A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 17 February 2013


I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking. ALBERT EINSTEIN

All that man has eternally here in multiplicity is intrinsically one. Here all blades of grass, wood, stone, all things are one. This is the deepest depth. MEISTER ECKHART

We read about epiphanies in Joyce's Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and we see characters in his Dubliners stories experience sudden transformative insights. Roquentin in Sartre's Nausea undergoes an epiphany of understanding when he hears the song One Of These Days in a dingy bar and when he stares at the roots of a chestnut tree. What's going on here, and what are epiphanies?

Magical moments, mystical moments, eternal moments, liminal moments. Gateways to something much larger and more significant. Portals into the unknown which vanish as mysteriously as they appear. Sudden shafts of illumination, insight, knowledge. Unexpected, unsought hits of joy and ecstasy. Unheralded instants of revelation, transformation, transcendence.

Epiphanies don't come to order; they usually happen when least expected. The places where they occur may be, or may briefly become, 'thin' places. (There exists in Celtic mythology the notion of 'thin places' in the universe, where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest proximity.) In an epiphanic moment the 'I' may disappear briefly as one is united with the cosmos.

One of the most important stimuli and excitements in my life is the recollection of past epiphanies and the expectation of future epiphanies.

Four personal epiphanies:

Climbing a small, rounded lump called Potter's Hill overlooking Woolacombe, Devon, at the age of twelve. Throwing myself down on the close-cropped turf, feeling the warm sunshine on my skin, listening to the screaming seagulls, their voices stifled by gusts of wind. Discovering all at once that I was incredibly happy — there, in that unremarkable place, on my own, in total freedom, in a state of grace. Recently I wrote a poem about this which you can find here

Art class at school at the age of fourteen. The bearded, gruff and eccentric art teacher, Billy Booth, had brought in some photographic slides for us to look at — it was an end-of-term treat. Projected on a white screen were pictures he'd taken of Crete, of the sites of Mycenae and Knossos, of the fabulous Lion Gate. A sudden shudder, a violent frisson overwhelmed me, and I was granted a deep, imaginative insight into history and culture and art and the transformative power of art — an experience which is still almost as vivid to me now as it was over forty years ago.

The Derbyshire Peak District at the top of a bluff above Monsal Dale. I was now in my thirties. A view of the old viaduct, the winding valley, the glinting river, the distant purple hills. Peace descended on me, calm and perfect peace, and a feeling of oneness with myself, with others, with nature, with the universe. I could have died happy at that moment.

Several times on the Camino, in France and in Spain. I can't remember clearly all the occasions. But definitely the penultimate day on the GR65 from Geneva to Le Puy-en-Velay: hot sun, brilliant blue sky, autumn colours of red, orange and gold setting the wooded slopes on fire. I crossed the watershed and a panorama of rounded hills, extinct volcanoes, stretched in front of me as far as the eye could see, wave upon petrified wave receding ever more hazily to a smudged horizon.

Can you remember your own epiphanies?


George said...

I have had a number of experiences that I think would qualify as epiphanies, but, oddly, the strongest occurred in the least likely of places, certainly not a "thin place." About ten years ago, on an otherwise ordinary summer day, I was driving down a highway that was flanked on each side with corn fields and soybean fields. Suddenly, for reasons I will never quite understand, I was overcome with a tangible sense of being acknowledged by something — God, the Universe, the Great Oneness — who knows? I only know that I had an extremely intense feeling of being loved by something other than a person — of belonging, of being valued, of being reassured that all was well and that everything was unfolding as it should.

The car seemed to move on its own for a minute or two, while I was seemingly weightless and somewhere else — somewhere so safe and joyful that the existential anxieties of daily life totally disappeared. It passed so quickly that I remember saying to myself, "What the hell was that?" And yet it was real. Indeed, that one fleeting moment seemed to provide me with solid evidence that there there is a dimension of reality that eludes most of us for most of our lives.

Once you've experienced a few of these moments, you long to have the experience again, perhaps with more intensity and a greater duration. Epiphanies, however, tend to be very elusive. Having one does not assure that there will be others. The most that one can do is watch and wait — hopefully.

jen revved said...

Yes! will write of this soon-- beautiful, Robert. xj

Carolyn said...

I came across your blog and I hope you don't mind me making comment. I love your epiphanies, I have several of my own and yes, I long to have the experience again. One was on a high ridge above Patalavaca, Gran Canaria, near where the Norwegians had built their stone markers and leading to the village cross. The climb had been a kind of pilgrimage. I'm glad to say my fellow walker had shared the same experience despite him not normally being a spiritual person. Our 'I' got lost that day and we were able to embrace a perfect peace in our universal setting.
Carolyn :)

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for sharing your epiphany, George. Quite fascinating.

In a diluted way, it reminded me of rare occasions when I've felt completely focused, totally aware, in control, on top of my game, body and mind in synch — and at such times things like driving a car, walking 20 miles, reading a book can seem absolutely automatic and effortless, as if it isn't me doing those things but a 'higher power' that's guiding me. Though not the same mystical thing you're talking about, of course.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for visiting, Jenne!

Kelly Garriott Waite said...

So glad to have found your blog via a Facebook friend. Lovely post. Looking forward to reading more. My best thinking time comes from a solitary walk. Alone, I can think about a story or an essay I'm writing. I can wrestle with a plot point. I can think about my family and friends.

The Solitary Walker said...

Carolyn — welcome, and I love your comment. Pilgrimages are often conducive to epiphanies, aren't they? Hope to see you again round here — we are a friendly lot!

The Solitary Walker said...

Welcome too to you, Kelly! Yes, on solitary walks it's a gifted time to think, to create, to be at one with nature — and to have epiphanies!

am said...

When I was 11 years old (a 'thin' place), reading about Lucy and Susan riding on Aslan's back and seeing Narnia. I was older than Lucy and younger than Susan and could feel the warmth of Aslan's back and see everything they saw. I felt more alive and joyful than anytime in my life previous to that.

Just now I looked up that passage and realized that ride occurred after Aslan had been murdered. As a child, I had no idea that there was anything Christian about the story, but it moved me deeply.

The description of that beloved landscape still moves me:

He rushes on and on, never missing his footing, never hesitating, threading his way with perfect skill between tree trunks, jumping over bush and briar and the smaller streams, wading the larger, swimming the largest of all. And you are riding not on a road nor in a park nor even on the downs, but right across Narnia, in spring, down solemn avenues of beech and across sunny glades of oak, through wild orchards of snow-white cherry trees, past roaring waterfalls and mossy rocks and echoing caverns, up windy slopes alight with gorse bushes, and across the shoulders of heathery mountains and along giddy ridges and down, down, down again into wild valleys and out into the acres of blue flowers.

Maybe that is where my enduring passion for the natural world was awakened along with a feeling that I loved and was loved.

Thank you and everyone for writing about epiphanies.

Vagabonde said...

I read your last post on the I Ching. I have had the I Ching since I bought the book in San Francisco in the 1960s and used to look at it a lot while I was working in a large corporation – because of constant problems. It helped me a lot.

I know I have had epiphanies as your say – many because I am not young anymore! One I can well remember was in Bangkok, the first time I went there alone. I climbed up a Buddhist temple tower, on a rope ladder (like a fool really) just to see the city from way up there. When I got up there two monks in orange robes were standing, like waiting for me, in this little tower. We talked and they left. I even took their picture! I stayed there a long time looking at the city then realized that I could never get back down as I was terrified of heights. I stood there, alone, at least 2 hours, then suddenly I felt that I would be fine – that I was being watched – and I went down the rope ladder.
Another time, I was in Mageland, Central Java in Indonesia and decided to climb the Borobudur Temple there. I did, very slowly, and once on top it was so beautiful that my spirit soared. (This could be because I am a Buddhist I guess.) Another time was when my first cousin, who is Egyptian, took me to some ancient Egyptian tombs he knew near Cairo and read the hieroglyphs on the wall to me. Then he went back to his car for something and left me in there, alone. I still cannot describe the sensation. Another time was in my car, like George. It was a Fuego Renault and I was going over the Chattahoochee River Bridge near Atlanta – and everything seems to sing, the air, the clouds, the car, everything – I could hear the music.

But now that I think of it, the most intense moment was in an aircraft, on fire. We were flying from Singapore to Paris and around midnight the pilot said there was a fire in the cargo and smoke came all around us. We were above Afghanistan going toward Uzbekistan. The pilot said that he would try to land and someone told me the plane might explode on contact. People started to scream, it was not easy. But suddenly, again, I knew I would be fine, even if I died. I was certain to be OK – since that time I have not been afraid of death. Well I better stop before I think of more!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your Narnia recollection, am. Books certainly can have a lasting influence on our love of the natural world. Ones that did it for me at a young age were Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blyton's Famous Five, the Malcolm Saville Lone Pine books set in Shropshire, Alan Garner's 'The Owl Service' and Richard Jefferies' 'Bevis' — all outdoor adventures set in specific English (or Welsh) locations.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your long and fascinating comment, Vagabonde! You have certainly seen something of the world. I did not know you were a Buddhist — interesting. And your aircraft story is incredible — amazing how initial panic and terror can be replaced so quickly by a calm certainty and lack of fear.

Ruth said...

Wonderful. I'm not surprised that your experiences were either in nature, or looking at it (art class slides).

I had a similar experience to George's driving one, as a teenager driving between wheat fields, which I wrote about at sync.

Probably my most powerful experience of this kind was at Tara, Ireland, when I met the beech trees in the churchyard. I was overwhelmed with a sense of unconditional love, as if they were parents. It sounds loony, but I am certain I met a tree mother that day. When I returned a year later, I could only weep, for I only had 45 minutes with her. I don't know if this qualifies as epiphany.

John Zorn said...

On reading your definition of the epiphany, I realised that yes, it is not only about moments of what might be called joy (an inadequate word), but also of transformation or revelation.

And so I thought of my first transforming moment which was also charged with something special - at the age of perhaps two years old, trying to punch my newborn sister throught the bars of her cot. Clearly I didn't like my rival, but the point was that my world had been challenged, and that I was no longer at the centre of the universe - my Galileo moment, yet beyond intellectualising; I was too young for that. I was aware of the 'isness' of the world and my place in it.

Then at around four years old, running and hiding from my father who needed me home for dinner. I realise now that I felt some sense of autonomy, of being an individual with choice. I was aware of the 'other', of individuation, no longer an amorphous part of a group.

These two above may seem to be odd choices, but they were watershed moments of transformation and sudden deep awareness which I perceived not by intellect and not by the body, but somewhere else. The psyche?

I have had epiphanies which left me with a sense of oneness with my surroundings. I hesitate to use words like bliss or joy, though elements of this were involved.

One was on a high walk above Glencoe - the Aonach Eagach ridge, when I was bathed in a feeling of harmony with all I could see, accompanied by a superclarity of vision. It lasted half an hour, when I had to sit and simply look at all I saw. On rereading this, I realise that this could easily be a description of a nice day's walk. This is where words don't work, where we have moved beyond language.

Another was more extended, when I was walking the Camino de Madrid. I slipped into a 'mode' (?) an energy (?) an electrical charge (?)- I can't find the words...but I was high in a way I never had been before. It lasted around four hours. I've done a fair bit of camino walking and this was no ordinary feeling. As Carolyn says -the 'I' gets lost.

There have been other moments, but these examples stick in the mind. I notice from others' accounts and mine how little religion features in such moments, and I am reassured by this.

'Thin places' have been mentioned. Readers here may like a website called 'The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics'.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for contributing to this interesting and revelatory discussion, Ruth. It seems we all have these experiences from time to time — which does not surprise me. And I understand better your thing about trees now!

The Solitary Walker said...

And thanks, John, for your long comment, in which you reveal some somewhat unusual epiphanies! I understand very well the 'highs' you can get from being literally high — on a ridge or mountain top or wherever. Also from long-distance walking — there's often a day on a long trek when you're suddenly totally relaxed, quite fit and ecstasy strikes, yes, sometimes for several hours. I've described such experiences here and there in my camino accounts.

And I'll check out that website.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I am reminded of the opening of Toads to Santiago Robert, where Nooteboom speaks of standing in a place and being moved by feeling the emotions of all those who have arrived and departed in the many years before. Certainly I have had a few of those - Registan Square in Samarkand; The Great Wall of China; The Alhambra in Granada to name three. Standing there a feeling of intense peace came over me and I felt that all worries were nothing but trivial when compared with history - we are here, we live and do our best, we die.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Robert - when you havge a minute go to Art Propelled on my side bar and scroll through some of her posts - I think you would enjoy them.

John Zorn said...

Yes, SW, even trying to hit your sister can be an epiphany! This was the first time I felt/knew I existed. The world no longer revolved round me.

Pretty revelatory, when the universe shifts gear and you see life anew! My first epiphany was not a floating world of joyful experience - but was world changing nevertheless. When I read your definitions of epiphany, I realised they didn't have to be all sweetness, which I'd always thought!

I should say that when I tried to hit my sister in later life there was no epiphany, but a clip round the ear from our mother.

am said...

Ruth: Thank you for reminding me of an experience a few years ago with a weeping willow tree. As reached up, taking one of the willow's strands of leaves in my hand and looking up into the tree and the sky above, I felt as if I had reached up for the hand of a loving mother. I was astonished at the intensity of the moment.

I have felt loved by trees, too.

ksam said...

Wow. Such a small word, but here the best I can come up with and yet totally inadequate. Loved your post Robert and absolutely love love loved reading everyone's responses. Although I've had experiences of my own, similar to some here...what I'm find the most interesting at this moment is my absolute need to just read, revel in and enjoy all of yours! SW...thanks for prompting such a response, for - what hitting a chord that obviously resonated with so many of us! :-) Karin

The Solitary Walker said...

Just love your enthusiasm, Karin... as always..! Glad you enjoyed this.

The Solitary Walker said...

Sorry, Pat (Weaver) — missed you out. Another much-travelled lady! Yes, I understand you — I find it can be quite calming when we are face to face with history and realise how insignificant we are. The beginning of that Nooteboom book is magnificent, isn't it? (As is the last chapter.)

Thanks for the pointer to the blog on your sidebar — will check it out.

Wendy said...

Lately I'm an extremely slow respondent to some really good blog posts. I find I can't just whip out an appropriately thoughtful comment like I'd like, so maybe until I can find my lost ability, I'll just chime in with a "great post, thanks!" and you'll know that deep under the surface you've aided the percolation.

Somewhere in what I wanted to say here is the personal intersection of poetry and epiphany - not always, but sometimes. The (subjectively defined) "better" poems I've written were born of such moments, wouldn't have existed without them. Both epiphanies and poems are few and far between though (lately?).

I need to stop trying to keep up with the internet - so will probably come back to re-read and see if I can't articulate what I wanted at a later time.

"Great post, thanks!"

The Solitary Walker said...

And a 'great comment', Wendy, too! Thanks for reading.