Extraordinary Awakenings: When Trauma Leads to Transformation

Extraordinary Awakenings: When Trauma Leads to Transformation

Steve Taylor
Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2021. 252 pp., paper, $19.

The concept of posttraumatic growth—that the experience of types of trauma, such as illness, injury, divorce, economic hardship, or the loss of a loved one can lead to emotional growth in the period of healing and recovery—has received much attention from psychologists in recent years.

In Extraordinary Awakenings: When Trauma Leads to Transformation, transpersonal psychologist Steve Taylor takes things a step further, positing that trauma itself can generate sudden and intense spiritual transformation on a par with enlightenment.

Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at Britain’s Leeds Beckett University and chair of the Transpersonal Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society, calls this “transformation through turmoil.” He builds a convincing case that spontaneous illumination can be forged within the heat of trauma itself, with the suffering generating the force needed for realization.

Taylor has been researching instances of spontaneous spiritual awakening for fifteen years. He makes his case for transformation through turmoil using detailed case studies of individuals who have experienced sudden moments of clarity while on the battlefield, on the brink of suicide, suffering the sudden loss of family members, and similar hardships. These were not fleeting moments of adrenaline-driven emotion or that strange ecstasy that can hit us at our lowest points, but revelatory moments that lasted and permanently changed those who had experienced them.

Taylor also explores how the long-term trauma of incarceration can be transformative. Many former prisoners have recounted how their time without physical freedom led them to spiritual maturation. Taylor examines the similarities between a lengthy jail sentence and the elective “imprisonment” of monastics in certain Christian traditions, who spend their days in tiny cells, giving up even the freedom to speak.

Somewhat less convincing are the sections dedicated to those who say they experienced transformation through turmoil while in the bonds of drug addiction. Taylor shares several stories of individuals with addictions to hard drugs who say they woke up one morning with their addictions gone. While the reader must be happy for anyone who escapes addiction, such cases are very rare.

Taylor does not fully discount the traditional understanding of addiction and recovery—he writes favorably about the Twelve-Step process—but does express skepticism about the notion of chemical addiction to drugs. Interpreted incorrectly, this skepticism can be dangerous.

Taylor’s main argument is that moments of trauma strip away the armor from guarded humans, leaving them raw and exposed. This results in a sudden ripping away of the ego, the necessary step to enlightenment. He does not present trauma as desirable or as a shortcut to understanding, but instead focuses on how such sudden transformation can improve the human condition.

Taylor’s writing style is refreshingly readable for a book of this sort. He avoids the vagueness and generalities of many popular wellness books, as well as the hard-to-penetrate terminology of medical literature. He adopts an upbeat tone without glossing over the true suffering his subjects have experienced.

Extraordinary Awakenings is most likely to be picked up by a reader seeking literature on surviving her or his own trauma. Going in with an open mind, such a reader will find much of value. However, Taylor’s book is more than self-help. It opens the door to a new understanding of trauma and spiritual growth that merits attention and further study.

Peter Orvetti

Peter Orvetti is a political writer and former divinity student residing in Washington, D.C.