In a talk on Sufi contributions to planetary culture, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan poses that when on the spiritual path, we must ask ourselves “Where have I come from? Where am I now? Where am I going?”. When we think about our lineage, whether through ancestory, or the places we come from, it becomes apparent that many of us have lost the practise of asking ourselves these important questions. However, for Pir Zia, what’s missing is posing these questions towards the collective. As a result, we have positioned ourselves in a place of disconnection and displacement.
We are living in a time of modernity, where looking back to our lineage is no longer as important. Rather we are only looking forward, to what we need to acquire, to what’s coming next. Yet by only focusing on what is to come, we are forgetting the importance of tradition, land, history and ancestory. In ‘Unravelling the Stitches’, an essay by Kalyanee Mam, Mam reflects and traces her father’s struggle to find acceptance in the United States after her family fled the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. For Mam, assimilation within a new world (the United States) involved her father and family changing their name, “Our struggle for recognition and acceptance led many of us, including my father, to adopt American names. My youngest brother, David Michael, was born in the United States, so he was given an American name. The rest of us were “naturalized” as American citizens.” However Mam, along with a couple of her siblings and mother, decided to keep their birth names, “My mother also did not change her name, Vann Theth, which means “a nocturnally fragrant flower.” She was adamant about keeping her Khmer name.”
Here we find that person and place become woven together through name and language. We can either choose to assimilate and dissolve through letting go of our ancestral name, and the land that is part of us, or we choose to remain and hold onto where we came from. In ‘The Stories I Haven’t Been Told’ Jamie Figueroa writes, “Assimilation is a kind of annihilation, even if consensual. It is this trauma and the factors which forced it to happen that dovetail with the traumas of my mother’s life (and her mother’s, father’s, grandparents’) and echo in mine.” In the context of Kalyanee Mam’s family adopting new American names, letting go of their birth names becomes a form of assimilation, and annihilation from their lineage.
In the Lineage and Legacy call as part of the Advaya Study Club, we discussed an important perspective when it comes to lineage, specifically, focusing on the lineage of the land, rather than just centreing on human lineage as a way to connect to where we have come from. I found this a very interesting perspective, as it made me question, what would our connection to the natural world look like, and the land we come from, if we didn’t put humans at the centre of how we interact with the world. This was an important perspective shift for me, as when I have previously thought about lineage, it has always been from the perspective of human lineage, not the land or environment. When I think of the environment I grew up on, I know little about its history, despite it being a rich tapesty of stories and experiences.
Yet, can we separate our own lineage from the land we grew up on? I think our human lineage is ultimately interwoven with the lineage of our natural environments, and it would be impossible to separate the two. What comes to mind is Stone Henge. This land has a lineage and a legacy that runs far back, however, it was through the intervention and the relationship that people had with this land, that the environment was able to influence the relationship of people with place. The natural world becomes inextricably linked into where we have come from, and where we are going.
We must remember the importance of lineage, and our duty to leave the world in a better place than where we found it. We must remember the tenets of being a good ancestor, as Mam shares about the elder women in Areng Valley, “They only care about their land and this gift they will leave behind for their children, grandchildren, and all the children who will be born long after they are gone. They understand that legacy means dignity, not wealth. Integrity means love and community, not power. They also understand that their មុខ-មាត់ (moukh-meat) is a reflection of the diverse land and forests that they belong to.”
For those of us who have not had to assimilate, we face the question of responsibility and awareness, which can often feel uncomfortable. To honour the past, the present, and the future, we need to face the shadows that linger in our histories, and where we have come from. Reclaiming and understanding our ancestory can also look like unravelling. Unraveling the shadows that may linger in the stories of our ancestors, as stated by Terry Tempest Williams, “it’s time to face the histories that are mine, that are ours”. What matters is what we leave behind — looking to the future with a vision of care, community and reciprocity. To heal the past, be rooted in the present, and look to a more hopeful future, we need to give space to reflect on where we have come from, as a way to honour the places from which we came.