The Sankofa bird of Ghanaian myth flies forward to the future while looking back at the past.
“We look back to move forward.”
– West African proverb
Many cultures encourage an effort to understand how the past shapes our lives. In the Akan language of Ghana this process is known as Sankofa, symbolized by a mythical bird that looks back while flying forward, with an egg in its mouth invoking the future.
In our childhood and youth we may have journalled (blame our generation for making that a verb). But writing every night – in a book, with a pen, the ink getting ever fainter as it drained towards the pillow – meant recording immediate reactions to daily experiences. Back then the focus was Now. Now the focus may be Back Then.
In our 20s we were too busy living life to do much reflection. And there wasn’t much yet to review. In our 30s and 40s we were busy juggling personal and family life with work. But by our 50s, 60s and beyond, many of us have less work and more time. Which should make us as free as the Sankofa bird to look back to our past and reflect on our lives.
Our New Old Selves may want to write our personal history. And if we keep putting it off, there won’t be as much of our lives left to benefit from whatever insights we gain.
Call it memoir or autobiography, many older people seem drawn to this kind of process. An emerging therapeutic approach called Life Review Therapy has been shown to encourage acceptance and discourage regrets in people nearing the end of their lives. Once older people begin to explore this way of reviewing their lives, results can reportedly be challenging but gratifying, even revelatory.
Rather than seeing one’s life as simply one damned thing after another, the individual attempts to see life events as systematically related, a life story.
I’m interested in exploring a Buddhist practice called Back to Beginnings, where you write your life story in reverse chronology (very blog-like). You start, typical of Buddhism, in the moment, then write backwards in time until you reach the moment of your birth. Then you start again and write about your life from birth to the present. Finally you review your life one last time, from the present back again to your beginnings.
May all beings be inspired and assisted in uncovering their own true nature.
That’s the Buddhist endorsement of the examined life that Socrates recommended. Perhaps we can offer each other some inspiration and assistance.
For the actual remembering and writing we’ll be very much on our own. So it may be helpful to balance that concentrated solitary pursuit with occasional input from fellow life reviewers. The idea is not necessarily to share details we’ve recalled about our lives, but to help each other with the process of reminiscing and then chronicling what we remember.
Maybe we can share our experiences here of the methods we find useful in looking back. We could let each other know if we’re picking up patterns in our behavior over the years, and how to apply these insights so as to understand ourselves better. And finally, whether and how looking back can help us to move forward with the rest of our lives.
Do you want to look back on your life? Why?
What would you aim to achieve?
Would you appreciate support from others who are also undertaking a life review?