losses attributed to civil war.
Now many years later, after a long process of healing and grieving, he was here in England, working within a culture to which so much of the prevalent mind set that had destroyed his own (and so many diverse indigenous cultures) could be traced.
Many years before his Guatemalan mentor, the 90 year old Nicolas Chiviliu, had advised him that one day he would have to take the heart of his village and plant it elsewhere. So this is what he was engaged in. Planting the heart of the village, their depth of understanding of how to live well and relate in this world, in us. Not so that we became Mayan, but rather so that we could reconnect with our own indigenous soul and root, this, it was suggested, in a movement paralleled by the indigenous people in the lands our ancestors had taken over, having fled also to the very recesses, driven by our colonising minds![i]
Following what I learned and experienced with Martin, are experiences and insights gained through connecting with Vietnamese Zen master Thich Naht Hahn. Hahn like Martin Pretchel has had to live many years in exile from the home country he loves.
Thich Nhat Hahn was a key inspiration for a thousands strong student movement in Vietnam, peacefully rebuilding villages on either side during the Vietnam War. At a certain point he realised, for things to change, he would have to go to America to appeal directly to them to stop dropping their bombs. His visit prompted Martin Luther King to speak out against the Vietnam War – the beginning of a great turning point in American perception of the war, and also King to nominate Hahn for the nobel peace prize. Ironically after this action, Hahn and his companion, the social worker Sister Chan Kong, were never allowed back to Vietnam, their abilities being too powerful for the governing regimes comfort.
Finally I will offer briefly a glimpse of a Christian Minister’s work inspired by his contact with healing in China.
Ceremony with Martin Prechtel….
A great deal of the focus working in ceremony with Martin Prechtel, as in so many indigenous cultures, is toward health in relation to the Ancestors. This is not just limited to blood ancestry, but also the wider field of ancestry without which we could not be here.
Ceremony can be a strange thing to describe. Its profound experiential and multidimensional qualities are hard to speak yet alone reduce to words on a page. Still flagging this drawback to your attention, I enter into this with the aspiration of furthering understanding of ways to find health in relationship with our ancestors, the constellation work further drawing to my attention how disease in the past can impact on the present. For any important omission in understanding of the ceremonies I take full responsibility myself, for I cannot convey all that these excellent teachers did and do not wish to misrepresent them. The intention is not to offer ceremony for people to attempt or mimic, rather to convey some of my own understanding as to the insight and intentions behind them, which I feel some how may be of interest and value to those involved in constellation and other healing work.
Offering one’s Ancestors a Home….
In both the Vietnamese Buddhist and Tzutujil Mayan culture there is an understanding that the ancestors need a home, and that it is healthy both to have connection with them and be in regular communication.
With Martin Prechtel, who had been head of young men’s initiation in his village, a significant element of the cycles of these rites, was associated with remembering and restoring health throughout the many layers of ancestry – human and beyond. Creating a home for the ancestors was an integral part of one of the first ceremonies we entered into. Each of us within ceremony created a small wooden dwelling according to a certain pattern. Each was unique as measured against our own bodies, and offered a place our ancestors could dwell, and at which we could communicate with them on a regular basis (there were quite specific guidelines on this).
Here once placed on the Earth, heartfelt offerings of Grief and Praise, alongside precious gifts of food and other materials “of the Original Flowering Earth” are shared often accompanied by the invocation “please eat this, don’t eat me, please eat this don’t eat my children.”
Behind this simple prayer is profound parallel with constellation work – a recognition that if our ancestors are not suitably honoured and grieved for, and in this case fed and housed, then somehow as a consequence they can “eat us.” Or put another way, that which has been uncared for, unresolved and ungrieved within our ancestry, is hungry and if not given proper attention to, can emerge and affect the next generation. Martin referred to an example topical at the time, Kosovo, where unhealed grievances of a previous generation resurfaced leading to widespread bloodshed and trauma in the current one. As in constellation work there is therefore a sense of engaging with the source of a situation beyond its current manifestation.
Alongside offering precious gifts of heart felt and eloquent communication, food and wine, there is strong encouragement to take one’s troubles and grievances, one’s real anger to the ancestors, those who have gone before, even more than those living (such as one’s parents), for as another elder suggested of abusive parents “what they did didn’t just come from nowhere.”[ii]
The fruit of engaging in ceremony along these lines is hard to convey, other than something moves within from doing so, and in relation to this, also without. Martin and his people encourage and have such eloquent expressions for what occurs. For instance he suggests that “if you grieve enough you will reach praise,” and “if you praise enough you will reach grief, for the two are as relatives”
In relation to the change that occurs when unexpressed grief finally flows, it is said “that our ancestors wear our tears like Jade beads!” This seems such a helpful expression for a culture such as our own, where expression of grief is so often damned up. When expressed not only is it often accompanied by apologies and feelings of shame by the person expressing it, but also those present may try to restore “normality” as quickly as possible, not really encouraging it to flow – an interesting side note here is that the way a tumour is described in Mayan is “solidified Grief!” (literally “petrified grief” ie grief turned to stone).
In another note paralleling constellation experience for me, it is also said that the ancestors cannot truly be happy and “cross to the other shore” unless they are able to do so on “a river of our tears.” Again there is that sense of the ungrieved or uncelebrated lingering, and affecting the energy field until they are fully honoured and given their place.
Understandings from Vietnam…
In Vietnamese Buddhism, this idea of offering the ancestors a place is met through a tradition of having an altar for this purpose in one’s home. This altar is divided into three sections, one to offer a place to the Living Ancestors, the next to the Buddha –Spiritual Ancestor and representing the capacity and embodiment of Awakened Mind, and the third, a place for those Ancestors who have died, passing on from their physical bodies.
At this altar these three have a place and are honoured. This may be done through daily “brightening,” through mindful actions such as offerings of fresh water, incense and flowers, as well as through communication.
Thay (Thich Nhat Hahn) speaks of the importance given to this altar being such, that if a new child is born it is first communicated here, before others beyond the household are told, and similarly if a person were to emerge from a forced labour camp (as have been part of Vietnam’s recent history), it would be first here they would announce their return and offer incense, before proceeding to the rest of the family.
Part of the evolution of this altar has been an understanding, that if someone were to die without a connection to their blood family, without connection to a spiritual family, and also to the Earth, then as a consequence they do not have a home to go to and in that disconnection and isolation, they may become what is known as a “hungry ghost.”
Hungry Ghosts are disconnected wandering spirits who live in a state of Great Suffering. “As if surrounded by a fire on all four sides, a hungry ghost ceaselessly suffers from heat.” Part of their suffering is a great craving, graphically illustrated as them having enormous bellies, yet at the same time, tiny, literally needle thin throats. The consequence of this is that even if a hungry ghost were to be surrounded by highly nutritious food and loving conditions, it still is very hard for them to receive.
Such a condition is not limited to the dead – for as Thay asks, “do you have to be dead to have a Spirit? No.” Therefore also in Life, as a spirit, if you lack a healthy connection to your blood family, to a Spiritual family and to the Earth, then you too can be somewhat of a hungry ghost, going on to say that it is his feeling, that this is one the most prevalent condition of our times!
Perhaps a great many of us can recognise it, that sense of burning isolation. A great hunger, that often finds its expression in cravings for things that do not really alleviate the underlying suffering or fill the hollowness inside. There is no doubt in my mind that in these teachings, are clearly articulated some of the root causes of addictive behaviours and patterns of consumption in our time.[iii]
So part of the healing of this condition is restoring health in these relationships by paying attention to them. The healing is further promoted in ways not unlike those in Guatemala, offerings of carefully prepared foods (prepared so hungry ghosts may receive them) are regularly given – weekly in the Buddhist temples, and annually in people’s homes, alongside sacred mantras and profound teachings of the Buddha (awakened mind), relevant to this realm.
I can personally vouch for the efficacy of this ceremony. There was an intrusive and disembodied entity in a room in an old house I lived. After two years trying to work/heal whatever was going on in various ways, Christian, shamanic and other, it was this ceremony and related practices, that were the medicine that led to the understanding needed and change.
I had been fortunate enough to find myself at Plum Village, Thay’s monastic home synchronistically when he was offering dharma talks on this theme. He had literally just translated “the Hungry Ghost ceremony” into French and English so that the non Vietnamese monks and nuns could also participate in it (Buddhist temples are said to particularly attract hungry ghosts as these beings are drawn to the incense and offerings made) – something not exclusive to Buddhist temples me –thinks! Anyone interested in deeper healing and insight into this condition, I would encourage with good intention and deep commitment, to head that way!
There may not be much talk about hungry ghosts though, as even if one of the most prevalent conditions of our time, the Buddhist teachings and healing ceremonies around them are not the most widely shared, and no doubt there are reasons for this. I think in part, it is because of there being slightly esoteric concepts and qualities to the ceremony, involving various mantra and sutras that benefit from being offered with great conviction. I think also in our culture this territory can hold over fascination for some, and terror for others, in a way which doesn’t really prepare the ground for one to receive insight in a deep way, that ultimately is such a significant part of the medicine.
Fortunately there are some core and basic Buddhist practices which are more widely available and are both seen as, and are, good simple solid medicine for this condition, which it is suggested can require great patience and perseverance to heal[iv]. These in particular are the five prostrations – touching the Earth[v] , which involve healing with the earlier mentioned three: blood, spiritual ancestors and the Earth, and the simple practice of walking meditation, bringing one deeply into the present, taught in an effective way.
….working with the altar in Christian tradition.
Many years ago I was given a book about a missionary and GP, a Dr K. McAll, who began his working life in China.[vi]
At some point Dr McAll was deeply affected by a healing he witnessed in a village. An individual had gone into a state of madness to the extent he had to be tied up and restrained, and in this position he was being stoned by local people. A healer schooled in indigenous as well as Christian tradition then came upon the scene and through the work this woman did the individual returned to his senses in quite a radical way.
On McAll’s return to England (having himself been interred as a Japanese prisoner of war for four years) the memory of this man travelled with him, a state that in this country did not to lead to stoning, but often led to people being locked up in asylums and drugs. From what he had seen he knew there were other possibilities. He dived into a study of psychiatry, inspired also by what he had witnessed as a prisoner of war, in particular people coming together with good intent and the power of prayer.
Out of this engagement and research, emerged a different way of offering healing very much in the Christian tradition, with remarkable parallels to that found within constellation work.
In essence where confronted with a situation such as a young person exhibiting symptoms that could be labelled schizophrenic, he would no longer expect a healing to be found just working with the young person. Rather he had found that the problem very often was systemic, somehow linked to some often unspoken of trauma in the closer family or ancestry and the person’s illness to be some sort of repetition or expression of that.
The method of healing he developed was to gather as many of the family together as possible to try and ascertain the source of the distress. Whether something had come to light or not he would then bring them together in front of Christ, at the altar, to share in Holy Communion.
If nothing had come to light already, it was often at this point, that some fresh insight would be revealed. Something would either show itself through one of those present finally sharing more, or he (or perhaps another present) would be shown something akin to a vision. Whatever this was didn’t necessarily make immediate sense, but when shared with those present, would often lead to a cathartic release and connect often to some still concealed incident.
For instance, a figure might be seen with a hanging neck, and it might emerge that one of family had actually committed suicide but this had been concealed, or perhaps there was a child lost or given away who had never been spoken of, and this was revealed.
Either way in a remarkable parallel way to constellation work, the bringing to light and embracing of the unhealed trauma led to healing, and in this case, following the completion of Communion, very often the one who had been exhibiting the symptoms was now able to fully recover.
Jeremy Thres © July 2008. This article was first published in “the Knowing Field- the International Constellations Journal” in 2008
Founder of the Earth Mystery Initiation School (Devon) and Regenco (www.regenco.info), Jeremy is particularly interested in reconnecting people with Nature, both their own and that of which they are a part. He has been involved in rites of passage work for fifteen (now twenty three years), witnessing the potential of these to support this reconnection at a deep level. He has worked with a number of elders both of this Land and elsewhere and trained in core-process psychotherapy at the Karuna institute. In terms of constellation work he has primarily worked with Sarasi Rogers http://www.familyconstellation.co.uk
[i] For more of Martin Prechtel’s incredible life story see his books: “The Toe Bone and the Tooth”, and “Secrets of the Talking Jaguar” Tarcher Putnam
[ii] Stephen Foster, author of “Those Who Have Gone Before” and with Meredith Little “The Roaring of the Sacred River.” Lost Borders Press
[iii] Another fascinating take from an indigenous perspective affirming similar insight, can be found in Jeanette Armstrong’s beautiful chapter concluding Theodore Rosak and others anthology on Ecopsychology, (Sierra Club Books 1995)
[iv] Thay offers an example around this patience and perseverance needed, relating it to working with children who may have been raised in a very tough neglectful manner. They join gangs and such like and are living in a kind of hell, and if you tell them that the world is full of love, they are just not going to relate to this and believe you… the love in a way needs to be quite tough (this is where those who have known and understood these conditions themselves can be the best healers) and demonstrated over a consistent period of time.
A small parallel personal observation of this has been working occasionally with “youth at risk.” Though we have had some truly brilliant and innovative camp cuisine, if you offer them highly nutritious food some of them just will not eat, preferring to hold off until there is a Macdonalds or something they are used to (no doubt many adults would be the same though perhaps not so extreme).
[v] A recording of this practice is to be found on “the Present Moment – a retreat on the practice of Mindfulness” Thich Nhat Hahn, Sounds True Recordings. Also included is a talk relating to Hungry Ghosts.
[vi] Dr K.McAll Healing the Family Tree, Sheldon Press, London