What is it ?
Biography work is a method for helping people get a clearer picture of their identity, become conscious of golden threads in their life and consequently gain a clearer idea of the meaning or purpose of their life. The concept was developed in the 1960s by the NPI (Dutch pedagogical institute) working on the stimulation given by the Anthroposophical world-view as described by Rudolf Steiner in the 1910s and 20s. Knowledge of this world-view is not obligatory if one is trying to investigate one’s own identity and meaning, but can lead to a greater depth of insight.
Usually participants in the course will already have at least 30 years of life to examine before entering in on such a process. As will become clearer when we look at the method this will ensure that ‘thinking based in reality’ takes precedent over abstract speculations concerning identity, golden threads and meaning. This is an important aspect.
Those who think about their own identity or others people soon realise that under the word I lurks a myriad of characteristics. Furthermore, these people will have established for themselves that these characteristics let themselves be subdivided into two main groups.
Those which I have inherited from my parents, peers and environment
Those which are essentially me and to which I can say with confidence I wasn’t given them, but instead am them. These characteristics may be shared by other people, but they are still me
Biography work helps a participant to establish which facets of his/her character fall into which of the above categories. Patterns of behaviour are raised to a conscious level so that the participant can determine their origin. Thus the participant over time reveals to him/herself an ever clearer picture of his/her own identity.
Attentive observers of life will also have established that certain types of events, actions, emotions or currents of thought seem to repeat themselves again and again in an individual’s life. Biography work raises these to consciousness and the participant becomes aware of commonalities, patterns or golden threads in his/her life.
Effort invested in revealing to oneself one’s own identity and golden threads is in itself immensely rewarding. The resultant strength of character and self-awareness have life giving properties which in themselves are valuable. However, this knowledge also gives rise to further questions: namely those concerning the meaning of me and my realtionship to the world.
Our relationship to the world is key to arriving at some sort of meaning for our lives and consequently this becomes an object for surfacing, ie an object to be raised to consciousness. This is the purpose of the theoretical component
A group of 4-5 participants and a group leader are the means of achieving the aims outlined above. The group is given a specific stimulus which will lead the participants to redescribe in a structured manner an event of their life (eg Recount an important event, an unlucky event, an event that stirred strong feelings, a fortuitous or troublesome relationship, an event steered by habits gained from parents or peers etc etc) from different perspectives. The method consistently moves us from objective observed events to insight concerning the meaning. There are 5 steps in the process which lead us from the observed to the meaning. Each member of the group choses their own life incident to recount. They will only recount what they feel comfortable sharing with the group, there is no compulsion involved. The essential purpose of the group is to be a forum for the talker at that moment. From my own experience merely the experience of recounting and listening to such events has a liberating effect on both the listener and talker. The forum also gets a chance to give a reaction to the talker, this is integrated into the structure. This is an essential and enjoyable aspect and the key ingredient for arriving at an idea of the meaning of specific events. The talker thus benefits from the combined life experience and expertise of the group meembers.
There is a theoretical component which looks at man’s life cycle and relationship to other human beings, the environment and the spiritual world. Its purpose is to examine the framework in which life takes place and is integral to the whole process. This may be challenging for those who find discussing other belief systems difficult, but also rewarding. The investigation into the meaning of events is able to develop a lot quicker with the help of the theoretical component. It is worth re-iterating that merely the surfacing of identity and golden threads is valuable in itself, but the ultimate aim is to discover the meaning behind events.
The other key issue that we grapple with is becoming aware of factors in our lives that cause us to lose sight of our own identity, golden threads and meaning to ourselves and the world. This is easily done, but awareness of the problem makes it less likely to happen.
Further reading on the method:
Coenraad van Houten, ‘Awakening the Will’ and ‘Practising Destiny’
Bernhard Lievegoed, ‘Phases’
Rudolf Steiner, ‘Karmic relationship Vol 1-8’, ‘Theosophy’, ‘Reincarnation and Karma’ etc etc
Flensburgerhefte ‘Biographiearbeit 1’ & 2