New book shines light on the psychology of awakening experiences
30 March 2017 - Carrie Braithwaite
A new book by a Leeds Beckett University academic and psychologist is the first ever full-scale psychological study of ordinary people’s experiences of ‘enlightenment’.
Dr Steve Taylor, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett, spent 10 years researching the state of enlightenment, which he calls ‘wakefulness’. In his new book, The Leap, he investigates 100 contemporary cases of people who have undergone a shift into a more expansive and intense state of being.
Many cultures throughout history have spoken of ‘spiritual awakening’ or a ‘higher’ state of being, and devised practices and lifestyle guidelines with the aim of attaining this state. In The Leap, Dr Taylor takes us away from the context of spiritual traditions and uncovers the psychological principles that lie behind them.
Dr Taylor has found that there is nothing obscure or even spiritual about ‘wakefulness.’ Treating it in purely psychological terms, he sees it as “a higher-functioning state in which a person’s vision of and relationship to the world are transformed, along with their sense of identity and their outlook. It brings a sense of wellbeing, clarity and connection. The person develops a more intense awareness of the world around them, and a broad, global outlook, with an all-embracing sense of empathy with the whole human race, and a much reduced sense of for group identity.”
Dr Taylor has found that this state is far from uncommon. He said: “It doesn’t just happen to Eastern sages but to seemingly ordinary people in all walks of life – people with conventional jobs, ordinary lives and even those with no background in spiritual traditions or practices. Most commonly, it happens in response to intense psychological turmoil, such as bereavement, serious illness, combat, depression or addiction. Often, when people undergo it, they don't fully understand what's happened to them. It can take them several years to integrate their new state.”
In The Leap, Dr Taylor explores the different ways in which awakening can occur and the reasons why it occurs. He uncovers:
- The triggers or causes of awakening.
- The different types of wakefulness: natural, gradual and sudden.
- What actually happens inside a person’s being or psyche when they experience awakening.
- How awakened people experience the world, and how their relationships, values and goals are different.
The book features in-depth personal stories of people who overcame adversity and underwent profound personal transformation (or awakening).
Kelly was a female soldier in the Canadian military, who served in the Middle East and suffered from severe post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression. She underwent a transformational experience over several years of recovery and is now a transpersonal psychologist.
Kelly explained: “When you’re present all the time, every day seems full. A day seems to last for such a long time. I used to shop and be addicted to home and garden television. I wanted to be an interior designer. I was obsessed with objects and creating peace in space. I was looking to possessions as a way to feel better but now I don’t need to feel better. There is no attachment. I gave away all my books; I don’t need things. I can have them, but I don’t need them.
“I used to be on guard, ready to defend myself against potential criticism or judgement, always self-conscious, wanting to be seen in the best possible way. I was always aware of myself, how I was being perceived. All of that stopped. I could just see people instead of focusing on what they thought of me. I was just listening, with so much less judgement, just allowing them to be themselves.”
Graham is a university lecturer whose wife and son died in the space of a few weeks and underwent a massive shift to an enlightened state.
He said: “Life has become a lot easier. I’m able to live more in the present moment and value that. Attachments that I had before have been loosened a great deal. Worries about money, about future work, about relationships, have lost their strength. Now everything that comes along is okay. I can say yes to life whatever it brings whereas before I used to have conditions.
“There’s a sense of appreciation of the simple things - a simple cup of tea, looking out of the window, the sunshine on the leaves, the wonderful green of the trees. I never bothered to pay much attention in the past. I’m struck by how fresh everything seems, how wonderful it is to be here at all. There’s a sense of wonder, like a young child – I’ve got it back. I can appreciate just walking out the front door, feeling the wind on my face.”
Dr Steve Taylor was recently named one of Mind Body Spirit magazine’s 2017 list of the 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People - spiritual teachers, activists, authors and thinkers that change the world. Dr Taylor currently appears at number 80. The Leap is his tenth book and follows on from titles including Making Time, Out of the Darkness, and Back to Sanity.