It’s easy to see the negative impacts of trauma – such as depression or PTSD. But can trauma have the opposite effect, and trigger a positive shift in a person?
Steve Taylor, PhD, a transpersonal psychologist, believes it can. His passion for transformation through trauma began with his own journey – something he shared in a ConnectIONS Live webinar titled Extraordinary Awakenings – When Trauma Leads to Spiritual Transformation. IONS members have access to the extensive video library of ConnectIONS Live webinars.
Growing up, Steve experienced deep depression for many of his teenage years. He felt different and alienated from others. Remarkably, the depression was pierced by spontaneous moments of ecstasy. This usually happened when he spent time in nature. He felt a sense of interconnectedness, harmony, and wellbeing. He felt like the trees and clouds surrounding him were alive.
He explains these experiences of interconnectedness and bliss were in sharp contrast to his ordinary state of being, and something that helped sustain him during the depression. Simultaneously, these events made him feel even more alienated, since he didn’t know of anyone else having them. “I thought they were further evidence that I was crazy”, he explains. He kept these mysterious moments to himself since he didn’t want to get referred to a psychiatrist.
Naturally, he got curious about them. Why did they occur?
Mysticism: The book that changed everything
Around 07:30 into the video, Steve shares what changed everything: discovering a book called “Mysticism”, by a scholar named F.C. Happold. Finding it in a bookshop, and flickering through the pages, he instantly felt he could relate and put his experiences into context. The book gave him relief and a sense of not being alone: “I’m not crazy after all, or maybe I am, but all of these other people are crazy, too.”
The discovery of the book led him to spirituality groups and to understand himself as a spiritual person. These insights encouraged him to do his PhD in transpersonal psychology, the most spiritual psychology, according to Steve.
The motivation behind his studies was a desire to understand his mystical and spiritual experiences from a scientific perspective. He wanted to do research to understand why they occurred and if they were related to specific contexts or states of mind. He also wanted to figure out if they could be cultivated, or simply be considered random occurrences.
And one enthralling question: could he find a key to living permanently in these experiences?
Is loss and bliss two sides of the same coin?
Around 10 minutes in, Steve reveals a question he used in his research:
“Have you ever had an awakening experience, in which your awareness of reality has intensified and expanded?”
As a reader, you’re invited to take a moment to reflect on this. Have you ever
- Been struck by the unusual beauty and vividness of things?
- Experienced a sense of connection/wellbeing?
- Had a sense of harmony and meaning?
- Felt a sense of oneness, and you being part of that oneness?
If so, in what context? Steve asked research participants to find out. They were asked to reply whether the awakening experience was related to factors like
- An activity
- Psychological turmoil
- Spiritual practice
- Spiritual literature
- Engaging with arts
- Nothing tangible (random)?
The most common answer, chosen by over a third of the research participants, was psychological turmoil – like depression, loss, and bereavement. It strangely seemed as if these heavy experiences could suddenly flip into joy and ecstasy as were they two sides of the same coin.
This topic has been investigated in a study by Kirsten Cameron and the IONS team, who suggested precognition as an unintended “gift” of childhood abuse.
Transformation Through Turmoil: Seeing the light in the middle of the tunnel
Sixteen minutes in, Steve tells the touching story of a soldier in the Vietnam War. This soldier reportedly had a profound mystical experience when in war – something one would think of as the last place to connect with spirituality. The experience changed his life and encouraged him to want to explore spirituality once the war ended. Contrary to what one might imagine, these brief but profound experiences often have lasting positive effects, and leads to a sense of connection and optimism that can last for a lifetime.
We get to hear a similar story around 17 minutes in. A woman, who had attempted suicide, woke up in the hospital and found a marble on the bedside table. She realized the marble to be a symbol of universal oneness. This insight instantly shifted her into a different state of consciousness, one where she felt removed from everything personal. Her personal problems seemed meaningless, like a misunderstanding of her true nature and everything around her. The experience was euphoric and she got an inexplicable rush of knowledge and understanding. After this, she entered a new, more optimistic phase of her life, which – just like for the soldier – seemed permanent.
Both of the above stories count as Transformation Through Turmoil (TTT). TTT seems to be common in relation to suicide attempts, in soldiers, and prisoners. It triggers an awakening experience and a new state of being. Similarly, people who experience intense psychological turmoil or trauma in the form of serious illness, depression, disability, addiction or loss sometimes report a dramatic transformation into a higher-functioning state. This state is one of expanded and intensified awareness, equivalent to a spiritual awakening.
In addicts, a TTT may manifest itself as a sudden “addiction release”, where years or even decades of e.g. substance abuse disappear out of the blue. Watch the full webinar to hear one such fascinating story of a person who was addicted to alcohol for 29 years. We also get to listen to the story of Irene Murray, who went through a positive life transformation after having been diagnosed with cancer.
People who have undergone a TTT can feel so different they can’t believe their old peers recognize them. About 26 minutes in, we hear a story of a woman who returned to her hometown after a profound mystical experience. Not only did she have a hard time recognizing her childhood friends, but she couldn’t grasp how they could recognize her – that’s how transformed she felt!
What’s peculiar about TTTs is that they seem to sustain themselves indefinitely. As Steve says: “once your new self is born, it can’t be unborn.”
The question remains: why do TTTs occur? Steve answers this initial quest as
- TTTs cause ego dissolution through intense stress (like an earthquake).
- Alternatively, the process can be more long-term, where attachments to external things like titles, people, and career gradually dissolve.
- In both cases, when you remove enough bricks (which happens through the traumatic event), the ego collapses – and underneath is bliss!
When the ego breaks down, the “new self” emerges because the collapse creates space for the higher self to fill.
Around the 35-minute mark, Steve asks – why doesn’t everyone experience TTTs? It seems to be related to readiness. The more self-exploration a person has done, and the more self-aware they are, the easier it is for a TTT to be triggered. Many could identify that the transformation occurred at the exact moment they accepted the situation and surrendered.
What TTTs Teach Us
So what can we learn from TTTs? How acknowledgment, acceptance, and self-exploration seem to be the way to harness the transformational potential of challenges and crises. We can also understand the importance of psychological detachment – not depending on external factors for wellbeing and identity. Attaching our sense of happiness and fulfillment to hopes for the future, a sense of achievement, status, possessions, or the past will always limit us to some extent. The key is to find happiness from within.
Get Steve Taylor’s book here: Extraordinary Awakenings.