Why do some people who experience the worst that life has to offer respond not by breaking down but by shifting up, into a higher-functioning, awakened state? And perhaps more importantly, how can we emulate their transformations?
Over many years of observing and studying the phenomenon of life changing awakening through extreme suffering, psychologist Steve Taylor coined the term “transformation through turmoil (TTT).” He calls individuals whose struggles lead to a dramatic shift into a new, expansive identity “shifters” and in Extraordinary Awakenings: When Trauma Leads to Transformation (New World Library, September 7, 2021) he shares dozens of amazing stories of individuals who “woke up” to profound transformation following bereavement, deep depression, suicide attempts, addiction, military combat, imprisonment, or other intense encounters with mortality. We hope you’ll enjoy this Q&A with Steve about the book.
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Tell us about the title of your new book Extraordinary Awakenings and what inspired you to write it.
It’s a book about the amazing transformation that can occur in the midst of intense suffering and trauma — for example, soldiers on a battlefield, the inmates of prison camps who are on the verge of starvation, people who have been through periods of severe addiction, depression, bereavement, and so on. These are what I call ‘extraordinary awakenings.’ They are extraordinary in two ways: first, because they occur in such unexpected circumstances, and second, because they have such an amazing effect. People feel completely reborn, as if they are different people living in the same body. In my role as a psychologist, I’ve been researching cases of extraordinary awakenings for 15 years. I wanted to share some of the amazing cases I’ve collected, and also explore what we can learn from the cases and apply to our own paths of development.
The book examines a phenomenon you call “transformation through turmoil.” Please tell us more about that and how it compares to “post-traumatic growth.”
Transformation through turmoil is an extreme and dramatic kind of post-traumatic growth. It’s a more radical change, which often happens instantaneously, in a single moment of transformation. You could also describe it as a spiritual awakening. People shift into a much more intense and expansive awareness. They feel a sense of wellbeing, and a new sense of meaning and purpose. They feel intensely grateful for things they took for granted before. The world seems more real and beautiful. They feel more connected to other people, and to nature. It really is as if they’ve woken up, as if a veil has fallen away and they’re living in a much fuller and more intense way.
What are some examples of the types of turmoil the shifters you write about experienced before their awakenings?
There are six main types of turmoil I cover in the book: warfare, incarceration, bereavement, encounters with death, addiction and intense depression and stress. Incarceration was such a major area that I had to divide it into two chapters, the first looking at historical examples from soviet gulags and prisoners of war, and the second dealing with contemporary prisoners in the US and the UK. In the chapter on encounters with death, I looked at what I called ‘intense mortality encounters,’ when people are diagnosed with cancer, or have serious injuries, and also at near-death experiences, when people die for a short time before being resuscitated. I also found a connection between suicide and transformation. Sometimes people undergo extraordinary awakenings when they are seriously contemplating suicide, or after a suicide attempt.
What is the most common type of severe trauma that humans experience and why does it have so much spiritual potential?
Bereavement. All of us go through bereavement, and many people do go through transformation as a result. It is usually the more tragic and unexpected bereavements that are the most transformational. For example, I tell the story of a woman who had an extraordinary awakening after her husband died in a car crash, and another who had a similar experience after a close friend was murdered. When we go through bereavement, everything changes. It’s like an earthquake, disrupting our whole lives. Everything which seem secure and stable is thrown into disarray. And when the ground settles again, the world seems like a completely different place.
You say in the book that embracing challenges in our lives is a way that we can apply the principles of “transformation through turmoil” to our lives. How so?
The cases in my book show that challenges can help us to grow. They can even lead to spiritual awakening. So rather than avoiding challenges and crises, when they occur in our lives we should look at them as an opportunity for growth. We should trust in the massive reserves of resilience that are inside all of us, even though we’re not normally conscious of them. There is a positive side to all seemingly negative events in our lives. The important thing is to respond to them in the right way, in order to harness their transformational potential.
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Steve Taylor, PhD, is the author of Extraordinary Awakenings and many other bestselling books. He’s senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University and the chair of the Transpersonal Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. Steve’s articles and essays have been published in over 100 academic journals, magazines, and newspapers and he blogs for Scientific American and Psychology Today. Visit him online at www.StevenMTaylor.com.