Epiphanies (A-Ha!)

By Saul Levine, MD

Photography by Ron Henggeler - San Francisco - California

Do you believe that people can have sudden and dramatic changes of minds and hearts? Or, that we can completely upend our old ways of being and behaving?  Webster’s Dictionary defines an epiphany as a “sudden intuitive perception or insight into the reality of something.”  It is always unexpected (though sometimes yearned for), and that new clarity feels like “A-Ha!” …a dramatically different realization of the way things really are, Now!

Have you ever heard the comment, “It was a revelation to me!” expressed by someone who went through a powerful emotional experience?  Epiphanies can occur after a major catastrophe, which was survived, or after healing from a profound and tragic loss of a loved one.  Sometimes these revelations occur when one is alone, for example, after a prolonged period of meditation and silence, and at other times it is a communally-inspired epiphany, for example, after a powerful shared group experience like a religious awakening or an intense retreat.  (I am not discussing those who “saw the light” as a result of a psychiatric disorder or a psychedelic drug).

Some of you may have had that overwhelming feeling of sudden “illumination.” It might have sent you into profound happiness, even ecstasy, or it might have brought you to tears. That moment of revelation, or “self-actualization,” may impress others when you tell them, who might use words like “ineffable,” “noetic,” or “other-worldly,” to describe it. On the other hand, others might be cynical or even derisive, doubting the truth or your interpretation of the experience (or even your sanity!)

The fact is that these dramatic realizations do occur in our lives: They can happen at different stages throughout life, and in people from all backgrounds.  They are even experienced by those with rigid beliefs and patterns of behavior, surprising us with their new attitudes and behaviors.  Although their appearances and core personality traits may seem the same, we might be struck by the radical “makeovers” of the personalities we thought we knew.

I have seen younger people foreswear their schools, careers, and even families because of intense personal transformations.  They might join intense ideological groups (e.g. religious cults, political movements, communes, etc) or take off on trips to “find themselves,” or suddenly choose a new career or lifestyle path.  I also know older individuals who changed after some major awakening: some were cantankerous and misanthropic, yet became kind and warm; others were very intolerant, and became supportive to sworn enemies; still others were people involved in years-long family feuds, only to be reconciled into amicability.

These transformations do not simply come “out of the blue.”  They are usually the result of thoughts that have been roiling in individuals’ minds over months and years.  Those most susceptible (skeptics say “vulnerable”) to being transformed by epiphanies have usually been dissatisfied with the nature of their lives. Like the rest of us, they are searching for an added meaning in their daily existence.

In fact, all our lives are long voyages or odysseys.  We are all on a lifelong quest for some significant “raison d’être,” some purpose and meaningfulness beyond our everyday routines and materialism.

Bottom line: Epiphanies are real and valid (except when they’re not).

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