The Wake Up Call: Can Suffering Set Us Free?
Why can psychological turmoil have such a powerful awakening effect?
Posted May 7, 2011
In my last post I mentioned that one of the most frequent triggers of peak experiences (or 'awakening experiences', as I prefer to call them) is psychological turmoil. In fact, my research has shown that turmoil is the biggest trigger of all. Of the 161 awakening experiences I collected, 38 (nearly 24%) were triggered by types of psychological turmoil such as stress, depression, loss and bereavement. The next highest triggers were contact with nature (18%) and then meditation and ‘watching or listening to an arts performance (both 13%).
This may not seem to make sense. Awakening experiences are overwhelmingly positive experiences - moments when we perceive reality at a heightened intensity, feel a powerful sense of inner well-being, experience a sense of connection and meaning. So it seems paradoxical that these experiences are frequently induced by states of despair and turmoil. Abraham Maslow suggested that ‘peak experiences' happen to people who are balanced, creative, and psychologically healthy, but these findings suggest that the opposite is frequently the case.
One woman described to me how, at the age of 20, she became so severely depressed that she had to be admitted to hospital. While there, she picked up a marble which happened to be lying on her bedside cabinet, and started playing with it in her hands. All of a sudden, it was as if the familiar world melted away, replaced by a vision of beauty and perfection. As she describes it:
I saw reality as simply this perfect one-ness. I felt suddenly removed from everything that was personal. Everything seemed just right. The marble seemed a reflection of the universe. All my ‘problems' and my suffering suddenly seemed meaningless, ridiculous, simply a misunderstanding of my true nature and everything around me. There was a feeling of acceptance and oneness. It was a moment of enlightenment. The euphoria and inexplicable rush of ‘knowledge and understanding' (it was like suddenly gaining access to a whole new comprehension of what we call ‘reality') following this episode lasted for days.
Similarly, a man described how he went through a long period of inner turmoil due to confusion about his sexuality, culminating in the breakdown of his marriage. This may have triggered the following awakening experience - according to him, the only one he has ever had:
It was our last family holiday before the break up. We were in Tunisia and went on an excursion down to the Sahara. We went on a camel ride across part of the desert and at the end of the day, I sat on the sand dune watching the sunset. There were quite a few people around but it was as if everyone else disappeared. Everything just ceased to be. I lost all sense of time. I lost myself. I had a feeling of being totally at one with nature, with a massive sense of peace. I was a part of the scene. There was no ‘me' anymore. I was just sitting there watching the sun set over the desert, aware of the enormity of life, the power of nature, and I never wanted it to end.
Attachment and Detachment
The key to understanding these experiences is the concept of attachment. Normally, as human beings we're psychologically attached to a large number of constructs, such as hopes and ambitions for the future, beliefs and ideas about life and the world, the knowledge we've accumulated, and our image of ourselves, including our sense of status, our appearance and accomplishments and achievements. At the same time, there are more tangible attachments, such as possessions, jobs, and other people. These are the building blocks of the ego. We feel that we're ‘someone' because we have hopes, beliefs, status, a job and possessions and because other people give us approval.
However, in states of despair and depression all of - or at least some of - these psychological attachments are broken. This is usually the very reason why a person is in despair: because the the ‘scaffolding' which supported their sense of identity has fallen away. Hopes and beliefs are revealed as illusions; their possessions and status have been taken away, their friends or lovers have rejected them. As a result, they feel naked and lost, as if their identity has been destroyed.
But at this very point the person is, paradoxically, close to a state of liberation. They are in a state of detachment. The self has been released from external constructs. In an instant, therefore, the pain of despair and desolation can switch into a state of freedom and joy. We feel a tremendous sense of well-being and energy, now that our psychic energy is no longer consumed by maintaining these psychological attachments. And since the structure of attachment no longer fills our being, there is a sudden new clarity and openness inside us, a new sense of wholeness.
What this suggests is that there may a positive side to turmoil and despair. Rather than destroying us, they can -at least occasionally - give us a glimpse of a liberation and enlightenment.