As the Swedish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard noted, "Life can only be understood backwards."
At 55, I was provoked to undertake a journey. It was not a vacation in Bali or a plunge into living the expatriate life in Belize but an exploration that led me far into the inner landscape of memory. I didn't have to pack a thing. In fact, I already had quite an assortment of cargo, baggage and treasure I had been toting around with me for decades. It turned out that I wanted to take a closer look at all of it.
As the Swedish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard noted, "Life can only be understood backwards." For me, it felt urgent to take that retrospective journey. I have been meditating on impermanence and death as part of my Buddhist practice for many years but the topic of mortality assumed a keener edge in my mid-50s. Who knows how many more years I have? That's how I was thinking, even though I was only 55. We enjoy increased longevity these days, but you really never know when you're going to pop the cork. There were things I wanted to understand and heal while I had the time. I knew that meant taking an expedition into my psyche and memories. After all, "the unexamined life is not worth living," as Socrates said very long ago.
I can't say that I understood what I was getting into any more than I've understood a great many other things I've undertaken in my life. But I can say that excavating the archeological layers of memory has had many benefits in terms of greater self-understanding, forgiveness, acceptance and integration. So I've spent a lot of time living in the past. The phrase "living in the past" is often used in a derogatory way. Mainstream culture assumes that something is terribly wrong when older people muse about the past, turning memories over and over repeatedly. But it turns out that this bias is just another unfortunate ageist stereotype — and it's way off-base.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author and gerontologist Dr. Robert Butler notes, life review is one of the most important developmental tasks of later life. Butler calls these forays into the past "a naturally occurring, universal mental process" for older adults. "Only in old age with the proximity of death can one truly experience a personal sense of the entire life cycle. That makes old age a unique stage of life and makes the review of life at that time equally unique," Butler writes. Dr. Gene Cohen, author of "The Mature Mind," sees reminiscence as a critical brain activity that lights up the hippocampus. He remarked, "Autobiography for older adults is like chocolate for the brain."
When one embarks on this journey into the inner world, memory is the lamp that illuminates one's life as a whole. Life review, memoir and reminiscence are all pathways to deeper meaning, understanding and reconciliation. I am grateful for what I've learned and continue to learn from these contemplations.
Over the years, I've shared stories from my memoir "Songs of the Inner Life" in performance. Now I am about to publish an excerpt preview of the first three chapters of the book. It will be available on Amazon.com and at local Sage's Play events. I will also be offering workshops on The Art of Memoir and the Power of Life Review on a regular basis. The next one-day workshop is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 16. Please send an email to email@example.com or call 541-535-3084 to receive details and to register.
Sage's Play is also presenting a salon series this fall. The first gathering will be held on Sunday, Sept. 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Geos Institute, 84 Fourth St. The topic is "Is Aging a Disease or a Valuable Stage of Life?" Tickets are $10 at the door.
Gaea Yudron is director of Sage's Play, whose programs explore creative aging, wellness and spirit. Website: www.sagesplay.com.
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