Transformation of the human mind occurs abruptly. If one discovers that a person one had always regarded as a friend has betrayed one, one's view and feeling change immediately. One's sense of security in the world is impacted directly. This impact generalises to many aspects of one's being, and it all happens quickly. However, generalisation can also be delayed until relevant circumstances trigger the integration of a new outlook.

Thought does not happen slowly. A karmic act is committed and the effect is immediate, even though it might not manifest for a long time. When that effect is triggered, it appears directly. So, in general, the mind is characterized by punctuated equilibrium. States remain until they change. When they change, it happens straight away. For this reason, therapeusis occurs in moments. Although one might see a client for many sessions, the therapeutic effect occurred in a few short moments. The rest was preparation and working through.


However, although the core element of change occurs suddenly, it takes time to work through. Thus a loss occurs suddenly and is followed by a period of grief. The grief may extend over a prolonged period. Buddha's encounters with Kisagotami and with Patacara are like this. His therapeutic intervention caused the grief process to start. They then each spent several years in grief and then emerged sane. The grief process itself is made up of a cascade of smaller changes. The state of shock endures until the person accepts the truth of the loss. The period of anger endures until the person accepts that nothing can be done. The period of depression endures until the person starts to notice new features in their life. Some trigger will suddenly lift the cloud of gloom. So even what seems like gradual transformation is actually simply a cascade of smaller sequential abrupt changes. These changes are holistic and experiential. Cognitive knowledge may play a part, but generally it is a sub-ordinate one.

A spiritual awakening can also function in this way. Our practice is mostly our attempt to integrate whatever level of insight we have within the medium of daily life. We attempt to put our understanding into practice. This may mean changing habits or adopting new approaches, but if they are authentic they derive from some awakening that has already happened. Thus we say that sudden awakening precedes gradual cultivation and that the cultivation that we do is at the level of whatever awakening we have experienced.


Similarly, people will remain in a stable state despite mounting counter-evidence or multiple under-mining shocks until a position becomes untenable whereupon it will collapse and a new state emerge. This is the phenomenon of paradigm. Our day to day actions are based on a set of assumptions about our ambient reality which we believe to be true and which we take for granted, rarely thinking about them. We go on acting on this set of assumptions even when we encounter small amounts of contrary evidence. We dismiss such as aberrations. We implicitly defend our paradigm for as long as possible. As contrary evidence mounts, our attempts to cling onto our old way of seeing things may become more and more elaborate. However, eventually, we may encounter “the straw that breaks the camel's back” and wholesale change may ensue. This is really a case of many small abrupt changes gradually accumulating. It has been said that the way to get a person to put down a heavy load is to give them just a little more to carry. Sometimes therapeutic interventions are like that.


A particularly interesting case of this is the phenomena of reaching safety. A person may cope with a succession of difficulties while in a dangerous situation without showing evidence of stress or fatigue, and then collapse when safety is reached. Thus a platoon of soldiers caught in an ambush may perform exactly as they have been drilled to do when under fire; they take cover, co-ordinate their actions with one another, fight back in a systematic manner, and perhaps succeed in driving away the enemy. They then march back to barracks in good spirits. As soon as the barracks gates are closed behind them some of the soldiers may become hysterical or collapse from fatigue. They were able to ignore the mounting stress factors while in danger, but reaching safety everything changes. Safety may be a condition that permits stress to surface and be dealt with. This is why therapy generally begins with the creation of a safe space.

This phenomenon also happens over longer periods of time. The woman who, as a teenager, had to look after her younger siblings because her mother died, then lived in poverty and struggled to find low paid hard work for many years, who then falls in love with an affluent man and finds herself with a prosperous and happy home, may suddenly, and, seemingly unaccountably, fall into depression. All the time that she lived in hardship she remained in good spirits. Now that, at last, she has found safety and happiness, all the denied misery surfaces. This may be very confusing to her and her new partner. She will, however, need to have a period of working through, of grief, before she can fully accept her new good fortune. Buddhism should not be regarded as a way of suppressing feelings or avoiding natural processes. Rather it is about finding and facing the truth and passing through it to liberation beyond.


The sense of safety makes it possible to let go of things that had been clung to as life rafts. Such clinging may have made sense in the emergency situation and so it may be difficult for a person to realise and accept that circumstances have changed. There is a lot in the news these days about refugees. Buddhism is often portrayed as seeking refuge from the worldly world. The truly spiritual person has a refuge that is not dependent upon worldly circumstances and this provides a dimension of safety that goes altogether beyond ordinary conditions. In this way we can understand that insight or awakening are actually names for finding true spiritual refuge. When we enter the truly safe space, body and mind fall away. Finding true refuge is what triggers sudden awakening.

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  • Yes, thanks Carol. Very true.

  • This accords with my experience.  I have seen it with young children also.  When sent off into new situations like school they may seem fne and relatively happy and calm, but, at the end of the day after Mum or Dad comes to pick them up, they suddently start acting out and showing distress.  In a sense, they now have a safe place to experience their emotions.  For me, when there is a lot of grief, often I cannot cry when alone.  When a good friend is there who I feel supported by and safe with, that is when the feelings seem to come up strongly and can sometimes be released. 

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