I mentioned, in my last post, that I was spending a lot of time doing martial arts and that my New Year resolution revolved around regular practice of those arts. The week of New Year was quite daunting.
On New Year’s day, when others were simply trying to glue their heads back together after too much celebration, I spent an hour working the footwork for the Japanese sword art of Shinkendo. My group is about to test for our first level and we are being prepared, in the inimical Japanese style, for a grueling test of our skills. On the 2nd, I spent two hours training with my kung fu school, aligned to the Ching Yi Kung Fu Association, focused on praying mantis for the first hour or so and then moving into Hsing I and then Ba Gua in the second hour. On the 3rd, I had my long (2 hour) Shinkendo workout followed, on the 4th, with another 2 hour kung fu class (the Friday class had been a make up for a class missed the previous Sunday).
Now, physically, this much martial arts training is more than a stretch for me but I found that, in the midst of getting my butt kicked on a daily basis, something more was coming forth. There was a spiritual aspect of this regimen.
Now, I am not about to go “all Zen” on you and tell you that I attained some sort of enlightened awareness. As a matter of fact, because I had been sick and was still on antibiotics for most of this course, I had times where I was hanging on simply to avoid being sick on the floor. I can not claim that this 4 day martial arts marathon was pleasant in any way, other than the feeling of having made it through another class. The odd, spiritual side effect that I noticed, came in the evenings, after practice, when I was nursing my well worked body for the next day. I became acutely aware of what I call the ancestors of spirit.
We are all, to some extent, familiar with the ancestors of blood. These are the genetic ancestors who contributed some part of their physical make up to the person who is you, the ancestors who belong to your bloodline. In many traditions, these ancestors are highly revered for the simple reason that, without them, we literally would not be here and it is part of our job, in taking this form, to work within that bloodline to strengthen and purify the line that we pass on to future generations. That work, the work of spiritual development and attunement, is something that is ongoing in our lives; it is not a job that is ever really complete.
As each of us walks through our lives, however, we come into contact with many others and some of those others are people that we choose to work with on one aspect of our development or another. Some of the groups that we work with or even join, have traditions and this is where the ancestors of spirit come in. In my case, the Japanese and Chinese martial arts that I am practicing have a long tradition of masters and students. As I worked through my practice in that week, I became very aware of a feeling that I recognized from the many Shinto temples and other sacred spaces that I visited in Japan, during my summer visit there.
I could feel the gathering of spirits around me and I could feel their approval for the middle aged white fellow practicing their arts and trying his best to put his feet in the right place. This not so subtle spiritual presence helped keep me motivated and I believe that, if I hang in there and persevere in these arts, the ancestors of spirit will start to assist me in getting those arts right. In many ways, it is as if the ancestors of spirit are gathering around to uphold me and encourage me during this very steep learning curve.
We see the same thing happen in the magical arts with people who come into a tradition that has some weight to it (i.e. it was not developed last Tuesday by some fellow who figured he might as well write a book). Those who have been initiated into higher levels of certain magical lodges can tell you of the experience of having their ancestors of spirit show up in the lodge. I know of one such experiencer who swore that, as he took his initiation, the room got larger and larger and filled with more and more people. Most of those people were not in the flesh, of course. I have heard similar stories from people initiated into certain traditions of Wicca as well as those who have worked with indigenous medicine people. The ancestors of spirit can be every bit as present as the ancestors of blood and, since they have a vested interest in the tradition, we who follow traditions of all kinds would do well to honor them and keep them in our thoughts, even if we do not choose to work with them directly.
Honoring your ancestors of blood and/or of spirit is not difficult to do. At a Shinto shrine, it is as easy as doing a simple purification with water and then offering incense to the Kami (spiritual beings of all sorts, including ancestors). When I was in Japan, I made offerings at the graves of each of the 47 Loyal Samurai of Ako. I found it to be a deep and profoundly moving experience and wonder if those ancestors of spirit did not have a lot to do with my re-union with Shinkendo after an absence of over twenty years.
If you are truly interested in working with the ancestors, both of spirit and blood, you could do far worse then exploring the Afro-Caribbean traditions. Voudou and its many relatives, understands how to treat the ancestors and how to make them an integral part of your life.
As for me, I am going to keep training and making my offerings several times a week and see what unfolds.