Going back for a university reunion: emotional archaeology unearths a treasure trove of insights & new directions (6th post)
Last updated on 25th September 2014
This is the sixth and final blog post about going back to my old university for a reunion dinner. I wrote three posts last month and a further couple earlier this month. In the first post of the series, I said: "I've never been back for any kind of reunion before ... not to school, not to university, not to medical college. Why not ... and why am I going back now? I'm a medical doctor, but primarily I work as a psychotherapist ... as a specialist in stress, health & wellbeing. I'm also a fan of Irvin Yalom, Stanford university psychiatry professor and author of a series of wonderful books. I blame Irvin for my change of heart about reunions. He has commented that he routinely encourages his clients to accept invitations to go back to school or university. He says it tends to stir up so many memories & feelings ... rich sources of potential insights for the psychotherapy process. And this is the primary conscious reason I'm going back. To see what it brings up. I have described this kind of "site visit" as relevant in treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder and I highlighted how this overlaps with current developments in narrative therapy."
Well I've been back and it has yielded a treasure trove of insights and potential new directions. I think Irvin was damn right. This kind of emotional archaeology has the potential to dig out so much that can be helpful. For me it's been great. Much richer, more moving, more surprising and more fun than I ever imagined. So what have I learned ... and what do I want to do about it? Well loosely I sort the treasure trove into three collections. There's the obvious area of what the more experienced current version of myself now understands that the student version of myself didn't and what the implications of that can be now. There's the more surprising area of what my student self has to say to remind my current self of what I've partly forgotten. And then, freshest of all is the area of insight & possible directions that neither student or current self were in touch with and that emerged from my new experience of going back to the university last weekend.
So first, what would I like to do, now that my current self has revisited those old student haunts? My current self values relationships, looks after them, maintains them much more than that "be here now" twenty year old did - see, for example, the posts on relationships detailed in "Update on website traffic: my own favourite top 15". I'm quite jealous of how my children have kept up their old university friendships much more caringly than I ever did. And here's a chance to dip back in. I intend to do three things - 1.) try to make contact with the friendly psychiatrist & filmmaker who I met at dinner last weekend. 2.) ask the College if I can go back to the reunion dinner in 2017 that will overlap better with the medical students that I studied with (because I changed to medicine after two years reading philosophy, the doctors at this year's dinner hadn't actually read medicine with me). 3.) probably most enterprising would be to follow through on an old pipe dream of mine ... to arrange my own university reunion. My old friends belonged to a whole series of different Cambridge Colleges and they have scattered to all corners of the earth. I intend to try to recontact a bunch of them and see if they would like to come back for a weekend in Cambridge next year. We can decide how we want to spend the time together, and potentially it could be a much deeper, more celebratory get-together than my gathering last weekend with a group of comparative strangers.
How about the reminders from my student to my current self? There's potentially an awful lot here. Options include 4.) experimenting with taking a day every so often when I explore "just being", a bit as I did in those old ecstatic pilgrimages to Trinity Fellows Garden (see November's post "A day spent "idle and blessed": report of an experiment" for more on how this developed). I want to remember Mary Oliver's words "I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I intend to explore making more time for "strolling through the fields ... all day ... (in this) one wild and precious life." And 5.) in my work as a therapist, I think there are riches to be had from emphasising the "transpersonal" more. Jennifer Crocker's research is full of insights here ... see the post "Recent research: egosystem & ecosystem", and many of her papers, for example "Contingencies of self-worth and depressive symptoms", "Creating and undermining social support in communal relationships: the role of compassionate and self-image goals", "Creating good relationships: responsiveness, relationship quality, and interpersonal goals" & "Two types of value-affirmation: Implications for self-control following social exclusion". Encouraging a more transpersonal focus (for example compassion for others, gratitude & appreciation, and creativity) rather than just a personal focus (for example self-esteem, self-compassion & personal achievement) can also be worked with adapting ideas from posts like "Power objects, power postures, power clothes, power prayers: all ways to facilitate change", "Boosting self-compassion ... " and "Building willpower: the eight pillars". Of course, exercises that help people clarify (often transpersonal) values & goals also very much open up this area. Examples include the "Respected figures" and "Funeral speeches" exercises. 6.) Specifically I intend to explore savouring, gratitude & appreciation more deeply - see books like Robert Emmons's "Thanks! How practicing gratitude can make you happier", Charles Shelton's "The gratitude factor", and Margaret Visser's "The gift of thanks" as well as posts like "Savouring, mindfulness, flow & positive emotions" and well-used methods such as the "Gratitude & appreciation record". 7.) I also want to continue to look at forms of meditation beyond the current very worthwhile, but somewhat limited focus on mindfulness. There are a variety of fairly tantalising research papers that are relevant here including some in the recent edition of the Journal of Behavioral Medicine's devoted to "Spirituality in behavioral medicine research". That seems like plenty to be going on with!
And for new learning? There was something a bit magical about being a little "out of step" wearing a kilt to the reunion dinner, and yet ending up welcomed onto the high table between the college master and the senior fellow. At the end of the last post "Going back for a university reunion: I couldn't have imagined the script if I'd tried" I wrote ""If I can be myself, but not distance myself, not protect myself unnecessarily then there's a chance of meeting ... and that can be such a joy." In Emotion-Focused Narrative Therapy - an approach I'm exploring at the moment - they talk about the "meaning making" marker "Unexpected outcome stories" and the way this allows a "sensing and seeing of new possibilities". An old pattern of mine is a tendency to see myself as "standing against" the status quo. It was certainly evident at university. And actually this "standing against" often makes very good sense ... in the broad, crazy, ecological situation humanity has got itself into, in the injustice so common in human societies, in the over-biological emphasis of so much medicine, in the shallow, sad relationships we so frequently generate, and in the deeply unhealthy lifestyles so many of us live. But "standing against" may well often not be as helpful or compassionate as "standing alongside" ... certainly not selling out & losing our outrage, but making the outrage compassionate, making if "for us" not "against them". Yup, plenty to learn, to explore. A precious set of experiences triggered by going back and reflecting on what this throws up.