Ancestral Patterning: Opportunity or Fate?

By Jane Burns

Recently, one of my first cousins reported on our family’s Facebook page that he had discovered — thanks to 23andMe — a distant cousin of ours. Her great-grandfather and our great-grandfather were brothers. We reacted with wonder and excitement — what a thrill it was for us to locate this woman and offer her a seat at our family table! To make the discovery even sweeter, this distant cousin of ours, now in her sixties, grew up as a ward of the state and has been searching endlessly for her family — any family — all of her life.

Heritage is a powerful thing. We want to know who we are, and our ancestry seems to hold the answers to that question. But we should be careful not to view our DNA as the sum and total of who we are, or what rules our life and future. Our ancestry provides us with some raw material and potential — a starter kit, if you will — from which we can draw the experiences and challenges we need to hone ourselves, test our mettle, and become. The real drive train — the North Star of our lives — is our destiny, the thing that makes us completely and utterly unique.

If it’s true what the Celtic ancients believed — that we each have our own song — then, heritage is the key in which that song is sung. While ancestral lineage provides us with a frequency on which our song can actually be heard in this world, our family can’t teach us that song. Our family can’t even hear that song until we sing it to them!

As a shamanic practitioner, I have performed hundreds of soul retrievals on behalf of my clients. Soul retrieval is the restoration and safe return of lost aspects of our true essence that have met with challenge throughout the twists and turns of life. Having met many, many soul parts over the years and spoken with them about why they left and what they have to bring to the table upon their return, I can tell you they are all exquisitely singular and unique. They are no chips off anyone’s block!

A family’s drama or patterning may be the very thing that sends a soul part catapulting into non-ordinary reality, and the healing story that restores that soul part may well fan out and dissolve the suffering of that person’s ancestors, but the soul part itself is fueled by something grander and further reaching — the soul’s journey across all times and all lineages.

When we are told that we are stubborn like our Uncle Harry or as self-absorbed as Aunt Margaret, we are not so much hearing about our character traits, as we are the challenges or patterns we’ve inherited in order to incite greater growth and self-knowing, to provide the very mountains we must climb to gain more perspective and vision. 

We should not feel undone by the corners into which our ancestry paints us, by the patterns of addiction, abuse, misfortune, or dysfunction that weave through our family stories. They cannot define or diminish us unless we allow our own story to stop where our ancestors’ struggles also ended. If we can heal the depression, alcoholism, or self-doubt we inherited from our parents and grandparents, we lessen the virulence and power of that strain as it plays on through the family history. We turn down the volume, so that everyone’s song has a better chance of being heard.

And just as global history repeats itself, family history does as well. Oftentimes, people are surprised to learn that a grandmother or a great-great grandfather faced the same circumstance, suffered the same loss, or shared the same talent or interest as they have. We find ourselves walking a very similar path, but where we take that path, how we respond to that challenge, what we create from that loss or limitation — that’s all us. And the divine spark of creation vibrating within.

This is how we can become the hero in our own family’s history — by surmounting the challenges that defeated them, by growing their ambition beyond where they took it, by picking up their work where they left off.

It is fair to say we are never just living for ourselves. We live for those who made our life possible and those who will follow after us. If we believe that our personal choices will only ever matter to us, we are potentially imposing the detriment of our self-serving decisions on our progeny, repeating and reinforcing the failures of past family members to transcend struggle. We are stacking the deck against them.

But ancestral patterns are no more than musical threads within our greater song. How we create the harmony and symphony — that’s all a matter of soul yearning and destiny.

In my practice with clients, I focus much more on destiny and calling than I do on the impact of the ancestral past. To the Celtic people, heritage was not so much a fate as it was an obligation, a privilege, in fact, to do more and move beyond, to claim sovereignty over loss, not just for oneself but for one’s entire family line. 

It is good to feel we are connected to something, that how we live matters! That is the blessing of what we gain when we discover a lost family member or a forgotten story: connection, support, and strength, an awareness of our thread and place in the overall tapestry. 

As my family and I welcome our long-lost cousin into the fold, we will anxiously seek and treasure any missing puzzle pieces she may bring us. And, no doubt, these pieces will consequently open up more blank spaces and raise more questions than we ever had before. My hope is that we can honor those pieces and the souls who left them behind, by choosing differently, by taking up their unlived lives, by believing in possibilities they never dared to dream, and by clearing away the weeds and briars of despair in order to bring forward new and shining legacies for those who follow.


Jane Burns is a writer, practitioner, and teacher of Celtic shamanism and spirituality. Her introduction to the shamanic path coincided with a diagnosis of cancer in 1996. She began her work as a shamanic practitioner in 2003 and as a teacher of shamanic studies in 2006. Her book, Up A Tree, a shamanic novel and handbook, was published in 2014.

Jane has studied core shamanism with Sandra Ingerman, and Celtic shamanism with Tom Cowan. She is a longtime member of the Society for Shamanic Practice and serves on the editorial board for their journal. She teaches a variety of courses on Celtic shamanism, Celtic myth, and the Bardic tradition. She is currently at work on a novel entitled The Hungry Sea, which is a modern love story interwoven with ancient Celtic myth.

All of her work is inspired by a 40-year dedication to her own spiritual growth and path. Click here to visit Jane’s website.

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This article appears in: 2020 Catalyst, Issue 3: Ancestral Healing Summit