As many people know, Shadowcliff is a wonderful place to write. At the end of July we hosted a brand new program at Shadowcliff called The Gift of Story: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography. Facilitated by Laurie Gudim, it was a calling to experience time in a group setting focusing on your own story. Below is a piece written by Laurie, giving insight into what she means by a spiritual autobiography. Be sure to get on our email list for announcements about next year’s program.
An individual’s spirituality is very personal and unique. While our understanding of life’s big questions, such as why we are here, might be informed by a particular faith tradition, we take what we were taught and make it ours. Eventually our answers to those questions are ours alone. They are forged in the crucible of life experience and therefore change as we grow in wisdom. In the second half of life what we say about ourselves in relationship with all that which is beyond us becomes deeper and at the same time more provisional. Black and white answers give way to an appreciation of mystery. We learn that our small ego perspective cannot really grasp all there is to know.
A definition of spirituality must be very broad. If, for instance, we contrast what is spiritual with what is temporal or corporeal we run into problems. In many earth based religions that distinction is meaningless. The Arapaho, for instance, recognize that ordinary animals who cross one’s path bring a gift of wisdom and insight. And in the Hindu religion there are thousands of gods, many intimately connected with a particular tree or mountain.
The attempt to contrast spiritual and secular also leads to difficulties. For someone like Thich Nhat Hahn, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, the spiritual is to be found in the quality of mindfulness we bring to all the moments of our lives. There are no secular experiences.
The ways of practicing one’s spiritual life also vary greatly from individual to individual. Some people worship a God or gods, others seek enlightenment, still others place great value in compassion and service, and many find spirituality in the study and experience of the natural world.
When we talk about a spiritual autobiography, therefore, what are we naming? To answer that question I like to go back in my imagination to the way in which human society was organized before the advent of agriculture. For thousands of years our species roamed the planet in small kinship bands, hunting and gathering. In that setting wisdom was passed along from elders to the rest of the clan through storytelling. The great events and the important moments in the life of the tribe were remembered and passed along from one generation to the next through tales told around the campfire. And when these kinship bands would meet with other bands to trade, the stories were a valuable commodity that would also be exchanged.
The task of the elder was to make stories that reflected the understandings they had come to over a lifetime. In telling these, they passed along their wisdom and knowledge to the next generation and what they knew became the shared knowledge of the entire group. Their ancestors had done this for them. Their children would do it for the generation to follow.
The advances we have made since humans settled down and began tilling and planting are very recent when we think in terms of biological evolution. In many ways we are still hard-wired to live in clans and get our wisdom from our spiritual elders. The young are hard-wired to attend to stories and to glean knowledge and wisdom from them. They crave our stories. And when we don’t give them tales of wisdom they will draw conclusions about how to live from TV programs and movies, many of which are soul-destroying in their messages.
So that is the spiritual autobiography; the passing on of wisdom and knowledge. It has another purpose as well, however. A good spiritual autobiography will teach the one who writes it. By putting it together we learn what really has been important to us and how we embraced that and where we failed. It will help to guide us as we go on in our lives. It will give us a clear picture upon which we can build in making decisions about what is next.
To Ponder . . .
Here are some questions to ponder in writing a spiritual autobiography. There are many techniques for ferreting out the answers.
- Where does your soul find it’s nourishment? Where do you find meaning? Sometimes we don’t know the answers to these questions until we sit down and really think about it. And sometimes what we think has been nourishing doesn’t agree with what our life experiences teach us about where we have been fed emotionally and spiritually.
- What are the stories that communicate this purpose and value in your life? When did you come to learn what you know about life? Who taught you? What large life events contributed to your knowing? How do you practice what you believe in? Is it through action in the world, meditation or prayer, deep listening, all of these? What can you say about how these practices nourish you? What tales can you tell about these questions?
- What techniques might help you to write a good story? Remembering and capturing the meaningful events of your life, recalling your interactions with important teachers and guides, and then finding ways to share these things are all important aspects of writing a good spiritual autobiography.
- With whom would you like to share your autobiography? It is not necessary to share your story with anyone. It can be valuable to you alone. But if you do decide to gift it to someone, it is helpful to think about what their context for receiving it might be. Because of the rapid advances in technology in recent times and the ways in which we have access to the experiences of people around the globe through media, we, our children and our grandchildren have been shaped by different life experiences. Do you remember where you were when John F. Kennedy was shot? Unless they were born before 1963 your children will not have had this experience. Do you remember where you were when the space shuttle Challenger exploded? It was on January 28, 1986, and while it might not have been of life-changing significance to you, your children, who through their school programs were following the stories of the astronauts may have experienced this as their first encounter with the finality of death. For them the event was huge. Knowing some of these things can help us shape and share our stories.
Spiritual autobiographies are tools useful throughout our lives. Because of what we can learn from the experience, it pays to write one on a fairly regular basis. Some of the things that we see and emphasize from our experience will change with each writing. Others will remain the same. Through noting these things we continue to learn and grow in self-understanding and in wisdom. And the valuable gift of our story will be available to our tribe to inform and nourish them.
You can learn more about Laurie’s work at Everyday Mysteries.