One day about 15 years ago, I was living in a shared flat in Manchester, UK, and my flatmate came home in a state of excitement: 'You've got to meet the guy who runs the local launderette - he's a really spiritual guy, like a guru!' Intrigued, I took my next load of washing there, and as soon as I walked through the door I realised this wasn't an ordinary launderette. It was painted bright, attractive colours, and there were inspirational quotes pinned to the wall. And I quickly realised that the tall, white-haired man who was busy emptying one of the machines wasn't an ordinary launderette manager.
Soon after we started chatting Tony - as he introduced himself - told me about the dramatic transformation he'd been through several years earlier, when he almost died of a heart attack. Until that time he'd been a successful businessman who devoted his life to making money. As he says now, 'I was just going through the motions, not really living.' When he had his heart attack at the age of 52 it was like waking up out of a dream.
'It may sound ridiculous but it's the best thing that's ever happened to me,' he told me. 'It made me realise that the only important thing in life is not to be successful or wealthy, but to be happy...I feel like I'm living in a multi-coloured world compared to a black and white one. The world is an amazingly beautiful place if you look it at properly.'
I realised that Tony had experienced a permanent spiritual awakening, as a result of his encounter with death.
Shortly after meeting Tony, I saw a TV interview with the playwright Dennis Potter, when he was dying of cancer. Potter remarked that, although he was dying, he felt happier and more at peace with the world than ever before. As he said during the interview, 'We forget that life can only be defined in the present tense. It is is is. And it is now only...That nowness becomes so vivid to me that in a perverse sort of way I'm serene. I can celebrate life.'
As for Tony, Dennis Potter's imminent death had brought about a psychological transformation, a shift to a higher state of consciousness.
I wanted to understand why death had this liberating effect, and over the years I encountered several people who had similar experiences as a result of undergoing intense turmoil, such as severe depression or serious illness, bereavement, disability, reaching 'rock bottom' through alcoholism, and so on. And then, four years ago, I had a similar experience myself, when I was ill in hospital. I had a little known illness called quinsy, which led to a serious bacterial infection. But after the initial anxiety and frustration passed away, I was filled with a strange sense of inner peace and well-being.
Shortly after this, I decided to research the topic more thoroughly, and sought out as many people as I could who had undergone 'transformation through suffering.' In the end I interviewed over 30 people, and the interviews were the raw material of my book Out of the Darkness.
At that point, I decided to make contact with Tony again, but found that his launderette was no longer there. No one had any idea what had happened to him. He must be quite elderly now, in his late 70s, but if anyone is reading this and recognises him (perhaps he moved to the US!), please get in contact with me. I want to thank him for helping to give birth to my book all those years ago.