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The Myth of the “Aha” Moment

surprised owl

In March I published a post explaining—and diagramming with stick figures—how I’d become enamored with Stoicism.

The ideas resonated with others too. The post made the front page of Reddit, and whenever someone in real life tells me they read this blog, that’s the article they mention.

The title was “The Only Thing You Need to Get Good At”, referring to the Stoic skill of continually returning your attention to the small number of things you can control, and leaving the rest of your worries to fate.

Six months later, I can report that I did not get good at it. I am still constantly becoming fixated on what I can’t control and overlooking what I can, and I don’t believe I could “march to the gallows in good cheer.”

Not only do I forget to respond Stoically to emerging dilemmas in life, it’s hard to locate even a whiff of that fate-loving sense of empowerment I seemed to embody so easily for those few weeks.

I’m not worried about this, however, for reasons I’ll explain. I know what ingredient was missing.

This is a pretty common human pattern, especially for self-improvement hobbyists. You read about a new perspective that immediately clicks with your intuitions, triggering a so-called “Aha!” moment. Armed with this insight, you enjoy a few weeks of newfound enthusiasm and ease. Then, when you’re not looking, this “New You” disappears into your old patterns.

The “Aha” moment is it’s own unique emotion: a feeling of “Ah! That makes so much sense!” It feels like you’ve gained possession of a new lens, through which everything in your life looks tidier and more manageable: your work, your relationships, your health, your finances, and yourself.

The lens might be Stoicism, emotional literacy, frugality, non-procrastination, living in the present moment, reframing criticism, or some other perspective. We get really excited about our new perspective, see its potential everywhere, and maybe do some light proselytizing.

Then the epiphany’s afterglow fades. Soon you feel like you’ve forgotten how to look at the world that way. You might even reread the material that gave you the insight in the first place, and maybe a hint of the feeling returns. But over time it starts to seem irretrievable.

Occasionally, after an “Aha” moment, we really do turn over a new leaf, but much more often we return to old patterns without ever deciding to. So when they do stick, what makes them stick?

The missing ingredient

Since most of my day job is to offer exactly these sorts of epiphany-inducing perspectives, I receive a lot of emails from people in the middle of epiphanies. I often wonder how many of them become lasting changes, and how many fizzle after a short burst of enthusiasm.

I received a number of these excited messages in July, after I published “The Alternative to Thinking All the Time.” The post argued that when we’re not attending to our present-moment sensory world, we’re probably just ruminating uselessly. Therefore we should invest in a habit of frequently returning to our sensory experience.

Readers reported that after reading the article, they went for blissful walks, basked in gentle breezes, ate transcendent sandwiches, marveled at the steam swirling up from their coffee, and otherwise lived in the present moment in a way they usually don’t. They expressed excitement at more days like this, presumably to come.

But I wondered how many people took to heart the bottom half of the article, which argues explicitly that we don’t have a hope of living that way, at least with any consistency, unless we have some kind of regular practice. We are so strongly conditioned to live in our heads that we simply will not remember to live in our sensory experience when we haven’t just read an article about it.

The absence of a daily practice is why my Stoicism kick didn’t change me for long. Since I have decades of experience fixating on what I can’t control, after that first few weeks of enthusiasm I barely noticed the possibility of responding Stoically during setbacks. I acted out my old ways so reflexively that I never gained any appreciable experience with the new way, and no momentum could build.

You Need a Practice

To start living in a new way, we need a practice—some way to gain experience noticing the moments when we’re about to do thing A, and then do thing B instead, even while it’s still exceedingly easy and comfortable to do thing A. Just a few “reps” every day is enough to get a foothold, and start to dissolve the reflexive nature of the old behavior.

In the case of Stoicism, a simple practice might have been this: every morning I list everything I’m worried about that day. Then, from that, I make a (much smaller) list of the things I can actually control. Doing this practice, and checking the second list while I work, would give me a small but regular bit of training at focusing on what I can control (B) when I normally would be focusing on what I can’t (A).

That’s the skeleton of any effective practice: recognizing moments where you can change an A to B, on a regular basis, over time.

In the case of living in the present, I already have a practice. Twice a day, I sit and observe my present moment experience: sounds, bodily feelings and emotions. When I notice I’ve become preoccupied (A) I come back to noticing the unfolding of the present moment (B). That’s meditation. Over time, this practice has completely transformed my life.

Doing even a little bit of B starts to break down the automaticity of doing A. The new way occurs to you more often. Each of these moments creates another chance to practice. Gradually the new way becomes natural.

Epiphanies, or “Aha!” moments, awaken us to the possibility of living differently, but they don’t illuminate those crucial moments when we need to remember that possibility, and they don’t make the new way feel easy or natural.

We tend to think that big changes happen in life when we discover a better way to live. But that discovery is not the moment of change. You really change when this new way of living starts to feel natural, and for that to happen, you need a practice.

***

A few times a year I offer a simple, 30-day mindfulness course called Camp Calm. The idea is to develop a modest but consistent meditation practice and a few mindful living habits, at a gentle pace of about ten minutes a day. You should check it out. Registration is opening this week. [More info here]

Photo by Quentin Dr

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Arthur Guerrero September 17, 2017 at 11:57 pm

This is a good hint for me to get back to meditating a little every morning. I’ve stopped for almost a month now :/ …

Also, that’s a great grumpy looking owl pic haha

David Cain September 18, 2017 at 8:33 am

It is having a moment

Lars Bergeson September 19, 2017 at 2:45 pm

The owl is having an aha moment that aha moments don’t make a difference unless followed up by a practice :)

Ron September 18, 2017 at 2:30 am

Very good insight and advice. One thing I’ve noticed in losing the power of epiphany experiences over time is that I start substituting the concept of the experience for the experience itself. For example, I’ll think, ‘oh yeah, sense my body’ instead of actually sensing my body. It’s one easy trap to fall into.

David Cain September 18, 2017 at 8:35 am

Totally… the idea seems like it’s the change, but it’s really the behavior. But sometimes we hang onto the idea and the behavior never really changed. I remember having the impression that I’m a fit, active person for like a whole year, after a fitness kick ended six weeks in. I honestly didn’t realize that I wasn’t walking the talk anymore.

Paul Davies September 18, 2017 at 3:32 am

Do you find though that while the temptation towards ‘A’ has a habit of still popping up now and then, it does, on the whole, get easier and easier?

I remember this well with various elimination diets. At the start, I’d struggle to go a day without a certain food to which I was addicted. Then two days, then a week, then two weeks, a month etc. Until now when I reintroduce things because of curiosity rather than craving I feel physically catastrophic without fail, because of course there’s a huge difference between wants and cravings.

Simply observing the after effects (of food, thoughts, other random reactions) in such a way as to be able to recall them later eventually, I’ve found, has always been enough to a) shake the bad ‘A’ and b) make the choice of the good ‘B’ quicker and quicker as to be almost instinctual.

I doubt there’s anything that can’t be altered within a year (and also anything that can be altered within a week). But in the grand scheme of things, a year is an awfully short time for anyone under the age of 100 :)

David Cain September 18, 2017 at 8:44 am

It gets easier when we’re persistently doing B, for sure. Otherwise it just seems to drift on its own momentum.

In my experience, observing the aftereffects of A can really make it less appealing. But I think there’s still a crucial matter of having some level of familarity with an alternative, so in the moments when the chance to act differently doesn’t consciously register, your brain associates that feeling with “B”.

Priscilla September 18, 2017 at 5:31 am

Interesting thoughts, David. I think I fall into the “Aha Myth” trap when I don’t admit that it’s going to take work and concentration to make a permanent change. “Oh yeah, I can do that,” ain’t going to make any changes. I have to plan, make little goals (akin to your “Make a Practice”), and work toward the big goal.

The owl image made me laugh! Cute.:-)

David Cain September 18, 2017 at 8:46 am

Right… we all “can” change, but whether we will is another question, and the more important one. The crucial piece seems to be remembering the new way at the right moments, and that’s what practices do.

Anagha September 18, 2017 at 6:07 am

Self discovery tool indeed !
I loved the part that scraped my core, to manifest that so many times even I have fallen prey to those ‘Aha Moments.’
Just resurfaced something that we all refuse to accept…

David Cain September 18, 2017 at 8:47 am

They are useful, these moments, just not in the way we think. They don’t change us but they signal a good place to examine how we do things and how we might practice doing something else.

Peter Akkies September 18, 2017 at 6:40 am

Amazing article. I don’t know what else to say. So honest and true.

David Cain September 18, 2017 at 8:47 am

:)

Gerard September 18, 2017 at 8:14 am

I don’t have an active practice that gets me to this, but I do find I continue to get into that state of awareness every time I look at art. I mean, look for a while, like visit a museum or look at a fair bit of art in a book or magazine. I guess it cranks up my receptivity to what I see around me. Lasts about an hour.

David Cain September 18, 2017 at 8:49 am

I want to do a post about looking at art one day. Looking at art in a receptive way makes the experience more valuable, but it’s also a useful way to look at anything. I think it’s one of those skills that should be taught in school.

George Coghill September 18, 2017 at 8:34 am

I too have noticed the pattern of diminished effects after the “aha” moment (or perhaps better named the “aha period “). I feel as if those aha periods are a time to use the insight to establish a pattern (the new habit). It’s easy to get caught in the trap of seeing them as the zenith of the insight, rather than the first step.

In the specific cases you mention, Stociism and mindfulness, I think some key distinctions are often overlooked or downplayed. Things which make the habit/practice aspect difficult to implement.

With mindfulness, I think too much emphasis is placed on a supposed superiority to being in a mindful state. In my experience, both the mindful state and the problem-solving mind have their place — the issue is that we have lost the ability to invoke the mindful state at will. To me, the ultimate goal of meditation is not to cultivate a continuous mindful state, but to cultivate the ability to enter it consciously.

Much in the way the meditation practice itself tends to focus on keeping your focus on an object of attention. (breath, etc), I feel the other half of that technique — noting the mind has wandered and bringing it back to the object of focus — is very much overlooked. At least in common understanding of “what meditation is”.

I joke that meditation technique instructions for beginners should be to focus on the breath, allow the mind to wander, then bring focus back to the breath. To me, the real benefit is the “bringing the focus back” part. Because your mind is indeed going to wander, especially when in daily life and not in the ideal conditions for a meditation sit. That mind-wandering part should just be baked in to the technique so people do not feel like they are doing it wrong.

Ultimately what I’m getting at is that the common descriptions of the goals of some of these novel ways of looking at the world (such as Stocism and meditation/mindfulness) might themselves be a hindrance to the establishment of a practice.

In effect, the goals are seen/portrayed as the actual technique.

With mindfulness, you may choose to stay in an extended mindful state once your skill in entering it improves, but trying to enter and maintain an extended or perpetual mindful state of the bat is like trying to learn to ride a bicycle for e first time, but doing so no-handed.

I do have to admit that it’s a bit awkward to refer to mindfulness instead as “practicing entering a mindful state after inevitable mind-wandering” :)

David Cain September 18, 2017 at 8:57 am

This is one of the troubles with mindfulness… it’s an internal quality, and we can’t diagram it or observe how others do it, so everyone conceptualizes it differently.

I wouldn’t agree, for example, that mindfulness and problem-solving / thinking are two different modes. I think of mindfulness more as the opposite of reactivity, and we can approach problems or thinking tasks with both mindfulness or reactivity.

I do agree that the “coming back” part is vital, and it’s hard to get beginners to accept how much a part this coming back is of mindfulness practice. We tend to begin with the idea that we should be able to maintain mindfulness indefinitely, but we end up losing track of it in seconds. This is the normal experience, but it’s not what people expect.

Natalia McDade September 18, 2017 at 9:52 am

Really great post, your best one yet. Thank you! Routines in our lives are often overlooked, but I believe they are key to all lasting changes.

AM September 18, 2017 at 10:40 am

Well said. A good daily practice makes all the difference, and that can evolve over time. Pausing to “do the next right thing” during the day can keep me on track. But I have to start the day with meditation, reading, exercise, etc.

A Julie September 18, 2017 at 2:20 pm

Alternate title: To keep those epiphanies present, build habits around them.
Or something like that.
Good post.

Micaela Aparício September 19, 2017 at 12:14 am

Most of my epiphanies, the actual a-ha moments, occur in one of two situations, either i’m not thinking of anything that i can consciously relate to the substance of the epiphany or i’m not thinking at all. I have been noticing this for a while now, and i can somehow induce the state when an epiphany is more likely to happen. Of course it doesn’t mean it will happen or that the number of a-ha moments i’m entitled to in a lifetime will increase. But that’s not the point, what i like is how simple and evidently harmonious things appear even though the big picture is still a spaghetti landscape. If an epiphany is an A-ha moment when there’s a sudden breaking of chunks of reality into smaller parts that i can grasp and hold, and will, from then on, be always available to me as knowledge or a process or more often, a tool, the remaining time is a sweet pregnant time of tiny logical bubbles that glue little bricks together to make sense of more sophisticated matters. I cannot identify or “a-ha” them, but i can feel everything getting smooth. That’s interesting enough for me and also not too hard a mode to get into.

Burak Şahin September 19, 2017 at 9:16 am

Sometimes, simple things are the most powerful yet most overlooked aspects of life. Obviously, “practice” is one of them, especially if it is related to self-improvement.

Another question is why do we overlook or escape from practice? This is also interesting to ponder over.

micaela September 19, 2017 at 11:24 am

For some time, long ago, i almost lost my memory. I was too tired to remember what i was meaning to do when i got to to the place i needed to go. I would find myself in the kitchen and i couldn’t recall what i wanted to do or fetch. Sometimes it was worse, i couldn’t remember in which cupboard i kept the spices or which one was the cutlery drawer. I could bake an apple pie without apples or leave it in the oven without turning it on. It became almost impossible to live autonomously, i was desperate and didn’t think i would ever feel “operational” again.
Then, one day, trying to calm down and concentrate i repeated to myself all the steps i had taken doing some simple task i was busy with. Aloud, like telling someone else. That was the beginning of what i could call my “narrator” period. I would simply narrate to myself all the things i did as i was doing it. It seems completely ridiculous, i know, but it worked. After some weeks my memory and concentration levels increased so much i was able to trust myself doing most normal things. I kept doing it for a while even when i no longer needed it. I am washing the dishes, i adding salt, i’m having a coffee, etc. Sometimes i used other languages to keep me concentrated. All this was a long time ago. I stopped before “narrating” became a practice or a habit, it had done the job. The effects, however, became permanent. Now i don’t need to “inform” myself of what i am doing or actively concentrate on it, i can simply let go and my mind gets so peacefully empty without even thinking of it. It became so natural. Sometimes i get an occasional a-ha moment, a good insight, but mainly i’m there for the peace it brings.

Michael Alan Gambill September 19, 2017 at 11:53 am

I’m content with the fact that much of life is two steps forward and one step back. I do find pleasure in suddenly becoming aware of something I did not comprehend previously, but I take the experience with a pleasing smile not bouncing off the walls with excitement. I know it always takes a while to refine my understanding of something new and even longer to implement it into my life. At 62 I can see that I am not what I was 40 years ago, not even what I was 4 months ago. I’m not looking merely for “an experience” I’m into living for the long haul.

Abhijeet Kumar September 19, 2017 at 3:29 pm

My experience has almost always been about aha moments. Yes, there has been karma and practice, but they pay off in very unexpected ways. It is almost open to interpretation. So much that life feels more beautiful when I trust in it. Even me doing something is actually driven by life. Some experiences in life created that urge or drive to follow through. I wouldn’t just follow through based on what I read, if it does not have a direct relation to my experiences in life.

Abhijeet Kumar September 19, 2017 at 3:51 pm

It is also different ways of looking at aha moments. 2 years ago, aha moments for me were any new thing that I read from other sources. That everyone was talking about.

After months of going through an awakening process, where I was alone, just couldn’t depend on hearsay, just couldn’t rely on external schedules, external sources, I could barely sleep and digest food, if I had followed external opinions, aha moments are real. They are the difference between despair and feeling alive.

I think we have taken control to it’s logical extreme. We forget that even when we have that enthusiasm to practice, it is not us controlling it. Life is expressing itself. Gratefulness is the most underestimated trait. We had diverse experiences that helped shape us. Life whether through us, through other human beings or other species around us was constantly helping us.

KG September 20, 2017 at 12:50 pm

Yes, love those ‘aha’ moments. Love the idea of life becoming one big ‘aha’ moment through your practice. Thanks!!

David September 21, 2017 at 12:44 pm

As ever, your post is excellent and eerily well-timed. Camp Calm Season 5 is my ticket to try and create a meditation habit again. I did Season 1 and it was great, but I think I expected too much and couldn’t form a habit. My only expectation this time is that I’ll give it a go every day and aim to keep it up for another 30 days – that should make the habit stick and I’ll take any benefits as just a nice bonus!

Caine September 22, 2017 at 2:58 pm

It all depends on how we define “aha”. Aha’s for me are things like learning about evolutionary psychology, antifragility, memetic instruction, compound interest, volume measurements, growing your own food, etc. They are always true and not dependant on my moods/emotions/instincts. Aha’s relating to “self improvement”? Any aha, in direct conflict with dominant cultural meme or genetic programming is doomed to failure/fading with time. To overcome this, I’ve made it a practice to be suspicious about every thing I “feel”. Emotions are illusions. They all deserve deep investigation, and most need to be placed in the garbage.

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