Think back. What was going on in your life twelve years ago, in 2000? How about 1988? One way to structure a spiritual autobiography is to use the twelve year cycle of the Asian calendar as a way to reflect on our lives. This is the year of the Dragon. Rather than relying on a place mat in a Chinese restaurant, we can discover our personal dragon themes by going back in time and noticing what happened last time it visited us, and the time before.
The beauty of spiritual autobiography is that it gives us an opportunity to re-frame our past with the wisdom and compassion of the present, like introducing our younger self to a loving, long-lost ancestor. This can be a powerful way of healing and restoring a sense of goodness and appreciating this gift of our life.
Most of the time we think of our life story as a series of events. This is the outer version of our biography. But a spiritual autobiography has two other dimensions: inner and secret. The outer story is one other people share. If it were a photo album, we could point to the other people in our graduating class, or the picture of our wedding. But the inner stories are the deeply felt experiences only we can remember.
I plunged into my own inner history yesterday during a return visit to my second home-town, Boulder Colorado, which I left in the dragon year of 1988. I first arrived there at age twenty four after hitchhiking from foggy Vancouver. Here in this hot, dry little college town a new chapter in my life began, a period of romance, inspiration, joy and the struggle of single parenthood. Yesterday’s walk through town was like a pilgrimage to sites that transformed me. The power of these places unraveled dream-like memories that had been locked up in my mind and heart. Unbearable nostalgia arose as I grieved for the lovers, friends, children, and my own younger self that had drifted away into the past. Like a phantom, I could almost see my son galloping ahead of me along the sidewalk. I paused in front of the little coal-miner’s cottage where we lived, flooded by memories of a haunting love story that never resolved. I tried to take a photo, but my camera died. “Let go” I whispered to my phantom self.
Hidden within our inner biography is the secret one. That is a darker story, the one we can barely tell ourselves. But it is here that the true transformation takes place, the essence of spirituality. It lies buried in the fear and shame of being unworthy, unforgivable, unlovable. When we enter this tunnel with light of wisdom and warmth of compassion, the clench of life-long misunderstandings can relax. Making room in our heart for this story to emerge is a pilgrimage worth taking. The dragon emerges with a hidden jewel, the most precious gift of what a human life can be.