How to Have an Epiphany

Ever had an epiphany? A moment when something you heard or saw or thought changed your life? These Hall of Fame moments are as rare as finding true love (after those other ‘true’ loves tanked), overcoming adversity and finding a park in front of the post office. But what if you could induce epiphanies?

The Red Pill

Remember the scene in the Matrix where Morpheus meets Neo in the spooky-ass house. It’s stormy outside. Laurence Fishburne is looking all cool and mysterious. He tells Neo: “You’re here because you know something… there’s something wrong with the world, you don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Like a splinter in your mind…”

Then Neo munches down the red pill and a new irrevocable reality is revealed.

Ever had one of those red-pill moments?

Mine was uncannily similar to Neo’s if you just replaced Laurence Fishburne with an escapee teenager from my back-water hometown, and substituted the cool vintage house for a run-down rental with only one inhabitable room.

Before we get to the red pill, like all good tales, we need a little backstory.  

As a Gen Xer raised in a steel town in the ’70s, I came ready-made with every phobia from homo- to xeno- and every -ism from sexism to racism. (Take it easy on the judgement, it was a long time ago.) I’d been handed down a worldview from a time when things were smaller and slower, and racism, misogyny and homophobia were as normal as high-fat diets, tanning lotion and key parties. As I headed into my teenage years in the ’80s, a splinter grew in my mind.

I wondered what was beyond the ash-filled snow-dome of my hometown, and why all the gays, women and damn immigrants that lived beyond were so bent on “ruining this damn country”.

And Then Everything Changed…

One afternoon, my most adventurous friend returned to town. He was all hair and hemp and earthy colours. He’d been “up north” – a place so abstract, so aspirational that I’d never admitted to anyone that I didn’t know where it was. Brett (you expected a cooler name?) was brimming with stories of his adventures. Like the time he worked on a fishing trawler and nearly fell overboard late at night. Or the time he had to sleep in a field because he couldn’t hitch a ride. He was always meeting other fearless wandering souls from places even more estranged than Up North, Australia.

Brett wasn’t like me anymore. Not taut. Inert. He was careless and kinetic and he filled the room. His arms traced giant arcs as he spoke, his voice cartwheeling through the room. As I listened to his stories, I felt heavy in the only chair in the one inhabitable room in my withering house.

Then came the pills.

The Red Pill: Sell everything, buy a backpack and go with Brett on an adventure to a place far beyond Up North. A place called Overseas. Never to return home.  

The Blue Pill: Stay. Follow the townie in front of me, eyes straight, along the clearly marked path.  

That’s when I had the epiphany: I don’t have to stay here.

The world shifted a quarter degree, and I saw it anew. Here was a world without the drift of townie life. A world where openness had dominated fear, and where casual discrimination was ridiculed. Where curiosity was a value. Where unpredictability had been restored and discoveries awaited. I felt something I hadn’t felt in years; excitement.

Life After the Epiphany

Sitting here today, it still makes me smile to remember that I grabbed that epiphany with both hands. I sold everything I owned, got myself a backpack and a passport, and was soon boarding an aircraft for the first time in my life.

I shoestring travelled around Asia, Africa and Latin America for much of the next decade, which eventually led me to university, which led to a career in international relations and more travel – this time to political capitals and war zones – and on and on it goes, getting further and further from the blue pill.

Thirty years’ later, it led to the Christmas Epiphany, which led to a dramatic change of life plan (and the creation of this blog!). Having been lucky enough to experience two epiphanies, I can see commonalities that suggest there are things we can do to bring ourselves closer to these life-changing moments and to be ready to pounce on them when they come.

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Suspend your Scepticism

Epiphanies aren’t just for the pious or those that have completed a spiritual quest. They are for anyone that finds themselves in a misalignment between their values or ambitions and their reality.  Epiphanies can overturn our world views and (hopefully) spur us into big life changes so that the new reality we create for ourselves is realigned with the life we really want to live. To help bring on an epiphany, we have to be open to the idea. For some, this will mean putting aside self-defeating scepticism.  

Be Aware

Epiphanies solve complex life problems. You don’t have epiphanies about what type of cereal to eat or whether Walking Dead is better than Game of Thrones. I’d been pondering my ‘splinters’ for years before the epiphanies came. I was very aware that something was wrong and I’d explored the problem from many angles. It was never far from the front of my mind. So when an old friend invited me to go travelling, the words were not lost. They registered in my mind as a way out of my situation and a solution to my problems.

Change your World View

As I warmed to the thought of travelling, it bloomed into a new way of looking at the world. My epiphany was not just a solution to a difficult problem set, it was a new world view. This view – leave town and never return – broke the deadlocked thinking that had limited me to two equally bad options: change the town to fit me or change myself to fit the town. In this sense, the epiphany was not so much a solution, but rather a new way of seeing the problem.

Turbo Charge Your Mind

So if new perspectives are needed to solve enduring problem sets, then using the same thinking about a problem – no matter how hard or long you think – will probably not produce a solution (unless luck intervenes). New thinking is needed, and new thinking might trigger the elusive epiphany.

Just as Brett broke the impasse in my fruitless thinking, social interactions or techniques like diverse-group brainstorming can invoke new thinking. Tried and proven classics, like exercise or exposure to the great outdoors can inspire fresh approaches or release endorphins that stimulate clear thinking. Meditation and sleep can make way for buried or subliminal thoughts to surface.  Forcing yourself to do scary things can help push your mind into new ways of thinking. A friend of mine spent a terrifying night camping on a cliff-face 200m above the ground. He had a realisation that changed his life.   

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Scary experiences can reframe your mind

Act on your Epiphany

Sounds simple, but as Elise Ballard points out, it’s vital. Without action, an epiphany would be a terrible waste. Akin to finding a pot of gold, your true love or the meaning of life, then just taking a selfie and moving on. The point of an epiphany is to change your life. If an epiphany comes, we shouldn’t stare at it like it’s hanging on a wall, we have an obligation to grab it by the scruff of the neck and ride it fearlessly to wherever it takes us.