I am fascinated by transformative experiences, perhaps because my own life has been greatly colored by one of these. (An awakening or opening in my mid-teens.)
There is a wide range of these transformative experiences, and how they impact us depends on many factors: the type of experience, the setting, how we interpret it, our own background, our resources and support, how those around us respond, and so on.
Types of triggering experiences
What are some typical experiences that can trigger this transformation?
Here is a brief and incomplete list: near-death experience, psychoactive drugs, spiritual openings, alien encounters, and peak experiences. It can also be more prosaic sounding like loss, chronic illness, giving birth, experiencing a war, going to prison, experiencing a surprising and great act of kindness, and so on.
It’s common to call these transformative experiences, but it’s more accurate to call them triggering experiences. They are not, in themselves, transformative. It’s how we respond to them, consciously and at deeper levels, that leads to transformation or not.
We can choose to experience some of these types of experiences, although we cannot know if or how we’ll be transformed. Often, we don’t have so much choice. And although we can, at some level, choose how we relate to it and what we do with it, it’s questionable how much say we have in how and how deeply we are transformed.
How do we typically get transformed? There is a wide range of transformations, and – as mentioned above – it depends on many factors.
Some of the things that can happen are….
A reprioritization of our life. We sort through our values and priorities and find what’s more and less important to us. Often, love, kindness, caring for life, and so on come out on top.
Wanting to live in a way that’s meaningful. Wanting to live according to our deeper values and what’s meaningful to us.
A need to live an authentic life. To live with integrity and honesty with ourselves.
A sense of how precious our life is. We are here only a short time, so let’s make the most out of it. We cannot take anything for granted.
A sense of the oneness of life. We are all part of the same web of life. What we see and sense as “us” includes more of life, all of life, or even all of existence.
A sense of the sacred in all of life. We may get a sense of the sacred or divine in all of life or all of existence.
Engaging in a healing, spiritual, or awakening path. This can take many different forms, depending on what’s available to us and what we are drawn to.
An opening of our mind. This can also take many forms. A healthy version, as I see it, is a sense of the profound mystery of existence – the mystery inherent in all of existence, and the profound mystery in that anything is at all. We may find a deep fascination with life and many sides of life while knowing we cannot know anything for certain.
Some triggering situations can also lead to trauma, contraction, and illness. And sometimes, there is a mix of it all.
Why the transformation?
Why does this transformation sometimes happen following the triggering experiences? What is it about these triggering experiences that leads to transformation?
It’s often a combination of….
A strong experience we cannot avoid or dismiss.
An experience that goes outside of what we are used to and are familiar with and that breaks our familiar worldview.
An experience that puts our life in a much bigger perspective.
In short, it’s an experience that shakes us up and out of our existing life and worldview.
My own story
I became an atheist in elementary school mainly due to the required one-hour weekly lessons in Christianity and some Christian relatives. At the same time, I was deeply moved by the vision of the universe presented by Carl Sagan and interested in mysteries like ESP, ghosts, and UFOs. In my teens, I started reading books about the interconnection between science and near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and so on.
At age fifteen, I got a mystery illness and had a year where the world – including this human self – seemed very far away. My “center of gravity” shifted into observing and what was observed seemed almost infinitely distant. I went to a lot of specialists who couldn’t find anything, and it didn’t seem spiritual in any way.
After a year, there was another big and life-transforming shift. I walked down the dark gravel path to the house, a big wind was blowing through the landscape, and I could see myriads of stars over me. Suddenly, all was revealed as God. All of it was consciousness and a form of the divine. Any sense of “I” here was the divine locally and temporarily having that experience for itself without any ultimate reality in it.
This lasted and it has transformed my life. Since I was so young, it’s difficult to say how my life would have been without it. And it’s clear that my life turned out very differently because of this.
In this particular case, “I” as a human self did nothing for it to happen and I didn’t “choose” a particular way of relating to it. If anything, it’s mainly been a process of trying to keep up with it and figure out how to live with it and, to some extent, from it.