Tapping into Ancestral Memory


Chances are, if you keep feeling reoccurring reverberations of pain, sadness, or the breath stealing power of panic, you have experienced the harrowing inhalation of ancestral trauma. Like sand through an hourglass you fall flat upon someone else’s pain. Despite our ability to stay strong during times of duress, we need to know the roots of our hardest undoing. Where did this pain come from? Where should it return?

This is the subject of Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, edited by M. Gerard Fromm (2012). This collection of essays on traumatic transmission builds on the idea that “what human beings cannot contain of their experience—what has been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable—falls out of social discourse, but very often on to and into the next generation as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency.”

Raw emotions that appear to come out of nowhere are actually being expressed from deep within our genes. The traumatic occurrences that our grandmothers experienced are actually transcribed into our DNA!

Our molecular biology is a literal receptacle for the arrows that travel across time. When the circumstances of our lives do not correspond with how we feel or relate, we can trust that there is an ancestral messenger asking us to become aware of the wounds we have inherited. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is a new area of scientific research that supports what mystics have long known: our minds contain ripples of the past lives.

Advances in neuroscience is confirming what mystics have always known, that lived trauma reduces the volume of the areas responsible for memory and learning, while advancing the neural circuits devoted to transporting the signals of stress. In order to heal, we must first create patterns of loving kindness around the parts of ourselves that have been hurt by trauma. Traumatic transmissions occur when psyche produces emotions such as unacknowledged grief, anger, or sadness. In the case of collective trauma, this can lead to solidarity among individuals, such as the children of residential school survivors.

"Transmission of trauma is the giving of a task. The next generation must grapple with the trauma, find ways of representing it and spare transmitting the experience of hell back to one's parents. A main task of transmission is to resist disassociating from the family hertiage and "bring its full, tragic story into social discourse."

Molly S. Castelloe, Ph.D, argues that a single descendant can be chosen to complete the task of healing intergenerational trauma. This may happen in early childhood, leading to significant emotional difficulties as their bodies become holding environments for past trauma's that their mind is not yet developed enough to process. Later in life, they will stumble upon ancestral memory and will have increased opportunities to conduct intergenerational healing.

Body Talk

The body remembers, the bones remember…memory is lodged in pictures and feelings in the cells themselves. Like a sponge, anywhere the flesh is pressed, wrong, even touched lightly, a memory may flow out in a stream.
— Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Our grandmothers and mothers were not taught to love their bodies. Perhaps many generations before, during the time of the Goddess, a greater reference was held for women’s wild flesh. But today, we must learn how to listen to the stories our bodies are trying to tell us, with the awareness that there are stories lodged in our bodies that may be difficult to understand because they come from a time and place far removed from what we know and experience on a daily basis.

I have been interested in intergenerational knowledge for the last 10 years. This fascination began to grow in university and was largely triggered by my study of the feminist movement. What I did not fully comprehend was that my falling into that wheel house of study was apart of a much larger mission to do ancestral healing within my own body/psyche. Many years earlier, I was charged with the mission of unlocking ancestral memory within my DNA. I do know know exactly when this occurred, only that I was on this path long before the age of 20.

How does one discharge this mission? For me, I began working through transmissions during an identity crisis. I was traveling in Israel, a trip that my recently deceased grandfather wanted all his grandchildren to go on. Although my family never lived in Israel and had left Europe before the Holocaust, they did experience the violence of anti-semetism. While visiting the Holocust Museum in Jerusalem, I experienced my first profound transmission. It came on, at first, in the form of a panic attack but I have come to know understand that moment as a profound rising of the remnants of my ancestors' trauma in my body.

Since that day, I have received more and more clues on how to work with ancestral memory and trauma. This entailed increased exposure to trauma in my own body/psyche, including two assaults and one near fatal car accident. Each time a trauma occurred, my PTSD became more severe. It has only been in the last year that I have come to understand my PTSD as apart of the ancestral transmission process. I am learning how to separate my own experiences from those that are being given space to come through me. 

Our DNA is a rich archive and generational information. There is a body of knowledge waiting to be unearthed. It is up to us to make this information relevant. By digging deep into subconscious realms, we are able to access ancestral memory. Within these memories are the stories our ancestors themselves inherited. Our ancestral or familial narrative is likely a complex web of struggle, migration, resilience, endurance, altruism, service, community, fear, and forgiveness. Our bodies know these stories, even if our mind does not.

Anxiety is actually one of dearest clues of stuck ancestral trauma. For example, increased anxiety during times of travel may suggest that an ancestor was forced to travel over large distance as a young child, perhaps alone. Relationship anxiety, fear of rejection or abandonment may signal a long standing practice of separation between mother and child, going back generations.   

Brother David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine Monk who witnessed so many traumas during World War 1 in his native Vienna. As a young child, if he was not tightly wrapped in a blanket, he would have an emotional breakdown.  His anxiety was so profound that it crippled him as a child. He learnt to follow his anxiety and learnt a great deal from it:

that is why we can look back at our life, not only at our birth, but at all other spots where we got into really tight spots and suffered anxiety. Anxiety is not optional in life. It’s part of life. We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it, and remember it, and say to ourselves, we made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.



Jen Holden