Our most joyful experiences can arise out of the most intense psychological suffering, new study shows
The study shows that states of intense wellbeing, joy and feelings of liberation can actually arise from experiences of intense suffering.
Dr Taylor, author of psychology books including 'Back to Sanity' and 'Out of the Darkness', and regular blogger for Psychology Today and now the Huffington Post, evaluated 161 people's reports of their personal awakening experiences, as well as looking at existing research into this area, revealing the most common reasons behind such experiences and how some became permanent states. The study has been published this week in the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies.
Dr Taylor put out a request online for people to contact him who had had an awakening experience at any point in their lives. An awakening experience is one in which a person's surroundings suddenly become brighter and more real; and a deep sense of wellbeing, harmony or one-ness with nature may be felt, as well as a feeling of freedom from difficulties. A number of additional reports were gathered at Dr Taylor's courses and workshops across the country.
Dr Taylor's research showed that the most frequent trigger of an awakening experience was psychological turmoil (23%). The other significant triggers cited were contact with nature, meditation, watching or listening to an arts performance (eg dance, music or theatre). Many different varieties of psychological turmoil were described, including depression, stress, alcoholism, bereavement, encounters with death, serious illness and disability.
Many of these experiences were temporary, but in some cases there was a permanent transformation. Dr. Taylor refers to these as 'suffering-induced transformational experiences' (SITEs). One of the participants in the study described experiencing SITE after going through the AA recovery process for his alcoholism, whilst another, who had become severely disabled, described experiencing a shift when he decided to 'let go' and accept his predicament.
A temporary 'awakening experience' was described by one participant who, as a 17 year old, was upset following a break-up. She cried for hours until falling asleep and when she woke up, she was filled with a peace and contentment she had never known before. She said: "I was extremely happy and felt a great love for all things. It was a very strong feeling, the strength of which I had never felt before or since. I felt as though I was filled with love and compassion. My bedroom looked brighter and sharper and I remember touching things in my room whilst feeling a huge sense of connectedness. I was conscious of not wanting the feeling to go away. But unfortunately it didn't last long."
Dr Taylor himself related his own experience of an awakening experience which he encountered during an illness which resulted in him spending time in hospital and needing an operation:
"As I began to adjust to the environment and accept my predicament, a sense of lightness and ease began to fill me. I began to feel a glowing energy inside, as if I had made contact with a reservoir of wellbeing which was normally too deep for me to have access to. I spent hours lying on the hospital bed, too weak to read or even watch television, but I felt carefree and content."
Dr Taylor explained that another key difference between temporary and permanent experiences is that the latter involves taking on a new 'self-system'. In cases of extreme and sudden turmoil, psychological attachments, including hopes and ambitions, sense of status and achievement, wealth and possessions, and other people upon whom the person is emotionally dependent, are dissolved, meaning that a new 'self-system' is put in place:
"The dissolution of these attachments is usually the main reason why a person is in a state of turmoil. They are the building blocks of a person's sense of identity. When these are taken away, the structure itself collapses and, for most people, this is equivalent to a breakdown or even psychosis. Yet for a small minority, this gives the opportunity for a new self-system to emerge. In permanent SITEs, the old self-system is dissolved so completely that it cannot reform."
Whilst psychological turmoil is the most common trigger of an awakening experience, natural surroundings provided a significant number of reports. Dr Taylor explained: "Natural surroundings often have a relaxing, mind-quietening effect, which is possibly why research had shown that contact with nature can have a powerful therapeutic effect, as beneficial as psychotherapy and psychiatric drugs."
Meditation and the arts were similarly cited: "In meditation, the individual reduces their exposure to sensory information by closing their eyes and removing themselves from activity. They consciously attempt to slow down and reduce the thought-chatter of the mind. Awakening experiences through watching an arts performance can be explained in a similar way as a performance can have a similar effect to a mantra in meditation, acting as a focus for attention so that the mind becomes quieter and emptier."
Dr Taylor now plans to carry out further research to clarify why certain incidences of psychological turmoil trigger awakening experiences: are there certain circumstances or conditions which are more likely to invoke them, or certain individuals who are more likely to experience them?
If you have ever had a 'suffering-induced transformational experience' or any kind of awakening experience, contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.