Great mystics and spiritual teachers have tried to convey to us what they have come to know and understand about the path to enlightenment:
to go through life without the chatter of our limited personality and open the door to the present moment, where we feel connected to all that is and have the knowingness that we have a purpose in this life. Many books, philosophical treatises and even religions have been created from what these men and women have shared with us. But for some reason it is hard to see them as normal people like you and I. In many instances we are told that they were born with a special gift or that their destiny was set in such a way from the beginning. And even though we can read about the hardships and in many instances dreadful experiences that they had to go through, we tend to see these experiences more as proof of their fortitude and supernatural abilities rather than as the triggers that helped them reach such an evolved state.
What about the hundreds of people who after having gone through some kind of traumatic experience and great suffering relate having reached new states of being — in varying degrees of intensity — that sound very much like what the great mystics were talking about? Is it possible that the awakened state is a more common and accessible experience to all of us than we had thought? What are the distinctive characteristics that led these people to such a profound transformation? Do we all have to go through great suffering in order to become enlightened, and can we be sure that such an experience will actually lead us to that goal? These are some of the questions addressed in Steve Taylor’s latest book, Out of the Darkness.
SuperConsciousness spoke with Steve about the motivations behind his research, which he terms “Suffering Induced Transformational Experiences” (SITEs), that led to this book. What can we learn from these people’s stories and what can we do in our daily lives to reach a similar state of being?
Steve Taylor is a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University and a researcher in transpersonal psychology at Liverpool John Moores University. He is the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. These include Waking From Sleep, The Fall, Making Time, and his new book, Out of the Darkness. Steve is a regular blogger for Psychology Today. His work has been described by Eckhart Tolle as “an important contribution to the shift in consciousness which is happening on our planet at present.” Steve lives in Manchester, England with his wife and three young children.
SuperConsciousness: The basic premise of the book is that traumatic experiences can become a catalyst for a profound shift in our psyche, in our way of being, and you call these experiences SITEs (Suffering Induced Transformational Experiences). Why did you choose to write a book about this subject?
STEVE TAYLOR: It was partly because I always had a very intense awareness of death. I didn’t have any experiences or any encounters with death, but right from being very young, I was always really aware of it as a possibility. I was always aware that being aware of death can make you much more conscious of the beauty and the preciousness of life. It can have an awakening effect.
Then about five years ago I became quite ill and was taken to the hospital. At first I was a little miserable, anxious and worried, especially because it was Christmas, so I missed not being with my family during the holidays. But after a while I began to feel a sense of calmness and well-being. It was almost as if I had broken through to a deeper level of my being in some way, that I had found something deeper, almost like a reservoir of well-being had opened up inside of me, and that stayed with me.
Once I was back home recovering, and even once I had fully recovered, this sense of well-being remained inside me, and it was also a sense of appreciation, a strong sense of purpose. So that gave me personal experience of the awakening effect of suffering and encountering death. Once I had that experience myself, I started to collect experiences from others. I put an ad on my Web site and asked around. As a result, I began to collect similar experiences from people.
SC: How did you decide which people to include in the book?
ST: The strange thing was that I wasn’t expecting to find so many cases so easily. Once I put the word out, people came to me very quickly, and within a few months I had 40 or so cases. People came to me so easily that I began to realize that the experience of transformation or enlightenment by going through intense turmoil or drama was much more common than I thought.
SC: There is a statement in your book that says: “When you undergo a real spiritual shift, you don’t feel that you have the truth, that your beliefs are the right ones and everyone else’s are wrong. Your knowledge stems from experience, not from belief.”
What is the distinction that you found between the people that were relating to change based on embracing new religious beliefs and people that you included in the book?
ST: I feel that people who convert to religion in the midst of turmoil and trauma are seeking support for their ego. They have experienced a breakdown and are looking to put the pieces back together. They don’t actually transcend to a new state of being. They’re trying to put the pieces of the old state of being back together, and they use religion as a support framework to enable them to do that. So they are looking for beliefs that bolster the ego, for a sense of belonging and identity. That was one of the most important things.
However, the people who underwent a shift into enlightenment through suffering didn’t need that support anymore. They didn’t need the support of beliefs. They didn’t need the support of belonging to a particular religion or a particular community. It was as if their identity had dissolved away and it had been replaced by a sense of connection to everything around them, a sense of connection to other people, to nature, to something sacred. They didn’t need to find identity. You only need to find identity or the support of a belief system when you exist in separation. The “shifters” — as I call them — don’t experience separation, and so they have no need for beliefs or concepts, and no need to belong to any particular religious tradition.
SC: What are some of the other characteristics that you found common amongst the “shifters”?
ST: As I have just mentioned, there is a sense of connection, a transcending of separation. Separation is a source of a lot of the anxiety and discord of the human condition. So once you transcend separation, once you no longer experience yourself as an isolated separate individual, it frees you from a lot of the discord in normal human behavior. For example, all of the shifters were no longer interested in material things. There was a big shift away from seeking wealth and seeking success. Instead they gravitated towards altruism. As a result, after their transformation, many of them felt that they couldn’t continue their previous jobs.
One guy had been a successful architect with his own company. But after his shift, he felt as though he had to do something more meaningful and more altruistic, so he trained to be a counselor. There was another woman who was a nail technician, who decided to train to be a hypnotherapist.
One of the most interesting characteristics was they all felt that their minds had become quieter. I use the term “cognitive discord” for the normal disturbance and continual chattering of the human mind, which creates negative moods, depression and other psychological problems. All of the shifters said that their mental chatter was either very quiet or just disappeared altogether. Some of them said that they still had a degree of chatter, but they felt less identified with it. They could listen to it but they wouldn’t be affected by it.
SC: Besides the book Out of the Shadows, your research also led to the publication of a paper in the Journal for Humanistic Psychology. What has been the reaction to the paper from academics and what are the most common arguments that the skeptics have?
ST: The reaction to the article has been very good, partly because it is a phenomenon that hasn’t been investigated much before. A lot of research that has been done on temporary spiritual experiences — or awakening experiences, as I call them — but not so much with people who have undergone a shift into permanent awakening or into enlightenment. It is a new territory of research.
One of the most interesting characteristics was they all felt that their minds had become quieter. I use the term “cognitive discord” for the normal disturbance and continual chattering of the human mind, which creates negative moods, depression and other psychological problems. All of the shifters said that their mental chatter was either very quiet or just disappeared altogether.
One of the most common arguments from skeptics is that this state is a delusion, that when a person reaches rock bottom, or when suffering becomes incredibly intense, in order to carry on, they have to create a delusory alternative reality, as a survival. But I think the argument is quite easy to disprove, because if it were some kind of delusional state, similar to a form of hallucination or psychosis, then it would have negative effects. It would bring confusion and impair people’s functioning; it would negatively affect their relationships, their jobs, and their sense of reality. But, actually, in every way the people who have undergone the shift become better and higher functioning individuals. Their relationships become much more authentic and fulfilling, they become much more altruistic, and much happier. They gain a tremendous sense of appreciation of life. They see beauty in mundane things, and they have a wide sense of perspective, so that trivial things don’t affect them so much anymore. In every way, they are functioning at a much higher level. That suggests that it can’t be a delusion.
Another argument is that it is just created by brain chemicals, which may be activated in the state of extreme suffering — endorphins, for example. I don’t think the argument is valid either, partly because this state is permanent, whereas a change in brain chemistry would be temporary. Skeptics always try to bring everything back down to brain chemicals, including spiritual experiences. There’s no doubt that somebody who has a spiritual experience, it correlates with changes in the brain; it certainly will correlate with more activity in certain parts of the brain. But that doesn’t mean that the activity causes the spiritual experience. You could just say that the spiritual experience causes the change in brain chemistry. And why should you trace psychological or spiritual states back to brain chemistry? Why should you reduce one level of experience to another? Spiritual experience has a level of validity that is sufficient in itself. You can’t reduce it. It exists in itself as it is.
SC: And then there’s evidence from near-death experiences, which people are considered clinically dead and they still have consciousness and have these experiences anyway.
ST: Yes, that is true. Near-death experiences are interesting because follow-up studies have shown that they have exactly the same after-effects of SITEs. People who have had near-death experiences become less materialistic, more altruistic, more spiritual, more capable of love, and feel that life has more meaning. But my research shows that you can undergo the same shift through SITEs, without “dying” for a short time.
SC: Many people go through great suffering and very traumatic experiences, but not all end up with such profound shift as did the people you interviewed for the book. What was different about the people who actually did go through this transformation?
ST: First of all, there seems to be a certain personality type which is more likely to experience it. People, who are more open and more empathetic, more intuitive and creative, seem to be more likely to have the experience, possibly because their boundaries are softer.
Also I found that the prerequisite of undergoing a SITE was being able to surrender or let go. Almost everybody I spoke to had a certain moment when they underwent a mental shift, where they decided that they had no option but to surrender to their predicament. Rather than resisting that situation, they just let go and cease to resist. To give you an example, one man I talk about in the book is Michael Hutchison, an American author. He broke his spine in a fall and was paralyzed. He was in a terrible predicament. He had to wear a neck brace for weeks and couldn’t do anything but stare at the ceiling for weeks on end. He became very depressed and bitter, as you can imagine. But about a year after his accident, he was in a wheelchair being taken for a shower, and he heard a voice inside his head say, “What are you doing, man? Let go. Just let go.” He realized that all this time he had been resisting what happened. So he just made a mental effort to surrender or accept what was happening to him, and it was as if suddenly something opened up inside him. A reservoir of well-being just flew open inside of him and he was engulfed by a blissful energy that filled his whole being. He felt a tremendous sense of connection, of well-being, as though he had transcended his suffering and pain. He felt one with the universe, and that remained inside him. He has remained in a state of well-being ever since.
So I would say that those two things, the personality type and the ability to surrender and accept one’s predicament, are what distinguish the “shifters”.
SC: What value do you see in having a spiritual framework to help make sense of these experiences?
ST: A lot of shifters in my book went through this transformation but didn’t understand it because they hade no background in spirituality or psychology. They knew they had changed, and felt a sense of well-being and connection, but at the same time they felt slightly confused because they had no framework to make sense of it. They were also misunderstood by the people around them. They tried to talk about it to their family, to their partners, and they didn’t understand it either. In most cases, they eventually did understand and integrate their new state. They slowly gravitated towards books about spirituality and began to encounter other spiritually minded people, which helped them recognize some of the characteristics they were experiencing.
So I would say that those two things, the personality type and the ability to surrender and accept one’s predicament, are what distinguish the “shifters”.
SC: How did you interpret what was going on when this happened to you? How did you frame it yourself?
ST: I had actually been interested in spirituality for a long time before then. As a teenager I started to meditate, and I would always have spiritual experiences. I always experienced certain characteristics of awakening as part of my normal state. So I understood what was happening. To me it was a kind of deepening. It deepened some of the spiritual characteristics, which I already had. It intensified my sense of meaning, my sense of the beauty and preciousness of life, and my desire to serve the human race in some way.
SC: In the book, it is clearly stated that you don’t mean to promote for people to create suffering experiences in themselves to go though such shifts. And you give some recommendations of other things we can do.
ST: The main reason why people shift into enlightenment through intense suffering is because such experiences can break our psychological attachments. Normally as we live our lives, we slowly build up more and more psychological attachments. We take on roles in society, roles as fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, and become attached to our careers. We create ambitions for the future; take on certain beliefs about the world, concepts about ourselves. We accumulate possessions, status, success and knowledge. All of these things are psychological attachments, which help to build up our sense of ego.
What happens when we go through intense suffering is that these building blocks are taken away. They are broken down, our hopes are destroyed, our status and success are taken away, the people we depend on are taken away through bereavement or perhaps through divorce, you lose your job, your career or your business fails. SITEs always involve some sense of loss. And this dissolution of psychological attachments opens us up. The ego either breaks down completely or becomes weaker and softer, and this creates a space in our being for our latent higher self to emerge and become our normal self.
In ordinary life we can try to open up that space inside us by not building up so many psychological attachments, by trying to make sure that we are not too focused on ambitions and the future, not too concerned with status or possessions, or with knowledge or achievements. All of these things build up the ego. If we try to detach ourselves from them, there is an openness inside us which allows a deeper being or higher self to emerge.
For a lot of the people I spoke to in the book, their transformation really came from being acutely aware of death. One man came close to drowning, other people were told that they had cancer and only a few months left to live, and it was really the close encounter with death, which woke them up. The encounter with death shattered their ego. And this is because when you have a powerful encounter with death, psychological attachments naturally break away. If you encounter death then the future has no meaning, so all of your ambitions and hopes fade away; possessions have no meaning, status and success become meaningless; everything just dissolves away.
Encountering death can be a very powerful psychological and spiritual experience. I suggest in Out of the Darkness that we can gain something similar just through making sure that we are aware of our own mortality, making sure that we never forget the fact that life in this form is temporary, and very fragile. So any activity that increases our awareness of death can help us — for example, working in a hospice, sharing the company of dying relatives or friends. There’s also a great exercise, originally developed by Stephen Levine, called “A Year to Live”, which involves treating the coming year as if it’s the last year of your life. There are also Buddhist meditation practices focused on death.
SITEs always involve some sense of loss. And this dissolution of psychological attachments opens us up. The ego either breaks down completely or becomes weaker and softer, and this creates a space in our being for our latent higher self to emerge and become our normal self.
SC: What effect has writing this book had in you after having the opportunity to interview all these different people?
ST: On an intellectual level, it has made me realize how common enlightenment is. We think of enlightenment as something that is quite esoteric and that it happens to a few people — people who have meditated for decades or lived as monks or practiced yoga for years — but the book taught me that enlightenment is much, much more common than that. In some ways it is quite a normal everyday experience. Because so many of the people I spoke to didn’t initially understand what happened to them, I have a sense that there are probably thousands of people out there who have experienced this shift but don’t really understand it. Maybe they feel slightly confused by it. Effectively they have undergone spiritual awakening without realizing it. Even on a collective level, I think enlightenment is much closer to us as a species than I used to think. It’s the next phase of our development, both as individuals and as a species, and it’s unfolding naturally in millions of people.
Also on a more personal level, writing Out of the Darkness has made me less fearful of negative things. For example, it is normal to be afraid of old age, be afraid of death, or illness, but I’ve realized that whenever negative things happen in life, there is always a potentially positive side to them. This doesn’t mean hoping that negative events occur, or purposely causing them. But when suffering does arise in my life, I will always be aware that it can have an alchemical effect, that it brings potential for growth and transformation.
I think enlightenment is much closer to us as a species than I used to think. It’s the next phase of our development, both as individuals and as a species, and it’s unfolding naturally in millions of people.
SC: What do you think would be the next step in evolution for these people who have experienced such a shift?
ST: That was another thing that surprised me. The shifters I spoke to had undergone a radical shift into a higher level of being, almost to the point where they felt like they were different people inhabiting the same body, but some of them didn’t feel as though their development was complete. They felt that they were still evolving. Most of all, I think that they felt a strong sense of mission, a sense of urgency and purpose, a desire to help other people, or to aid the evolution of the human race. Some shifters were aware that the human race is going through a very tumultuous and dangerous time at present, where our future may hang in the balance; they had a strong awareness that there is something wrong with the world, something wrong with human beings; and they felt a strong desire to help the human race transcend suffering and discord.