Guidance from Ancestors: A Practice for Our Divided Nation

Guidance from Ancestors: A Practice for Our Divided Nation

In the past few months I’ve been saddened by the pain and confusion the deep political divide has caused in so many of us across the U.S. Just before the November election, the NPR show This American Life devoted an entire episode, which they called "Red State, Blue State," to this phenomenon. Like in the radio program, during my recent travels I heard from folks of all party affiliations (and from none at all) who feel they lack the skills and the wherewithal to bridge the growing ideological chasm between themselves and their coworkers, friends, even family members who don’t share their political beliefs. As folks identify more and more by where they stand on the issues, too many seem to be losing sight of the fact that we are all connected, all still part of a human community living in a global village.
What is happening out there is much more than just election-year political bickering. It is a mounting crisis of community and of spirit. People feeling isolated or separate from one another, loved ones judging one another on a personal level for their political choices—these things dampen the spirit. Devaluing and dehumanizing, making another wrong, making them ‘other,’ unworthy of respect simply because of what they believe—this depth of grudge-holding is poison for communities. In fact, I believe this separateness poses one of the greatest threats to our future.
While the weeks following the elections have been dominated by news reports that claim the nation is headed for the so-called ‘fiscal cliff,’ I’ve been much more focused on this profound ‘chasm between the hearts.’ I don’t want to go off any cliffs, and I do want to get to that famed mountaintop that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of. And so it seems essential we reach out and find our way across this division. But how do we find an authentic, safe, and meaningful way to collaborate, especially when there is so much about which we don’t agree? I am not sure exactly, but a good start is meditation and prayer. And so I found a few extra minutes to spend on the yoga mat.
As I prayed about what could help shift this dynamic, I thought about Godsman Ellis, an amazing environmental justice lawyer I met in Belize. He is a Garifuna man, steeped in a deeply spiritual culture with a rich history of liberation. His descendants were survivors of a wrecked African slave ship, likely the Mokko peoples of Nigeria, who escaped and settled in the Caribbean. His is a community that has survived numerous attempts to erase their culture and their identity. His approach to the law and indeed to life is an alchemic blend of spirituality and justice, intellect and heart. A dear friend and I sat with him only for a few hours many years ago, but his powerful insights and the perseverance of his people echo back as solid advice for our country at this time.
First, he warned to be diligent in protecting against divide-and-conquer tactics. Unity among the community was key, Ellis said, to his people’s survival and capacity to withstand the many threats, from colonial oppressors to corporate exploiters. Unity seems so important now as we face significant economic and ecological crises that demand our attention and collaboration. How can we find ways to be tolerant of our differences and willing to look for common ground? And how can we stand up to those who seek to deepen the divide?
Ellis also encouraged us to seek guidance from the ancestors. And in Ellis’ cosmology we can ask for guidance and support from any and all of the ancestors, not just our own family members. Indeed, he said, any of those who have gone before us are available to us, standing by to have our back as we navigate the challenges of being alive in this time. I grew up Catholic, and was taught to pray to saints, but the idea that all those who had ever lived could also be consulted and appealed to for support was a new one for me. But it made sense, and I incorporated this into my spiritual practice.
It seems convenient that elections in the US are held early in November. It is said that during this season of the year the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinnest. During that season of Halloween, All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls Day, Dia de los Muertos, and Samhain, many a legend has it that contacting those who have passed over is easier than perhaps at other times of year.
So, inspired by the thought that the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest, I have found myself reaching out for guidance from the ancestors, and calling on bridge builders, change makers, and spiritual activists from across the ages to have our backs. Some of the ancestors on my prayer roll include those you likely have heard of (Gandhi, Ella Baker, Emma Goldman, Harvey Milk) and others that perhaps you haven’t heard of (Jeremy Paster, Jodi Bannister).
For the past few weeks my prayer has gone something like this: “Help all of us, ‘We the People’ to see that we are one, to rediscover respect for folks who think differently than us. May we all cut through the rhetoric and the fear and see one another as human, as neighbors, as partners in community. May we come to realize that despite the differences in our policies and paths, many of us seek the very same things: happiness, good health, a better future for our kids, safe neighborhoods, meaningful work, freedom from fear. May we find compassion and curiosity, playfulness and patience to listen to one another. And may we all take an active role in the unfolding future of our planet.”
So far what I’ve gotten in response is encouragement to make a commitment to this myself, and to develop a personal practice to make it happen. It’s still a work in progress, but here are the seeds of my personal practice to bridge the chasm of the hearts:

Practice "Metta" (Lovingkindness) Meditation: If only for a few minutes, I will practice daily between now and the Inauguration, with a focus on those who line up on the other side of issues that mean the most to me.

Practice compassion: I’m doing this by breathing and staying grounded and calm, even in the face of people who believe in ideologies and policies I think are dangerous to my values. I’m writing ‘easy’ on my hand to remind me to go easy and be gentle at all times.

Get out of my filter bubble: I plan to go out of my way to meet, listen to, and maintain eye contact with folks who don’t share my views. Building a practice of staying grounded in their humanity, I will be allowing myself to love them as individuals, even as I question their behavior or their politics.

Share my experiences: I will share honestly, out loud for you all, how it’s going. It won’t always be pretty and this isn’t easy but here goes!
And what about you dear one? What might you do to help bridge the chasm?
For some inspiration, listen to this brief report by Barbara Marx Hubbard, "From Oppositional to Cooperative Politics" and check out Bring it to the Table, a place where it is understood that ‘discourse is the best course.’

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