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How Do You, We, I Define Epiphany, Exactly?

Here are key definitions and discoveries about epiphanies.

Throughout my research and discussions about epiphanies over the past couple of years, I get asked this a lot: "What do you mean by 'epiphany,' exactly?"

As I say in my book, everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Mutual of Omaha is talking about realizations and awakenings, and many times these are referred to as "aha moments." But to me, that term is a little more casual and speaks more to everyday insights. By epiphanies I mean the major, life-changing revelations that have had the greatest impact on our lives.

It's been very interesting to notice that every single person I've talked to, whether the person has spiritual beliefs or not, speaks of these kinds of moments with a sense of reverence. In fact, yesterday I watched Oprah disclose to the world that she just discovered she had a half-sister she had no idea about because their mother had hidden and denied it for the past 50 years. Oprah said several times with tears in her eyes that she had an epiphany upon leaving their mother's home after meeting and speaking with her about it. Her realization was that their mother couldn't fully embrace this daughter she had given up for adoption because she was carrying so much shame about it and couldn't let it go.

Oprah realized her mother was stuck because of her shame and revealed that she recognized this because she also once had carried a burden of shame for getting pregnant and having a baby. Oprah, the woman who basically coined the term "aha moment," did not use that term in talking about this powerful and extremely personal story. To describe this profound and emotional moment of revelation about her mother, Oprah used the term "epiphany."

A History of the "Epiphany"

The word "epiphany" has a deep, archetypal resonance for us, dating back to ancient Greece. It comes from the Greek "epiphaneia," meaning "appearance" or "manifestation," and referred to the revelations brought to us by the gods. "Epiphany," when it's capitalized, is the name of the Christian church celebration of the three wise men or magi coming to see the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. This is usually celebrated on January 6, which in the Western church calendar starts an Epiphany season that lasts until the first day of Lent. The Epiphany season is a season of new beginnings; after the visit of the magi, church feast days and readings recount the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and Jesus' first public miracle at Cana, where he turned water into wine.

"Epiphany" was first seen in English around 1310. For about 300 years, it meant the religious feast day and nothing else. By the mid-1600s, epiphany—with a lowercase e—was being used to refer to other manifestations of Christ and to appearances of divine beings in other religions. Since the 19th century, the meanings of epiphany began expanding. Writers such as Thomas De Quincey (who wrote of "bright epiphanies of the Grecian intellect") and William Wordsworth, and later James Joyce (who wrote that epiphanies "are the most delicate and evanescent of moments") and John Updike, helped broaden the definition of epiphany to include the secular realm.

The Definitions of "Epiphany"

Today "epiphany" carries a range of meanings, including "an intuitive grasp of reality," "an illuminating discovery, realization, disclosure, or insight," or simply "a revealing scene or moment." My definition of an epiphany is "a moment of sudden or great revelation that usually changes you in some way."

I started asking the people I interviewed for their definitions and was enchanted and inspired by some of the answers I received:

An epiphany is...

"a realization; an opening; a portal to the Divine; growing up; a magic moment that impacts you and changes you forever and you can remember it as vividly as you experienced it; a moment that changes the lens through which you view your life; our soul scratching around our head and giving us a signal to guide our lives with; a moment of descending light, open knowledge, and choice; a drastic shift in energy and change of perspective that happens in the form of a moment of clarity; something that gives you the strength to take a different direction or move forward and opens up everything; a sense of wonderment; a clarifying direction; and, that moment where you know your life is never going to be the same."

One of my favorites is Maya Angelou's answer:

"It probably has a million definitions. It's the occurrence when the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way."

Someone interviewing me the other day defined an epiphany as "a miracle of thought." I find this definition beautiful and promptly wrote it down. I'm constantly hearing new definitions and ways of expressing what these moments are to people and am always redefining them for myself. They are all a little different for everyone yet all are also accurate.

I love this about the nature of epiphanies. They are a reflection of us. They are all different and unique in how they come to people. No two people's stories are the same. We are all so very different in backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, etc. but the core of these epiphanies, if you really ask what someone learned or about the wisdom gained, always boils down to a universal wisdom or truth we can all relate to. It's just like us—we're all so different and unique yet all so very similar. The goal of talking about our stories, and about epiphanies in particular, is to understand, honor. and respect both our differences and our likenesses—and to celebrate them.

How are we different? How are we the same? What can we learn from one another about ourselves, about our fellow man and about the world around us in talking about these moments and insights? A lot. At least that's been my experience.

Dr. Oz summarizes it perfectly: "The goal is to move from just knowledge, which is information, to understanding, which is awareness."

An "Epiphany"

The 2011 Epiphany season began January 6 and lasts until March 9—the first day of Lent this year. I realized that my book was launched into the world and I started this blog the same week the Epiphany season started, which was completely accidental and serendipitous. Serendipity is another constant aspect of epiphanies I observed... but that is a blog post for another day.

What is your definition of epiphany? I'd love to hear!

Any suggestions and epiphany stories are always welcome at

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