“In you are all your blood ancestors and also your spiritual ancestors. You can touch the presence of your father and mother in each cell of your body. They are truly present in you, along with your grandparents and great-grandparents. Doing this, you know you are their continuation. You may have thought that your ancestors no longer existed, but even scientists say your ancestors are present in you. …
“Your spiritual ancestors are in you because what you are by nature and what you are by nurture cannot be separated. Nurturing transforms your inherited nature. Your spirituality and your mindfulness practice, which are parts of your daily life, are also in every cell of your body. So your spiritual ancestors are in every cell of your body. You cannot deny their presence. Some of us have wonderful parents; others have parents who suffered a lot and made their partners and their children suffer. Just about everyone has some blood ancestors whom we admire, and others who had many negative traits and of whom we are not proud. They are all our ancestors. We may also have spiritual ancestors who did not help us and may even have done harm. We may be angry with them, but they are still our ancestors. ” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Some spiritual schools teach that within our own brain-mind is the thoughts or mind of our ancestors going back several generations. This is limited, of course, to what they were when you were conceived. In other words, anything your parents thought after you were conceived isn’t in those memories in you. The same with your grandparents and great-grandparents.
These ancestors within are generally not active, not conscious. Yet their knowledge can sometimes help us with insights into situation they dealt with before us. It is may belief that in most, if not all, cases of Multiple Personality Disorder, what has really happened to the person is that his personality has withdrawn so much that the personalities of ancestors are coming forward and taking control. This is all dealing with physical ancestors. Spiritual ancestors are another matter entirely.
It is obvious who our physical ancestors are, but what about spiritual ancestors? Do they really exist? Of course, we could go all the way back to the beginning of the physical universe and say that our spiritual ancestors are the fallen angels who created this realm. But I don’t think that is what the quote means.
Some interpret “spiritual ancestors” to mean those who think much as they do. So if they read an old book and find the author is much like themselves, they think of that author as a spiritual ancestor. Or it may be someone who was a great mentor to you in your profession. There is some merit to this interpretation.
Thoughts are energy and energy creates. The energy of people in past generations may have affected how we think. That could be said to make them spiritual ancestors. I think it would be more appropriate, however, to call them mental ancestors.
Spiritual ancestors might also be pioneers on the spiritual path we are following. If you are a fan of the poetry and philosophy of Kahlil Gibran, you might consider him a spiritual ancestor. If you admire St. Francis for his rejection of greed and his love of animals, he might be one of your spiritual ancestors.
I’m not sure how, as Hanh puts it, these spiritual ancestors are “ in every cell of your body”.
Some of our ancestors were good. Some were not. This is true of both kinds of ancestors. Hanh says we need to accept all of them. We cannot get rid of them, so we need to embrace them. This is true to a certain degree. But accepting and embracing them doesn’t mean we have to accept and embrace everything they did.
We might discover that one of our physical ancestors was a notorious criminal and murderer. That doesn’t mean we have to do the same. We can be civilized even if some of our ancestors were not. I know, for example, that one of my distant ancestors was a fur trapper in Canada. That doesn’t mean I have to start setting traps. I can accept the ancestor while rejecting the behavior.
On the spiritual side, we know that part of what we are puts us in the direct lineage of the fallen angels who created the fallen worlds of matter. We have to recognize that they are a part of us. But we can also reject their rebellion and return to God. In doing so, we can help return the fallen realm back to God. He is our most important spiritual ancestor.