Steve Taylor
Mental health, Spirituality and religion

'As the old self dissolves, a new self arises out of its ashes’

Steve Taylor investigates how psychological turmoil can lead to transformation in his latest book Extraordinary Awakenings.

09 March 2023

One of the most stressful periods of my life was the winter of 2006. It was a few months after the birth of our second child, who was very unsettled at night, and barely seemed to sleep. My wife and I took turns getting up in the night and were both frazzled. I also had a heavier workload than normal at the college where I taught, and a deadline looming for a book.

Probably as a result of this stress, I became ill. One morning I woke up and couldn’t open my mouth. I couldn’t eat or drink, and one side of my face had swollen up massively. At the hospital, I was told I had quinsy, a complication of acute tonsillitis, and was given intravenous antibiotics, plus a saline drip. The infection had already spread to my neck and chest and my bacterial count was very high and rising. I kept getting weaker until it was difficult for me to walk more than a few paces. For the first few days, I felt worried and depressed, partly because the doctors were concerned that I wasn’t responding to the antibiotics, and the infection kept spreading. It was also the Christmas holidays, and I missed being at home with my wife and kids.

However, as I adjusted to my predicament, a strange sense of lightness began to fill me. I spent hours lying on the hospital bed, too weak to read or even watch television, but I felt carefree and content. I had an operation under a general anaesthetic (to drain pus away from my face) but didn’t feel worried. While waiting to have my anaesthetic, I felt calm and serene, completely accepting of whatever was going to happen.

The operation was successful and the antibiotics began to work. After two weeks, I was sent home. As I slowly returned to full health, a sense of serenity lingered inside me. I also felt enhanced gratitude and appreciation for my health, of the automatic physiological processes and the energy levels I normally took for granted. It seemed like a miracle just to be alive in a healthy, well-functioning body with enough energy to play with my children, to write, to talk to my wife and friends, and to meet the tasks of my daily life.

I realised that I had been taking life itself for granted too. The experience reminded me that life is a fragile and precious phenomenon that is dependent on countless physiological processes, any of which can malfunction at any moment. It reminded me of the importance of not procrastinating and of taking opportunities when they arise.

Shortly afterwards, I decided to go back to university and applied for a Master’s degree in Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University. The Master’s degree led to a PhD, which led to my present role as a psychologist.

Nadir experiences

One of the reasons I entered the field of psychology was to study the type of transformational experience I had myself. I wanted to explore the relationship between traumatic experiences and personal transformation.

I was pleased to find that there was already a great deal of research in this area. Abraham Maslow (1964) coined the term ‘nadir experiences’, referring to ‘peak experiences’ of great joy and liberation that are induced by turmoil and crisis. As Maslow saw it, peak and nadir experiences are not simple opposites but have a close, symbiotic relationship. Experiences of death, tragedy, and trauma can be important learning experiences bringing permanent change to a person’s outlook and character. In this way, nadir experiences can help to bring about what Maslow called ‘self-actualisation’.

Another transpersonal psychologist, Stanislav Grof (2000), highlighted the connection between turmoil and personal transformation in relation to what he called ‘spiritual emergencies’. This is when a person’s normal psychological processes and structures are disturbed and new energies and potentials are released, bringing the possibility of transformation. Grof found that spiritual emergencies are frequently triggered by a traumatic emotional experience such as losing ‘an important relationship, such as the death of a child or another close relative, divorce, or the end of a love affair . . . a series of failures or loss of a job or property’ (p.137).

More generally, such experiences relate to the concept of ‘post-traumatic growth’ (PTG) which has been extensively studied over the past 30 years or so. PTG suggests that in the long-term aftermath of traumatic events, individuals may develop positive characteristics such as increased appreciation, a stronger sense of meaning and purpose, more authentic and intimate relationships, and greater confidence and competence (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 1990; Calhoun, & Tedeschi, 1999). PTG occurs across a variety of trauma, including bereavement, serious illness, accidents, oppression and divorce. Research suggests that between a third and a half of all people experience some form of personal growth after traumatic events.

Transformation through turmoil

In my own research, I have found that psychological turmoil is one of the most frequent triggers of what I call ‘awakening experiences’. As I described in a previous article in The Psychologist (September 2018), an awakening experience is an expansion and intensification of awareness that brings significant perceptual, affective and conceptual changes. There is an intense sense of well-being, with an intense perception of our surroundings and a feeling of connection towards other people, nature or the whole universe in general. 

There is often a strong feeling of love and compassion, a sense of being intensely present, and of revelation, as if the experience reveals aspects of reality that are normally hidden from us. Awakening experiences are strongly associated with depression and stress, as well as traumatic life events such as divorce and bereavement. After this, the most common triggers of the experiences are contact with nature and meditation (Taylor & Egeto-Szabo, 2018).

Awakening experiences are usually temporary. They usually last for a few seconds, minutes or (if you’re lucky) hours. They often have lingering after-effects – such as a new sense of optimism and meaning – but there is a clear sense of returning to a normal, more limited awareness. However, in my research, I have found that, in some cases of suffering-induced awakening experiences, people report a permanent or ongoing shift. They don’t return to their normal state, but remain in a state of expansive awareness, at least at a lower intensity. Their awakening experiences don’t fade away, but herald a permanent transformation. 

I refer to this shift as ‘transformation through turmoil’ (or TTT). The characteristics are similar to post-traumatic growth, but at a higher level of intensity, with a more dramatic difference from their previous personality traits. People feel a new sense of gratitude, meaning and purpose. They often take up new hobbies and careers. They become less materialistic and more altruistic. The shift from their previous personality is so great that many people felt as if they have taken on a new identity.

One participant in my research told me ‘It’s like there are two people—there’s a before and after’ (Taylor, 2012, p.37). A woman who experienced TTT after the death of her daughter described her experience as like breaking through ‘to another state. I’ve moved up to another level of awareness which I know is going to stay with me’ (Taylor, 2012, p.37).

TTT often occurs suddenly, in a dramatic moment of transformation. This also distinguishes it from PTG as it is normally understood, which is usually gradual. Many of the participants of my research could specify a particular moment at which transformation occurred – often at the point they acknowledged and accepted their predicament. One participant described how, as an alcoholic undergoing the AA recovery process, he experienced a transformation at the moment when he ‘handed over’ his problem. Another participant had become severely disabled and underwent a shift at the point when he heard a voice inside his head say, ‘Let go, man, let go. Look at how you’re holding on. What do you think life’s telling you?’ (Taylor, 2012, p.49).

Despite these differences, transformation through turmoil is clearly akin to PTG, and is probably best seen as a variety or subset of it.

Extraordinary awakenings

My latest book Extraordinary Awakenings explores some of the most remarkable cases of TTT I have investigated (I didn’t discuss my own experience because – despite its significance to me – it seemed rather trivial compared to the other cases I examined in the book!). TTT can occur across the same contexts as post-traumatic growth. My book has chapters on TTT in soldiers, prisoners, bereaved people, addicts, suicidally depressed people and others who have had close encounters with death.

There’s the case of Irene, who was 42 when diagnosed with breast cancer and told she might have only months to live. She reacted in an unusual way. Irene told me: ‘I thought, “I’m just so lucky to be alive.” The air was so clean and fresh and everything I looked at seemed so vibrant and vivid. I became aware of this energy radiating from the trees. I had a tremendous feeling of connectedness. It was really intense for the first few weeks, and it has remained ever since.’

Irene’s cancer went into remission but she retained her heightened awareness. She felt a new sense of connection to people and nature, and a new enjoyment of solitude. She gave up her IT career to retrain as a counsellor and therapist. As she told me: ‘I used to just sit and think, “This is amazing, that things could just fall into place so quickly.”’

A woman called Eve had a similar experience, after reaching ‘rock bottom’ as an alcoholic. After 29 years of addiction, physically and emotionally broken, she attempted suicide by walking in front of a coach. Somehow, this encounter with death brought about a shift. When the police took her to her parents’ house, her mother assumed she needed a drink to ease her withdrawal symptoms and gave her a glass of wine. But Eve couldn’t drink it. As she told me:

I didn’t want to drink… Mum sat me down in front of a mirror and said, ‘Look at yourself, you’re an alcoholic.’ I looked at myself, and it was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. I had no idea who I was. I didn’t connect with my reflection. I felt like a completely different person.

Eve was slightly confused by her transformation, but soon it settled down and she began to feel an ongoing sense of freedom, with a heightened awareness and sense of connection. When she first went to AA meetings, people would tell her that she was on a ‘pink cloud’ and her sense of well-being would only last for a short time. But it became a permanent state. She has never felt the urge to drink again and has been sober now for 10 years.

Self-delusion?

Sceptical observers might argue – as indeed they have in relation to PTG – that TTT is due to self-delusion. They might argue that it’s the result of dissociation in response to trauma, or due to a desire to believe that painful experiences have been worthwhile and meaningful. However, there are a number of reasons why I think this is highly unlikely.

TTT brings a deep-rooted identity shift which causes major, apparently deep-rooted changes of attitude, behaviour and lifestyle which, in many cases, have been sustained over long periods of time. In a recent study of TTT specifically related to bereavement (Taylor, 2021), the mean length of time since transformation was reported as over 13 years, with eight participants reporting 10 years or more (in one case it was over 50 years). Three participants’ bereavement experiences occurred while they were teenagers (aged 14 to 16), and helped determine their adult career and lifestyle paths. 

For example, one participant described how ‘the personal transformation I underwent was what enabled me to embrace ministry…I absolutely could not have done so otherwise.’ Another described how her bereavement experience at 14 encouraged her to adopt nursing as her profession. ‘I had had a very strong spiritual pull and that was why I went into nursing,’ she said. 

This type of transformation seems too deep and consequential to be result of cognitive reframing or self-delusion. Arguably, the effects of self-deceptive cognitive strategies would be more superficial and less stable.

Also, if TTT was due to dissociation or self-delusion, this would imply a retreat from reality. But TTT brings an increased engagement with reality. Certainly, ‘shifters’ – as I call people who undergo TTT – describe their experience in terms of a progression rather than a regression. They describe a shift to a higher-functioning mode, including a more altruistic and compassionate orientation, a more trusting and accepting attitude to life, enhanced wellbeing, decreased fear of death, more authentic relationships, a greater sense of connection to nature, and so on. 

Arguably, regression or self-delusion would generate some degree of impairment or loss of functioning rather than such wide-ranging positive effects. Such traits also indicate an increased engagement with reality, and an increased openness to experience, whereas regression or self-delusion indicate the opposite.

Finally, TTT is sometimes a difficult process. In some cases, people struggle to make sense of what has happened and feel disoriented. It takes time to integrate their heightened awareness into their daily lives. It can also cause relationship difficulties, leading to the breakup of marriages or rifts with friends and relatives. One example is a man called Adrian who underwent transformation while in prison. 

His new sense of wellbeing was overlaid with confusion. He wondered if he had gone mad and read through psychiatry books to try to diagnose his condition. On his release from prison, his old friends were confused by his new personality. As he told me: ‘Many people fell out of my life. I was no longer the old me. Some people thought I’d lost my marbles, when in fact I’d found them!’ These difficulties surely wouldn’t feature if TTT was the result of self-delusion.

Explaining TTT

There is no obvious reason why traumatic experiences can, in some individuals, lead to transformation. However, in Extraordinary Awakenings, I suggest that the phenomenon is related to the breakdown of identity, due to the dissolution of psychological attachments, or intense stress. The breakdown of identity is usually a painful and debilitating experience, but in some people, it may be a process of liberation and transformation.

A psychological attachment is a construct which constitutes or reinforces a person’s sense of identity. For example, most people are psychologically attached to hopes and ambitions for the future, beliefs about life and the world, accumulated knowledge, accomplishments and achievements, or their appearance. At a more tangible level, people may be attached to possessions, social roles (as spouses or parents or in professions), or to other people whose approval and attention they seek. These attachments are the ‘building blocks’ of identity. 

However, during states of intense turmoil, psychological attachments often break down. This is usually the reason why a person experiences a sense of loss and despair: because the attachments they depend on for their identity have been taken away. For example, if a person is diagnosed with cancer, everything - their hopes and ambitions, their social roles and so on - is potentially taken away. Or if a person suffers from addiction, their attachments may dissolve away over a long process of loss.

With these attachments broken down, a person’s sense of identity may collapse, just as a house collapses when a number of bricks are removed. At this point, a person may feel naked and desolate, as if they have been destroyed. But they may paradoxically be close to transformation. For some, this state of emptiness may allow a new, more authentic sense of identity to emerge. Kubler-Ross and Kassler (2000) described how ‘our inherent gifts are often hidden by layers of masks and roles we’ve assumed. The roles . . . can become “rocks” burying our true selves’ (p. 25). However, an encounter with illness or death can ‘slew off’ these masks and connect a person with their authentic identity. As the old self dissolves, a new self arises out of its ashes.

I’m therefore convinced that TTT is a real phenomenon that needs to be investigated more intensively. And I’m grateful for the brush with serious illness which introduced me to the concept 16 years ago.

Dr. Steve Taylor is senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, and past chair of the Transpersonal Psychology Section of the BPS. Extraordinary Awakenings is published by New World Library.