“The I writes our biography.”
Tue, 31 Dec 2013 | By NNA correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner
Individualisation in modern life is an unignorable trend, and older people, who make up an increasing proportion of western societies, certainly make an important and lively contribution. Gudrun Burkhard, well-known researcher in the field of biography studies, discusses these perspectives with NNA.
By NNA correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner
FLORIANOPOLIS (NNA) – Gudrun Burkhard is a physician born in Brazil but with German roots, whose father emigrated to Brazil from Berlin after the First World War. Her work as a doctor led her into biographical counselling. Her book Taking Charge: Your Life Patterns and their Meaning is a bestseller that has been translated into twelve languages. Today, at the age of 83, she lives in Florianopolis in southern Brazil.
NNA: Frau Burkhard, looking back a couple of decades one gets the sense that the turn of the millennium was an incisive event for many. In your work as a biography counsellor you have traced the patterns in many people’s lives: so do you think there is truth in this view?
Burkhard: Certain things have changed radically, primarily due to external factors such as communication technology. Today our children are growing up with all these devices. In my opinion the speed of these developments increased significantly after the turn of the millennium.
NNA: What do you think are the main effects of this on people’s lives? You have of course studied many people’s biographies – is there a notieceable trend?
Burkhard: We’ll have to wait to see the effects of this technology usage: it will take around 30 years before we can observe the consequences. Brain research has of course shown that synapse development in the brain does not stand still but can be cultivated. For instance, if old people do finger exercises, or learn a new language, this has discernible effects. For this reason it’s wrong to speak of western societies only as an ‘aging population’ or of – horrible word – ‘senescence’.
NNA: How would you counteract this trend?
Burkhard: Even in old age you can always revitalise yourself. Everyone has something like their own philosophy that they develop through life experience, and older people can still bring something new to the world, develop creative ideas.
NNA: How can people overcome the risk of resignation and stagnation in old age?
Burkhard: This is less of a risk if an older person finds ways to continue developing. But you need to be self-motivated. Poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle in front of the TV or computer have a harmful, sclerotic effect. The brain is not revitalised. But this is true for younger people too: they absorb large amounts of information through the media without this being properly assimilated or enlivened – which requires autonomous activity, awareness and practice.
NNA: In your view, what specific strategies can be used to counteract this danger?
Burkhard: You need to keep your life in flux and movement, both physically and in your thinking. For older people this might mean studying maths again, taking a course in philosophy or playing chess. All such things cultivate more active, youthful thinking.
NNA: Your latest book intentionally targets people aged over 60, and is entitled Die Freiheit im “Dritten Alter” (Freedom in the “Third Age”). What were you seeking to do here?
Burkhard: To draw attention to precisely what we’ve been discussing. People generally have a negative, dissmissive attitude to this phase of life. But it really depends on how you lead your life.
NNA: Could you illustrate this with an example drawn from your work?
Burkhard: There’s a 91-year-old man I have worked with. This is slightly more problematic if a person’s memory is going: then you have to appeal to their powers of recall through imaginative pictures. Anyway, this elderly gentleman saw his aim now as to go on living in harmony with the world and the cosmos. He had lived through hard times, had suffered losses – for instance he lost his company and felt that he had spent his life in the wrong profession really, because he had wanted to be an architect. In our sessions it became evident, despite this, that he had realised this calling to a great extent, building many houses as private commissions, and, even in old age, developing various inventions. He began to see this himself, and it did reconcile him with his life.
NNA: Your book refers to what are called moon nodes: constellations of special biographical importance, the last of which we go through at the age of 93. And you write that it would be good if someone of this age could describe their experience of it. Has anyone responded?
Burkhard: People are living longer and longer, but we still have little understanding of what it’s like to be over 90. It’s a field that still needs more study. The previous moon node, at the age of 74, is one that has figured in my counselling sessions. People have told me they felt new impulses then, and found important reorientations; some people even emigrated at that age.
NNA: If we consider younger people again, we can see a widespread process of individualisation: everyone is expected to manage their life acording to their own dictates. Couldn’t that be too difficult?
Burkhard: These are modern challenges, and only become problmatic if we don’t face them consciously. It is true that life is much more demanding that even 50 years ago. But these challenges are necessary to develop the increasing resources we need, both materially and inwardly.
NNA: Many contemporaries find this too exhausting ...
Burkhard: Well, of course it’s simpler to sit in front of the telly, but this is just a way of avoiding the challenge. This is not to say that I’m against the new media on principle; in moderation, they have their uses. But they mustn’t become addictive. This trend is increasing – addiction to the computer alongside drugs and alcohol. For instance, I’m working with someone whose concentration is getting worse and worse, due to his excessive media consumption. You can see this happening in families: people in front of the computer while half-watching a TV serial and eating dinner: all three things happening without any awareness, so that attention is continually dispersed and distracted. Especially as we grow older it is important to focus on one thing fully at a time, rather than doing everything simultaneously. But this is very important for young people as well. We have to learn to concentrate on the matter in hand.
NNA: But how do we discover the important thing to focus on at any one moment? In the age of globalisation, people are bombarded by so much. Young people are continually faced with a vast array of choices; and you get the sense increasingly that they are surfing the world.
Burkhard: One also sees that young people are starting to care about other countries and to empathise when tragedies happen in other parts of the world – when a tsunami wreaks havoc for instance. If they can inwardly participate in such events, this means they are beginning to concern themselves with humanity as a whole. I do witness the young seeking tasks, feeling drawn to help those in adversity, wherever they feel there is a need.
NNA: To end with, I’d like to ask a fundamental question. You have based your biography work on Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy. Life counselling is very fashionable these days, so can you say what is different about your approach?
Burkhard: The defining difference involves making strong distinctions between three aspects: a person’s basic, physical constitution, the environmental influences and type of education they receive, and then finally the spiritual element. That means the I – the author, if you like, of a person’s biography, through which spiritual laws and patterns come to effect. This picture of the human being is the primary difference. We also work strongly, for instance, with seven-year rhythms of development – which in fact have not changed despite acceleration or slowdown in other parts of life.
NNA: What part does the idea of reincarnation play in your work?
Burkhard: It underlies all biography work but is only raised as a topic if this arises naturally in the conversation. In our view – unlike that of “past life regression therapies” for instance – it is not essential to address this directly. We always try to work consciously with people. In our day and age, only what a person can grasp consciously will help him develop.
NNA: And what, ultimately, is the aim of your work?
Burkhard: For a person to find his intentions, his greater aim in the world – in other words not just his own concerns but his human task, his contribution to the world and humanity. One often finds that a person has already taken the steps to find a new goal in life, that this is already there in him, but he just isn’t aware of it. Then it is the task of biography work to waken his awareness of this.
NNA: Frau Burkhard, thank you very much.
Gudrun Burkhard: Taking Charge: Your Life Patterns and their Meaning, Floris Books 1997
Ibid: Die Freiheit im “Dritten Alter”. Biographische Gesetzmäßigkeiten im leben ab 63, second edition Stuttgart 2004
Item: 131231-02EN Date: 31 December 2013
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