09/24/2012 03:42 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Eureka, Epiphany and Enlightenment

[This is the 10th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.

- Albert Einstein

While it's true that science aims to explain and, in that sense, demystify, there remains something ineffable about the process of discovery. I've mentioned the perplexing fact that nature is understandable, not just in broad outline, but in fine detail. It strikes many as mysterious that nature has spawned a creature -- Homo sapiens -- who comprehends her well enough to steal her power.

A further mystery attaches to quests of every sort -- scientific, artistic, and spiritual. The deep similarities between the eureka of science, the epiphanies of art, and the revelations and enlightenment of religion provide a bridge that helps close the gap between the two vocations.

Description demands intense observation, so intense that the veil of everyday habit falls away and what we paid no attention to, because it struck us as so ordinary, is revealed as miraculous.

- Czeslaw Milosz

Scientific research culminates in the "eureka" of discovery. Artists describe their creative breakthroughs in remarkably similar language. Political transformation often originates in the discovery of a new personal identity, which then forms the basis of a revised group consensus. (As the modern women's movement taught us, "the personal is political.") Religious practices aim variously for revelation, illumination, self-realization, union with God, or enlightenment.

2012-07-18-AndromedaGalaxy.jpgIn each of these realms, protracted immersion in mundane details can lead to epiphanies. They may feel like bolts from the blue, but they are usually preceded by months, years, or even decades of painstaking investigation. For what seems an eternity, we go up one blind alley after another, experience failure upon failure. Without this preparatory groundwork, breakthroughs almost never occur. It is only when we're steeped in a subject -- often feeling confused and hopeless -- and are on familiar terms with the contradictions that characterize the field, that resolution may occur. Breakthrough takes the form of a revelatory insight wherein an old, collapsing model is superseded by one that removes some, if not all, of the contradictions. Depending on the realm, "better" can mean more useful, effective, accurate, comprehensive, simple, beautiful, elegant, or loving. Convincing others that what we've come upon is indeed better may take longer still, sometimes beyond our lifetime.

Some breakthroughs get the Nobel Prize, some an acknowledging nod from a companion or a stranger. Other epiphanies are met only with inner recognition. But all bear the stamp of a habit broken and provide us with a new way of beholding the world or ourselves.

From this perspective, the experience of enlightenment -- whether in a scientific, artistic, political, or religious context -- is seen as a movement of mind that lasts but an instant rather than as a sublime state which, once attained, becomes permanent. In the framework of modeling, enlightenment is the exhilarating experience of a fresh perception breaking the stranglehold of the habitual. In Milosz's phrase, what has seemed ordinary is "revealed as miraculous." The differences in enlightenment from one field to another pale in comparison with the deep similarities common to enlightenment in every realm -- a sense of blinders removed, of clear sightedness, of ecstatic revelation.

The experience of enlightenment can be thought of as a leap across a precipice from one foothold to another. For a while after landing we may feel elated, but it's a mistake to confuse this afterglow with enlightenment. Enlightenment is not the condition into which we have vaulted; it's the leap that took us there.

That moments of enlightenment can't be anticipated accounts for part of our fascination with them, but it also makes the experience vulnerable to mystification. History has seen many claimants to the titles of sage, genius, maestro, saint, or enlightened master. Mesmerized by the aura of celebrity and mystery that envelops them, we often fail to notice that, like ourselves, they are human beings. When they're not having an epiphany -- which is most of the time -- they're ordinary in the same way that everyone is. What sets some of them apart is a readier ability to rise above habit and see freshly. And sometimes they can transmit this special skill to their students. Whether using it will result in a student hitting the jackpot, or, for that matter, in the teacher hitting a second jackpot, or either of them ever having another enlightening experience -- of that there are no guarantees.

Students and seekers often collude in their own infantilization by maintaining habits of deference that lull them into believing that an experience of enlightenment is quite beyond them. Such dependent relationships with revered authority figures reflect the escapist desire for a parent whose love is constant, whose wisdom is infallible, and on whom we can always rely. The best teachers, like the best parents, freely transmit their knowledge, skills, and passion for truth-seeking to their mentees, but without leaving them starry-eyed. As with so many of the most precious gifts in life, the best we can do to repay such benefactors is to pass what we've learned from them on to someone else.

In religious traditions, teachers impart the deepest truths to their students through what is aptly called "transmission of mind." These truths are often actually meta-truths, that is, they're insights into the truth-seeking process itself. The notion of "transmission" expresses the transfer of modeling skills regardless of the field of inquiry. There were times during my physics training when I felt I was experiencing a transmission of mind from my mentor, Professor John A. Wheeler, merely by hanging out with him and observing him closely as he tackled problems. Sometimes he'd pass on something he attributed to his mentor, Niels Bohr. Transmitters of mind are invariably part of a lengthy lineage consisting of parents, grandparents and teachers.

When it comes to the discovery process, the differences between the eurekas of science and the revelations of religion are superficial. Yes, scientists wear lab coats and jeans, and we imagine prophets in tunics and loincloths, but investigators of every kind base their insights on meticulous observation and treasure the rare "ah-ha" moments. The similarity of the process whereby new truths are found, whether in science or religion, strengthens the case for letting go of the ancient antagonism that has bedeviled their relationship and embarking on a beautiful friendship.