Unearthing Ecstatic Memories

Unearthing Ecstatic Memories

A Tool for Healthy Aging

Charlie Blacker/Getty

Ecstatic memories are “radioactive jewels buried within us, emitting energy across the years of our life.”

Many of us accumulate an assortment of treasures over the years—a unique piece of jewelry, a note from a friend, favorite photos, and other mementos from special times in our lives. We might store these treasures—these favorite things—in a box or drawer. We have other treasures, however, that aren’t “things” and can’t be stored away in a physical space. These treasures are memories stored in our hearts and minds.

[Read: “Inside the Brain’s Filing Cabinet.”]

Over time, our reservoir of memories grows to be quite extensive. Can we choose which ones to focus on? Rather than ruminating over disappointments, failures, and other unpleasant happenings we’ve encountered over the years, I like to take a different route and focus on something environmental psychologist Louise Chawla refers to as “ecstatic memories”—that is, memories of beautiful moments in our lives. Elevating memories to this level and prioritizing them in our minds can be part of healthy aging.

Memorable Moments, Radioactive Jewels

Ecstatic memories relate to the experiences of special places we’ve known (such as scenic seacoasts or forests), but we can expand this idea to other types of memories. I remember, for example, the intense joy I felt during momentary eye contact with my daughter as she was giving birth to my first grandchild. I also remember feeling the heartbeat of a baby chick as I held it in my hand. There was something about these special moments that allowed me to experience a profound connection with living beings outside of myself. For me, these were ecstatic moments, and I carry them with me as ecstatic memories.

Chawla refers to ecstatic memories as “radioactive jewels buried within us, emitting energy across the years of our life.” She suggests digging these memories up at times, repolishing them, and reclaiming them. I see great value in doing so—not as a substitute for creating new special memories, but as a way to carry us over the rough spots we encounter along the way.

When tapping into ecstatic memories, Chawla relates how some people find a place a calm; others experience an urge to create. Both responses resonate with me. Recalling ecstatic memories also stirs my imagination, and I begin thinking about the positive, present side of “what if’s.”

What if I could live my daily life more in tune with a deep sense of connectedness to other living things? What if I could push aside the distractions and busyness that prevent me from discovering or noticing the many special moments of everyday life?

5 Ways to Repolish and Reclaim Ecstatic Memories

1. Make a list. You might start by listing some favorite things or places, but then switch to favorite memories. You might even link the two. For example, wildflowers—especially mountain wildflowers—are among my favorite things. A favorite memory is hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park with my daughter when the wildflowers were in bloom. That was such a joy-filled experience. Today, just recalling the beauty of that hike fills my heart with joy.

2. Create a portfolio. For some of us, being organized means putting memories and mementos in chronological order. You might try something different. Why not create a portfolio organized around some of your most treasured memories? I recently created a portfolio of some of my favorite hikes. A friend of mine created a portfolio of favorite trips. Your portfolio of treasured memories might include photos, notes, sketches, postcards, and other mementos relating to your experience. Recalling the special moments while creating your portfolio will certainly remind you of the beauty and possibilities of a life well-lived.

3. Write a short piece or an entire autobiography about one or more of your most precious memories. Autobiographical writing involves not only recording but also exploring one's past, especially the meaning of past experiences. Louise Chawla’s work included examining autobiographies for descriptions of significant life experiences. She refers to an autobiography as “a creative composition that sets a life in order and accords it significance.”

[Read: “30 Journaling Prompts for Self-Discovery.” ]

How about doing an audio recording of your written piece? Consider submitting an ecstatic memory to Story Corps or even turning it into a podcast.

4. Draw or paint a picture representing one of your most precious ecstatic memories. If recalling favorite memories stirs your imagination as it does for me, using some form of visual art to express your feelings about those precious moments can be quite meaningful and rewarding.

5. Write a haiku or other type of poem about one of your favorite memories. For inspiration, check out some of Mary Oliver’s poems and enjoy the wonderful way in which she shares some of her favorite places and experiences.

One of the things I’ve noticed as I reclaim and repolish special memories is that the memories do, indeed, act as radioactive jewels emitting energy across the years of my life. There’s no doubt that the repolishing process adds a sparkle to my life.

Visit our Collections page for more tips on healthy aging.

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