“In our culture, we memorialize the dead, but we don’t maintain relationships with them,” said Shandaken resident and spiritual teacher Glenn Leisching. “Memorial Day is the only time that we honor them, and it’s just about soldiers. But all our ancestors need to be acknowledged.”
Leisching has devised a Memorial Day ceremony to honor the ancestors and to facilitate further engagement between the living and the dead, a custom of indigenous cultures that he feels would benefit people in modern society.
“Indigenous cultures believe that the ancestors communicate with us through dreams, intuition, and inspiration,” he explained. “You can invoke the ancestors at any time for support with difficult tasks. The hardest thing to do is to fully realize our gifts — we cannot do that alone.”
Leisching, a South African who has studied intensively with shamans in Africa, teaches indigenous practices of communing with nature and with the ancestors. He invites community members to gather on Memorial Day to remember the dead through the ceremonial laying of stones.
“Stones, by their nature, are the storehouses of memory,” he said. “Like the modern-day use of silica in silicon computer chips, stones have been used through the ages to store information for future generations. Each stone, symbolic of a known or unknown ancestor, will become a vital part of the foundation and walls of a shrine being built for our collective ancestry. Once complete, the ancestor shrine will provide a sacred space through which to heal and engage one’s ancestors.”
The ceremony will memorialize those who died in times of war and in times of peace, recognizing that all who passed left something behind in need of healing. The stones will become part of the walls of a chamber that will be used later in a four-day ritual of “ancestralization,” scheduled for June 13 through 16. Ancestralization is practiced in Africa for the purpose of clarifying connections with the ancestors, freeing them to journey fully to the Other World, and liberating us to develop the gifts we bring to our communities.
Having participated in a number of rituals in Leisching’s classes over the past two years, I can report that they often bring shifts in thought that help to resolve personal problems. The teachings come from Burkina Faso’s Dagara tribe, who, like other indigenous people, have a radically different view of death from ours. To them, the dead are still with us.
“When a person is going through the dying process, they recognize what they came here to do and failed to accomplish, and what they did that they were not supposed to do,” said Leisching. “The trauma experienced by the dying person causes their spirit to feel attached to this world in an effort to correct that unfulfilled life. They will bother the living until the emotional trauma is released.” Through ancestralization, the living make their peace with the dead and create a relationship of reciprocity.
The ritual is also designed to help us separate ourselves from what we have inherited from our ancestors, said Leisching. That legacy includes not only emotional issues but also a planet gone haywire. Like many political and spiritual thinkers, he asserts the need for a paradigm shift, a completely new way of looking at the world. Unlike most pundits, he recommends turning to the ancestors for that alternate understanding.
“When you go to sleep at night, the solid world begins to disintegrate, and you go into a more pliable dimension,” Leisching explained. “The death process is similar, with a letting go of the attachment to the fixed world.” He cited the reports of people who have come back from near-death experiences that revealed “vast networks of potential.”
He added, “The ancestors have that wisdom because they have shed the cloaking of the indoctrinated system. If we invite in their energy, we can stop sweating the small stuff and recognize that what’s in front of us is the bait. Instead of choosing the bait, we can step into a wider field of possibility.”
Leisching’s belief in radical transformation comes partly from growing up in South Africa, where he witnessed the crumbling of apartheid. He participated in the elections that brought about the country’s first democratic vote, and he studied the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed. “Within that process is the practice of forgiveness that allowed there to be a peaceful revolution,” he reported. “The African concept of forgiveness is resident in the practice of ubuntu, which translates as ‘Because you are, I am.’ This practice of ubuntu encouraged me to look deeper into African traditions.”
He arrived in the U.S. 19 years ago and studied at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper. During intensive meditation retreats, he kept having visions of African rituals. After a period of study with Dagara shaman Malidoma Somé, Leisching was initiated as a tribal elder. He began to pass on the teachings to his community in the Catskills. On a trip to Burkina Faso in 2011, he met the blind shaman Iro.
Leisching was told that Iro had disappeared from his village at the age of 16. Six years later, as he was being given up for dead, he returned from a cave in the mountains and was recognized as a gifted healer. Leisching found a strong affinity with Iro and became the first white man to be initiated into his teachings. He has also established a connection with a prominent Zulu shaman, Baba Credo Mutwa, who gave him the name of Baduza, or “the ancient rhinoceros who brought back the sun.”
Leisching reported, “Currently I am in constant consultation with both Iro and Baba Mutwa about reintroducing Westerners to their African roots.” Given that the oldest human bones have been discovered in Africa, he pointed out, it seems clear that we are all ultimately descended from Africans.
When someone dies, the Dagara respond with a long and elaborate funeral that gives people time and space to grieve deeply. If a bereaved person has not sufficiently grieved or can’t make it to the funeral, an ancestralization is performed. Otherwise, the dead and the living remain enmeshed, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and the ancestor cannot journey completely to the Other World of pure potential. Ancestralization frees both the living and the dead so they can have a mature, mutually helpful relationship, explained Leisching.
The ritual in June will give each participant the chance to ancestralize one male and one female forebear. Through a process of symbolic feeding, cleansing, clothing, and ritual healing of the ancestors, the living will reconnect with the dead and send them home. The ritual includes an all-night fireside vigil and culminates in a celebratory meal.
The Memorial Day ceremony will take place in West Hurley on May 27 at 10 a.m. beginning with a ten-minute orientation talk. Bring a meal and refreshments for yourself. Work gloves are recommended. For location and details, see https://villageoftheheart.com/.
Glenn Leisching will lead an ancestralization ritual June 13-16 at a private home in West Hurley. The cost is $275 per person, including meals and sleeping space. A discounted price of $225 is available to those who register by May 18. Space is limited, so early registration is recommended. For details and to register, visit https://ancestors.eventbrite.com.
Also, Leisching will offer a free talk Where are Your Ancestors Now? — on creating relationships with the ancestors for healing and for cultivation of our authenticity, Saturday, May 25, 2-4 p.m., at Sage Center for the Healing Arts, 6 Deming Street, Woodstock.