The Miracle of Transformation Through Turmoil
Although we are often afraid that crises will break us down, there is a good chance that they will wake us up. Steve Taylor discusses in this article extracted from Kindred Spirit issue 180…
At the age of 42, Irene was diagnosed with breast cancer and told that she might only have a few months left to live. She was an IT manager for a medical company and had always been a workaholic, with no real interests outside her job. Over the past few years she had been feeling increasingly unhappy, with a sense of rootlessness and frustration.
Irene reacted to her diagnosis in an unusual way. Rather than being devastated and depressed, she underwent a sudden spiritual awakening. As she described it, ‘It was the first time I’d seen death as a reality and realised that life is just temporary. The following day I woke up and thought “I’m just so lucky to be alive – the fact that I’m still here”. The air was so clean and fresh and everything I looked at seemed so vibrant and vivid. The trees were so green and everything was so alive. I became aware of this energy radiating from the trees. I had a tremendous feeling of connectedness’.
Irene expected the feeling to fade away, but it didn’t. As she put it, ‘It was really intense for the first few weeks, and it’s remained ever since. It just blew me away, it really did. I used to just sit and think it was amazing that things could just fall into place so quickly’.
Fortunately, Irene’s cancer went into remission, but her awakened state remained. She felt like a different person and gave up her IT career to retrain as a counsellor and therapist. More than anything, she felt a new sense of connection to other people and to nature, and a new enjoyment of solitude and doing nothing. After spending her previous life in a mode of doing, she shifted into a mode of being.
Awakening in prison
A man called Adrian underwent spiritual awakening while in prison in Africa. He was locked up in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day, with no idea when he might be released. During the endless hours of incarceration, he began to reflect on his life and to let go of the past and any sense of failure or disappointment. In the cell, he had a small statuette of the Buddha which he had picked on his travels around Asia. He developed a spontaneous meditation practice, focusing his attention on the statuette for long periods.
Over the next few weeks, Adrian began to feel more at peace, until he experienced a sudden shift: ‘It was like the flick of a switch… It was a complete feeling of release and acceptance of everything and anything that was going to happen. It was a release of blame, of anxiety, of anger and ego… For three days I was in a state of what can best be described as grace. After that, the feeling eased, but it remained inside me’.
When Adrian was released and returned to the UK, he felt like he was looking at the world with new eyes. As he told me, ‘There was a huge sense of wellbeing… I was in a hotel in London, and the city seemed magical… Walking in nature was amazing. I was hypnotised by flowers, trees, leaves. They looked beautiful and surreal and filled me with warm love’.
Without a background in spirituality, Adrian wasn’t sure what had happened to him. His new sense of wellbeing was overlaid with confusion. He even wondered if he had gone mad, and read through psychiatry books to try to diagnose his condition. But several months after his transformation, he read a book about spirituality and recognised that he had undergone a spiritual awakening.
Transformation through turmoil
The above are two examples of a phenomenon that I call ‘transformation through turmoil’ (or TTT, for short). Sometimes, when people are in the midst of intense suffering and trauma, they undergo a shift of identity, in which their previous self dissolves away, and is replaced by a new, spiritual awakened self.
I have been researching transformation through turmoil for 15 years and have found examples across a wide range of contexts. In my new book Extraordinary Awakenings I describe the transformations of soldiers on the battlefield, prisoners, bereaved people, addicts, people who suffered from severe depression, and so on. These experiences are extraordinary in two ways: first, because they occur in such unexpected circumstances, and second, because they have such a powerful, life-changing effect.
The ‘shifters’, as I sometimes call them, feel reborn. They feel a new sense of meaning and purpose. They feel immensely grateful to be alive, with a powerful sense of connection to other living beings and to nature. They become less materialistic and more altruistic. Their lives aren’t about what they can get from the world, but what they can give to it. In other words, they have become spiritually awakened.
Extraordinary awakenings seem miraculous and mysterious. Nevertheless, I believe that they can be explained to a degree. They occur when the psychological attachments that support the ego 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 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, awakened self emerges and establishes itself as the person’s new identity. Many people who undergo extraordinary awakenings feel that they are different people living in the same body, and in a sense this is literally true. That’s why addicts become free of their addictions, and why shifters who have been through intense suffering become free of traumatic after-effects. It is 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 TTT. 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.
What can we 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. For example, the shifters can teach us how to respond when challenges and crises arise in our lives. Their experiences show that every challenge has some transformational potential, which we can harness if we respond in the right way. In my book, I suggest a four stage process of responding to painful situations…
Continue reading Steve Taylor’s article in issue 180 of Kindred Spirit. Grab your copy here.