It is well known that the borders of a child’s psyche are highly permeable. Like the feelings that echo between people—what we now call mirror neurons—mental images can be transferred from parents and other adults to younger generations. Although actual memories are not transferred, it is not uncommon for parents and caregivers who have experienced extreme psychic trauma to transmit to a child what has been called an image deposit, that is, a mental picture of the excruciating events that they and others from their group have endured.
Mental pictures—like the Twin Towers in flames on 9-11—and the strong feelings that they evoke, can be passed from generation to generation, becoming part of the internal reality of descendants. Imagine seeing one’s home demolished before one’s eyes, or one’s town burned to the ground. These are experiences that rarely dissipate. In my case, the legacy of my father’s trauma at the liberation of Buchenwald—what he saw, the terror he felt, and the rage that ensued over the dehumanization of his people: These all became part of my visceral inheritance.
If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
I had a friend who—even while in our orthodox high school—began to gamble. He would sneak out at odd times, as if under some mysterious spell, to go bet on horses, blackjack, anything at all. Later he found out that he had an uncle (whom he had never met) who was an incorrigible gambler. He had died young and apparently never finished his game. My friend seemed to have picked up his hand!
All of us carry the imprint of our ancestors, their wisdom as well as their pain. It’s part of being in the human family. For years I ran from this truth. I felt the willies when I thought of the weirdness in my lineage and didn’t want anything to do with it. Now I am learning to face my ancestors—and by this I mean all who have gone before me, like my brother and sister who died young. I am learning to call them by name, honor them, and even ask them to be my allies.
Throughout our lives we store thoughts, emotions and past memories below the floorboards of our conscious minds. And not only our own, but also the stored material of our parents and grandparents live beneath the surface of our awareness in what I call the ancestral realm.
A beloved teacher of mine in the world of Jungian psychology once told me this dream:
I am in an unrelenting storm of whirling energy. Everyone is panicking, running about helter-skelter, desperately seeking shelter or escape. Every so often, a bolt of blue electricity tears through the crowd like a buzz saw, threatening anyone in its path. In the midst of the pandemonium I stop to notice that this spiral nightmare is like a crazy amusement park ride, and that everyone has a seat. I quickly find my own and climb into it. No sooner do I click into my place then everyone around me stops running and finds their own seat. Things slow down. The blue bolts of lightning soften and stop and calm takes over.
How like the world these days! Faster and faster we spin, breathless to keep up, to outpace what feels like an inevitable calamity ready to strike at any time. When we are out of our seat, our center, askew from the ground of our being, the world around us can be too much to bear.
But if we—like the dreamer—can take a minute to stop, notice, and click into our own selves, come back down into our authentic place, we may notice that the world around us responds in like measure.