The Wild and Ancient Path: Coming to terms with a “legacy of shame”

Ellen Watters Sullivan explores how Buddhism and meditation have helped her deal with her difficult family history of slaveholding in Georgia.

Ellen Watters Sullivan
8 January 2013
Photo by Dean Hinnant

As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom… is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.–Martin Luther King, Jr., Aug. 16, 1967

I stopped praying when my brother Patrick died from drinking. Faith couldn’t hold him and my heart broke like a piece of glass so badly that I knew no God, no spirit, could put it back together. Patrick became “born again” a few years before he died. I still remember watching the Evangelical minister dunk him in a pool of water set high up above the modern church altar and pews — like looking up in heaven, all the glass and steel soaring up and up and glinting in the sun. I felt hope then and I even opened my heart to a Christian god. I prayed hard and believed in Him. Every time my brother drank, and stopped and drank again, I believed he was in God’s hands and God would do the right thing. I never thought God would let him die, but He did. I have not forgiven and I cannot forget, but I do let go a little at a time.

After Patrick’s death, it was meditation and Buddhism that helped me most. I asked for and received guidance at the Kurukulla Center in Massachusetts, where I practiced yoga and meditation at the time. There I was encouraged to continue the practice of metta, lovingkindness, as we often did in class. Sending compassion and love to all sentient beings on a daily basis was healing, and it brought peace of mind during that difficult time.

A week after Patrick died, I went one more time to clean out his apartment as I had done so many times before when his alcoholism had gotten him evicted and sent off to yet another rehab. I packed his stuff and carefully wrapped his artwork, piece by piece, placed them inside his portfolio, and carried them down the stairs into the fresh air, as I had done so many times before. I found myself thinking, with some guilt, “…at least I won’t have to do this anymore.” Since I was sixteen and could drive a car I would bail Patrick out, deliver him to rehab, and weeks later pick him up and help him start over. As this wave of freedom washed over me, I could almost feel him smiling; neither of us would have to keep this routine going, we both knew, and there I was on a small reef of relief in the deepest ocean of sadness I have ever felt.

Nothing my brother had ever done in his life seemed to warrant the extent of suffering he experienced with depression and alcohol. Patrick was a sensitive artist who only wanted to draw and paint pictures with extraordinary imagination and detail. His depressions would envelop him in blackness — the light would go out in his eyes, and the person who could see and create such colorful worlds in his drawings would disappear.

There was freedom in knowing my brother’s suffering had ended, and instinctively I felt and hoped it was the end of a long cycle of family suffering with alcoholism. Yet I needed to know why. Why had he suffered so? My brother, my father and my grandfather were plagued with depression throughout their lives, and they all died from some form of alcoholism. I tried to trace this in our Georgia family back as far as I could. What I found was not so much alcoholism, but a legacy of deep shame and horrific actions on the part of my ancestors.

In pre-Revolutionary America, the Watters family had settled in Northwest Georgia, pioneering into Cherokee-owned land. My great-great-great-grandfather, Col. Joseph Watters (or, “the Colonel” as he is still called in that area), fought and killed Creek Indians alongside the Cherokee. Later, he participated in the Cherokee genocide, and helped enforce the Indian Removal Act of 1837, which led to the Trail of Tears. During this period, the Colonel also began accumulating human “property” — African slaves.

In a recent visit to Northwest Georgia and the old homestead called the Hermitage (which still stands), I discovered these and other pieces of Watters family history that had been hidden for generations. It was the second time I had been there. My father had taken me to the homestead when I was a child and told me to remember it because it was where “we came from” — but he didn’t seem to notice the slave house in the back. (It had housed the slaves I later discovered existed through researching the 1860 slave census.)  He didn’t talk about his great-great-grandfather, the Colonel, who held those slaves and who had also contributed to atrocities against native people, nor did he mention the Colonel’s ten sons who fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side.

Piecing together this past, I learned that when Sherman began his march into Georgia, he targeted my ancestors because they were prominent and outspoken secessionists.  I see the longstanding cycle of pain in my family beginning here — after the Civil War, when the Colonel was said to have “… died a broken man ”after Sherman broke down the front door to his plantation and destroyed his land.

In her article “You Don’t See Me,” Jungian analyst Polly Young-Eisendrath discusses the “unconscious emotional patterning [that] is passed along the generations in families.” It is the “psychological karma” that Carl Jung believed helped transmit intergenerational pain through generations in families. And yet, she writes, karma has to do with intentional actions. Volition is an essential element of karma; it is our intention that matters in all our actions.

My discovery about my family’s slaveholding history shocked me. It was bad enough to learn it had happened, but it was even more shocking that I had never known about it. I hadn’t learned of it from my father, Pat Watters, who spent his life fighting for African Americans to attain equal rights — as an advocate, a journalist and an author. He promoted desegregation in the Atlanta Journal, and as a result all his relatives disowned him and our family. I never met most of my (then-) living relatives and never knew about my ancestors. And Dad never talked about our slaveholding history, not even to me, whom he talked to about everything.  He never acknowledged the wrongs committed by his ancestors, the harm they caused to those people they enslaved.

This inability to talk about one’s slave-holding past runs deep in the South. Until very recently, talking about slavery among descendants of slaveholders (as well as among descendants of slaves) has been totally taboo not only in the South but in the United States as a whole. It is a form of collective denial. Our family’s denial, and Southerners’ collective denial, can be seen as ignorance, or avidya, in Buddhism. “The twelve nidanas (origins of suffering) begin with what’s called ignorance,” Chögyam Trungpa said. “It is ignorant in the sense that our own struggle has not been seen. We are unable to see our own struggle properly and completely, therefore there is this notion of blindness.”

Racism and the legacy of slavery in the South has the blindness of denial at its core: the taboo of looking at and acknowledging our families’ roles in causing the human suffering inherent in slavery.

I believe denial of our ancestors’ legacy of slave-holding is the root of my family’s suffering – the depression and alcoholism that followed us for generations. This suffering, “unconscious emotional patterning,” was transmitted intergenerationally, beginning with the wrongful acts of owning slaves, then layered with unacknowledged shame, hatred, and anger following the losses after the Civil War.

Paradoxically, another branch of my family tree were Methodist ministers – Reverend William Watters was the first itinerant Methodist minister born (in 1751) on American soil. One hundred years later Colonel Watters helped build a Methodist church near the Hermitage. His sons Thomas and Will preached there in the same tradition as Rev. Watters, preaching salvation in the wilderness to poor and underserved people (namely, African slaves and Indians.) “The body is the prison of clay in which the soul resides… someday we shall be released from it…” wrote Rev. Watters in his conversion narrative. But can the soul be fully released when it carries such psychological karma as existed in my family?

Patrick died alone, but in my mind I can see the Reverends William and Thomas Watters, along with my granddad and dad come to gather him up and bring him home – the Methodists, the Evangelical, and the atheist all fighting for his newly released soul, riding high up in the clouds, free from pain and suffering and disease and hatred. Bring him to the mothers and the grandmothers who wash his entire being in a brilliant lightness and love, and take his soul to a special place that holds him until the spirit returns to Earth on the wild and ancient path of the soul as it travels in life and death and life again.

I don’t know if my brother’s soul is free. But for me, acknowledging the wrongs of my ancestors has given me a sense of freedom from a haunting past. Author and civil rights activist Lillian Smith said, “The human heart dares not stay away too long from that which hurt it most. There is a return journey to anguish that few of us are released from making.” Returning to the source, to the Watters plantation, acknowledging the anguish my family created and experienced for generations, I have taken off the blinders of intergenerational denial. This process has helped me restore my own personal faith, my ability to practice meditation and prayer again.

Sharon Salzberg describes the practice of metta as being a powerful experience in bringing inner peace.  She emphasizes the importance of recognizing the “…considerable power of intention we harness as we say these phrases… “May I be happy, may you be happy; may all beings be happy.” We are planting seeds by forming this powerful intention in the mind. The seed will bear fruit in its own time.” The practice of sending loving kindness inward and outward with intention creates change – volitional kindness, breaking through ignorance. As Salzberg states, “One of the primary conditions for suffering is denial. Shutting our mind to pain, whether in ourselves or others, only ensures that it will continue. We must have the strength to face it without turning away. By opening to the pain we see around us with wisdom and compassion, we start to experience the intimate connection of our relationship with all beings.”

Practicing metta is a way out of the darkness of psychological slavery and the blindness of denial. As I was working on this article, it came to me very gently yet intensely one day during meditation – a sense of understanding for my slaveholder ancestors – people who did such hateful things, yet still deserve compassion. Their actions were horrific and yet they are part of me. Metta meditation teaches that hating them would only perpetuate hatred. From the Buddha’s Metta Sutta:

“…May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another…”

Hatred – that which hurts us most — cannot change the past, but only feeds and perpetuates feelings and thoughts of hatred and ill-will towards others – the same feelings that drive racism. Salzberg states, “Compassion is the refinement of love that opens to suffering.” By opening my heart to the Colonel, I imagined him dying a broken man, suffering the consequences of his own misdeeds, and I found compassion for him. Metta practice has been the force that has helped heal me, through directing compassion first to myself, then to those I love and honor, to all sentient beings and finally to the souls of my slaveholder ancestors. Compassion for them followed – not easily, but gently, and in time.

After Patrick died, someone asked me how did I keep going – all my family dead and gone and no one of my blood left. They couldn’t imagine that feeling of being so orphaned, so alone in the world.  There are no words to describe the feelings, but when I let go, it is like drifting out in the stars without gravity holding you down, traveling the galaxy in the dark, just floating. Free like nothing you could ever imagine, far from the suffering of the generations before me. There is a stillness out there, in the wilderness of my family spirit, that I live in everyday. I’m still here. Still. Here.

Ellen Watters Sullivan

Ellen Watters Sullivan

Ellen Watters Sullivan is a writer and psychotherapist living in Vermont. She is writing a memoir, I Once Was Lost: How I Got Found, about her life growing up in Georgia and discovering her ancestors’ dark past.