Moments of Clarity

Our Moments of Clarity

The phrase moment of clarity is common in twelve-step circles. Such a moment is when we clearly see the wreckage of our lives, and we make a decision to get clean and sober.

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of moment of clarity stories. One evening, for instance, when a woman was drunk, she noticed her child looking at her with sadness, disbelief, even disgust. Suddenly she realized she wasn’t just hurting herself, she was also hurting this incredibly precious human being. Steeped in shame and humiliation, she resolved she would change. In the private space of her own heart and to whatever god she might have believed in, she declared she would get clean and sober.

For others, that epiphany came when their spouse left them, or their friend died in their arms, or they landed in the hospital. Still others were at church at the time, pretending to be pious and above reproach, when suddenly something the preacher said, or maybe even didn’t say, because it seems that sometimes we hear things we need to hear that no human voice has spoken aloud, so they heard these words with the full force of prophecy, knowing they were meant for them. No longer could they hide from the truth.

Binoculars on a shelf overlooking a vista and sunrise - clarity of vision

Sudden Epiphanies

That’s one way to think about moments of clarity. Indeed, many people have experienced these flashes of insight that change them forever. In the Christian Bible, for instance, after Jesus had been crucified, died, and gone up to heaven, a Jew named Saul was on his way to Damascus to terrorize those who followed the Way. Suddenly, a bright light streamed down from heaven. Cowering on the ground, Saul heard a voice ask him, “Why are you persecuting me?”

When he asked who was speaking, the voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.”

So Saul got up, but he could no longer see. His companions led him to the city where a disciple named Ananias laid his hands on him, and his sight returned. Saul was baptized, and he started preaching in the name of Jesus. (Acts9:1-22)

Such sudden transformations happen, so I am told. They do not, however, happen often.

The Slow Dance of Change

Generally, if we do experience a sudden inspiration, it’s because we heard a whisper here or there, felt pain enough times, that we finally notice a pattern. We wake up to what has been true for years or decades. We get ourselves clean and sober, make the change we know we need to make. Even so, we’re likely to relapse and find ourselves forgetting, remembering, and trying again. This can be true of people with mental illness, eating disorders, criminal thinking, or any self-defeating habit one wants to break. It usually takes repeated pressure and insight for a moment of clarity to stick.

Even Buddha did not reach enlightenment all at once. Born Siddhartha to a powerful king and queen, the prince lived in seclusion, protected from the world’s miseries. This is not unusual for one born into great wealth, but Siddhartha was even more carefully protected because his father had been told that if the prince once saw disease and decay, he would renounce his kingdom and become an ascetic. Thus, even the word “death” was forbidden to be spoken in the young man’s hearing, which was particularly ironic since his own mother had died when he was but a week old.

We live in incredible ignorance, yet most of the time, we do not realize this.

Triggering Insight

To notice our ignorance, we must be startled enough to pay attention. In his article, “Bottoms,” Steven Castleman notes that a bottom is a traumatic experience that “pierces the dense fog of denial” and forces us to see what is truly before us, even if only for a moment. [1] These bottoms are emotional, not rational. They motivate us because they hurt. They also confuse us, demoralize us, overwhelm us. Yet they only become bottoms if they lead to moments of clarity that promote change. Otherwise, our lives are likely to get worse, and we’ll experience a new bottom.

This, at least, is twelve-step wisdom, and it makes some sense.

So what is the difference between a moment of clarity that fades away and one that leads to a motivating bottom? Why do we ignore all the messages one month and hear them the next? What makes us ready?

Whatever it is, I doubt we can manufacture it. Sometimes interventions help. Limits set by family members who care about us, who long for our best but who no longer rescue us, can also help. I suspect most clarity comes from a chance meeting, a word, a touch from what we call God, even the way the sun drifts through the trees when we are open and vulnerable. When such moments arise, and they happen so much more than we know, we either take them in or we don’t.

Buddha’s First Moments

For Buddha, the initial trigger occurred the day he first rode through his palace gates and into town. By this time, he was grown and married, with a child on the way. Even so, before his father would allow him to visit the town, the streets had to be swept and all sign of disease or death spirited away.

This was, of course, impossible. No matter how much his father tried to protect him, Siddhartha eventually saw the reality of life. On his first visit, an old man passed by him, his body trembling as he shuffled down the street. Another time, he saw a woman racked with pain. After that, a funeral procession passed in front of his carriage.

What was all this? he wondered. Could one avoid such a fate?

No one could answer him. Siddhartha felt confused and troubled. Finally, on one of his trips into town, he spoke with a ascetic who told the prince that by renouncing the world and its pleasures, he had found joy and peace. Whether in a sudden flash of clarity, or whether through slow and deliberate consideration, Siddhartha eventually realized that he, too, would have to leave his home to discover a peace that so far had eluded him.

The Journey Toward Enlightenment

Still, Siddhartha did not become the Buddha right away. For years he searched, begged, studied with teachers, tried one spiritual discipline after another, yet he did not find the peace he longed for.

We try in so many ways to discover our purpose, to get answers, to become whole and well and happy. We may take drugs or work too much or exercise too hard or thrill ourselves with danger. Or we might choose a spiritual approach. We might meditate, attend silent retreats, spend our lives in service, kneel for hours in prayer. Siddhartha denied himself any kind of pleasure, as if he could thus separate himself from his luxuriant past. In those days, fasting, flagellation, and self-denial were thought to free one from the confines of the body so that, in a state of purity, one could become enlightened.

For Siddhartha, this did not work. Asceticism was not the answer. So one day, he decided he would sit under a Bodhi tree, the tree of wisdom, until enlightenment came or he died.

What Makes Us Decide?

What made him decide to do this? Was his insight an external one, or internal? Having been raised in luxury, did he understand the futility of extremes in a way others might not? Did he realize, even then, the value of the middle way?

Our path to enlightenment is paved by small moments of clarity. Not even Saul experienced a sudden clarity that changed him forever. At first, he felt anything but clear-headed. He was reeling with the shock of hearing the voice of a man he had denied and with the loss of his sight. He had no idea what he should do next. All he could was surrender himself to the attention of his friends. Although he experienced an incredible mystical moment, it only left him feeling powerless and afraid. Like him, we need time to process such moments, to create meaning from them, and to incorporate them into our lives.

So it was with Siddhartha. It took months for him to decide to leave home. Then it was years before he realized he would not find truth from the teachers around him, that he had to find it himself.

So he sat. And he sat and he sat for seven days. During this time, he was tempted by the demon, Mara. It is said that he remembered past lives. He came to understand what caused suffering, and he discovered how to alleviate it. He found Truth. After years of experience and experimentation, after days of focused attention, he became the Buddha.

Tragic Endings

Just because we have moments of clarity, however, does not mean our lives will become happy and free. Sometimes, these moments arrive too late for us to take advantage of them.

I think of a woman I knew who died from liver disease. She’d stopped drinking, realizing she was killing herself and alienating her family. Yet by that time, her mind was so dull from the build-up of ammonia and other toxins, that she couldn’t process the pains of her life. She felt anxious, lonely, and afraid to die. The story isn’t all sad, though, because she did reconcile with her daughters, and her husband rallied and showed her great care and compassion in her last days.

Another patient I knew never fully realized he had an addiction. He figured he would get well again and return to his old ways, to traveling and partying. He knew his body couldn’t tolerate alcohol anymore, and he understood his children were angry with him, yet he died unable to ask for forgiveness, because he never accepted what he’d done.

Encouraging Those Moments

In some way, we are all like this. Perhaps our own moments of clarity have enabled us to stop our most damaging behavior. Over the years, we may have worked hard to get clear, make changes, discern what is true and right. We may even have managed to follow through on what we discovered.

Even so, we all die incomplete and imperfect. No matter how long we’re in recovery, nor how old we are, we can all benefit from additional moments of clarity.

Can we encourage such moments?

In her book I’d Say Yes, God, if I Knew What You Wanted, Nancy Reeves tells the stories of individuals who tried to figure out what God wanted from them. [2] They did this through various kinds of discernment practices, such as praying, reading scripture or other literature, journaling, interpreting their dreams, walking mindfully, or seeking out spiritual direction. They asked friends to hold a listening circle for them or they sought angelic guidance. Others used divination tools such as Tarot cards, runes, or the Tao Te Ching. Sometimes the answers seemed clear. Most of the time, what they heard left them with riddles or more questions, even when it seemed God spoke to them directly.

Sometimes we must endure horrible bottoms before we wake up and recognize the ugliness of our lives. At other times, we engage in years of concentrated spiritual practice before we learn anything. Generally, little moments of clarity burst into our consciousness throughout our lives. If we can capture them, make sense of them, we may find we become a little bit more free.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Castleman, Steve, “Bottoms,”, accessed 4/12/18.
  2. Reeves, Nancy, I’d Say Yes, God, if I Knew What You Wanted, Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada: Northstone, 2001.

Photo by Ran Berkovich on Unsplash

Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens