A more personal university reunion - heading South, emotional intelligence, and re-visioning our pasts
Last updated on 28th August 2014
"The spirit of a man is constructed out of his choices." Irvin Yalom
I'm on a train on my way down to East Anglia. This afternoon seven of us, who were all at Cambridge in the late 60's/early 70's, are due to meet up. Last year I went back to an official college reunion dinner. For me it was an exercise in "emotional archaeology". I wrote half a dozen blog posts about the whole experience - both in the weeks leading up to it and over the visit itself. It was a very precious trip in a whole series of ways. One of a series of intentions that emerged from the experience went: "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." And here we are just about to make this happen!
How am I feeling about this get-together? Warm, kind of poignant, a little teary. Last year, with the official college reunion, I made time to chew it all over really pretty deeply. Lots of insight and 'nourishment' came from it. I regret in the weeks leading up to this potentially more personal re-meeting, I have been too busy ... in France and in Australia ... to give the reunion the preparatory time I would have wanted to. But now it's coming up fast. Some of these people I have only talked to a few times in the forty years since we came down from university. Others I have spent lots of deep time with.
A couple of overlapping questions that I'm carrying lightly as I head back to this get-together are about changes in the quality, the 'taste' of my close relationships over the years, and about differences between 'emotional depth' and 'spiritual/transpersonal depth'. So back in the late 60's and early 70's I had no experience of psychotherapy, or group work or a whole set of other psychological interactions, theories & understandings that are now so deeply part of who I am and how I relate to others. In my late teens and twenties I think this lack of emotional experience affected what I was able to be aware of, both in my own inner world, in how I understood others, and in how I related to them. It was if certain colours were missing inside me, or as if I couldn't see or name those inner emotional colours when they did emerge. Although I had several precious relationships, rightly or wrongly I remember them as missing a complexity or an ability to notice and articulate the complexity of real, deeply rich interactions with others. The blog posts "Meeting at relational depth: a model" and "Friendship: science, art & gratitude" speak more about these issues ... as too do the many handouts & slides on this website's "Good knowledge" page "Emotions, feelings & personality".
But at the same time, partly because of the 60's zeitgeist, partly because of involvement with Sufi, Buddhist & Yoga practices, partly because of using hallucinogens - especially LSD - and partly because I came from a loving (although pretty inhibited) family, I had a kind of transpersonal, self-transcending ability to connect with others that was often deeply precious, unarticulated, spontaneous and special. And although I believe I now have a much greater ability to be emotionally aware & articulate, I also lead a much busier life where relationship time can easily get squeezed by many other "demands". Obviously there are a series of other differences too about life stage, situation, the outer world and so on. At best though, I feel confident that I can meet with others now with a nuanced, subtler, deeper flow than I was usually able to back in my 20's.
A further simple map I bring to help make sense of this reunion is one that I've talked about on a number of occasions on this blog. It's the "Narrative in emotion-focused therapy" "three lens" model for working with memories:
Angus & Greenberg wrote "Types of narrative sequences include 'external' (describing past and current episodic memories, or 'what happened'), 'internal' (identifying emotional experiences, or 'how I felt'), and 'reflexive' (creating new meaning, or 'what it meant')" and they emphasise the importance of being able to shift more from 'external' to 'internal' and 'reflexive' descriptions if one wants to move beyond the already accepted stories one tells oneself.
Mm ... "if one wants to move beyond the already accepted stories one tells oneself" ... that was certainly one of the fascinating experiences that emerged from coming back to the university reunion last year ... that re-immersing in the memories brought up aspects that I had forgotten and led to reinterpretations, new understandings of what had happened to me at university and how I responded to it. This pretty much exactly overlaps with what one is trying to achieve in cognitive & exposure therapies for posttraumatic stress disorder. Telling the stories again, revisiting where events happened, feeling again the emotions that emerge, recognising & articulating the transforming understandings & meanings. Not that my experience at university was traumatic ... far from it ... but revisiting, re-experiencing can have similar meaning-transforming consequences. So here's another one of the surprising, unexpected riches that have emerged from coming back for these reunions ... a personal, deeper sense of how re-immersing in memories & revisiting where those memories occurred can melt images & interpretations that seemed set in stone and allow them to re-set into a different set of understandings. Particularly in my work as a therapist ... often focusing on the effects of clients' painful earlier life experiences ... it is so helpful to experience these meaning transformations myself "from the inside". Great. And I notice the importance of both stirring up & reconnecting to the memories, feelings & earlier interpretations in the process of processing & transforming them ... and also the importance of chewing over (with thinking, writing & discussion) what is emerging and the new understandings that develop. The three lenses (see the model above) are a useful guiding chart here ... or, even more simply, this feels a bit like being say a dolphin where I plunge down into memories, images, feelings and then resurface to review my understanding, rethink the meanings, re-integrate the past in new ways.
And it's worth noting too that, if I more want to just "experience the good times", the good feelings from back then, I probably need to be cautious about too much of this kind of analytical "sorting through" the memories as it may reduce some of the strength & sheer enjoyment of those remembered emotions.
For more on what happened, see tomorrow's post "A more personal reunion: North again and adult life development tasks".