Is Depersonalization Disorder a Form of Enlightenment?
In Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now he describes the moment when he became “enlightened”. It happened when he was a graduate student living in a bedsit in a suburb of London. Lying in bed one night, Tolle had a sudden out-of-body experience and what he would later come to interpret as a kind of divine awakening. As this article from The Guardian puts it: “He underwent a cataclysmic and terrifying spiritual experience that erased his former identity.”
And as Tolle himself recounts: “The nightmare became unbearable and that triggered the separation of consciousness from its identification with form. I woke up and suddenly realized myself as the I Am and that was deeply peaceful.”
Cases like Tolle’s sudden enlightenment are considered very rare in the Buddhist tradition. Typically, it’s something that monks train for years, even decades to attain and the intense practice involved is designed specifically to train and strengthen the mind. Enlightenment brings with it such massive and shocking realizations about the nature of self that to suddenly get there without years of training could, in theory, cause a person to be utterly overwhelmed.
Curiously, aside from his recounting of it being ‘deeply peaceful’, much of Tolle’s description seems to closely resemble the experience of sudden-onset Depersonalization. This condition is described as:
“a detachment within the self, regarding one’s mind or body, or being a detached observer of oneself. Subjects feel they have changed and that the world has become vague, dreamlike, less real, or lacking in significance. It can be a disturbing experience.”
Most people will experience depersonalization (DP) at some point in their lives; it is part of the brain’s natural defense mechanism and kicks in at times of intense trauma. Typically it is temporary and dissipates quickly of its own accord. But for some people, it can continue beyond the instance of trauma itself and become a chronic and ongoing condition.
As somebody who suffered with chronic DP for almost two years, I can vouch for the description of it being a “disturbing experience”. In fact, that’s putting it lightly. The feeling of being stuck in a dream state, behind a pane of glass with no way to navigate oneself back to reality, was a living nightmare. And chronic DP is extremely common — an estimated 1 in 50 people suffer from it on an ongoing basis.
So why is there is still a general lack of awareness of the condition in the medical community?