Flexible Focus #19: Path to the Eureka moment

by William Reed on September 16, 2010

The Greek polymath Archimedes (c. 287-212 B.C.) was asked by the King of Syracuse to determine if his Crown was pure gold, or the goldsmith had tried to deceive him by mixing in other metals. How to measure it? Archimedes is said to have come up with the solution after immersing himself in the public bath, suddenly realizing that the volume of his body could be calculated by measuring the volume of the water that it had displaced. If the volume of the Crown could be calculated in the same way, the density of the gold in the Crown could be measured indirectly. Comparing the volume of water displaced by the crown to that displaced by the bar of pure gold would tell if the gold in the Crown was true.

This was no dry insight. It supposedly caused him to shout, “Eureka!” (I found it!) while running home naked through the streets of Athens. Even if the story has been embellished in myth, the man and his discovery were real. Equally real is the process of that discovery, known as the Eureka moment, the aha-moment, the breakthrough of unexpected discovery.

If taking a bath was all there was to it, then breakthrough insights would be as easy as stepping into the shower. It happened to Archimedes because of who he was, and because of his total engagement in solving the problem. With full engagement it is possible for anyone to experience how a small thing can trigger a big discovery.

Thomas A. Edison (1847–1931) is one of history’s greatest geniuses. His numerous inventions, including the electric lightbulb, the motion picture camera, and the electric power generator, have made the modern world possible. Edison is a perfect example of full engagement, famous for his quote that, genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Often interpreted as a vote for diligence and hard work, in fact it describes a prerequisite to the Eureka moment. The electric lightbulb, Edison’s most famous invention, is now a universal symbol of creativity and inspiration.

Using the Mandala for meditation

The Mandala Chart emerged, or at least was influenced by Buddhist philosophy. Any discussion of clarity would be incomplete without also mentioning meditation. In Japanese Zen Buddhism, the approaches to meditation which are most relevant here come from the Sōtō School, and the Rinzai School. At the risk of oversimplification, one of the primary differences between the two schools is in their respective approaches to meditation.

Sōtō Zen emphasizes the practice of just sitting (shinkantaza), which far from laziness, demands the utmost of vigilance to your posture, breathing, and existence in the present moment. Rinzai Zen also employs meditation in the seated posture, but emphasizes the practice of solving a series of paradoxical parables called kōan, questions unanswerable by logic such as, What is the sound of one hand clapping? This training is also quite rigorous, for you cannot solve kōan through verbal discourse or clever word play. Students are watched closely and expected to do the same, gaining satori or sudden insights and understanding in stages along the way.

In either school the path is rigorous. It demands a level of commitment and dedication that is difficult to maintain in modern life. In many countries there are places where you can experience or practice Sōtō or Rinzai Zen, and it can be an excellent way to deepen your understanding. However, for many people this may not be a preference or even an option. As an alternative, I would like to propose two accessible practices which achieve some of the same effects, and can also enhance your ability to use the Mandala Chart.

The first is walking, just walking if you will, walking with awareness and attention to your body and your environment. There is much more to this than meets the eye, but walking can help you gain clarity on a problem or decision. It helps to begin or end your walk with a good look in the Mandala mirror of your choice.

The second is writing, the extended pursuit of a subject on paper. This has some parallels with kōan meditation. Writing can be done before, after, and even during your walkabout. Simply take a writing break in a park or café along the way. Writing makes your thoughts visible, and helps you find your way to the Eureka moment.

It is best to do your writing by hand. You can always collect and organize your thoughts later on a computer. Handwriting is more personal, more portable, and more spontaneous than typing on a keyboard.

Walk and Write for Clarity

For full engagement, it is important to involve both your hands and feet. The combination of walking and writing does just that. Ideas light your way, and help you see the path at your feet and the way ahead. What can you gain from this process?

  1. Freedom from attachment. Your mind will become freer to see things from any level of focus or perspective, releasing you from the grip of a fixed point of view.
  2. Beginner’s mind flexibility. In a famous saying by Zen Teacher Suzuki Shunryu, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
  3. Insight and awareness. The combination of walking and writing develops insight and awareness at a deeper level.
  4. Centering and reset. As with meditation, walking and writing with the Mandala helps you get centered and find the core of the issue.
  5. Clear communication. The more clarity you have, the better your mind reflects. This clarity will also be reflected in how you communicate your ideas to others.
  6. Release of energy. Let go of the burden of unproductive thoughts and negative feelings, and you will have extra energy to focus on your ideas and insights, and how you can use them to help others.
  7. Eureka moment and humor. You need not run naked through the streets, but you will experience the joy of sudden discovery in the Eureka moment.
  8. Awaken to your mission. The progressive effect of experiencing such moments is greater clarity on why you are here, and what you need to do.

Download the CLARITY MANDALA to use as a worksheet to help you on the path to the Eureka moment. Then enjoy and experience the process.

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