life story work – recommended exercise before a Second Half of Life workshop

Here’s a suggestion of some ‘work’ you can do before coming on the Second Half of Life workshop. It’s optional, of course. If you do it, I’m confident it will help you to get more out of the w/e.

When I ask people about their lives, I’ve noticed how many can’t remember certain details or what exactly happened when exactly. I’ve also noticed – from my own experience – that the more I remember, well, the more I remember.

In the buddhist community I’m part of (in the old days, anyway, it may not be like this now) we used to do a fair bit of life story work. I felt I really benefited from that. I’ve told my life story:

to a group I studied with, in 30 minutes;

over an afternoon, on a w/e away with people I worked in a business with;

and over a three hour long evening.

It was different every time. Either in how I felt about my life, or the aspect I emphasised. One time my family were writ large. Another time my focus was my jobs, and another my relationships.

All of these experiences though helped me to collect and integrate my life, and to stand back from it a bit and get a bigger perspective on it.

What better time to do that than before this workshop!

There’s all sorts of ways you can go about doing some life story work.

You could share it with someone else ie tell it aloud. You may want to make some notes beforehand, or do it on the hoof. You may want to record it (as I did my 3 hour marathon in 1995). I can guarantee it will help to decide/agree a time limit and ask your listener to not interupt you – except to give you a five minute warning.

In fact this is a great way to deepen a relationship (friends, family, partner, lover, whatever…). I did it with with one of my oldest friends (in both senses of the word) and found out loads about her I’d never heard before. It was wonderful. And helped me to understand her better (especially the things that drove me bonkers about her) and so be more easily patient.

This can also, of course, be a bit tricky. It brings up issues of truth telling, of being able to get back in touch with painful episodes, of the ability of both people being able to be with that. And of people’s ability to be able to simply listen. We will learn more about all this through doing the Way of Council on the workshop.

So you may prefer to do this work alone and in another way. In fact, I’d recommend starting like that.

You could try simply writing it. Notes. Or longhand.

Another method is to make a long piece of paper. Lining paper is good (and cheap), or sellotape some other paper together. You need a long thin rectangle. Draw a line through the middle of it horizontally. Split it up into five or ten year segments (segment size is upto you). Pop down your life, in words, or note form. And try to ‘sum up’ whether each event was (overall) pleasant, painful, or neutral. If something was pleasant put it above the horizontal line, if painful put it below the line, if neutral put it on the line. Please notice that I’m using the words ‘pleasant’ and ‘painful’, and not the words ‘positive’ and ‘negative’.

You may not be a words person or prefer a more visual way of collecting your life together. You could use a timeline again. Or do a collage.

Hopefully one of these ways will work for you. Give it at least an hour, preferably longer, an afternoon or evening. You’ll get as much out of it as you put into it – like pretty much everything.

We’ve all had painful episodes in our lives, some more than others. If you have had a traumatic incident you may well resist doing life story work. It’s up to you though I’d say give it a go and trust you will only get back in touch with what you are able to deal with.

And stories, including our stories, are not as simple as they seem. In my experience they don’t stay the same. Another reason for re-visiting things. Good for you!

The American poet Mark Doty wrote “What is healing but a shift in perspective?” And that may well happen. Stay open to whatever may happen!

I hope you enjoy this exercise. It’s ‘play’ really, not ‘work’.