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self help

Of Aha Moments and Enlightenment

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In 2009 the insurance company “Mutual” of Omaha claimed to be the “official sponsor of the aha moment” and applied to trademark the phrase. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions Inc. challenged this because they claimed that Winfrey regularly uses the phrase “an aha moment” on her television program and it was synonymous with her. The story that we are more familiar with, however, is of Archimedes, who whilst sitting in an overfull hot tub bath noticed some water spilling over the side and suddenly had a flash of insight. He deduced that the volume of the water spilt over would have to be the same as the volume of his body that was spilling it. Legend has it, this Eureka! moment caused him to ran naked down the street in jubilation.

What is an insight?

In psychology, an insight is a new way of understanding connections between things. Insights often lead to significant emotional shifts. Psychologists strive for their clients to not only achieve intellectual sagenesses but for those revelations to actually trickle-down to observable behavioural changes. In Marathi there is a phrase “कळतंय पण वळत नाही” which essentially means the same thing. An appreciation of “why something occurs” is of no use by itself.

Insights and motivation

We often find ourselves needing to make lifestyle changes on account of our health. Take for example cessation of certain behaviours such as smoking cigarettes. While we might know “Smoking is injurious to health, ” the thought and intention need to translate into a very functional paradigm. This would happen only if there is an emotional insight, an “aha” moment that shakes you into action. If you were to be told that you have lung cancer and if you had the desire to live long you might have to quite smoking nicotine, that sudden intellectual insight would instantly translate into an emotional one – “this rule applies to me!” (i.e. smoking is indeed really injurious to my health). Your motivation to kick the butt would then be less difficult. In normal circumstances, you would’ve been less motivated if you though the rule applied to other people but not to you.

Are we there yet?

Being shocked into an insight is not the only way to get there.  Some insights give you a sense of wonder and enlightenment. Buddhists often meditate because they believe it helps awaken “truth” – and the “full comprehension of the world.” Hindus believe that moksha (liberation) or mukti (letting go) – both deep insights- bring to an end all suffering. The more physical disciplines of Yoga are reported to facilitate gaining insights.  Letting go and being able to pause and reflect is key to all forms of insights. Insights enable positive changes. Once you have an insight, you cannot go back in time to the moment you were in before. In psychotherapy insights help with gaining perspective. They help with closure and hence with healing and moving on.  You cannot speed an insight up. It requires that you, in fact, slow down. 

When a motivated and eager student approaches a spiritual guru and asks how long it would take him to achieve enlightenment, the master replies “10 years.” The student says to the guru, “I will work harder. I will work more. I won’t take breaks. How many years will it take me then?”

The master replies “In that case, it will take you 20 years.”

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