After working on it for a month and a half, I finally finished writing the full story of my meditation retreat this summer. Writing the story is an important part of my process of integrating an experience like that. It accomplishes three things: it records the memories in a form that will always vividly evoke them for me, it ties this chapter into my ongoing life story, and it helps me identify what I learned.
The learning is the most interesting part to me. I tend to come out of a long adventure like a meditation retreat with some key points. The way I write the story of what happened — and you’ll see, it’s a long story — is by outlining it in terms of those key points and what brought me to them. I don’t write about everything that happened, just the moments, events and experiences that brought me to those discrete realizations, and I state what they are in the story. It’s really the story of what I learned, not the story of what happened.
That has interesting implications for the memories I’m recording and the “life story” I’m stitching together. Memory is weird; it’s not like I can control which experiences I’m going to remember, so surely I’ll remember things that didn’t make it into the story. But I’m still framing my memory of the retreat in terms of learnings that mattered to me at the time. Will those still be the important takeaways in 20 years? And as for the story of my life, that’s clearly something I’m constructing as well. These long essays I write are trying to make me into someone who did this and learned that. Will these still be the stories I tell when I’m looking back?