A few years ago, while doing research for my Ph.D., I met a woman who had a profound personal transformation following her traumatic experiences as a soldier. The woman (whom I will call Jenny) was in the Canadian military for 10 years, undergoing a great deal of stress and suffering. Towards the end of the 10 years, she began to feel depressed and burnt out and was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). She felt that she had completely lost her sense of identity. As Jenny told me, “There was just me, on the couch, doing nothing, because I literally couldn’t do anything. I was forced to see my failure. And I had no idea who I was anymore.”
However, after about a year of medical and psychological treatment, Jenny became relatively functional again and sought out alternative treatments to help her further. After a couple of years of deliberate healing and growth through various therapies and treatments, she began to experience a shift. She had powerful “awakening experiences” in which, as she describes it, “the world looked different. It was alive. It was infinite aliveness. Everything was bright. Even the space between everything. The colors were incredible and the flowers looked happy.”
Soon, this developed into a state of continual well-being, in which she felt intensely present, with a strong sense of connection to nature and other human beings. Jenny summarized the shift she has experienced as follows:
“When you’re present all the time every day seems full. A day seems to last for such a long time… I used to look to possessions as a way to feel better but now I don’t need to feel better. I don’t need things. I can have them, but I don’t need them.”This is a powerful example of what I call “post-traumatic transformation.” PTT (as I refer to it in short) is similar to ‘post-traumatic growth,’ when people develop in a positive way in the aftermath of traumatic experiences. However, in “post-traumatic transformation,” the change is more radical, and usually occurs suddenly and dramatically, in the midst of intense psychological turmoil. (I wrote about my research in my recent book Out of the Darkness.) The shift is so dramatic and so life-changing that it is often described in terms of a “spiritual awakening.”
The shift is often related to a diagnosis of cancer, bereavement, intense stress or depression. However, in recent years, I’ve become aware that the intense stress and turmoil of combat may be a trigger for the shift too, as it was for Jenny.
Cases from the First and Second World Wars
At the beginning of the First World War, a young aristocratic German man named Karlfried Graf Von Durckheim believed it was his patriotic duty to fight for his country. After his privileged upbringing, the horrors of the battlefield were a massive shock. He lost count of the number of deaths he witnessed, and the number of times he came close to death himself. However, the close proximity of death triggered a transformation in him. It made him aware of a deeper, spiritual part of his being. As he wrote, “When death was near and I accepted that I also might die, I realized that within myself was something that has nothing whatsoever to do with death.”
This was the beginning of a lifelong spiritual journey for Durckheim. After the war he renounced his family property and inheritance, and began to study eastern spiritual texts. And later, after the Second World War, he came across many examples of similar transformations amongst those who had lived through its horrors. As he later stated, “There are so many people who went through the battlefields, through the concentration camps, through the bombing raids…who were wounded and nearly torn in pieces, and they experienced a glimpse of their eternal nature.”
One example of this I came across recently in my own research was a man called J.H. Murray, who spent three years as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. While enduring the terrible deprivation of a German concentration camp, Murray had a powerful awakening experience. He wrote about it for the first time in a memoir towards the end of his life:
As I climbed upstairs, to the dormitory, I became aware of an extraordinary sense of joy. It suffused mind and body…I had stepped out of time into timelessness… I remember seeing through the windows the barbed wire fence with its sentry towers, and the prisoners in the compound, all and each transfigured by a beauty that glowed through them, engulfing all as if from another place. Its intensity had a new dimension, so that never afterwards could I bring myself to speak of it, or write down the experience until now, when I know that my life nearing its end.After this experience, Murray wrote letters to his family, saying that he was “happy and thoroughly well.” They thought he must have gone mad, but he told them, “I have not lost my reason, but all worries, anxieties and frustrations.” He described experiencing “an undivided mind, inner stillness, self-realization, and a fullness that I never believed possible.”
More Recent Examples of Turmoil-Induced Awakening
A few years ago, I published a book called Waking From Sleep. which is a study of awakening experiences such as Murray’s — moments in which our normal awareness seems to expand and intensify, and we become aware of deeper (or higher) level of reality, and perceive a sense of harmony and meaning. Last year I received an e-mail from an American man who said he had had such an experience as a solider in Vietnam in 1968. His combat base came under heavy attack, with major casualties, and he was sure that he was going to die too. As he described it:
At one point, after carrying yet another severely wounded Marine to a waiting chopper, something happened to me…I came out of myself. I expanded infinitely. I disappeared. It didn’t last long but it was the most powerful experience I’ve ever had. From that moment my anxiety disappeared and I knew that everything was all right, no matter if I lived or died. The Battle of Khe Sanh lasted 77 days. I felt peaceful for the remainder of the battle. I was not wounded in those 77 days, although according to Ray Stubbe in Valley of Decision we had over 2,500 Marines wounded and over 800 killed. I’ve spent the last forty-seven years trying without success to replicate that experience. I even died on an operating room table. Nothing has come close to my “awakening experience” at Khe Sanh.I’ve recently been reading a great book called Aftershock by the UK journalist Matthew Green, which is largely an investigation into cases of PTSD in British soldiers. However, the book also describes some amazing awakening experiences during battle, and the long term spiritual growth that these led to. Green tells the story of a man called Gus, who fought in the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in the 1980s. One day, while waiting for orders on the battlefield, Gus had a life-changing experience. As Green describes it, “As he waited for the order to advance, he felt an inexplicable sense of euphoria, as if past and future had dissolved and his personal fate was no longer of the slightest consequence. He was witnessing history, yet touching the realm of the timeless.” Gus suffered PTSD after the war, until he discovered meditation, and realized that he didn’t have to identify with his traumatic thoughts and feelings. He became a Buddhist, and in 2007 he returned to the Falklands Islands, and left a small statue of the Buddha at the site of one of the major battles of the war.
These experiences are paradoxical on many levels. It seems incredible that the brutality of war should be associated with such states of inner peace and harmony. And in a more general sense, it’s paradoxical that states of intense stress and turmoil should be so closely related to states of joy and liberation. It’s almost as if joy and despair aren’t opposites, but are somehow symbiotically related. (This relates to the question of why such experiences occur during or after combat, or in other situations of stress and turmoil. I don’t have space to offer my suggested explanation here, but see my book Out of the Darkness for details.)