This is part seventeen of a series about the use of Yijing in clinical practice of Chinese Medicine.
Part 17 – The Ancestral Iceberg
Last time I put forward an idea that may have been hard to swallow: that issues in our ancestral lineages can have tangibly disruptive effects on personal health. In other words, I was suggesting that health is necessarily more than personal; that much as we might like to separate our stories from the big, messy web of life, there’s not much hope of doing so.
We’re intertwined not just with the living but with the teeming, beloved, hungry dead.
It’s not necessarily an idea I would have been sympathetic to myself, until some interesting events a few years ago caused me to revise my opinions.
A friend was dealing with a very tangled up, contested family feud involving a rancorous divorce and deeply-rooted issues of abuse and misogyny in his family lines. He was consulting the Yijing to try and gain some insight, and Hexagram 18 came up repeatedly. He reached out to me for assistance, and although it was a case of the blind leading the blind, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that ancestral offerings were being called for. Further casts seemed to confirm this. As we followed the thread, divining and exploring his family history, the whole affair smacked more and more of synchronicity. I at least had the sense that something unusual was unfolding. To make a long story short, we wound up making a full meal of ethnically appropriate foods and offering it at a local temple, the closest place we could find that related more or less to his heritage.
We served the abundant food offering on four separate plates—one for each of his grandparents’ lineages—which we placed together at a single table in front of the altar. Then, in effect, we invited the feuding lineages to set aside their troubles and partake in a meal. We lit incense and candles, sang and played music while they dined.
Although the direct impetus for this ritual intervention had been family strife, after the offering my friend noted a shift in his own mysterious personal health struggles as well. The herbal treatment he had been receiving suddenly started working, and his weird side effects abated.
I don’t mean to suggest that any kind of ritual is a cure-all or a magic bullet, but on top of a solid foundation of healthy diet and lifestyle, ritual intervention can create real shifts.
I’ll give one more example, this time from my personal experience.
I had been struggling with disordered eating, at the root of which was a feeling of not being nourished. There was a deep-seated fear of starvation prevailing even though it didn’t make any rational sense. Somehow I got the idea that I should make a food offering to my ancestors—and that in this case, quantity was as important as quality. And so I made an overflowing pot of rice, a pint of ghee, a wok full of vegetables, and plenty of lentils. I heaped the food on three plates, along with another plate full of fruit. It was interesting to note how much resistance I had to offering food in quantity: it wasn’t just the voice that said “you’re wasting it” (more on that dynamic here http://www.brooklynacupunctureproject.com/#!The-Whole-Pie/ccn/0C838D8B-3E1C-4B59-8C70-779A9004BA40). It was the part of me that said “They don’t really need all this…what about me?”
In giving all the rice and all the ghee as an offering, I went against the grain of this scarcity patterning, this belief that I needed to look out for number one and catch as catch can. There was a deep sense of relief, finally, in making such an abundant offering, demonstrating both to any hungry ancestors and to subconscious parts of myself that there was truly no shortage. As for my health, I noted a definite shift towards a healthier relationship to food, based on a greater ability to trust that I will be nourished.
So, our working thesis is that personal health problems are commonly connected to lineage issues.
For my part, I’m no longer surprised at how often Hexagram 18 arises in practical divination. Someone’s low back pain, someone else’s chronic psoriasis—the roots of these conditions are very often tangled up with the stories of our families and the unresolved wounds and traumas that we’ve received with our birthright. When these and other ‘ancestral issues’ rear their head, we may well find ourselves being called to address the iceberg lurking below the symptom that forms its merest tip. So, where to start? Well, I still have a lot to learn about ancestor work. But at root it’s about honoring and feeding our ancestors. There are many ways to do so, perhaps as many as there are families. Still, some overall principles do apply.
The basic ingredients of ancestor veneration are goodwill, love, respect, humility, and forgiveness.
(Can’t manage that last one? Leave it out for now and do your best to stay open to the possibility if the time comes.)
It’s good to have a place to make the offering, from a grave site to a quiet spot in nature or an indoor ancestral shrine (which can be as simple as a cloth, a candle, and a few photos); ancestor worker Dr. Daniel Foor likes to say that if you don’t have an ancestor altar, you become the altar; so setting aside a place for this work can serve as a kind of “de-possession”.
As for the offering itself, it’s nice to offer foods that our forebears would have appreciated in life: haggis and scotch (or a simple bowl of oats) for your highland clan, perhaps, or empanadas for your Honduran lineage. You can’t go wrong with flowers. Maybe the most important ingredient, however, is loving attention: through an ancestral offering, you are spending time on and with your beloved dead, reconnecting with them and strengthening your own roots in the process. This can take the form of offering them a song or poem, or simply meditating, remembering them, looking at photos. There’s an art to allowing the mind to soften, it’s hard, analytic edges to blur, so that our intuitive side can connect in with guidance from the ancestral realm.
In making space for this connection, we pave the way for the gifts and blessings of our lineages to be more accessible, and also for the wounds and disconnects to become more clear.
Opening this channel, we usually find ourselves with some homework on our hands. The possibilities are endless, and the work can seem that way, too: level upon level of resistance, understanding, and forgiveness. Families are complicated, and we each, after all, have many different lineages making up our own particular ball of string. Thankfully, there is an element of grace that can kick in when we devote ourselves to this kind of work. We do our best, and when we can do no more, help arrives in the form of a phone call from the blue, a telling dream, a sudden reprieve. The whole point of this work is that we’re never alone.
Coming back to the Yi as we wrap up this section on ancestors, there are a few hexagrams besides 18 Gu that have direct bearing on issues of lineage. Hexagram 50 Ding depicts a food offering on the ancestral altar (the positive side of the spoiled offering depicted in Gu). Hexagram 41 has “two offering vessels of food for the ancestors.” And Hexagram 59’s judgement text reads “the ruler makes an offering before the ancestral altar.” When any of these four hexagrams comes up, therefore, it’s worthwhile to consider whether ancestral issues may be part of the picture. Used judiciously, further casts can help clarify what’s at stake.