“‘Don't tell me from genetics. What've they got to do with it?’ said Crowley. ‘Look at Satan. Created as an angel, grows up to be the Great Adversary. Hey, if you're going to go on about genetics, you might as well say the [antichrist] will grow up to be an angel. After all, his father was really big in Heaven in the old days. Saying he'll grow up to be a demon just because his dad became one is like saying a mouse with its tail cut off will give birth to tailless mice. No. Upbringing is everything. Take it from me.” ― Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
Have you ever wondered how you came to be? How the randomness of the egg and sperm that met in one sultry encounter created you? How is it that 23 chromosomes from a female egg and 23 chromosomes from the male sperm made me, you and all the people in this world? Yes, there are a few variations but for the most part 23 chromosomes from your mother’s egg and 23 chromosomes from your father’s sperm made you. Have you ever wondered just why that egg and just why that one sperm joined at just that right time of perfect cosmic alignment to make you who you are today? That wonderful, unique combination of genetic material morphed and changed and evolved into you. Not only do we carry our own unique pattern; we carry a pattern that is reflected in us by the actions of our ancestors.
There is a relatively new field of genetic study called epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.
These changes in gene expression are caused by pivotal events in people’s lives. Trauma and fear – climactic events in people lives – can cause chemical markers to attach to certain points on your DNA, blocking the expression of a particular gene. These blocks, which are made of methyl groups, also attach to germ cells – eggs and sperm – and so are passed on to our descendants.
The idea is that, say, your great great grandmother saw a ghost – she got a white streak in her hair. For generations after, everyone in your family was born with a white streak or gained one if something frightened them. The major studies into this new science have focused mostly on negative events – alcoholism, depression, and wars. Studies focus on how these traumatic events marked our ancestor’s DNA by changing the methyl groups and turning on DNA sequences and shutting something else off. The DNA itself is not changed but how our body reads and expresses that DNA is.
I wonder, though, if the same could be said for positive life events? How many of us have seen the video that is making its way through Facebook? It starts as a young man being shamed for stealing medicine to help his sick mother. A stranger, a father who owns a small shop that makes soup across the street offers to pay and gives the young boy vegetable soup and the medicine. It is hinted at that this man helps feed many of those who are hungry or down on their luck. It’s also clear that at times his daughter doesn’t always agree with her father when he helps others. It jumps then to 30 years and we see the same, now-elderly shop keeper suffering a stroke and his daughter who does all she can to help him. While in the hospital the soup maker’s daughter is presented with the hospital bill and must make the heart wrenching decision to try to sell her father’s business to pay for his hospital bill. While resting in her father’s room someone gives her another hospital bill. Only this time the bill now says “Paid in full 30 years ago with a cup of vegetable soup and 3 packages of pain medicine”. One act of kindness, I propose, causes an epigenetic change in that young boy, turning on the DNA within him so he could embrace the path of healer rather than remain trapped in the role of a poor street urchin.
Most of how we change the world is surprisingly mundane. I was at my high school reunion a couple years ago – my 25th… and I was talking with a woman who I had been loose friends with in middle school; she had spent the night once at our house - a very strange experience for this good Lutheran farm girl to be on the hippy hobby farm. We had played, done our chores and homework and then this amazing thunderstorm rolled in. It passed quickly leaving behind those magical puddles perfect for running, jumping and splashing. I grabbed her hand and dragged her outside and we played in the puddles until dark. What I didn’t know until 25 years later at our class reunion was that that evening of rainbows and water puddles changed how she viewed childhood, how it didn’t need to be all work but how important it was for people of all ages to play and have fun once in a while. It was a gift she passed on to her children. She destroyed her own image of childhood to create something new. I could have gone my whole life and not known that story had I not made it to that high school reunion. It is not important that I learned of her change, for most of us we never know the change we have inspired in others, but it was important for me to learn the lesson of that change and the possibilities it illustrated. Most of us will go through our lives not knowing the changes we inspire in someone and that is the beauty of being the destroyer and creator catalyst.
We all have stories from our ancestors – stories of their struggles, their love, their ingenuity, their fortitude, their ability to survive. Some of these stories we share with others in moments of great truth and exposure, others in time with love and humor. These good stories illustrate strengths that our ancestors have given us, have gifted us. Some, perhaps, have spawned epigenetic traits that we carry.
Some of our stories are bad stories, like stories of a crazy relative or of how mean an ancestor was while drinking. Sometimes these stories illustrate bad epigenetics – character traits or signs of addiction that we wish to destroy. Some legacies are better lost. Sometimes, with hard work and love, we can turn off those epigenetic traits, overcome them and help our families to leave them behind.
Let us consider for a moment these stories and gifts our ancestors have shared with us. We are going to make for ourselves ancestor bundles. A ritual that will help us destroy, preserve and create a change (and perhaps an epigenetic transformation) within ourselves.
For this ritual you will need:
Three strips of paper Three squares of cloth or coffee filters Strings for tying Pepper corns – what we wish to destroy Rosemary -what we wish to create Lavender – what we wish to preserve Candles
Create your sacred space as you need. Light a candle to your ancestors and, if with friends and family, share some of their stories. Share the good, the ugly (the ones you feel safe to share) and what you wish to bring in as a part of your legacy. If practicing solitary, journal or write down these stories to help shape your intention for the ritual.
Each person takes three strips of paper – one will be what you wish to destroy from your past, second what you wish to preserve and third what you wish to create for your future. Think about the gifts and - for lack of a better word - the curses our ancestors have given us. If you could destroy or remove something, what would that be? What makes you so tenacious, steadfast and dependable – what is it you wish to preserve? Finally what do we need to create for ourselves and future generations that we can bring so that all can see their true self – your Atman.
Take your strip of paper and a small amount of pepper corns and place them in a square of cloth or coffee filter. Tie it all up with a string. You will take this home with you and then get rid of it – flush it down the toilet, toss it outside where the earth will recycle it, or, if you have fire, you can burn your bundle. Let it all go – physically destroy that bundle. You have to really let it go. Your other two strips with the lavender and rosemary will be placed in squares of cloth or coffee filters as well. Tied up into a bundle (or two), you can combine your preservation part with your creation part should you wish - in one bundle or, if you prefer, two separate bundles. Listen to your intuition. Set one or both bundles someplace where you can see them - perhaps on a window sill where you work, next to your computer or on your night stand beside your bed. Make it a place where you can see them, reminding yourself what you are creating and preserving. The creation of new patterns within us is rarely instantaneous. Change takes time, practice and self-study. I find that a visual and tactile reminder, such as these bundles, help facilitate the desire to create such change within.