• We are seduced by lightbulb moments, epiphanies, lighting strikes of insight in order to understand more about ourselves and our lives

  • But the most profound lessons, says Owen O'Kane, happen in the ordinary, everyday moments

  • Finding meaning and direction is something that therapy can help with – find yours here

Life is offering us lessons all the time. Every interaction, event and experience comes with a useful takeaway. But, if you want to benefit from those lessons, you have to be open to learning them, and you need to know how to see them when they arrive.

When it comes to personal development and growth, there’s a lot of unhelpful discourse around these so-called ‘lightbulb moments’. This discourse tends to promote the idea that lessons come to us in the form of extraordinary Nirvana-like epiphanies and signs: the bigger, the better.

As a young Catholic boy, I was brought on many pilgrimages to shrines honouring the Virgin Mary. Let me preface this by saying that these pilgrimages bring hope to millions of people, and my intention here is not to be disrespectful of anyone’s beliefs. Rather, I tell this story to make a point.

One such shrine was in the Republic of Ireland, and my late mum would take me and my brothers on a six-hour coach journey to watch the ‘moving statue’. The statue was meant to not only move, but cry. We would sit up all night, exhausted, waiting for the statue to move. It was often summertime when we went on these pilgrimages. But it was Ireland so it was cold and wet. As you can imagine, if you had 50 or 60 people deliriously tired, sitting out in the cold watching a statue, then eventually someone was bound to see something moving. And they did.

Not only did the statue move and cry but there were also reports of it waving. The moving statue would also invite a few guests along, including Jesus and some well-known saints. It was quite the celestial celebrity bash.

People would leave elated because they had had signs of ‘something bigger’. They believed they were being blessed and gifted with lessons: Jesus saw them, He saw everything they did and did not do, their belief in Him would be rewarded in Heaven, He forgave them, they were good people, they had value. I believed I would catch pneumonia and one day write a book called The Moving Statue (watch out for that one). But my point is a serious one: our fellow pilgrims were looking to the extraordinary for an inspiring lesson. 

But the most powerful lessons are often in the ordinary. They are in the simple moments. They are in moments of silence. They emerge when you listen. They emerge when you see without judgement. They are in the ‘cup of tea’ moments. They are the stranger who smiles at you at the bus stop. They are a friend who calls when you need it most. They are in disappointment, failure and letdowns. Lessons are everywhere. They are the moments that move you forward, help you under- stand, prompt decisions and help you find clarity. They are those unexplainable moments when some- thing lands, and suddenly it feels right.

These moments are sadly often lost. In my experience this happens when we:

  • Stop listening
  • Seek answers in the wrong places
  • Close ourselves off to new possibilities
  • Forget what matters
  • Live on autopilot, not seeing beyond to the greater purpose of our lives

How can you find these lessons?

I want to be clear: the lessons I’m talking about here aren’t necessarily practical. They’re not the answers to questions like, How can I make more money? How can I get that promotion? How can I look ten years younger? These lessons are deeper and are more profound than that. You might learn what makes you truly happy (and that it’s not what you expected). You might realise how much a particular person enhances your life, or how much another detracts from it. You might discover how much more resilient your children are than you’d realised, or that they are teaching you just as much as you are teaching them. You may get some insight into your partner’s deepest fears and discover that you have the power to allay those fears. A moment of kindness from an unexpected source might remind you that human-kind is good. You might realise that you’re not being true to yourself in some way.

Reflect on your life, on your day, on your areas of struggle, your story, your rules, your ways of thinking, your emotional and behavioural patterns and what matters to you, and ask yourself this simple question: what did life teach you today?

Try to pinpoint the moments when you felt strong emotions. What thoughts were you having throughout the day? Were some old beliefs triggered? Did you, or someone you interacted with, speak or behave in a way that runs counter to your values? Did any moments or events stand out?

Just allow space to pause, and let the information come. Try not to force it too much. The answers will flow if you stop and listen.

I’m going to share with you now the lessons I took from my own practice yesterday in the hope they’re helpful.

I was extremely tired going to bed, and I noticed as I checked in with myself that my mood was a little ‘flat’. I’d just finished watching a film in which the main character’s horse dies. She grieves for the animal deeply. I found it upsetting to watch.

When it came to considering what lessons I could take from the day, I realised that my ‘feeling flat’ was my own grief. Both my dog and a close friend died a few months ago. I miss them both. My life has been incredibly busy since these losses. My lesson was that I am not giving myself enough space to grieve. This was an important lesson for me to be reminded of.

Life was teaching me. But I would not have been aware of these lessons unless I had created the space to stop for my end-of-day practice.

Lessons can be positive reminders of the importance of gratitude and appreciation. Equally they can be signposts to tweaks or changes that need to happen in your life.

Stay open and curious, and let your life teach you. There are many treasures to be found.

Owen O'Kane is the author of How to Be Your Own Therapist

Further reading

Why you need to be curious about yourself

Is it time to stop holding yourself back?

6 common coping strategies that often make things worse

In therapy: why you might feel worse before you feel better

The first step to authentic living? Working out what you truly want