How have your practices been going so far? Since we’re still in the early stages, it’s ok if things seem unfamiliar or a bit awkward. Anytime we direct our attention to something new, our systems might resist the change in any number of uncomfortable ways. If you are experiencing this, remember to listen to your body, be gentle with yourself, and trust your heart! And, a sense of humor will help a lot too! 🙂
A common question about ancestor practices is how someone can still be an ancestor if there’s reincarnation and souls are constantly coming back to this realm.
One thing we need to remember when working with subtle dharma teachings is not to get overly literal and materialistic about them. The ancestors exist in the ancestral plane, which is a space in our collective consciousness. And, beings reincarnate into this material plane, which is also a space (although denser) in our collective consciousness. These two truths can co-exist.
So for example, even if you take rebirth, some part of you remains an ancestor, always capable of giving blessings. In fact, many of us are our own ancestors, and our children or grandchildren might be our loved ones come back to us in another form.
So when you connect with the ancestors, you’re connecting to those souls in that ancestral form, in that realm. You can even think of the ancestors as energetic imprints, as patterns of consciousness, rather than specific concrete beings who are stuck in ancestor form. They live on in the form of these conscious energies even when the individual soul/energy body reincarnates.
And, the growing body of research in epigenetics is revealing a lot of scientific insight into how ancestral knowledge, habits, preferences, and trauma are passed on from generation to generation within our physical bodies. There is substantial evidence that demonstrates that what constitutes our sense of “self” is absolutely interwoven with and influenced by the experiences of our ancestors.
So then the question naturally arises, when doing ancestor practices, are we connecting with ourselves, or with something outside of ourselves? And the answer is, both. That said, dedicated ancestor practice helps us distinguish what is the result of our direct actions and experiences, and what we have inherited as our ancestral karma. No matter how we understand it, we shift into a more interconnected, interdependent experience of self.
And this interconnection is not just experienced within human beings. In fact, can you guess who the traditional messengers who help us connect with our ancestors are?
According to our ancient wisdom, birds are thought to be able to fly from this realm to the ancestor realm, and can carry messages as well as love and blessing back and forth. Traditionally every animal has a particular spiritual power, and the birds are linked to the ancestors. Maybe it’s because like our ancestors, they can watch over all of us from above, and can travel to mysterious places beyond our ordinary vision.
Interestingly, the word for bird is पक्षिन् pakṣin, which shares the same root as the word पक्ष pakṣa. Pakṣa literally means side (and refers to a fortnight – I.e. what side of the moon you’re on). Birds also have sides – wings!
In particular, crows (काक kāka) and ravens represent ancestor spirits, and in some places it’s believed that ancestors can even briefly embody as birds. Crows and ravens are symbols of death and cosmic law in many indigenous cultures, so if you see one during this time, or during someone’s passing, pay attention!
The suggested practice for today (which you can also do throughout Pitṛpakṣa) is to make time to watch the birds, feed them, or just sit quietly with them. If a crow, raven, or other bird comes into your path or starts to engage you somehow, pay attention! Become present. Watch and listen.
The practice is not about projecting a story or mental fantasy on to them – i.e. we don’t want to start imagining that every time a bird does something it’s our great-aunt come back to us!
What we can do is listen closely and receive what is actually being communicated. It is not uncommon for the birds to act in unusual ways right after someone has been born or died. Often, this is ancestral energy manifesting as birds – so if you see them, offer your bows and your gratitude for their presence. You can also send your messages or requests for ancestral help to the birds (remember to thank the birds for their help, too!).
In fact, as we began writing this course, a huge crow came and sat outside the window for a very, very long period of time – and we have never seen a crow there before in all these months. After we thanked it and offered our prayers and requests for blessings, it quietly flew away.
Birds are very, very sensitive to energy – so you’ll want to quiet your physical and mental body, and step into the space of pure beingness as best as possible. From there, in quiet heart-space, receive whatever guidance or blessing is being given to you. Sometimes, it might be a clear verbal message; other times, just a quiet sensation inside or a feeling of presence is also an equally powerful message.
If you show up with a strong agenda or lots of chaotic mind energy, the birds will fly away as soon as you show up. So try to stay quiet and spacious, especially if you want the bird to deliver a message or request to your ancestors. Remember to be respectful, humble, and grateful in your interactions with the birds (and all beings, really)!
Lastly, note that offerings made to birds also go to the ancestors. One very traditional method to include your ancestors in your life (and share your abundance with them) is to feed the birds. It’s common to leave a small portion of whatever grains cooked each day (rice, bread, etc) outside for the birds to eat. You can also leave birdseed and water. As you put the food out, pray that the ancestors can be nourished in every way. Traditional beliefs say the birds carry that food to the ancestors on our behalf. So if the birds come and eat, rejoice and offer thanks!
If you have any questions about this lesson, or want to share your experience of this practice, you can do so by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teacher: Shivani Hawkins