Spiritual Alchemy: How suffering can lead to Awakening
by Steve Taylor
One of the basic ideas of contemporary Advaita is that you can’t ‘do anything’ to wake up. Effort of any kind reinforces the ego, and so strengthens the sense of separateness. Making an effort to wake up is counterproductive. The goal of becoming enlightened actually takes you further away from the state. In this article, I’m going to look at whether my research into ‘spiritual awakening’ supports this view.
One of my main interests is in the connection between awakening and psychological turmoil. I have found that, while awakening sometimes happens for no apparent reason, in most cases it’s triggered by – or at least related to – intense psychological suffering. When I was researching and writing my book Out of the Darkness, I found dozens of cases of people who were in a state of intense turmoil due to bereavement, addiction, depression, serious illness, disability, facing death and so forth – but at a certain point, usually when they let go or stopped resisting their predicament, something gave way inside them. Their normal identity collapsed, but rather than bringing a nervous breakdown, something else arose in its place. A latent higher self emerged, and became their new identity, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. They were now in an awakened state, with a new sense of wonder, meaning and connection, a feeling of lightness, and freedom from anxiety and discontent. They felt re-born, with a new identity. Years later – even decades – they were still filled with inner peace. Some of them expected the state to fade after a while, but in most cases it didn’t. It became their normal, stable and permanent identity.
I spoke to an alcoholic who reached ‘rock bottom’ and lost everything but then became liberated; a woman who has lived in a state of wakefulness ever since being told she had breast cancer; a woman whose daughter died and who lost her business and savings in the aftermath, but suddenly shifted into an enlightened state and has never grieved for her daughter since. I spoke to a man who became paralyzed after falling from a bridge onto a river bed, who struggled for months with pain and despair, then underwent a spiritual rebirth and now lives in a state of permanent bliss. I also interviewed a 90-year-old man named Russell Williams who underwent transformation over 60 years ago, after a long period of mental torment brought on by his experiences in the Second World War. As he described it:
“I was in a state of desperation…and it was suddenly as if a blanket was dropped over me. I felt an incredible sense of peace and freedom, a completely different person inside. And that freedom and peace have continued inside me right until now.”
At the time Russell knew nothing about spirituality, and it was several years before he fully understood the shift he experienced. Eventually he became a spiritual teacher, and has held twice weekly talks in Manchester, England for the past 50 years. (In fact, it’s quite common for people who experience these ‘suffering-induced transformational experiences’ – as I have called them – to become spiritual teachers. Krishnamurti, Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie and many others – including some non-duality teachers – went through periods of intense turmoil before awakening.)
Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between this transformation and a previous interest in spirituality, or a history of spiritual practice. Only a small number of the people I spoke to were following spiritual practices or traditions, or even familiar with the basic ideas of spirituality. They weren’t mystics or monks, or even spiritual seekers. They were ‘ordinary’ people with ordinary jobs, who happened to go through intense psychological turmoil. As a result, like Russell, it took them a long time to comprehend what had occurred. Initially, although they felt liberated and peaceful, many of them felt slightly bemused by their new state. Usually, they went through a slow process of gravitating towards spiritual books and other ‘awakened’ people, until they finally had a framework to make sense of their new state.
This seems to back up the non-duality movement’s doubts about spiritual practice. It seems to confirm that awakening is something which just happens, rather than being consciously induced. However, my research did highlight one positive effect of spiritual practice. The small number of people who did have a prior interest in spirituality, or a history of spiritual practice, underwent a smoother transformation than others. Aside from some initial confusion, a number of ‘shifters’ also went through a difficult period of integration, where they had psychiatric disturbances, physical problems and found it difficult to cope with daily life. They felt strange energies welling up inside them, couldn’t sleep, had visions, or found it difficult to think clearly or to speak. They went through a very unstable phase but finally ‘settled down’ into a stable awakened state. But the people who were engaged in spiritual practice didn’t undergo these difficulties. They were like people who immigrate to a different country and find it easy to settle down, because they’ve learned the language beforehand and familiarized themselves with its customs and culture. The others were like people who were suddenly kidnapped by strangers and dropped into a completely foreign culture without any preparation.
It may be that spiritual practice provides a gradual opening to higher energies and potentials, so that when the full shift into awakening occurs, it isn’t as drastic. Those energies and potentials don’t overwhelm us, because we’ve already opened ourselves to them.
So these findings seem to give credence to the idea that there is no direct connection between spiritual practice and awakening, at least not when awakening occurs in a sudden and dramatic way. At the same time, spiritual practice does help us prepare for awakening, if it should occur. In other words, practice probably won’t increase your chances of immigrating to a different country, but if you do happen to land in that strange place of awakening, it will help you to adjust to life there.
Steve Taylor’s research into ‘spiritual awakening’ is published as Out of the Darkness, available at Amazon.
The book has been described by Andrew Harvey as ‘A wonderfully clear and inspiring book…Its importance for our times cannot be exaggerated’; while Dan Millman has written that ‘Each page highlights the resilience of our human spirit.’
Steve’s website is www.stevenmtaylor.co.uk