Humans have always been fascinated by the possibility of a "larger reality." Especially in times of transition -- a sudden illness, a failed relationship, the death of a loved one, an unplanned shift in career -- we may sense that there is more being to our everyday world, more dimensions than we usually comprehend.
Such moments often carry the signature of grace, for so often they leave us aware of ourselves in relation to things beyond. Many report that their sense of "I" becomes part of a larger "we," and that they recognize connection as the true basis of reality. For some, this awakens an imperative to foster their kinship or oneness with a greater whole.
What does transformation mean? How do we cultivate transformative, life-changing experiences? These questions have inspired a research program at the Institute of Noetic Sciences to better understand human capacities for self-transcendence and unitive experience. Because this complex topic has rarely been formally researched, our team began by collecting stories of personal experiences, which we analyzed to distinguish between exceptional experiences (typically of short duration and not crucial in life impact) and genuinely transformative, life-changing experiences.
We then invited 40 world-renowned scholars, teachers, and practitioners from various traditions to be interviewed on videotape about how a practice, whether established or self-created, may lead to transformation. The participants included Ram Dass, Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., Swami Veda, Stanislav Grof, M.D., Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, and the Venerable Pa-auk Sayadaw. Our preliminary analysis identified several stages in the transformative process.
Preparation: People who undergo transformative changes -- those that seem to lift them out of themselves -- seldom fully understand them, nor can they easily talk about them. Something extraordinary may be birthed, but without a support system, the experiences may frighten and destabilize. This may be the catalyst for seeking out some form of transformative practice.
Cultivation: Transformational practices can take many forms. These include contemplative practices, somatic therapies, walks in nature, healing ceremonies, devotional prayer, or what George Leonard and Michael Murphy call Integral Transformative Practice, which combines elements of various disciplines including martial arts and meditation. The Venerable Pa-auk Sayadaw, a Burmese Buddhist meditation teacher, noted: "The transformation process is in many different stages and occurs in various time frames. It also differs from one person to another, depending on personal efforts and various mental characteristics. Therefore, no particular pattern of transformation is possible to mention." Despite the vast range of individual differences, teachers agreed that transformational practices can open us to a greater sense of authenticity and the nature of transpersonal realities.
Weaving Practice into Daily Life: Rather than focus on their practices, however, most of the teachers said they sought to close the gap between living life and transformative practice. Many teachers defined transformation as embodying the virtues of compassion, loving-kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, altruism, honesty, and joy, to name a few. As insight meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg noted: "If we remember that our spiritual life is not for ourselves alone and our private satisfaction of having had a great experience, but is about how we live, then it becomes a very keen motivator. ... The classical understanding is that spiritual life is how we live every day, how we relate to our children, how we relate to our parents, how we earn a living, how we speak to one another, how truthful we are."
Even the practice of research can have transformative capacities, as our team has learned. A transformative science asks the researchers to become what is being studied -- to know it as a subject. While the goal of science is objectivity, nothing is as transformative as direct experience. As the Buddha said so many centuries ago, "I have given you guidance. You have to do your practice." By seeking to awaken hearts as well as minds, we allow the love for life to guide our inquiry and our practice.