The way you think about money? It’s probably an echo of how your father managed his. The way you see your body? It’s probably an imprint of how your mother spoke of her own. The way you attach to relationships? It’s a process you developed before you were even conscious, based on how your primary caretakers responded to your needs.
Some of the overarching patterns we experience in our lives may not be inherently unique to us. In fact, there’s a growing body of research supporting the ancient understanding that behavior and genetic expression can be influenced by prior generations.
In the same way that we inherit certain traits, preferences, and characteristics biologically, we also receive memories, traumas, imprints, and patterns, many of which have a profound impact not only on the course of our own lives but also on those of generations to come.
The concept of ancestral karma is not new
Indigenous cultures have always believed that the experiences of past generations can affect us, to the point that shamans developed a healing methodology that involves clearing imprints on bloodlines. The Seventh Generation Principle is an ancient Iroquois philosophy that our mental, emotional, and behavioral patterns are influenced by seven generations prior to us, and our own choices can likewise influence seven generations in the future.
Ancestral clearing is still practiced today, sometimes using methods such as “constellation healing,” which is a meditative process of pinpointing traumatic events in your family’s history. Others might include becoming a “pivot character,” or a person whose conscious actions shift those patterns for good.
Despite the ancient belief, the science of genetic or ancestral memory is relatively new, though we have been alluding to it or theorizing about it for at least a century, if not more.
Epigenetics is the study of how genetic expression can be inherited, in the same way that the DNA itself is inherited. (Genetic expression is the process through which the “instructions” in our DNA are converted into a function.) Some studies show that “life experiences” can be passed down to children, though they aren’t directly encoded in your body’s essential makeup. “Survivors of traumatic events may have effects in subsequent generations,” writes June Javelosa for Futurism.
“Though we may receive imprints of past experiences through our cellular makeup, there’s enough malleability in our genes that through a variety of factors, we — and our surroundings — control which of them are made into functional proteins.”
Darold Traffert argued in Scientific American that genetic memory imprinting explains the savant; a person who has access to a “vast syntax and rules of art, mathematics, music, and even language, in the absence of any formal training and in the presence of major disability.” The theory, he explains, is that these individuals are simply accessing imprinted knowledge in a way that others cannot, and do not.
“It is high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously.”
He goes on to explain that in 1940, Dr. William Carpenter compared math prodigy Zerah Colburn’s calculating abilities to Mozart’s musical ones, attributing each to the presence of an embodied intelligence for which there was no clear source.
“In each of the foregoing cases, then, we have a peculiar example of the possession of an extraordinary congenital aptitude for certain mental activity, which showed itself at so early a period as to exclude the notion that it could have been acquired by the experience of the individual,” he explains. “To such congenital gifts we give the name of intuitions: It can scarcely be questioned that like the instincts of the lower animals, they are the expressions of constitutional tendencies embodied in the organism of the individuals who manifest them.”
Today, researchers are finding strong links between genetic memory and some chronic, pandemic issues in our society.
Professor Marcus Pembrey from University College London told the BBC that while there is “no doubt” personal experiences can affect subsequent generations, his own research showed it is also “highly relevant to phobias, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders” providing “compelling evidence” that these problems might be more nature than nurture.
“It is high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously,” he said.
In your own life, inherited familial patterns may take on different forms
Something you might not realize is that many of the feelings and beliefs you think are unique to you and your own struggles are actually rooted in past ideas or experiences that you didn’t know you picked up on.
It’s often subtle, which makes it hard to pinpoint, and even harder to heal.
It could be that your mother was denied a strong connection with one of her parents, and therefore, denied your connection to her. Now, your concept of parenthood is one that is inherently disconnected, furthering the discord between you and future generations.
Just because you might be aware you are carrying familial imprints — which literally everybody is — does not mean you are sentenced to dealing with them for the rest of your life.
It might also be that someone in your family went through a massively traumatic experience in which their livelihood or safety was jeopardized. This could be informing your irrational sense of fight or flight, wanting to protect yourself in ways that do not correspond to any one current or obvious threat.
Or it could be that you repeat certain experiences in an eerily identical fashion to how they have occurred in the past. This might relate to not speaking to a sibling anymore in the same way your parents did, or feeling some sort of aggression toward other extended family members for reasons that are not obvious to you.
These are just a few examples, and sometimes, the patterning can be even more subtle. It can relate to conditions such as chronic irrational anxiety, low self-esteem, poor people skills, a feeling of lacking something, and so on.
The role of the pivot character is crucial
Just because you might be aware you are carrying familial imprints — which everybody is — does not mean you are sentenced to dealing with them for the rest of your life.
In fact, the objective here is to become what’s called a “pivot character,” or a person who disrupts these imprints and creates a line of healing, going both backward and forward in your genealogy.
You might have seen this already in subtle ways, such as when you healed your own anxiety and relationships with your relatives improved. Perhaps you recognized your own tendencies to mimic the behavior of adults who hurt you as a child, corrected yourself, and then changed your relationship with a particular child or children in general.
Breaking familial ties, however, is often more of a personal endeavor; one we have to reconcile within ourselves.
1. Recognize the feeling that isn’t yours
The first step is to differentiate what’s yours and what isn’t.
That means taking a really good look at the parts of your life with the most discord and struggle — especially those that are habitual or presenting in a certain pattern.
Do you always have the same issues in relationships? Do you always have the same issues with your body? Do you always have the same issues with emotional health? If so, there could be a link there.
Often, these behaviors stand out to us, and not in a good way. In fact, we don’t know why we behave, or feel, the way we do, and yet, we are intensely affected by these impulses regardless.
2. Find out what happened
Once you’re aware of what the problem is, then it’s time to do some digging.
Ask any family members you may have left, recall experiences you had when you were young, or even experiences you can remember certain family members speaking about or going through. A lot of the time, you’ll probably have at least heard of any distinctly traumatizing experiences, though this may not always be the case.
At this point, you’re uncovering the root of the problem. When you better understand its origins you will be better equipped to respond to it in a constructive way.
3. Strategize a course correction
Though you cannot change the past, you can, of course, influence your own future.
By understanding what happened and how your ancestors were impacted by it, you can free yourself from those same binds.
If you understand that your mother was unloving because she was unloved, you can abdicate yourself from the responsibility of not being “good enough” for her love. If you understand that your grandparents lived in severe lack during the depression, you can stop feeling guilty for being comfortable, it’s really all they would have ever wanted for you.
Simply understanding why or how someone behaved or felt the way they did often sheds light on the reality of the problem, making it a lot easier for us to detach ourselves from its burden.
4. Forgive, release, move on
As you continue to move forward consciously, intentionally breaking these patterns by behaving in ways that are healthy and productive to your goals, it is essential that you also practice forgiveness.
We don’t offer forgiveness based on whether or not someone else truly deserves it, we offer it based on how free of the experience we want to be.
Forgiveness is not for them — it’s for us.
As we continue to change our current story, and in tandem, the stories of our past and future, we can begin to empathize with the circumstances of our ancestors and feel grateful we were given the chance to try to do things differently.
We are deeply and intricately connected to our familial lines, sometimes in ways far more complex than we could ever imagine. Understanding that we are not at fault for what’s in our cellular makeup, yet simultaneously responsible for at least trying to influence its outcome can be a very liberating and empowering experience.
What this means is that we aren’t doomed to repeat the past, but to keep this from happening we must consciously take control of our future.