Footprints through the Labyrinth – the inner compass of Biographical work
October 2023, by Jane Gilmer and Martin Proteous
“Know Thy Self then thou shalt know the Universe and God” was the inscription over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in ancient Greece.
This call to self-knowledge was key to the self-development that the pupils would undertake in the Temples of those times, striving to develop faculties that would eventually lead to an awakening and direct grasp of the spiritual complexities working within the human and spiritual life.
These temples have long receded from outer view, and the call “Know Thyself” can be buried under the multitude of outer concerns in the hectic barrage and demands of modern life. Yet an echo lives on perhaps in the feelings and questions that can arise when we are either guided or jolted by life into a moment of self-awareness. In such moments we try to sense how or why our life actually takes the course it does; why events, people or relationships, some surprising and pleasant, some difficult, seem to come to us or others unbidden and unexpected: and in moments of crisis how we can or should proceed. In such times we can sense that all of this “life that has just happened to me “is actually a reflection of what I call “I” or “me”, and that this “I” is still working on, is active and is future focussed – that “this life that has happened to me “has a meaningfulness, a comprehensibility and can be consciously taken hold of.
In our modern times, older forms of mystery schools are certainly not so easy to find the new ones seem to have different forms and different gateways and an individual path of initiation through life itself can at times be sensed. One gateway can exist perhaps where groups of like-minded people meet together endeavouring to create spiritually inspired practical work; another is endeavouring to sense and penetrate into what is working in this mystery of human biography as it unfolds, and to take responsibility for this – to actively form or co-create one’s own life and development.
Developing a real and concrete relationship to our own biography can provide perspectives and tools. From sensing our own “life-story map”, we can develop an inner-compass for the as yet unformed landscapes of our future. Indications given by Rudolf Steiner reveal that embarking on our biographical journey is itself a path of initiation. Just as a nightly review of the day’s events can gradually assist us in distinguishing the more important from the less important, so too can a biographical review. Endeavouring to consciously become aware of the map and life-journey we created for ourselves, with the assistance of spiritual beings in the life between death and rebirth, can show us a way to a more conscious life.
In this sense The Holistic Biography courses that Karl-Heinz Finke and Laura Summerfield have developed and teach online could be seen as a contemporary form of schooling in the often complex experience and mystery that is human biography. On their website https://holisticbiographywork.com the work is described in the following way: “Holistic Biography Work reflects on individual biographies of life stories against the backdrop of the archetypal journey of humanity.” They describe the underlying philosophy of holistic biographical work as: “…based on the pioneering work of Rudolf Steiner, Bernard Lievegoed, Gudrun Burkhard and Coenraad Van Houten.”
The work is developed via modules, commencing with a Foundation Course and offers the opportunity to progress through a supported and structured process as a 3-year Training program for Biographical consultancy.
Modules are taught on-line in a small group format, and supported by handbooks so that all the material worked with is both rich and easily accessible. Regular online group intensives are facilitated for each module. Where technology has aided the process of being able to participate in independent self-paced study, it has also enabled students from all over the world to work together in an unprecedented way. Modules are challenging and stimulating. Looking into one’s life intensively and objectively can be both confronting and an adventure. The light and dark of life’s experiences take on new and different meaning when a bigger picture, an image of karma and destiny, becomes spiritually meaningful. The training aims to facilitate gaining both a panoramic view of life and a deeper sensing of meaning. This can apply to one’s own life-story and for people who might later work with as biographical consultants, supporting others in exploring their own life-journey.
Karl-Heinz and Laura describe the methodology of this work as taking a Goethean phenomenological approach as described by Steiner. The aim is to develop the capacities through which events and life questions can reveal themselves, rather than being “interpreted” or “analysed“; such as for example where the events of life are viewed using 7 year life phases that are influenced by the planets in the order that we incarnate and excarnate – Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Working with these 7 year septennials we can learn to examine patterns and rhythms, trials, thresholds and turning points. We also learn how these planetary forces, and our own relationships with them, influence and shape our personal constitutions and capacities and hence our lives. In order to benefit from the Goethean practice of observation, one learns that one needs to practice a clear objective observation of oneself as well as deep listening of the other. The purpose of these deeper observational practices is to begin to develop newer sensibilities and perceptiveness – new, more finely tuned “sensing organs”. In the latter stages of the training, modules developed out of the Anthroposophical biographical and adult learning work lead over into more advanced areas such as approaches to destiny learning and recognising karma.
The call to human beings on the old temples was “Know Thyself”. To do this one option is perhaps, as the poet David Whyte expresses it, to
“… start close in, don’t take the second step or the third,
start with the first thing close in…”
The “first thing close in” – what is closest and unique to each person – is actually their own life-story, and with it the meaning they themselves grow to see within it. A sense can arise through Biographical work that where our individual life-stories, our incarnations, can be better understood, they can be more fully taken hold of, creating possibilities to more fruitfully contribute towards building more conscious communities and relationships of substance.
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Born in New Zealand, Jane attended a May course at Hohepa Home School in the mid 1970’s where she worked for 2 years. Completing a certificate in Waldorf Education at Taruna College, she moved to Australia to undertake a Steiner-based Speech and Drama training. After this time she worked as an actor, writer, director and teacher of theatre, internationally touring with The Rose Theatre Company and Portal Productions performance of Rudolf Steiner’s ‘Soul’s Awakening’. Completing a Doctorate in Philosophy in 2000 in Australia, she taught theatre at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, as well as several other theatre companies and Waldorf School initiatives in SE Asia for 20 years. She trained as a psychotherapist in Australia, and now lives in New Zealand. Currently she is completing the 2nd year of the Holistic Biography Training.
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Having originally studied Arts/Law at UNSW, Martin has been actively involved with Anthroposophy and associated work for many years. He graduated from a Steiner- based Speech and Drama training, and later worked as writer, performer, director and as teacher in adult education in Australia, England, USA and Europe for several years. He recently retired as Joint CEO of Inala in Sydney after nearly 30 years in senior management, therapy, and staff training and development roles in Steiner inspired disability work and as a member of the International Council of Social Therapy and Curative Education at the Goetheanum.
He is currently completing his 1st year of the Holistic Biography training.
Martin and Jane graduated from the Harkness Studio for Speech and Drama in 1984.
The training with Karl-Heinz was essential for my life, and it carries me through the work with the people who come to see me for advice.
Karl-Heinz’ knowledge, his warmth and presence, his humbleness and openness, his balance between stimulating and accepting were exemplary for me.
I am happy to know him and to witness his far-sighted activities.
It is wonderful that some of the fruits of Laura’s and Karl-Heinz’ work are available as a book – the Biography Log-book – now.
Reflections on the First year of the Three Year Training
At the start of the course, I was unsure about whether enrolling on the full course rather than choosing to study the available modules alone was the right decision but the flexibility and richness of human interchange in the groupwork has convinced me that I made the right choice!
As a result of interacting with my fellow students and course tutors from literally all around the globe I now look at the world quite differently.
Regardless of the fact that I was very familiar with much of the material in the first year I have the conscious awareness of through our journey together having received something immensely important. I feel we’ve all been given something that is often lacking in adult education: a clear, well-thought, thorough and comprehensive spiritual scientific understanding of fundamentally human characteristics that map onto every life experience.
The knowledge, ability and willingness of all the tutors to answer questions quickly and comprehensively in language that is accessible to all really is unprecedented, and should become a model for all adult education. The friendliness and adaptability of the team running the course also mean that you never feel you can’t ask for clarification or dive deeper into a topic when you need to.
The mechanics of delivering on-line learning can be a challenge, but on this course, everything works as it should; content was delivered effectively and illustrated the major points with the clarity that only years of study and contemplation can offer. Contrary to my expectations, the online version of the groupwork did not hinder interaction, nor impede learning, if anything it enhanced the quality of the work, we were able to do together. The multi-media approach with recorded lectures, written material and then live on-line groupwork, turns out to work incredibly well, giving students a more efficient method of absorbing material and leaving them more opportunity to study as and when they can.
Suffice it to say, this course reminded me of why I wanted to study biography work in the first place and I can’t recommend it highly enough !
8 June 2022
Fiona M (UK)
Studying in Karl-Heinz and Laura’s holistic biographical consultancy training, you not only learn about the unfolding mystery of your own life story, but how you can support other people to unfold their stories. It is a training in understanding humanness and of Anthroposophy as lived experience. The modules in the course are structured in a way that lead the student to evolving profound imaginations in the workings of destiny. To study in the biographical training, is to enter a modern-day mystery school.
In this way the training awakens us to what we planned for ourselves in the spiritual worlds before incarnating. Exploring our own mythology, and the mythology of others, is a profound undertaking for the soul that can assist towards consciously forming a vital bridge between earthly sense-perceptible experiences, and the spiritual worlds – essential work for the modern day person called to transformational work.
17 June 2022
Dr (PhD) Jane G. (NZ)
It seems commonplace to assume that online interaction in the Age of Zoom is a poor, but sometimes necessary, substitute for the ‘real thing’ of meeting together in person.
If this is indeed true, the Holistic Biographywork Training Program is the exception. I have experienced the training program in both the pre- and post-Covid era. In fact, it was the move to online delivery which made it possible for me to continue a course of study which I had taken a break from several years ago.
What I have found is that the quality of focus demanded by the online interactions far exceeds the attention required for in-person groupwork. Perhaps this level of focus is needed because there is less in the way of body language to build up an understanding of what another person is sharing. Perhaps it is the way people tend to tune in to Zoom, with headphones on, screen backgrounds blurred, and distractions kept to an absolute minimum.
In contrast to many Zoom lectures and courses I have attended in the past two and a bit years, there is almost no chat occurring during the Holistic Biographywork sessions. I take this to mean that all the participants are devoting their full interest and attention to the matter being presented on the main ‘stage’. Another departure from what we’ve all become used to – recordings of each session being made available for weeks or months afterwards – is also notably absent from the Holistic Biographywork online sessions. The lack of recordings protects the space we all hold, and heightens our awareness that, apart from the here and now, there is no other possibility to have the significant meetings with others that take place during these sessions.
The course is structured so that the background material for each module is provided well in advance, allowing participants ample time to truly grapple with each subject, develop questions, and gain insights prior to the real-time meeting. A substantial study pack guides the participant through their learning, indicating when to view a pre-recorded lecture (by Karl-Heinz Finke, a truly gifted lecturer who is intimately familiar with Rudolf Steiner’s work), what to read, how to incorporate artistic responses to the content, and reminders to reflect and update one’s personal learning journal. In general, any quotations from Rudolf Steiner’s works are accompanied by the full reference to the source, and reading assignments tend to include full lectures, rather than excerpts. In this way, even participants who are familiar with anthroposophy are likely to find value in the comprehensiveness of the reading materials.
The training program is a challenging course which expects of its participants a high level of independent preparation and the will to engage. This effort is rewarded with insights into oneself and others, and into the nature of humanity itself.
Meg Q (Australia)
Only you, hold the key to unlock the mystery of your life. Holistic Biography Work is an empowering journey of self-discovery. It invites you to understand your life story through their comprehensive, well-researched and creatively crafted resource materials, polished over the years through experience. It offers a wide variety of interconnected artistic activities that will develop and sharpen your capacity for heightened awareness of what is essential and non-essential. A deep dive into the past, gives you a better sense of the present, and provides an anchor for your future choices.