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?
Well, unless you’re already familiar with the condition, it can be very difficult to describe and define. It therefore tends to get lumped by doctors into diagnoses of “general anxiety” or “dysphoria” and treated with antidepressants. This is in spite of the fact that young people are experiencing depersonalization more and more because of the popularity of stronger strains of weed (one of the most common triggers of chronic DP.)
DP’s relative intangibility as a condition often causes it to be interpreted in unusually abstract ways. There’s a popular theory that depersonalization is actually a form of enlightenment — that the sudden feelings of dissociation are related to the endgame of years of spiritual pursuit. Look on depersonalization forums online you will see this debated ad nauseum — people are frantically trying to make sense of their experience and wondering if what they are experiencing is some sort of ‘inverted enlightenment’.
It’s certainly a fascinating proposal — but here’s the problem with it:
Depersonalization is caused and perpetuated by anxiety.
Away from conjecture in online discussions, this is borne out by both scientific and anecdotal evidence. It can be brought on by various factors (a car crash / death of a loved one / bad drug trip / panic attack / PTSD, etc.) but they are all essentially traumatic experiences. Also, people recover from chronic DP all the time, invariably by addressing the underlying anxiety that’s causing it.
If we look at DP as a standalone disorder, without the spiritual connotations mentioned above, it’s actually quite a simple condition. When the brain perceives intense danger it flicks the DP switch on so that the individual won’t be incapacitated with fear and can extricate themselves from the situation. That’s why there are so many accounts of people exiting car crashes and burning buildings with no recollection of doing so. The anxiety and DP then (typically) dissipates naturally.
But it doesn’t always. If the DP is caused by a something non-physical (panic attack, bad drug trip, PTSD, etc.) the mind may not be able to ascribe the feeling to a specific visible cause. The person then focuses on the frightening feelings of unreality. This caused them to panic more, which increases the anxiety and depersonalization. This feedback loop can go on for days, months, years — and the result is chronic Depersonalization Disorder.
At one point during my time with DP, I fully convinced myself that it must be some form of inverted enlightenment. The problem is that at various times I was also convinced that it was:
And in the context of my eventual recovery, each of those interpretations was just as useless as thinking it was enlightenment. Enlightenment seems to carry more weight because it’s the only interpretation that contains some sort of spiritual meaning, but that doesn’t make it any more valid.
What’s more likely — that 1 in 50 people are being struck down with unsolicited ‘enlightenment’ and that that number is increasing with time? Or that it’s a form of chronic anxiety that’s becoming more common because of drug use? All the evidence points to the latter.
Because of the confusion and intense introspection that depersonalization generates, the sufferer often jumps to far-fetched conclusions about the condition. But the truth is that depersonalization is no more linked to enlightenment than, say, sweaty palms or a raised heart rate. They’re just symptoms of anxiety. That’s all.
So what is the connection between Tolle’s experience and the experience of so many sufferers of chronic DP?
I would say that outside of the ‘suddenness’ and ‘detachment’ of both experiences, they actually have very little, if anything, in common and the categorization of DP as some sort of spontaneous spiritual awakening is at best, highly dubious.
As psychiatrist and depersonalization specialist Daphne Simeon writes: “People suffering from depersonalization disorder don’t appear at a doctor’s or psychiatrist’s office to explore mysticism, philosophy, or the deep blue sea. They make the appointment because they are in pain.”
Depersonalization disorder is caused by trauma, panic attacks and drug use — people get it every day and recover from it every day, and it’s becoming more and more common. We need to raise common-sense awareness of this crippling condition, and not ascribe to it a spiritual credence that it simply doesn’t warrant.