“May integrity of soul be your first ideal.
The source that will guide and bless your work.”
– John O’Donohue, from Blessing for One Who Holds Power
What lives on in our bodies, lives out in our lives.
There’s an animal part of our nervous system, that is alert and almost single-focused in its job. Its main concern is to keep you alive. It asks: “Am I safe?” This part of our wiring has fragments from the past writ in its instruction manual. Epigenetic studies show that memories can be passed on through 14 generations. That’s a lot of memory fragments of negative experiences that are encased in any body breathing in this current generation.
“Think about genetics as the computer and epigenetics as the software, the app, the program,” notes Dr. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and the director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Epigenetics is a short term adaptation that is a change to the program. That change happens when there’s trauma to a body. That body then passes those new genetic expressions on to their children. And so on it goes, for generations.
This means, you may be carrying in your physical experience of life, the experiences of those that came generations before you. As Somatic Therapist Resmaa Menakem tells us in last weekend’s episode of OnBeing, when these memories and experiences become decontextualized from the human in whom they originally happened to, they become like fragments floating around in us, part of us, but untied to the full scenes and scenarios (and body) from which they originated.
These experiences can be traumas, losses, hurts, griefs, hungers, abandonments, other deep stresses to being a human, and these fragments and bits of programming run in our software and inform and shape our current experience of life and also our beliefs about the world. This means your life may be informed by the losses your great great great grandparents experienced. Or, it may be informed by the injustices the folks in your lineage experienced.
The irony of all of this is that old adage–The things we have survived become the things upon which our survival may depend. Which means, partially, that these traumas, losses, hurts, griefs, hungers, abandonments, and other deep stresses that our ancestors survived long before us, are not only felt experiences potentially active in our lives, but they are also the very stressors on which we find ourselves repeating or being most comfortable within our lifetimes. We remember the hard stuff. Sometimes, feeling good can be such a new experience for our nervous system that we don’t know what to do with those feelings.
In some ways, we stay connected to those who came before us by being like them. In doing so, we have similar experiences to what they experienced. It’s as if the unresolved trauma gets picked up by someone else born down the line. And, that someone bears it often without knowing where it came from. (See also: Mark Wolynn’s book, It Didn’t Start With You.) The thing is: those experiences aren’t ours to carry on. Our work is to realize them and to heal them. Our work is to start what is ours to do.
Whether it’s about creating a better experience of life for ourselves, finding a better relationship to money and success, healing intergenerational trauma in our bodies, or beginning to heal the roots of racism in our bodies, this week’s podcast guest, author Rha Goddess, touches on this theme in her conversation with Jerry this week. She asks: “How do we parse out belonging and dysfunction and heal the dysfunction?”
This is the deep work of coming into the integrity of soul, as poet John O’Donohue notes in the lines above.
This work begins by asking one of Jerry’s famous questions: How have I been complicit in creating the conditions that I say I don’t want? What are the fragments living in us, like ghosts in the machine, that need to be noticed, identified in the body, felt, healed so that they stop playing out in our lives? What, then, do we choose to focus on and create for ourselves?