There is only one thing that we can know for absolutely certain – one day, we will pass.
As you reflect on this truth, what do you notice? How does it feel? Depressing? Easeful? Quiet? Frightening? Mysterious?
No matter how you feel about it, the fact is that at some point or another we are all going to face our own mortality. In the dharma tradition, we try to remember this simple truth for a few moments each day, once a month on the New Moon, and once a year for a fortnight during the sacred time known as Pitṛpakṣa. This doesn’t have to be a morbid experience. All things have a beginning, middle, and an end, and death is a beautiful and essential part of the cycle of life.
Please note that this doesn’t mean we don’t grieve the loss of our loved ones, or that we need to look forward to death while rejecting life. Of course there will be sadness when we experience ourselves separated from those we love, even if we remain connected inside the heart. But the point here is that we can embrace death with wisdom and peace, knowing that we have lived meaningful, compassionate, and fulfilling lives, and helped others to do the same.
As we recognize that death is part of life, we also recognize that those who have passed are also part of our living world. We call these beings ancestors, and all of us have at one point or another felt their presence and love here on earth. According to this tradition, when people die, they enter pitṛloka – the realm of the ancestors. It isn’t a physical place per se, but a space within our collective consciousness, a space within the energetic flow of the universe.
From this place, while the dead can no longer grow or change their karma (energetic patterns), they can offer protection, guidance, and blessings to the living, and in particular their direct descendants. In fact, the ancestors are thought to be the guardians and protectors of life – they are said to be the invisible forces that help couples meet and fall in love, they protect children as they grow, they guide us to the right job, and silently support us as we fulfill your personal and spiritual goals.
Life is a stream, and we are all drops within it, constantly changing forms but always connected to each other, impacting each other. If your life feels stuck, overwhelming, or somehow unbearable, the tradition invites you to look backwards and remember where you came from – that you draw on your roots for the strength to soar upwards.
And it also asks us to honor our ancestors’ lives – not by repeating their choices, but by becoming greater than them – more wise, kind, brave, and generous. As we awaken from subconscious patterns of suffering, because of our interconnectedness, we also release our ancestors as well.
Each year, there is a special time set aside to connect with the ancestors, to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, so that life can flow forth in a good way. During this time, called Pitṛ Pakṣa, the veil between this realm and their realm is quite thin, and we have easier access to them than usual.
From tonight’s full moon until the next new moon, there are a range of practices you can do to connect with your ancestors and heal any unresolved karma (energetic patterns) that are affecting the flow of life.
Even if you’re a major skeptic, we invite you to try these practices with an open mind and a consistent effort. This is one of those mysterious areas where no one really knows for sure how or why ancestor practices are so powerful, only that they are!
Please keep the following things in mind:
1) You can do one of these suggested practices, some of them, or all of them. You can do each one as many times or for however long that you wish. You can also listen to your heart for guidance on how to connect with and serve your ancestors. As with all dharmic practices, it is your inner experience that is more significant than “doing it right” on the outside. So trust yourself, and do what you can with a sense of balance and harmony. There’s no value to hurting yourself while trying to help others, so choose what is best for all beings!
2) During Pitṛpakṣa, our attention turns towards death, the past, and the bigger picture. It is a quiet and austere time – ideal for reflection, charitable service, silence, and meditation. It is not the best time for partying, traveling, or starting new things. If possible, wait until the end of the fortnight, when we begin Navrātrā, the joyful celebration for the Goddess, who embodies life.
3) Remember that ancestors can be people within our family lineage, but can also include teachers, elders, mentors, or even animals who have passed. And since all of humanity is related within 50 generations, we actually all share ancestors – the ancestor practices you do are ultimately for all humanity, and even all life! We invite you to hold this broad view even when you focus on practices specific to your immediate ancestors.
There are 16 days of Pitṛpakṣa, and so we have included 16 different ancestor practices (Lessons 2-17). We will release a new lesson each day. If you have any questions, or want to share your experience, you can do so by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teacher: Shivani Hawkins