Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.
"Climate change is profoundly related to the troubled dead and the growing number of troubled ghosts now on Earth." When Oya, a Yoruba goddess of storms, transformation, and the ancestors, communicated this to me during ritual, I was taken aback. I've related consciously with my own ancestors and guided others in ancestral healing work for over a decade, but I had never imagined a direct link between climate change and work with the dead. The implications are still becoming clear, but here's what I have so far:
Environmental problems issue from human behavior problems. Human-driven climate change, mass extinctions, and pollution of the world's waters: these are all measurable outcomes resulting from ignorant and willfully selfish human choices. Specifically, many humans now hold the view that they are separate or in some way above the rest of the natural world. Others still see themselves as inseparable from "the environment" and, as a result, are less likely to disregard the ecological consequences of their actions, less likely to behave in ways that profoundly compromise the health of natural systems. Confusion about our role in global ecosystems directly underwrites damaging habits of dependence on climate-altering fossil fuels, and mending the illusory split between humans and the rest of the Earth is imperative for lasting policy and lifestyle changes.
Human behavior problems are the outgrowth of ancestral problems. Ancestors are the unseen mirror of living human beings, the deep spiritual roots of family and culture here on Earth, and the medium by which culture is transmitted over many generations. Ecological degradation is the physical consequence of confusion in the human psyche about our place in the larger community of beings. This confusion among the living is often a breakdown in the intergenerational transmission of healthy culture, a disturbance with the ancestors. Disturbance in soil quality translates sooner or later into trouble among the leaves and flowers; when the ancestors are not well, the living suffer in turn.
Ancestral problems often take the form of troubled ghosts. For those in the habit of intentionally relating with the unseen, ghosts are quite real. And due to a lack of respect for ancestors in modern cultures and the rapidly expanding population, there are more troubled ghosts on Earth now than at any point in history. Ancestral healing often includes assisting these not-yet-well souls to join the healthy and elevated ancestors. When this occurs, the psychic energy of a troubled ghost or "earth-bound spirit" makes a fundamental transition to become a bright and supportive ancestor; disturbance between our world and the realm of the dead heals at the source. This often has a positive effect on the living and on locations previously associated with the ghost-turned-ancestor.
It's precisely this leverage point, the need for transitioning the troubled dead, that Oya was emphasizing. Paganism, ceremonial magic, shamanism, and other earth-honoring ways often train practitioners to relate skillfully with the unseen, including with the human dead. For those with the skills and the willingness, she's sounding the alarm, asking us to help mend the unseen roots of human confusion by working on the ghost problem. In taking this call to heart, I've noticed that many strategies for ancestral healing also apply with respect to earth or nature-focused ritual work. To name just a few of the themes common to both ancestral and earth healing work:
Grief is a natural and ritually effective response to loss. Traditional rituals to elevate the recent dead often emphasize the benefits of grieving, including for the spirit of the deceased. Heart-felt grief, especially when expressed in the vessel of community, supports necessary closure and also provides soul-level momentum for the transitioning dead to reach the realm of the ancestors. The species that step into extinction every day on Earth, the tremendous habitat destruction, the overall decrease in ecological vitality: these are also irreversible losses, also beloved dead to be grieved and occasions for feeling the full implications of our relatedness.
Elder spiritual forces guide the ritual repairs. When I guide others in assisting their beloved dead to join the ancestors, the first step is to help them come into relationship with the already-well elder ancestors. These ancestral guides and teachers then step forward to receive the transitioning dead and welcome them in their new role. With ecological symptoms like human-driven climate change, this same principle calls for staying in dialogue with the elder Earth powers who will ultimately weather whatever we dish out, to contextualize the current troubles against the larger backdrop of Gaia as a resilient and intelligent deity and living system. On the level of practice, this means approaching healing rituals (for the human dead, the land, or both) as a partnership with elder powers already positioned to guide the work.