by Patrick Marsolek (2/2015)
Since the word synchronicity was defined by Carl Jung in the 1920’s it has become part of our everyday language. How many times have you heard someone describe a synchronistic experience they had, where something in their outer life seemed to be meaningfully connected to something on their mind? Though this sense of an interior connection to the outer world has deep roots in our history, the modern trend towards a more mechanistic worldview has tended to relegate this belief to an outdated superstition. Jung’s theory of synchronicity was his attempt to put into modern language and validate correlations he perceived between inner psychological experiences the outer physical world. Along with Jung, scientists delving into the quantum realm were also seeing connections between mind and matter and between the inner and outer world. They were proposing similar mathematical models to explain these acausal connections. To this day there continues to be a gradual shifting across multiple fields of study towards revaluing the role of consciousness and meaning in the understanding of our reality. People all across different walks of life have embraced Jung’s concept of synchronicity because it expresses something that is a common human experience.
Perhaps the best known story of synchronicity comes from Jung himself. He was having difficulty treating a young woman in his therapy practice due to her extreme rationalism. He had hoped that something unexpected or irrational would turn up in their sessions that would help her access her emotional side. He described sitting with her one day listening to her tell a story of a dream she’d had in which someone had given her a piece of jewelry in the shape of a golden scarab. While she was telling the dream, Jung heard the sound of an insect tapping on the outside of his window. He turned around and saw a large insect that seemed to be trying to get into the room. He opened the window and caught the insect as it flew inside. It was a scarabaeid beetle whose gold-green color highly resembled a golden scarab. He handed the beetle to his patient and said, “Here is your scarab.” He described how this directly meaningful and yet irrational experience was able to ‘puncture’ his client’s rationalism and allowed her therapy to proceed.
Synchronicity is commonly defined as the occurrence of two or more events that appear to be meaningfully related and are not causally related, a meaningful coincidence. In the 1952 paper, “Synchronicity - an acausal connecting principle”, Jung first formally published his theory, proposing that synchronicity was a legitimate alternative to the materialistic, mechanistic worldview of modern science. He suggested that meaning is inherent in the universe and manifests in these connections between the inner and outer world. This idea elevates the importance of mind and subjective experience and thus flies in the face of the strictly materialistic, causal view that has been dominant in science for hundreds of years. Jung came to his understanding of synchronicity through his own exploration of consciousness, his study of paranormal phenomena and working with clients. He refined the concept through conversations with the physicists Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli. Advances in quantum physics were already stretching the plausibility of a strictly mechanistic model. Jung believed there were parallels between synchronicity and aspects of relativity theory and quantum mechanics.
In the book, “Synchronicity - the marriage of matter and psyche,” F. David Peat describes how the synchronistic principle may offer us a bridge between psychology and physics. In his book, Peat shared one of his own personal experiences. He and his wife had moved to Italy with all their possessions in 1994. Some boxes of letters and papers remained in storage until 2011, when his wife decided to sort through them. In the boxes she found a number of audio cassettes of an old school friend of Peat’s, Stuart Ogilvie. On New Year’s Eve Peat listened to the tapes which made him laugh and reminded him of his friend. As he looked at that year’s Christmas card from the Ogilvie’s he remarked how the tapes had brought Stuart totally to life. The next morning when Peat switched on his computer there was an e-mail from Stuart’s son informing him that his father had died in the night. This event was emotionally staggering for Peat due to the timing and the remark he’d made about bringing his friend to life.
Peat believes what makes an experience like this truly a synchronicity is its profound meaningfulness. He believes similar events without the emotional impact are simply astounding coincidences. He also believes that because of the meaningfulness of the experience, it is different than an ESP or precognitive experience. Some argue that the inner experience of synchronicity could be a direct intuition or precognition, a precognitive sensing of an outer experience. Though that may be splitting hairs, all of these phenomena - intuition, ESP or synchronicity - seem to indicate some kind of otherwise unexplainable connection. With synchronicity it is the meaningfulness of it that is key. Jung believed that a profound synchronicity could have the affect of shifting a person’s egocentric focus to that of greater wholeness, triggering a peak experience or a spiritual awakening. There is also the experience of having an intimate connection to the physical world that gives these experiences a mystical sense. Jung and Pauli both used the Latin term Unus Mundus or the “one world,” which refers to some sort of timeless order out of which the two aspects of reality - psychic and physical - arise. As I mentioned in the last issue of AR in the article on Akasha, there is a trend in science to see the need for a unifying principle that does include mind and consciousness.
While there are many who still dismiss any theory of reality that suggests meaning or consciousness is primary as ‘new age’ or ‘pseudo science’, the interior experience was once considered an important part of rational scientific inquiry. For example, both Pythagoras and Plato practiced applying reason, experimental method, and mathematics, yet also valued the meaning in omens, in dreams, and in direct mystical experience. During the Middle ages and before the rise of materialistic science, people spoke of sympathies and harmonies in the outer world and our place in it. It was the time when “like attracts like.” If one thing looked similar to another then there was a connection between them, which is still seen today in Homeopathy with it’s law of similars.
There was also the notion of a pre-established harmony in the world. Early serious astrologers by no means believed that the stars caused events on earth. They felt there was a harmony or correspondence between events in the heavens, on earth and even within the stirrings of our own hearts and minds - a case of “as above, so below.” This is similar to the ancient Eastern beliefs that “things happen together” and the related understandings of Feng Shui and the Tao. Synchronicity gives a modern framework for the connection between ourselves and the universe.
Several different quantum physicists have proposed theories to unify mind and matter. Irvin Laszlo’s Akasha paradigm, which builds on ancient Hindu philosophy, suggests a non-local, mind-like field that connects the physical world and living systems and allows for otherwise unexplainable, acausal phenomena. The quantum physicist David Bohm proposed an explicate order, as the surface reality of the universe, and a deeper implicate order. In this theory, reality is dynamically changing. Aspects in the implicate unfold into the explicate and back again, so that the things that appear distinct and separate are in fact interconnected in the implicate. Bohm suggested that though we distinguish between mind and matter in the explicate order, in the implicate they are one and the same. It’s this interconnection which manifests in synchronicity.
In conversations with Jung the physicist Wolfgang Pauli expressed his enthusiasm for the synchronistic theory, though he differed from Jung in his belief that synchronicity could happen years apart. Pauli shared Jung’s view that synchronicity could be a valuable bridge between physics and psychology in a way that the subjective could be brought into physics and the objective into psychology. He felt that the subjective and objective revealed different aspects of the same underlying phenomena and that the subjective side of matter had been lacking from modern science.
As with Jung, Pauli also was intent on developing a language that could be used to discuss both physics and psychology, in the same way the language of alchemy could apply to both chemical and psychological changes. Pauli spent years working through his dreams and active imagination with images of the aspects of physics, such as atoms, lines of forces, and electrons, all of which he believed were correlated with psychology. He saw the complementarity between waves and particles in quantum theory as similar to conscious and unconscious states in the psyche. In one dream, Einstein came to Pauli and said that quantum theory was one-dimensional but reality was two-dimensional. Pauli thought that the missing dimension was the unconscious and the archetypes Jung postulated.
David Bohm similarly searched for a better language to describe the quantum realm. He explored several Native American languages which seemed particularly well suited for describing quantum reality. Following up on the work of the Yale scientist Benjamin Whorf who had studied the Hopi and Blackfeet languages, Bohm convened a meeting between linguists, physicists and Native American elders. These native languages being verb-based, unlike English which is noun/object based, are particularly suitable for describing processes and the dynamic interactions of quantum physics, as well as the inner experience of consciousness. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the worldview these languages arise from embraces a more indigenous, shamanistic perspective of interconnection between the inner and the outer.
As part of Jung’s journey towards the language of synchronicity, he studied the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination text. The I Ching is based on the connection between the outer world and the inner and the spontaneous, acausal creativity of the moment. Jung concluded that synchronism was the prejudice of the East and causality was the prejudice of the west. He said, “Synchronicity is no more baffling or mysterious than the discontinuities of physics. It is only the ingrained belief in the sovereign power of causality that creates intellectual difficulties and makes it appear unthinkable that causeless events exist or could ever exist.” Jung felt that all the acausal manifestations in our lives, from oracular devices like the I Ching, to intuition and even the expression of archetypal energies were essentially creative acts, arising without a mechanistic cause. Jung certainly held a process oriented view, similar to that of the quantum realm where the archetypes he proposed expressed the timeless creative energies of the universe and gave meaning to our lives.
The Buddhist practitioner and writer Paul Levy suggests that synchronicity reveals that our waking life is in some ways similar to our dreaming life, “Being ‘nonlocal’, which is to say not bound by the conventional laws of space and time, as well as being multi-dimensional, the deeper, dreaming Self can simultaneously express itself through inner experiences such as inspirations and dreams as well as by attracting events in the seemingly outer world so as to coagulate itself in embodied form.”
Levy suggests that it was an implicit dreaming self that was expressed simultaneously as the woman who dreamed the scarab beetle, Jung himself responding to the beetle, the beetle itself, the inspiration to tell Jung the dream, and Jung’s impulse to open the window and catch the beetle. At the level of Bohm’s implicit structure, all of these elements were united and the seemingly separate elements were all part of the same expression in the explicit world. Levy also suggests that synchronicities, by their very nature demand our active participation. Since they are an expression of some kind of creation that is happening, they offer us the opportunity to be aware that we are playing an active, participatory role in the universe’s unfolding.
From an indigenous perspective of one living in the consciousness of interconnection, synchronicity may not seem as radical or world-shaking. The Chippewa-Cree medicine man Pat Kennedy was known to have had an affinity with the weather. When the day came for my friend India’s daughter to get married, it was raining steadily with heavy, grey clouds and the forecast for the whole day was 100% chance of rain. India asked Pat if he could do something about the rain for her daughter’s ceremony. He said, he would do what he could, and went into one of the buildings to be by himself. At the time of the ceremony, to everyone’s surprise, the rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sun shone briefly. After the ceremony, the rain started again and continued through the night. Pat would never say that he made the rain stop though he wasn’t surprised that it did. Other shaman have described the process of balancing themselves in a particular place in order to bring about a change in the outer world. The attunement to the natural world is an active way of focusing the power of synchronicity for those who live in that kind of connection.
Skeptics of synchronicity claim that standard, mechanistic science, statistics and probability are sufficient to explain synchronistic events, claiming that even highly unlikely events like the momentary cessation of the rain are normal events of low probability. Others suggest it is the confirmation bias, our tendency to look for and only see information that confirms our preconceptions. For example, we don’t notice the time we listen to someone’s dream about a scarab and nothing is tapping at the window. There is also the term apophenia, which is defined as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness.” I find it amusing how this term is used to label the experience of deeper meaning as an abnormality. As with Jung’s statement of causality being the norm, such meaningfulness is abnormal in the dominant world view.
Carolyn North, author of Synchronicity: The Anatomy of Coincidence says, "It gives us a sense of hope, a sense that something bigger is happening out there than what we can see, which is especially important in times like this when there are so many reasons for despair." Skeptics would say that this hope is irrational and that the meaningfulness and connection is all an illusion. At the same time, many people feel their lives are full of meaning and deeper connection to the world around them. This has been the belief of many indigenous cultures for millennia. Cutting edge science suggests the supposed isolation and separation of one object from another doesn’t exist. Quantum physics is showing how at deeper levels everything from atoms and cells to plants and animals participate in a living web of information that may all be interconnected at an implicit level. So perhaps the profound sense of meaning we experience in a synchronistic moment is the expression of a timeless creative moment that is more than ego or simple physical causes. Perhaps the transformation that these experiences can induce can help us recover a greater connection to the world.
Patrick Marsolek is a writer, dancer, facilitator, clinical hypnotherapist and the director of Inner Workings Resources. He leads groups and teaches classes in extended human capacities, consciousness exploration, personal development, and compassionate communication. He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See www.PatrickMarsolek.com for more information.