Harvesting the Evolutionary Gifts of Our Ancestors

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by Constance Washburn

A 40-60 minute “milling” practice for gathering the gifts of our ancestors of other species and our human ancestors.  It combines two practices in Coming Back to Life: “The Evolutionary Gifts of the Animals” and “Harvesting the Gifts of the Ancestors.”

Note: Spoken directions are in regular type; directions to the facilitator are in italics.  Please use your own words whenever possible.


So honored to be here with all of you. Much gratitude to all. The intention of this practice us reconnect with our ancestors and the long lineage of evolution of life on this planet of which we are a part. Not many of us in modern western culture know our ancestors very far back. We are isolated in time from both the past and the future. If we can’t imagine back seven generations, how do we think ahead seven generations? We must be able imagine those seven generations ahead of us so that we can be the ancestors they need us to be.

This practice uses our imaginations to take us back in time through our evolutionary history. We don’t need to know all the details of our ancestry nor the science of evolution to participate fully, because we can trust our bodies. Our bodies hold all the information from all our ancestor, human and non-human. We can trust our imaginations to know just what gifts we need from our ancestors to meet this uncertain time on Planet Earth.

This exercise is based the story of human and planetary evolution as told by modern science. Science is just beginning to catch up to the indigenous wisdom and spiritual teachings worldwide that have been telling us for thousands of years that we are all one, that we are all related and that Earth is alive and she is our mother.  Science now knows these ancient truths are indeed true. If the story I relate doesn’t work for you, please substitute your own story as we go along.

We will do this practice either standing up or walking around, if that is comfortable for you. You can spread out a little bit and if at anytime you feel like sitting down, please do. We will be standing/moving for about 25 minutes.

Ready for the Journey  

(Invite everyone to stand.)

Stand with your feet hips width apart and your hands at your sides or however feels comfortable. If you are a yogi, stand in Tadasana or Mountain pose; otherwise just stand like a mountain: Feel your feet on the floor and your head reaching toward the sky. Close your eyes or lower your gaze so you can go inward into your imagination.  We are going to go on a journey together.

Take a few deep breaths and settle into your body.  (Start music to be in background if available.)   

(Open with a Poem by Rainer Marie Rilke)

We are one generation through thousands of years,
mothers and fathers shaped by children to come,
who, in their turn, will overtake them.
We are endlessly offered into life: all time is ours.

Standing Eco-Sensing

Now become aware of your body your feet, legs, torso, hands, arms, head. The weight of your bones and your flesh against the floor You are very literally the Earth Standing.

All the food you ate last is becoming your body, and it came from the Earth. You are made up of elements of the Earth that have been recycled and reused for over 4.5 billion years. All matter, atoms, molecules of hydrogen, carbon, iron of which we are made were once in trees, rocks, oceans, dinosaurs or in one of your ancestors. Rest for a moment knowing that all that is you came from the Earth. Earth is very literally our mother who gave birth to us and all life–our oldest ancestor.

As part of the living system of earth we have co-evolved with all of life. We are all related.  98% of our genes are the same as a chimpanzee and 50% the same as a bananas. We co-evolved together with all our brothers and sisters of other species.

(Have people start milling around the space)  

Notice the others on this journey with you as you mill around the space… Stop in front of another person and take their hand silently.

Now take a moment to feel the pulse at in your partner’s wrist…the ability to pump fluids around your body was evolved in the first multi-celled creatures in the primordial ocean….

You can feel the beat of each other’s hearts. The blood in your veins is pumped by the big muscle of your heart. That heart was evolved by your ancestor great grandmother worm. Gratitude to the gifts of those ancestors who developed the many miraculous systems which make our bodies work. Bow to your partner and the ancestors who gave you these gifts.

Begin milling around again and now stop and stand back to back with another person.

Feel the other person’s back against your own. Now bend a little from side to side and front to back and now twist a bit side to side. Your ability to stand up right and still be flexible is because of the ingenious design of your backbone. It is solid enough to project your nervous system yet flexible enough for you to move. This spine was designed by grandfather fish so he could swim through the ancient oceans. Turn around an bow to your partner and bow in gratitude for the gifts from grandfather fish.

 Begin milling around again and now stop and stand in front of another person and– if it is comfortable for you–put one hand on the other person’s head.  If not, then put your hands on your own head.

Feel under your hand the hard skull that protects our amazing brains.  The brains inside that have evolved from different ancestors. Our reptilian brain came from our ancestor who crawled onto dry land and survived because of the fight, flight or freeze response they evolved. Our limbic Brain is a gift from our mammalian ancestors and it allows deep pleasure and a primal sense of connection to family and tribe…. Bow to your partner and the ancestors who provided you with your amazing brains.

Begin milling around again and now stop and stand in front of another person and take their hands.  

Feel and look at this hand and wonder at all that it can do…. It is the only thing like it in the whole universe. These hand evolved with our ancestors who lived in trees so they could grab the branches.  Put your thumb and forefinger together and that space is just the right size for a branch that will hold your weight. Gratitude for the gift of hands.

Begin milling again and come into a circle.

Now imagine climbing down out of the trees and standing on two feet. Look around. You are now standing with your first human ancestors. A very small band of humans from which we are all descended.  There is an unbroken lineage of grandmothers and grandfathers back through time whose lives have made your life possible.

Gathering the Gifts

Imagine you are standing as one of the first human ancestor standing upright at the edge of the forest and looking out over the plains of or the savanna.  What is stirring in her to push her out into the unknown without the protection of fur, fangs or claws to go out naked to explore the world…. She has only her brothers and sisters, her friends and family.

Now everyone turn to the right and we will move slowly in a circle to gather the gifts of our human ancestors.

Use your amazing hands to gather the gifts of these ancestors as you begin the journey forward through time with them.  Walk out of Africa and stay with them as they travel vast distances over land and sea to most every corner of this Earth….Some of this band stayed in Africa and learned to live in community on that continent, others crossed deserts and rivers, through forests and meadows, over glaciers,….. And reached Asia, Europe, North America, South American, Australia, Polyannesa and many other islands.   

They withstand floods and storms,… encounters with wild animals….Perhaps they were welcomed into a new community or perhaps they were driven away.  

Gather the gifts that helped them survive…..curiosity…bravery, ingenuity and determination, ……gifts of observation and leadership,  understanding and compassion, caretaking of the young and the sick…..endurance. Gifts of the hunter, and the healer.

And gather the gifts of those ancestors who stayed in one place and nurtured it and learned its ways, its animals and plants,  ….. gather the gifts of medicine and nurturing. Gifts of storytelling, deep listening, and community building so essential for survival….

Gather the gifts of our ancestors, the makers…. of those who made tools and fire and wove cloth…. Gather the gifts of the love of beauty and creativity of the art makers, singers, and dancers. Gather the gifts of the Wisdom keepers, the shamans, the elders, the midwives, historians….

Now we are coming into the age when some of our ancestors began to settle down in one place, to plant crops, domesticate animals and accumulate surpluses….build large communities, walls and temples… trade goods and travel again.  Walk with these ancestors…. as some were landless and some controlled the land… and gather the gifts of how to grow food, raise animals, and organize communities…

Gather the strength of those who built the monuments with their bodies and the genius of those who designed them.  Also gather the gifts that kept your people alive through wars and famine, through the rise and fall of many empires….  the powers to nurture, heal and help with births, and the ability to fight and kill and die to protect your family or to survive.

Walk with your ancestors who were at times the conquerors and other times the conquered, at the times the slave owners and at times the enslaved…. at times the oppressed and at times the oppressor…… Gather the gifts they all developed to survive. ….The ability to bear great sorrow and loss, the gift to inspire and lead. The gift of laughter,  The gift of strategic thinking and planning…

Now we are coming into the industrial era, the age of the machine …… For some of our ancestors it was a time of great discoveries and the building of wealth….. for others is was a time of misery toiling in factories or being forced off ancestral lands…. What were the gifts from your ancestors… those who just survived and those who thrived?.… the knowledge of how greed and fear can warp the mind, the gifts of sacred ways, the ability to love in the face of evil….   

It was also a time of invention and growth in knowledge in medicine and science…. It also was a time of forgetting ancient knowledge and wisdom.  Gather the gifts of your ancestors who fought to protect the land and those who fought for those in power …. Hard work, the gifts of the dreamers, adventurers, or stability.

Now we are coming into the generations whose names we might know. Some traveled great distances leaving homes and family to start new lives in new lands. Some stayed on the lands of their ancestors and some became homeless…. Some were forced off their homelands…….Some fought for the rights of others and some fought for the powerful and some hid and protected their knowledge and gifts. Gather the gifts that allowed them all to carry on their line so you could be here today…….gifts of responsibility, fortitude, resolve, creativity, daring, deep knowing of plants and animals, ingenuity, and morality……

 Step into the lives of your grandparents…. They may be gone or they may be living where they lived for generations fighting to protect their lands and water or they may have traveled huge distance to new lands for a better life for their children. Harvest the gifts they had that are now in you…

Now step into the lives of your birth parents, the girl and boy who will be your birth mother and father. Harvest any gifts that they might have and bring them with you to your birth.

Now step into your own life and your body and spirit which carry the gifts of your ancestors which are in you and all around you. Take a moment to harvest the gifts of your own life, your growing up time, your caregivers and teachers, your resilience, your intelligence and creativity, your determination and your deep desire for the healing of our world. These evolved through the positive and challenging experiences of your life.

Passing on the Gifts to future generations

Stop and find a place in the circle.

We all stand together as our first ancestor stood looking out into the unknown, into a future which is very uncertain. We face wars, extinction of species, climate crisis, oppression, and diseases. We also face opportunities for great change, liberation, unity, and love.   

Open your eyes slowly and look around. We don’t know what lies ahead but we go forward to face it together and we go bearing the gifts of our ancestors.

Stretch out your arms and hands in front of you as you are holding the gifts of your all your ancestors.  We are passing these gifts along to the future generations. Imagine in front of you your children or your neighbor’s children, then imagine in front of them the grandchildren, and their children, and their children. Generation upon generation of descendants carrying the gifts we have brought forward from our ancestors.

Turn to a neighbor and take their hand if that feels comfortable to you, find a place to sit down and tell them just one of the gifts you received from your ancestors. Or, if time allows, you can have each person share their experience for 5 minutes each. Then come back together with the whole group to share some learnings all together.


  • It takes about 30 minutes to go all the way through, with very few pauses.
  • This can be done standing in one place as a standing meditation or can be done seated in an auditorium. If standing, give people the option of sitting down, if standing is not comfortable. 
  • If people are seated, change instructions to have them feel their own pulse, backbone, head, etc.

Constance Washburn, MA, activist, educator, director and facilitator,  a student of the Work That Reconnects Since 1994: she has attended many intensives with Joanna Macy. Along with Molly Brown, co Author of ” Coming Back to Life – Guide to the Work That Reconnects”, Constance has been leading WTR retreats and workshops in Northern California since 2013. She is a founding member of the Conscious Elders Network, a Buddhist practitioner since 1968, and  a Community Dharma Leader.

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