This post originally appeared in the Llewellyn online magazine.
Honoring your ancestors, like any practice that deals with spirits, is a lot like cooking. Anyone can do it, not just people with special training. (That's a big part of the reason why I wanted to write a book about it!) But whether you're an amateur or a trained professional, you still need to stay in the moment and use your senses—or you might end up burning something.
When you cook, you don't just put your food on the stove for ten minutes and trust that it's been cooked perfectly. Even if you're following a recipe and the recipe says, "cook for ten minutes," you need to watch the food change color, smell it as it becomes more fragrant, and maybe even taste it to know for sure.
Likewise, when you do something to honor your ancestors, you'll need to be able to sense whether that thing feels right—even if you’re following a ritual script. For example, you'll ask yourself, "Does this feel right?" when you place a new photo of an ancestor on your altar. If the answer is yes, you'll proceed. If the answer is no, you'll adjust. I call these quick check-ins, "discernment."
If you don't already know what "right" feels like, discernment probably won't be easy at first. Thankfully, once you do know what "right" feels like, it becomes so natural that it's almost effortless. But, before we can get there, we need to talk about feelings.
Feelings and Spirits
Do you like talking about feelings? For most of my life, I sure didn't. I didn't even like feeling my feelings. So, when it came to my spiritual practice, I did almost anything I could to avoid them. I immersed myself in a world of intellectualism and consumerism. I thought that if I read the right books or bought the right supplies, then magic would happen automatically. I wanted to think and buy my way out of feeling.
Then, I started to meet mediums from different cultural backgrounds, all of whom told me the same thing: that they felt the spirits with which they communicated. Felt them as emotions, as physical sensations, and as things that started as physical sensations but transformed synesthetically into words or images. This gave me new context for the unusual physical and emotional sensations I had experienced throughout my life. I wasn't weird. I was just processing spiritual information the way a medium does.
That realization raised the question: How would I know the difference between my own feelings, the physical and emotional sensations I experienced as part of "normal" reality, and feelings caused by spirits?
In practice, there doesn't seem to be a clear distinction between the two, maybe because they are both categories of subjective experiences. Or, maybe because we are spirits with a physical form. In any case, when it comes to discernment in your ancestor veneration practice, it doesn't actually matter whether the feeling originates from your own spirit or an ancestor's spirit because ancestor veneration is a two-way street. It needs to work for both sides to serve as an effective bridge between the two.
Step 1: Establishing a Baseline
To perform discernment, you first train yourself to observe your feelings throughout the day. This practice will help you establish your perceptual baseline, which will make it easier to detect when something has shifted within or around you.
There's no fancy trick to this. Just pause from whatever you're doing, take a breath, and scan your body. Do you notice tension or energy anywhere? Try to give that a name and a description, like: "I feel anger. It feels like my stomach is clenching." But, don't try to change it. Just observe.
Here's the catch: thinking is not feeling. The mind loves to convince itself that it can do the heart's job. It can't. So, if you catch yourself describing your thoughts instead of your feelings, or if you start describing what you "should" feel instead of what you actually feel, then shift your focus back to your body.
Step 2: Discernment
Now that you have established your baseline and know how to identify feelings instead of thoughts, you can start performing discernment. This is a litmus test you can use whenever you engage with your ancestors: when you're working your ancestor altar, or making offerings to your ancestors, or performing divination to seek their advice.
To discern on something, perform your body scan twice. If you're discerning on something simple, like making an offering, do your body scan before and immediately after you do the thing and observe the difference. If it feels right, keep it; if it doesn't feel right, undo it.
You can also discern on something more complex that requires advanced planning, like a ritual or a pilgrimage. First do the body scan once. Then, imagine yourself doing the thing in as much detail as you can. Then, do the body scan again. Observe the difference. If it feels right, go ahead with your plan; if it doesn't feel right, come up with a new one.
Step 3: How Does Right Feel in the Moment?
Your "right" will feel different from my "right." Your "right" in one moment will even feel different from your "right" in another moment. But, there are some general things to look for when determining whether or not something feels right.
First, ask yourself: Do I want to avoid my feelings by turning to one of the following common distractions?
Food (especially sugar)
We compulsively turn to distractions as a self-defense mechanism when we feel something uncomfortable, so whatever it is you're feeling, it probably doesn't feel right.
Next, ask yourself: Am I experiencing one of the following inhibitory emotions?
Like distractions, inhibitory emotions occur when we feel something uncomfortable. They are our body's way of shielding us from that discomfort. So, whatever you're feeling, it probably doesn't feel right.
Then, ask yourself: Do I feel any of the following things that are associated with having an open heart?
If your heart is open, it's probably because you are in communion with strong, supportive ancestors who are sharing their affirmation with you. This is what we mean when we talk about something, "feeling right!"
Finally, ask yourself: What is my outlook on life right now? Do I see my present life circumstances, whether easy or challenging, as a lesson for me to learn from? Do I have faith that things will work out in the end, even if I don't know how they will work out today? A growth-oriented outlook, neither overly pessimistic nor optimistic, is a sign that things feel right.
Step 4: How Does Right Feel After the Moment Has Passed?
The most important part of discernment is how you feel in the moment. But, to confirm that feeling, look at what happens after the moment has passed.
Ask yourself: Am I inspired to do any of the following things?
To connect with other people
To help other people
To seek help from other people
To create art
To enjoy art that has already been created
To clean my home
To nourish my body and the bodies of other people with good food
To move my body in a way that feels good
To volunteer or give to charities
To go out into nature
All of these are signs that the connection forged between your ancestors and your own spirit has moved you in the direction of growth and healing. And that's definitely what feels right.
For even more ways to commune with your ancestors, check out my book, Honoring Your Ancestors: A Guide to Ancestral Veneration. The book shares techniques to help you connect to your ancestors. You'll learn how to develop your own personal style for honoring them through altars and offerings, seeking their guidance through mediumship, and invoking their power through ritual.