Sunday, May 06, 2018


Wiki stuff  (I wish I knew the original authors.)

“An epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, "manifestation, striking appearance") is an experience of sudden and striking realization. Generally the term is used to describe scientific breakthrough, religious or philosophical discoveries, but it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. . . . Epiphanies are relatively rare occurrences and generally follow a process of significant thought about a problem.”

The word epiphany originally referred to insight through the divine. Today, this concept is more often used without such connotations, but a popular implication remains that the epiphany is supernatural, as the discovery seems to come suddenly from the outside.”

“The word's secular usage may owe much of its popularity to Irish novelist James Joyce. The Joycean epiphany has been defined as "a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether from some object, scene, event, or memorable phase of the mind — the manifestation being out of proportion to the significance or strictly logical relevance of whatever produces it.”

What originally started me thinking about this was an experience at seminary in Chicago, standing on the El platform on a Sunday afternoon.  This epiphany had no content.  It was simply felt.  Later I preached about it and others told me their versions of it.  Interestingly, they usually remembered where they were at that moment.  It was somehow mapped, which might not be surprising when research has shown that the thin layers that enwrap the brain are sensitive to dimensions and directions.  How else can a creature know whether to approach or flee.  Considering this, whatever is happening in the brain must be very old and deep.

The James Joyce epiphany dominated The New Yorker short stories for many years.  Towards the end of these stories the plot or sequence is turned or set on fire by a realization had by the main character.  The best of these tales seem inevitable but the crisis may not be fortunate.

As aspect that makes everything different is that of using machines  (trans-temporal electricity) or drugs to get to that moment.  I mean, this is “calling the epiphany”, insisting on the epiphany, which implies that it is mechanical when — differently — down through the ages it has always been unaccountable and even supernatural.  In its ugliest aspect these stipulated epiphanies could prove humans are “meat machines”.  On the one hand biological tissue and on the other hand, metal gears and mechanical force.

This contradicts reported experiences of epiphany but doesn’t support those who want such moments to be hopeful, even beautifully transcendent.  The idea is forced by our definitions of what humans are and the binary choice of connection to God or distance from God.  This is one of those times that Western logic should be abandoned so that the feeling of epiphany remains a feeling and not a point of argument.  I propose that an animal of any kind is a community of cells responding to a  specific ecology for the purpose of survival.  That still doesn’t “explain” epiphany.

In traditional and pre-modern cultures, initiation rites and mystery religions have served as vehicles of epiphany, as well as the arts. The Greek dramatists and poets would, in the ideal, induct the audience into states of catharsis  [the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions]. or kenosis [to empty oneself in order to receive], respectively. In modern times an epiphany lies behind the title of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, a drug-influenced state, as Burroughs explained, "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is at the end of the fork.”

So epiphany in literature and art can politicize epiphany, making it into a sign of symbol of what we should do.  Or it can be a way of expressing a transformation that cannot be taken back.  But this paragraph does suggest that there is a way to learn or how to call an epiphany.  Some suggest it’s hard and requires a lot of knowledge and effort, but it’s the essence of epiphany that it comes out of nowhere, unexpectedly, for no reason, out of context.  In the story of developing modern humans, there is a “moment” when art appears.  Did epiphany come with whatever happened?  Discovery?  Mutation?  Or is it in the receiver, an interpretation?

We need another word for the sudden intensity and potential change in an epiphany that is part of a ceremony or performance.  Maybe liminal or numinous.  Something felt suddenly and intensely.  If the idea of insight is kept, liminal might be best word since it is derived from “limen” or threshold and meant to signify going from the profane world to the sacred numinous time of possibility: play, art, insight, empathy, belonging.  But my epiphany and the others described to me were not about going someplace.  It just happened, was felt.  We didn’t fall down or speak in tongues.

Possibly only some people have the capacity for epiphany.  We know there is a gradient of people with the ability to feel real empathy — sharing consciousness — with other people.  Some experts think it's the next step in evolution, a gift that can help a person survive.  It’s linked to specific individual brain cells rather than any organ but also seems to link through eyesight/line of sight.

When two people who are talking come into congruity, sharing a moment, they will often echo each other’s posture — crossed legs the same way, thumb on chin the same way.  When a person watches action — dance or sport — their muscles faintly respond to imitate what’s happening.  So it’s not just a brain “thing” the way we’re always trying to define responses.

In isolation, personally/individually, the highest epiphany is almost indescribable and deeply meaningful.  But the word can become just grist for the story mill.  Mind-sharing, communication without speaking, and so on are great for stories.  We’re fascinated by the possibility of relationship, particularly to something supernatural, but even between two people.  Sometimes there are accounts of multiple people sharing an epiphany, like the shepherds in the Christmas story who are visited together.  

The world, especially in the sky, is capable of magnificent effects that might make anyone think they were seeing into another world.  But that’s still not quite the same thing as a free-ranging sudden conviction of harmony.  If the word itself loses meaning, what it was that happened has intense meaning.  But can we make it happen?

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