Out of the Darkness – Steve Taylor on “Awakening” and Spiritual Transformation

The following interview with psychology teacher and author Steve Taylor was published in April 2012 issue of Recovering the Self- a journal of hope and healing. The article is republished here with the permission of the journal’s editor.

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New beginnings come after our soul is freed from shackles of suffering and the scars of trauma. How does this happen and how do we adjust to our new state of mind, the new shift in our life, is explained very cogently in Steve Taylor’s recent book Out of the Darkness: From Turmoil to Transformation (Hay House UK, 2011). A lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, Steve is the author of several best-selling books and numerous articles and essays on psychology in academic journals around the world. My interview with Steve, as follows, relates his insightful discussion in Out of the Darkness on the topic of “awakening” to a spiritual, positive state of mind experienced by many people after they have been through turmoil in life, including life-threatening situations.

Ernest: Steve, the first question that comes to my mind relates the common perception of the ‘good life’ in our contemporary world. What is ‘good’ to most people and is it this perception good in itself?

Steve: In the hedonistic modern world, ‘good’ has come to mean whatever ‘feels good’ i.e. materialism, hedonism, and success and status-seeking. There’s a massive emphasis on short-term happiness, on immediate pleasure, over the long-term effort to develop oneself or improve one’s character. And ironically, short-term pleasure-seeking doesn’t work. It just gives you a short ‘hit’ of pleasure which fades away very quickly. You also quickly get used to hedonistic and materialistic thrills, so you need bigger and bigger ‘hits’ to achieve the same effect. ‘Good’ doesn’t come from short-term hedonistic pleasure but from acts of kindness and altruism, and from making a contribution to the welfare of the human race as a whole, and the long-term evolution of our species.

Ernest: Do you think that humans have the capacity to make themselves psychologically prepared for trauma and/or disability or other major setback by awareness and personal effort?

Steve: I’ve found personally that if you’re aware that trauma and suffering have a potentially positive side—that they can lead to personal growth, and can deepen and strengthen us—then you respond to them in a better way. You can look at suffering as a challenge—or an opportunity—rather than just as a source of trouble. An attitude of acceptance helps a lot too. I found that the people who were most likely to experience transformation through suffering were those who found it easier to ‘let go’, to surrender and accept what had happened to them. The people who resisted their predicament, who refused to accept it, didn’t experience transformation.

Ernest: In the first part of your book, we read that our ego boundaries soften, which sounds like making the sense of “me” a more peaceful state than we usually carry. What are the factors that keep this sense anxious and agitated prior to our “awakening”?

Steve: Human beings’ normal state is one of ‘ego-madness’. In my next book, Back to Sanity, I call it ‘humania’. Most people suffer from a basic psychological disorder, which is so normal to us that we don’t realize it’s there. The main problem is our sense of separateness—‘ego-isolation’, as I call it. The sense of separateness is the source of a massive number of human pathologies. It creates a sense of incompleteness or lack, which makes us continually strive for more wealth and status and power, and it ‘walls us off’ from one another, so that we find it difficult to empathize with others. Ultimately, those two things—the desire for wealth and status combined with the inability to empathize—are the root cause of warfare and social oppression.

Ernest: How does bereavement change our approach toward life and toward death?

Steve: It deepens us. Research in psychology has shown that bereavement can have the effect of broadening our perspective, so that we’re less affected by trivial worries and more concerned with bigger questions, like meaning and purpose, and global issues. It can make us more appreciative of things, thankful for the small things in life, and just for life itself. It can shatter the shell of our normal ego, and open us up a higher and deeper self beneath it. Many of the ‘shifters’ I spoke to underwent their transformation as a result of bereavement.

Ernest: The courage of what we call physically “handicapped” and their ability to carry on with living normally has inspired me many a time. Would you argue that our general concept of “disability” is rather narrow, confined to our body only?

Steve: I agree. People who become physically ‘disabled’ often become more ‘able’ in other ways. I don’t think I would even use the word ‘disabled’ as it has negative connotations. I guess you could say physically different, or having undergone physical changes. Again, I spoke to several people who underwent those physical changes but underwent a transformational experience as a result. One of them was Gill Hicks, who was caught in the 7/7 bombings in London, and almost died. She had to have both of her legs amputated below the knee. But as soon as she started to recover, she was aware that she was a different person, living what she called ‘Life Two’. She underwent a spiritual shift.

One of our problems is that when our lives are stable and run smoothly, it’s all too easy for us to slip into a kind of trance. We just live on the surface of our lives, and on the surface of our selves. There are massive reserves of strength and potential inside us which we don’t get access to. But often a major crisis like bereavement or disability can shake us up, and open us up.

Ernest: One thing I feel like asking is whether reading, or watching or hearing, about spiritual transformation of others is helpful in paving the way for our new beginning?

Steve: That usually wasn’t the case. The ‘shifters’ I spoke to weren’t prepared for what happened. They weren’t expecting it. However, I did find that people who had a prior interest in spiritual—and who were engaged in some form of spiritual practice, like meditation—reacted better to the shift. Some ‘shifters’ didn’t understand what had happened to them; they felt confused by it, even though there was a sense of well-being too. They didn’t have a conceptual framework to help them make sense of the shift. Some of them found it difficult to function in the world for a while. But people who had a background in spirituality did have that conceptual framework, and so adjusted better.

Ernest: I usually don’t miss asking this question. Do you think media in our day is doing a good job in presenting positive, inspiring stories?

Steve: I think the media is awful. In the UK—here I live—the media is dumbed down to the lowest common dominator. It couldn’t get any worse. Television presents the most intellectually undemanding programs, which appeal to the lowest human instincts—like talent shows, and reality TV shows. It’s just as bad in the US, with channels like Fox News, which basically feed people with lies and propaganda. But it may be getting a bit better now that Rupert Murdoch is in trouble and going to be reined in.

Ernest: More than one account in Out of the Darkness tell us that people undergoing transformation quit their regular jobs. Does it follow that transformation brings new meanings to what is worth doing?

Steve: That’s very true. All of the shifters had a different perspective on what was important. They all shifted away from seeking wealth and seeking success. Instead they gravitated towards altruism. They also wanted to do something which was meaningful, which affected the world in a positive way. They want to contribute something to the world, rather than just further their own ambitions or gain more wealth or success. The previous jobs often seemed trivial. One shifter was a successful architect with his own company. But after his shift, he felt as though he had to do something more meaningful; so he trained to be a counselor. Another woman was a designer, but gave that up to work for a charity. Another woman was a nail technician, but gave that up to train to be a hypnotherapist.

Ernest: Since I am one, I would like to ask whether spiritual transformation makes many people vegetarian.

Steve: Spiritual transformation generates a high degree of empathy. A person’s identity becomes much more expansive. It’s no longer confined to their own mind or body; it spreads out into other human beings, other animals, into nature, and the cosmos as a whole. And I’m sure that’s why people who undergo spiritual transformation, or who follow spiritual practices or spiritual traditions, are more likely to be vegetarians—simply because they’re able to empathize with animals. It may also be due to a greater sensitivity to their bodies. They’re more likely to feel the discomfort which eating meat can bring to the body.

Ernest: Can we say that people who believe in afterlife and a supremebeing or god are more likely to experience spiritual transformation after some trauma or trial?

Steve: That’s not what my research shows. Hardly any of the shifters I spoke to came from a religious background, or had any religious beliefs. And those who did have religious beliefs sometimes rejected them after their transformation. The idea of a personal God who controls the events of the world and is somewhere ‘out there has seemed absurd to them. My research shows that transformation can happen to anyone. It wasn’t even more likely to happen to people who had engaged in some kind of spiritual practice before. The only difference that made was that people who knew about spiritual ideas beforehand found it easier to understand their new state.

Ernest: What would you say if I ask you about two or three things that each of us should never miss doing each day?

Steve: We should perform acts of service or kindness at least once a day. Service helps us to transcend the ego and to connect—not just to other people, but to a transcendent dimension.

We should practice gratitude and appreciation every day— remind ourselves of the things in our lives we should be grateful for, and remind ourselves of how lucky we are just be alive at this moment, when we could be dead, or perhaps may never have been born.

Meditation and mindfulness are important to practice everyday too – to keep us rooted in our deeper self and stop us getting too entangled in the chattering of the ego.

Ernest: Steve, I am very thankful to you for the precious time you spared and for sharing your thoughts on awakening and transformation. In case any of our readers wanted to reach you with some question relating this topic, would you encourage them?

Steve: Yes, please make contact via my website www.stevenmtaylor.com. You can also make contact with me on facebook (http://www.facebook.com/stevetaylorauthor) or twitter (https://twitter.com/SMTaylorauthor).