An epiphany is the sudden realization or comprehension of the larger essence or meaning of something. The term is used in either a philosophical or literal sense to signify that the claimant has found the last piece of the puzzle and now sees the whole picture, or has new information or experience, often insignificant by itself, that illuminates a deeper or numinous foundational frame of reference.

Epiphanies of sudden comprehension have also made possible forward leaps in technology and the sciences. Famous epiphanies include Archimedes’ realisation of how to estimate the volume of a given mass, which inspired him to shout “Eureka!” (I have found it!). The biographies of many mathematicians and scientists include an epiphanic episode early in the career, the ramifications of which were worked out in detail over the following years. For example, Albert Einstein was struck as a young child by being given a compass and realising that some unseen force in space was making it move. An example of a flash of holistic understanding in a prepared mind was Charles Darwin’s hunch about natural selection during The Voyage of the Beagle.

To this day 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 induct the audience into states of catharsis or kenosis, respectively. In modern times an epiphany lies behind the title of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, a state as Burroughs explained, “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is at the end of the fork.” Both the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp and the Pop Artist Andy Warhol would invert expectations by presenting commonplace objects or graphics as works of fine art, simply by presenting them in a way no one had thought to do before. The result was intended to induce an epiphany of what art is or is not.

The word “Zen” is sometimes used as a verb in the same sense as epiphany, to mean acquiring a sudden comprehension. Zen is similar to grokking, which is to share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity, as Robert A. Heinlein coined the term in Stranger in a Strange Land. The Zen term kensho would more accurately describe this moment, referring as kensho does, to the feeling attendant on realising, for example, the answer to the question set by a koan.


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