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Book Review-Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives

Personal change matters.  When people change, they make their lives better.  They find ways to change the world.  In Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives, William Miller and Janet C’de Baca explain how these changes can some quickly.  Miller is no stranger to change, having spent his life helping people change and having co-developed Motivational Interviewing, which is successful at helping people overcome substance use disorders (SUDs).  His curiosity about how people could change quickly rather than the methodological changes that he had spent his career facilitating led to Quantum Change.

Characteristics of Quantum

What Miller found was that there were these rapid and profound changes happening to people in seemingly spontaneous circumstances.  These changes were mostly broadly benevolent (positive) and enduring (long lasting).  They were moments that mattered.  The people could remember the transformation vividly, and they described it both as a moment and as a continuing process of transformation.

I instantly remembered my moment.  I was driving home from a speaking event.  I was still hours away from home, and my now ex-wife and I were in a conversation about a situation where she was placing the blame at my feet.  In most situations involving two people, both parties have a part to play in the situation.  It had been this way for my entire marriage.  There’d be some part of the situation that I’d own – and I’d try to accept at least that much of the blame and ownership.

In a moment of striking clarity, perhaps spurred by my exhaustion, I realized that I truly owned none of this situation.  She persisted in making it my fault, and rather than accepting it, I decided that it wasn’t mine to own.  It caused me to start getting clearer about what parts of problems I own and which parts I accept as external to me.  To be clear, I still don’t get this perfect.  I still learn.  However, this was a quantum change where I could accept that there are times when I have no responsibility or control of a situation.

It’s allowed me to detach from outcomes that I couldn’t have prevented.  (See The HeartMath Solution and The Happiness Hypothesis for more on detachment.)  It’s allowed me to accept that I don’t own all of the problems in any relationship – that I need to own only what I can control.

Put Out the Fire

It Will Be Okay

My family and my current wife are tired of me saying “It will be okay.”  They retort, “You don’t know that.”  I respond that I do know that.  I do know it will be okay – but I don’t know what okay will be.  The conversation sometimes continues that some things are unchangeable.  People die – and they’re not coming back.  Certainly, how can the world be okay without these beloved?  Despite this, we continue.  We mourn.  We grieve.  We live.  We laugh.  And, perhaps more importantly, we continue to love.

I thought that this was a particular quirk of mine, but it seems that, from Miller’s research, it’s common in the people who he discovered had quantum changes.  They had a general sense that things would be okay.

Mystical Experiences

Miller recounts the work of William James and Walter Pahnke, who collectively developed a list of characteristics of mystical experiences:

  1. Ineffability. They are experiences that are more like feelings than thoughts and defy expression in words.
  2. Noetic quality. They are experienced as providing new insight and revelation that is of great depth and significance.
  3. Transiency. They do not last long, usually not more than half an hour, before they fade.
  4. Passivity. They are not experienced as being under personal willful control.
  5. Unity. They produce an internal and external sense of unity of oneself with one’s environment.
  6. Transcendence. They convey a perspective of the timelessness of life, transcending the limits of space and time.
  7. Awe. They produce a sense of awe or sacredness, a non-rational intuitive response to being in the presence of inspiring realities.
  8. Positivity. They yield deeply felt positive emotions usually described as joy, peace, love, and blessing.
  9. Distinctiveness. They are transient states of awareness felt to be quite different from ordinary experience.

They are important, because mystical experiences are similar to or perhaps sometimes trigger the kinds of changes that Miller was studying.

Seeing the System

Those who Miller studied explained how things just “came together.”  It was as if the random events suddenly lined up to form a system they could see.  (See Thinking in Systems as a primer for systems thinking, Seeing Systems for how systems work in an organization, and The Organized Mind for how we create organization in the midst of chaos.)  The alcoholic reorganized his thinking from drinking to relieve pain to how that drinking was causing pain in others.

The reorganized thinking caused people to release control of the future realizing that control is an illusion, and that all we can do is influence the results, not control them.  (See Compelled to Control for more.)  It allowed for harmony between the parts of their thinking.  (See No Bad Parts for the idea of parts of our psychology and how they become integrated.)

It’s hard to consider now, but there was a time when the elements didn’t make sense.  When Mendeleev organized the elements into his periodic table, the behaviors suddenly made sense – and it made it clear that there were elements that hadn’t been discovered yet.  (See The Tell-Tale Brain for more.)  This is the fundamental organization that was spontaneously happening with those experiencing quantum changes.

Because intuitive types (in MBTI) are able to more easily grasp patterns and larger pictures with missing details, perhaps it’s no surprise that intuitive types were overrepresented in Miller’s sample.

Gratitude for Pain

A curious part of those who have experienced quantum change is that they often are very aware of the pain and trauma they’ve had in their life, and they’re equally unwilling to let go of the experience.  In my review for Theory U, I shared an experience with the Church of Scientology and my retort to them that I didn’t have regrets – because the things I had done that were wrong helped to shape me.  I needed those experiences to be the me I am, and I like who I am.  People with alcohol use disorder would describe their past – and without wishing it on anyone, explain how they needed that past to get where they are.


Miller was convinced that “story” was a part of what happened to the people he saw with quantum changes.  He saw how they rewrote or reorganized their life story and the story of the moment to propel them forward.  They had a redemption story rather than a story of victimization or vilification.  Miller’s subjects were like the hero in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.  They began as one thing, and by the end of the story, they became something else.  Maybe your story should include a Quantum Change.

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