As a young man, I suffered from depression. From the age of 16 to 22, I felt like I didn’t know who I was or who I was meant to be. All I knew was that I didn’t like the person I seemed to be. I felt uneasy in other people’s company, found it difficult to speak to anyone, and felt that I couldn’t function in the world. At university, I rarely went to lectures and sometimes went days without seeing anyone. I would stay up until four or five o’clock in the morning, reading or writing or listening to music, and get up in the early afternoon. I saw no hope of ever being able to fit in, of finding a place in the world, or of being happy. I often thought about committing suicide and thought it was inevitable that I would do so at some point, if not now.
However, every so often my depression dissolved away for no apparent reason, and I was filled with a sense of ecstasy and meaning. These experiences usually occurred in natural surroundings, when I was walking through my school fields, through the park, or in the countryside around my university. Everything around me came to life. The trees, the fields and the clouds above me took on an extra dimension of reality, to the point where they seemed sentient. At night, I would look up at the sky, at the moon and the stars and feel that the whole of space was filled with radiance and harmony. Everything seemed connected, as if all things were manifestations of something deeper than themselves. I felt lifted out of myself, into harmony and oneness, above all of my problems.
For a long time, I didn’t understand these experiences. In fact, I thought they provided further evidence that there was something wrong with me, that I was a misfit. I didn’t know anyone else who had such experiences, and I didn’t tell anyone about them. My parents already thought I was strange, so I knew I couldn’t tell them. They would probably have sent me to see a psychiatrist!
However, at about the age of 21, I read a book called New Pathways in Psychology, by Colin Wilson. It was mainly about Abraham Maslow, and discussed Maslow’s concept of ‘peak experiences.’ Yes, I thought, that describes my occasional ecstatic experiences! I felt I was picking up clues, and edging closer to a solution to the mystery. A year or two later, I found a book called Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology, by the English scholar of mysticism, F.C. Happold. The book is mainly a wonderful selection of passages from mystical texts, such as the Upanishads, Tao te Ching, Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, along with non-religious nature mystics such as Richard Jeffries. This book felt like the complete solution to the mystery. I recognised my own experiences, particularly in the nature mystics. “I’m not crazy after all!” I thought. “Or at least – all of these other people are crazy too, so I’m not alone in my craziness.”
From that point on, I immersed myself in spirituality. I read as many books on mysticism and spirituality as I could find. I went to talks about spirituality and attended local spiritual groups. I finally had a framework to understand and accept myself.
Awakening through Turmoil
One of the reasons why I began to study transpersonal psychology was because I wanted to understand spiritual and mystical experiences (or awakening experiences, as I prefer to call them). I wanted to understand why the experiences occur, if they are connected to certain activities and situations, or certain psychological states.
In 2017, I conducted a study of 91 reports of awakening experiences with my co-researcher Kristina Egato-Szabo. We found that the experiences had four main triggers: 37 were linked to psychological turmoil (such as stress, depression, loss, bereavement, combat), 26 were linked to nature, 21 to spiritual practice (such as meditation or prayer), and 15 were linked to reading spiritual literature or listening to spiritual talks. Some experiences had more than one trigger.
At first, it might seem surprising that such a high proportion of awakening experiences are linked to psychological turmoil. Awakening experiences are moments of joy and liberation, so it seems paradoxical that they should emerge from states of depression and turmoil. This made me reflect on my own awakening experiences as a young man. Perhaps they were triggered by my depression and frustration. Perhaps, every so often, the inner pressure and turmoil became so intense that my normal ego-self dissolved away, and I experienced a state of liberation. After a while, my ego-self reformed and I returned to my normal state of depression.
However, another intriguing aspect of my research was that some of the people who reported awakening experiences caused by turmoil didn’t return to a normal state of consciousness. They shifted to a permanently transformed state. They reported feeling as they had taken on a completely new identity, as if they were a different people living in the same body, with a new perspective on life, and new values and attitudes. The world seemed more real and beautiful, and they felt more connected to other people, and to nature.
One person – who was severely injured in the 2005 terrorist attacks in London – remarked that she felt that she was living “Life Two,” with a new sense of simplicity, appreciation and purpose. As she remarked, “My path is being laid and being lit every day. I can see so clearly where I am meant to be going…it’s like an airport runway, where the bright lights along the strip guide the planes in.” Another person underwent a shift following the death of her daughter and described her shift as “like the transformation a caterpillar goes through during the chrysalis stage before emerging as a butterfly.”
Some of the “shifters” experienced challenging issues too. In some cases, their shift was so dramatic and sudden that it was difficult to adjust to. It took time for them to learn to function in the world again, and to integrate their new state into their lives. In most cases, they didn’t have a background in spirituality and so were confused by their new state. In cases where the shift was especially explosive, it caused psychological disturbances, and even physical problems. Some shifters reported that their relationships with their partners became difficult. From the point of view of their partners, it was as if they suddenly in a relationship with a different person, and so break-ups were not uncommon.
After researching cases of transformation through turmoil for 15 years now, I have collected some of the most striking examples in my new book, Extraordinary Awakenings. In the book, I examine TTT (transformation through turmoil) in a number of different contexts – in soldiers, prisoners, bereaved people, encounters with death, severe depression (often leading to suicide attempts) and addiction. Let me share a couple of examples.
An English woman called Ananta was sent to prison in Japan after a large amount of LSD was found in her apartment. Prisoners weren’t allowed to speak and worked long hours in severe and terrible conditions in a factory, as if they were slaves. The guards treated them with contempt and cruelty. Ananta was also the only Westerner in her prison block, which made her more of a target and added to her sense of isolation. After several months, Ananta felt broken down, physically and mentally. She felt exhausted and wracked with pain. One evening she went back to her cell after working at the factory and tried to read a book but was in too much pain. This led to a shift, which she describes as follows:
I lay back and kept dropping and dropping into the pain. It was excruciating but I had to surrender to it. There was nothing else I could do. Then I dropped into a space where the physical body was no more. Whatever I dropped into just kept opening and opening, into more and more more light, beauty, into gratitude. Freedom, freedom…and I just kept letting go and dropping and dropping. There was only this – this beautiful love and bliss.
After this, Ananta began to “drop into” the bliss every night. It intensified and stabilised and became a constant feature of her life. Her frustration and turmoil in the prison was replaced by a sense of acceptance and appreciation. As she describes, “It was the death of who I was, with more and more surrender. All the roles fell away…I was in a constant state of bliss, even though the same conditions and difficulties continued in prison.”
After three years Ananta was released, and returned to the UK. She didn’t fully understand what had happened to her, and found it difficult to adjust to normal life. Her family wanted her to go and see a psychiatrist. As he told me, “I couldn’t explain what I’d been through to anyone. I didn’t know this was awakening.” Her confusion lasted for three years, until she met a spiritual teacher who recognised that she had undergone a spiritual awakening.
Awakening and Addiction
One of the most moving stories I collected was a Scottish woman called Eve, who was a severe alcoholic for 29 years. Eventually she was living on the streets, and felt, in her words,
“a wreck, an empty shell… I had nothing to live for, nothing to give, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I don’t have the strength.’”
Eve decided to try to kill herself. She walked in front of a bus travelling at 40 miles an hour, but the driver swerved and missed her. When the police were called, Eve assumed they were going to arrest her. But the policeman wanted to help and asked, “What are you doing to yourself? What are you doing to your life? Is there somebody we can get in touch with?” The policeman took her to her parents’ house, which is where Eve’s extraordinary awakening occurred. Her mother assumed she had to give her a drink, to ease her withdrawal symptoms, and gave her a glass of wine. But Eve couldn’t drink it. As she told me, “I picked up the glass, lifted it, then put it down. I kept picking it up and putting it down. It wasn’t me that was putting it down. It was such a strange phenomenon.
“The doctor knocked me out for a few days, and when I came to, I didn’t want to drink… Mum sat me down in front of a mirror, and said, ‘Look at yourself, you’re an alcoholic.’ I looked at myself, and it was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. I had no idea who I was. I didn’t connect with my reflection. It could have been a completely different person. I felt like a completely different person.”
Eve was slightly confused by her transformation at first, but soon it settled down, and she began to feel liberated and elated, with a heightened awareness and an intense sense of connection to the world. She has never felt the urge to drink again. When she first went to AA meetings, people would tell her that she was on a “pink cloud” and it would only last for a short time But it became a permanent state. As she told me, “I don’t worry about anything. I have a sense of inner trust. My whole psyche changed completely. I have no trauma, in spite of all the terrible things I went through. It was like being catapulted from one world into the next.”
Why Does TTT Occur?
Extraordinary awakenings seem miraculous and mysterious. Nevertheless, I believe that they can be explained, at least to a degree. They occur when the psychological attachments that support our normal sense of identity break down. By psychological attachments, I mean things like roles, ambitions, hopes, beliefs, achievements, status, possessions, and even other people. These attachments are the building blocks of the ego. They make us feel that we are someone. But in times of intense suffering, these attachments dissolve away, and we lose our sense of identity. The ego breaks down, like a house when enough bricks are taken away. This is usually a devastating experience, but it can also be a liberating one.
In some people, there seems to be a latent higher self waiting to be born. When the normal ego breaks down, this higher self emerges and establishes itself as the person’s new identity. As mentioned earlier, many people who undergo extraordinary awakenings describe feeling as if they are different people inhabiting the same body, and in a sense this is literally true. That’s why addicts become free of their addictions, why shifters who have been through intense suffering become free of traumatic after-effects, and also why shifters sometimes become free of psychosomatic illnesses that have plagued them for years. The identity which carried the addiction, the trauma or the illnesses simply no longer exists.
I found that acceptance was an extremely important aspect of extraordinary awakenings. Many people undergo transformation when they shift into a mode of acceptance. Rather than struggling against their predicament (or refusing to acknowledge it), they let go, or surrender. This attitude of acceptance is the final trigger that allows their latent higher self to emerge and take over their identity.
What we Can learn from Extraordinary Awakenings
Fortunately, we don’t have to go through suffering and turmoil to undergo spiritual awakening. We can undergo gradual spiritual development through following spiritual practices and paths. And here the experiences of the shifters can help us. We can apply some of the principles of their experiences in our own lives.
In Extraordinary Awakenings, I suggest a number of different ways that we can do this. First, we should embrace challenge in our lives. Second, we should live of conscious detachment, in which we don’t depend on psychological attachments for our sense of identity and our well-being. Third, we should cultivate awareness of our mortality, and of the fragility and preciousness of life. (This is because many shifters experience transformation after encounters with death.) Finally, when challenges and crises arise in our lives, we should respond to them with acknowledgement and acceptance, which will help us to harness their transformational effects.
I hope readers of my book will become aware of the massive potential and the deep resilience inside all of us, which we are usually unaware of until we face challenges and crises. All of us are much stronger and deeper than we realize. When crises arise in our lives, we may well find that, rather than breaking us down, they help to wake us up.
Extraordinary Awakenings: When Trauma Leads to Turmoil is published in the US in September and in the UK in October. https://www.stevenmtaylor.com/books/extraordinary-awakenings/