By Darla Antoine.
This is the second article in a 2 part series – you can read part 1 here: Why Should I Heal My Ancestral Line?
(In part 1, I walk you through the benefits of distinguishing between your well and unwell ancestors, and of working to help the unwell ancestors become well. In this article, we’ll go a step further and talk about how to work with your ancestors as part of your spiritual practice.)
Working With Your Ancestors As Spiritual Practice
I’ve swallowed ancestral medicine hook, bait and sinker. It’s not hyperbole when I say that working with my ancestors has brought me more spiritual nourishment, a deep sense of purpose, belonging and support and made my personal spiritual practice and the spiritual work I do for others, more effective. It’s also gone a long way in healing less-than-desirable family dynamics.
Although I have done a lot of work around healing my ancestral lineages (again, see the previous article on this subject), a good deal of these blessings and benefits became open to me before I began healing my lines— just by beginning to incorporate my ancestors into my spiritual practice. Not sure how to go about doing that? Let me show you how.
Creating An Ancestral Altar Or Shrine
One of the easiest and time-honored methods for engaging with your ancestors as spiritual practice is to create an ancestral altar or shrine. The way I understand it, an altar is a place where you intend and expect to engage with the spirits invited to the altar. You’ll leave offerings and expect/know that your ancestors are energetically partaking in the offerings. You’ll meditate or pray at the altar and expect/pause to hear what the spirits have to say on the matter.
A shrine, on the other hand, is a place to symbolically (not literally) engage with the ancestors by honoring their memory. Not their actual spirits. If you are new to spiritual work or are at all nervous about hosting a living and breathing altar, you may want to first begin with a shrine. A shrine may look a lot like an altar— perhaps you’ll have photos of your ancestors on display, knick-knacks and other symbolic items. You may even leave symbolic offerings of food or water to honor the memory of your ancestors but you don’t formally activate the shrine/invite the spirits to hang out there.
Here Are My Basic Steps For Creating An Altar Or Shrine, Followed By Steps For Activating An Altar:
- Ritually cleanse the area/shelf you will be using for your altar or shrine. Use a little sage, palo santo or other incense/essential oil that feels good to you. Plain water is powerful and effective in its own right as well.
- Lay down a white cloth of some sort as the base of your altar or shrine. As each color comes with its own spiritual connotations, white is a great neutral color to begin with, but feel free to follow your intuition or your ancestors’ lead and change the cloth when you feel called to. The cloth is symbolically delineating the space between the sacred and the mundane. What’s below the cloth is mundane and what is on top of it is sacred.
- My preference is “less is more when it comes to altars.” You don’t want things to be too energetically cluttered or chaotic. Shrines have a little more leeway as you won’t be trying to hear messages from Spirit above the noise. I recommend starting with a candle, a dish of water and another item. A photo, relic, important ancestral heirloom, etc. Do not place any photos on an altar or shrine that include a currently-living person. This is energetically tricky territory as it essentially is placing the living person in between two worlds and can lead to accidents or untimely deaths. I’m serious.
- Consider placing an altar anywhere but in a bedroom. Altars can become a hubbub for spiritual activity, even when you’re not using them, and sensitive people may find it hard to sleep with the extra energy in the room.
Activating An Altar
Once you’ve set your altar up, light the candle (this becomes a symbol to the spirits that you are there and they are welcome). Take a few deep breaths, center yourself and then invite your well ancestors to join you at the altar. Inviting them aloud is most effective but if you need or choose to do it silently, it will still work. Just speak from the heart along the lines of:
“Ancestors, Ancestors, bright and well ancestors. I ask you to join me at this altar, to take delight in the offerings I have prepared for you and to engage in a relationship with me.”
I am personally really big on spiritual boundaries and autonomy. Therefore, I highly recommend also setting boundaries about where your ancestors can and can’t go in your house (bedrooms are off limits so that no one in my house is disturbed in sleep or dreams, for example) and if my ancestors ask me to do something or bring them a certain offering, I feel free to negotiate if it’s something I can’t or won’t do. The point being, that just because they are spirits, and your ancestors at that, doesn’t mean you need to do what they ask, without question. In fact, it’s very important that you do not. How do you set these boundaries? Simple— just talk to them as if they were a living and breathing person in the room, which also means pausing and being quiet long enough to see if they have anything to say when you’re done talking to them.
You can also say a prayer of dedication for your shrine, just being careful not to invite any spirits.
“I dedicate this shrine to the memory of my ancestors. May it remind me and family about where and who we come from and may we be a blessing to their memory.”
Something along those lines is appropriate without inviting anyone to come hang out.
Working With Your Ancestors
Spiritually speaking, it may take a few days or even weeks for you to really feel the effects or the presence of your ancestors. Making frequent offerings and praying at the altar regularly (NEVER offer your blood to anyone or anything if you aren’t absolutely positive about the ramifications of what you are doing. Make sure you’ve worked with the spirit long enough (decades) to trust them implicitly before considering it) may help strengthen the connection more quickly. It does take energy to cross the veil to be or communicate in the physical realm, the offerings (water, foods, spirits) provide energetic sustenance that helps give the spirits energy for this.
As for working with your ancestors, you can approach them as you would any relationship. Checking in with them frequently, greeting them, asking how they are, if they need anything or have anything to say before you launch into talking about yourself and your needs, is always great etiquette, with the living and dead alike. Aside from that, you can ask your ancestors for anything— they are the closest spirits to you that 1) know what it’s like to be incarnated and have earthly concerns like rent and relationship drama. 2) they are more invested in your safety and well-being than any other spirit because they literally lived and died for you. I regularly ask my ancestors for advice, to show me what would be helpful for me to read or learn next, I ask for help with my business, for protection on my home and family and for their blessing. And like I said at the beginning of this article, I’m hooked. Inviting and working with my ancestors is the single best thing I’ve done in my spiritual practice.
Other Ways To Work With Your Ancestors
The ancestors also like to communicate symbolically in synchronicities and in dreams or omens. Inviting your ancestors to meet you in the dreamspace can be a powerful experience and effective channel of communication. Once you’ve asked your ancestors for help on something, be on the look out for the answers. Book recommendations, podcast episodes, snippets of overheard conversation that sound just for you, etc. I encourage you to keep a small journal or pocket notebook handy to write down these experiences. Not only are they a great log to reference later, but overtime reviewing these experiences will reinforce that you can trust their guidance and your ability to receive it as well as show you patterns of communication— meaning, you may notice that your ancestors prefer to communicate a certain way— maybe through “random” songs on the radio, for example.
Darla Antoine is a mixed-race First Nations tribal member (Okanagan), an ancestral activist and healer, practitioner of the sacred domestic arts, mother and accidental homesteader in the high mountains of Costa Rica. Darla helps mixed-race and mixed-culture seekers discover the medicine, blessings and power in their ancestral/spiritual lineages. She does this by combining her spiritual work with her experiences as a mixed-race woman and expat with her master’s degree in Intercultural Communication.