Recently and out of the blue, I received a phone call from someone I was superficially acquainted with during my early years in graduate school. Beyond some news about people I used to know and a few juicy pieces of gossip, what was most interesting to me in the conversation was that it gave me a window of view into myself that doesn’t come along all that often. How do we sum up a life?!? It was interesting to me to listen to what I chose to say about myself and how I “summed up” my life from the perspective of so many years.
That encounter was the inception point for some reflections about the importance of the process of looking back over things (‘retrospective view’) and how it can facilitate the deepening of our self-understanding.
I was first introduced to the value of retrospective view from the work of the depth psychologist Ira Progoff, who devised a method of journaling to explore the significant paths of our lives by examining the “stepping stones” that led us from one point to another[i]. It is often only when we look back in this way that we are able to see the path of our movement towards goals which may or may not have been conscious at the time. By systematically looking back over the events and relationships of our lives, we can often see more clearly what they were for, what their purpose was in our lives, and the unfolding future that is encoded within them.
Similar principles come into play when we retrospectively investigate experience that comes up during meditation practice. In “Recollective Awareness”, a meditation method taught by dharma teacher and author Jason Siff, journaling is used to examine what is recalled from a period of meditation practice after the fact[ii]. By looking back at meditation experience and recording it in personal, experience-near language, we begin to see things about our meditation experience that may otherwise remain opaque. Over time, this process of recollection helps to expand the scope of what we are aware of and deepen the process of meditation.
In both of these methods of applied retrospection (Progoff’s and Siff’s), the process of looking back reveals aspects of experience that may not have been evident in the moment that they occurred. Indeed, many (perhaps most) meanings take shape only after the fact, when we look back and tell the story of what happened to ourselves or to others.
The incident related in the opening paragraph illustrates the process I am describing. In telling the story of my life in broad overview, I was able to see some implicit coherence in the pattern of life decisions I made before I knew what direction I was headed in or who I wanted to become. I could see how each step along the way had led me slowly but surely away from my early fascination with the brain and towards what felt more alive, vital and compelling to me: the study of subjective experience. Eventually I landed in what now feels like my lifework, but the path along the way was a winding rather than a straightforward one. More important than the particulars, in hindsight I could clearly see the arc of my growth inward, away from what was expected of me and towards the promptings of my intuition.
These observations have inspired me to explore and articulate how the process of looking back over our lives in broad view— life review— can be incorporated into awareness practice.
Looking back is an interesting process in its own right. If you explore how it works in your own mind, you will see that many aspects of experience escape notice when they first occur. To give the simplest of examples, when we meditate it often happens that we become lost in thought. But the event called “lost in thought” is known to us only after the fact, when it is retrospectively recognized.
While the present moment is the one that meditators are usually looking for, a lot happens in the moments that follow which become incorporated into our account of ‘what happened’. Experience is a complex construction composed not only of current conditions but also similar past experiences which the mind remembers. This is what the biologist Gerald Edelman refers to by the evocative term he coined: “the remembered present” [iii]. There is a great deal of cognitive processing that goes into shaping a present moment.
Experience is retrospectively organized in the mind into chapter-like narratives of past moments : episodic memories. These are the memories we engage when we look back and tell the story of what happened. That said, meanings emerge in particular narrative and relational contexts. The story I tell you about what happened may or may not be identical to what I relate to someone else. The story I tell myself may change as a function of something new that has occurred or as a result of my being in a different state of mind. And because memory is fluid and always morphing as a result of the context in which associations are accessed, there is a lot of insight possible in the process of looking back and reviewing how experience has gone down.
As the writer William Faulkner famously said, the past isn’t dead – it isn’t even past.
The process of looking back over life is both the modus operandi and the raison d’etre of psychotherapy, where it occurs within a dialogue which is intended to deepen someone’s awareness of what happened in the past and to expand the frame of understanding they give to their ongoing experience. But contemplative self-reflection can be undertaken for the same reasons. (Journaling is a useful adjunct).
There are many topics for this kind of contemplative inquiry frequently suggested by dharma teachers, generally focused on themes of acceptance and forgiveness, both of our own behavior and that of others. Along similar lines, the ‘moral inventory’ in the 12 step programs reviews wrongs which have been perpetrated against others and the process of making amends. In my own work, I have found it useful to inquire deeply about things which live for us as problems. With this in mind, for example, we can ‘sit with’ and investigate ways that we have been hurt or have caused hurt to others; or, instances in which we have lost sight of the better angels of our nature. Every problem has a life story, and there is a lot that can be learned by reflecting on them. It is important to become aware of what stories we live in and where we tend to get hooked. Looking back is a useful way to take stock of what is unresolved within us.
But problems aside, there are an endless number of interesting questions which can be asked with self-reflective life review in mind. For example, we can look back on important turning points; on our relationship choices; or on the progressive development of our identities. One interesting prompt is the question ‘If you wrote an autobiography, what would be its title and its chapter headings?’
Regardless of whether we deliberately invite a process of life review or whether it emerges organically, it is useful to notice the tone and texture of our memories of things. There are big differences, for example, between simple recall, nostalgic reminiscence, and painful rumination. We need to see not only the stories we tell about what happened but also the energies we attach to past events.
Through the process of looking back, we can cultivate compassionate understanding of what we have suffered and at the same time create space for the freedom that is often available in the wake of suffering. On the one hand, as dharma teacher Jack Kornfield has said, we need to give up all hope of ever having a better past. But on the other hand, it is also true that by changing the way we relate to the past, we can open new paths into the future. In the light of seeing clearly what has been, we can slowly but surely grope our way towards what we wish to become.
“Life is no passing memory of what has been,
nor the remaining pages in a great book waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years of secret conversing speaking out loud in the clear air.”
….excerpt from poem by David Whyte, “The Opening of Eyes”, in the book River Flow. Many
[i] Progoff, I. (1975) At A Journal Workshop. Dialogue House Library, N.Y.
[ii] Siff, J. (2010) Unlearning Meditation. Shambhala Press, Boston.
[iii]Edelman, G. (1990) The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness. Basic Books, NY.