Synchronicity, the occurrence of meaningful coincidence, is the most fascinating aspect of human existence. Meaningful coincidence. Coincidences that can be interpreted. If you are not familiar with the term synchronicity, let these words sink in slowly. There is no hurry.
In our American culture, which is burdened by the rational objectiveness of a scientific perspective, the response to synchronistic events takes one of three forms. Many people simply refuse to acknowledge that a meaningful event happened, usually by denying the possibility of meaning. The opposite response is to let the experience shatter the existing worldview, resulting in abandonment of rational thinking for the realm of paranoid delusions, leaving the lights on, but no one home, so to speak. The third response, normally observed in individuals with a high degree of resiliency and a certain predisposition towards a shamanistic worldview, is to examine the nature of the events, soar on the numinosity they provide, and to try to learn something from them.
In a rational, objective, and scientific frame of reference, a coincidence is simply the acausal co-occurrence of two related events. The two events do not cause each other. You and I each wore red shirts today. It was simply a random chance. The paranoid might interpret the event as meaning that we are the same person in two bodies or that our fates are inseparable and in a past life we both belonged to some red-cloaked secret order. But for a moment, imagine that you and I have been working together on a large project, and over time, we have been letting little problems build up without dealing with them. Today, wearing our red shirts, we got into an argument, releasing our tensions and ultimately solving some of these issues. Wearing a red shirt might be like waving a red flag in front of the bull, opening the possibility that there was a meaning in the coincidence. The fact that we were listening to a broadcast of the Chicago Bulls game at the time, and I was addressing a letter to Mr. Angus, who works for Matador Publishing, only adds to the theme.
I have been a faithful participant in the synchronicity discussion group on the Internet. Major synchronistic events have touched my life many times, ultimately forcing me out of my rational clamshell and into the open water. Carl Jung initiated the modern day study of synchronicity, but today his interest is carried forward by individuals with underlying transpersonal interests, such as Steve Hladkyj (graduate student at the University of Manitoba) and Victor Mansfield (professor of Physics at Colgate University). I have benefited greatly from this exchange of ideas.
The ultimate cause of these events is usually not a subject for discussion, since it almost certainly requires invoking some higher level of organization, such as a god or a omnipotent consciousness. You must wrestle with this idea on your own, if you wish to dabble in this line of thinking. I can offer no guidance, other than to say that my favorite hypothesis is that it just might be the archetypal energies of the Greek gods. Zeus up to his old tricks again. I, unfortunately, have no scientific data to support this hypothesis.
On the other hand, why these events happen is a much discussed topic. Carl Jung suggested that they were compensatory, that is they acted to bring us into balance between subjective and objective experience, providing an immediate and intimate religious experience. Scott Peck suggested that they serve to nurture human consciousness and spiritual growth. James Redfield uses synchronicity as his “First Insight”, which triggers the reconsideration of the inherent mystery that surrounds our individual lives on this planet. Victor Mansfield, tying these events simultaneously to Tibetan Buddhism and the New Physics, says that synchronistic events demonstrate the unity of psyche and matter, forcing us to transcend our rational, scientific, materialistic attitudes. Steve Hladkyj’s pet theory ties the occurrence of synchronicity to the monomyth or heroic adventure, in which the hero sets out on an adventure into the unknown, faces challenges and returns home to be re-integrated into the community at a higher level of functioning. This cycle of emergence, independent achievement, then return to community, is kind of a differentiation and integration cycle that may, infact, create the entire pattern of reality according to some modern philosophers. Steve says that our synchronistic experiences will bring us into a balance between the polar ends of this cycle. I believe, however, that there may be no simple answer.
You never know when synchronicity will strike. The following is from a letter I wrote last week. You might need a tiny bit of background to make sense of it, as nuances count for a lot in interpreting synchronicity. I am studying thistles for my Ph.D. and I recently went to Greece to study astrological mythology. The rest of it you can figure out for yourself.
As you know, I have been doing lots of reading about the Hopi Indians. Strange but true story. There is a species of thistle called Cirsium navajoense which was named by some Canadian guys in the late 1970’s. There has been some controversy about whether it is a valid species or not. I have not seen any specimens from the original collection location (near Nazilini, Arizona ) but I have seen them from Polacca Wash, which is on the land disputed between the Hopi and Navajos. I could not relocate the Polacca Wash population, but noticed them growing on 1st Mesa, one of the Hopi mesas. I have a permit to collect from the Navajos, but not from the Hopis, so I wrote a letter to the Hopi Tribal Council, rather embarrassed to have to ask permission to collect Cirsium navajoense, whose epithet commemorates the traditional and long standing enemy of the Hopi tribe. This summer, my research is very oriented towards observing pollinators, so I also asked permission to spend a day on the Hopi Mesas watching pollinators (especially hummingbirds). They called me up and said that the tribal elders wanted to discuss my proposal and set an appointment for April 18th, and said, rather pointedly, that there would be a slide projector available to me. Me, well, I wrote it down on my calendar for April 19th. Saturn had just transited exactly square my natal sun, I had just taken my oral exams for my Ph.D., I was finishing projects for my Spanish classes, and I was packing to go to Greece, but I stopped everything I was doing that week and prepared a presentation on my research, including borrowing slides of hummingbirds and making a bunch of presentation materials. So on the afternoon of the 18th, I called to find out the phone number of the motel in that area, and was informed that the meetings were in progress at that moment, not the 19th. This is the part where I sigh….
So I went to Greece feeling rather bad about this situation. I should have just written them a letter, but somehow, it was one of those things I couldn’t face. Perhaps I would write from Greece? No, well then perhaps when I got back…. it kept slipping, then one morning I put it on my must-do-today list. Three o’clock that afternoon the phone rings and its the Hopi woman, Leland Dennis. I start apologizing to her, and she starts apologizing to me….yes! Believe it or not, the Hopi tribal elders had been called away to an emergency that morning of April 18th and had canceled the presentations for that morning! She wasn’t sure that I hadn’t been there. I explained my situation to her, and then said I had been meaning to write a letter, but I had been out of town for 2 weeks, and she said that she had been planning to call me, but she had been out of town for 2 weeks. We both started laughing. I am scheduled to go again on the 18th of July.
I decided that this was some kind of omen and that I better think about it all over again. Then I remembered that among the Hopi kachinas is the hummingbird kachina. Maybe what I was asking was the equivalent of asking if I could come watch their gods? I decided that I needed to read a book on the Hopi. Besides all the metaphysical types were asking me if I knew anything about the Hopi Prophecies, of which I was ignorant. Two books down, two to go. Hummingbirds are just minor kachinas. Hopi prophecy doesn’t seem to resemble anything like what they were doing at Delphi, but it all comes from respective centers of the world. I am thinking that I would like to write a comparison and contrast paper on the oracles of Delphi and Oraibi.
The Hopi prophecies seem to be very creative ways of putting the modern day world into context with the traditions of the people. I don’t think, so far, that they actually involve precognition, but usually are related after the fact. I am keeping an open mind here that this might be the scientific bias of the book writers, but with an awareness that Frank Water’s Book of the Hopi, was a little sensationalistic. They are more about spirituality and faithfulness than anything else. Anyway, one of the grizzlier things that keeps coming up is beheading. This is interpreted as one of the punishments that are likely to happen if one does not keep to the sacred way (or maybe the sacrifice the leaders have to make of themselves to get to the promised state). Somehow the juxtaposition of a highly spiritual awareness and a interest in beheadings were disturbing to me. So I am sitting on the couch one evening reading the Hopi emergence myth stories while my husband, affectionately known as the StudPuppy, is reading the paper. I walk by him to put some tea water on the stove. He is reading a page with an article in the corner about seven French monks who were beheaded in some Middle eastern or African county, but naturally I noticed the beheading part of it. I sat back down and continued to read about the Hopis, thinking momentarily about the coincidence of him reading about beheading. Then the water started to boil, so I went back to the kitchen and made a couple of cups of tea. Coming back in, the StudPuppy is on a different section of the paper, but the title article is about a man who beheaded another man and got caught throwing the head in the garbage. Yes, it is rather grizzly, but at this point I am starting to think much more carefully about the meaning in beheading because something is clearly trying to be expressed in my mind. Then I suddenly remember a drawing that I did when I was 13 or 14 and I head out to the storage shed in the night with a flashlight to find my art portfolio (cancer moon never throws anything away that might have historical value).
The picture is of an Indian male with outstretched arms, whose head is floating above him toward the sun. A tortoise watches with his mouth open. When I drew this picture, it was about self-transcendence or over-coming the ego, though I didn’t know it in those terms at that time. I remember the feeling and the image very well. The head is floating up to the sun, where it will become part of the solar fire. The turtle is amazed. The hands are in a releasing gesture, happy to be a part of the process.
Continuing to read my book, I came to the part where they describe the stone tablets. The beheading issue is clearly related to one of the rocks which shows a body, not too unlike the one I had drawn, with the head on the other side of the rock. This rock is central to the Hopi mythology. I would like to know for sure the disposition of the arms on the rock. I read about this and started to wonder if I had an obligation to share my story with the Hopi Tribal Elders.
The Hopi web site is filled with the controversy between the factions of the tribe. This factionalism has been part of their culture for a very long time. The reason for their emergence, according to their mythology, was, in a sense, factionalism. They, naturally, feel that they suffer greatly from it, and that inter-tribal rivalry must spell pending doom to their culture; that it will tear them apart. My permit applications went to the Tribal Council, who other factions don’t recognize as being legitimate. As I pondered this set of events, it came to me, in thinking though this issue, that ego transcendence is, perhaps, the only way that the Hopis can ever overcome their factionalism. Would my story about the meaning of beheading help heal this wound of factionalism?
Then, Vic Mansfield, pointed out to me that perhaps the image of the hummingbird was important in this story. Hummingbirds are only the size of a small mouse, but they are extremely feisty little birds. They spend their days guarding their food resources and driving off any interlopers in their personal territory. Vic writes, “More free-associations. I love humming birds. Their beauty and flying ability is an extraordinary wonder. However, at least the ruby throated ones around here are the most aggressive birds I have ever seen. The males keep the females from the feeder. This seems really weird in terms of their survival. They are extremely territorial and fly into huge swooping dives to make their point. I always thought that if they had nuclear weapons they would use them in a flash. So maybe the humming birds and the violence of beheading are connected. Perhaps the message is that underneath the innocence and beauty of nature there is also great possibilities for violence if the gods are not treated with the kind of respect that you hint at when you suggest that the hummer is a Hopi god.
When I read his words I realized that hummingbirds wouldn’t be hummingbirds if they transcended their personal interests and lived in a state of harmony. An altruistic hummingbird? Never! Perhaps, the Hopis are like hummingbirds and they need that state of factionalism to be who they are? I don’t know. It’s just something that I am thinking about.
How and why does life chain together such a set of interconnected circumstances? Can we ever know? Is this a compensatory experience bringing me into balance or just a reminder of the inherent mystery of life on this planet? Certainly, if I transcended rational, scientific attitudes any further, I’d find myself out of balance and off the deep end, so that can’t be the why. I don’t understand how to fit the story line into the heroic myth, making that explanation seem rather doubtful. I respond instead (perhaps because of my high resiliency and predisposition towards a shamanistic worldview) by soaring on the sense of numinosity which the universe has provided me, and by trying to learn something about the nature of reality and the path I find myself walking on.
Is it a call to action? There is no academically-correct answer. The choices presented, in what seem like a synchronistic omen, are never simple. I choose to react by telling this story and quietly listening for it’s echo. But, remember, any choice would be subjective.
Balkan, David (1966), The Duality of Human Existence
Jung, C. G. (1969b), Synchronicity: An acausal connecting principle. In G. Adler, M. Fordham, W. McGuire, & H. Read (Eds.) and R. F. C. Hull (Trans.), Volume 8 of the collected works of C. G. Jung: The structure and dynamics of the psyche (pp. 419-519). New Jersey: Princeton University
Peck, M.S. (1978), The Road Less Traveled. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Redfield, James (1993), The Celestine Prophecy. New York: Warner Books.
Wilber, Ken (1995), Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala Press.
Mansfield, Victor (1995), Synchronicity Science and Soulmaking. Chicago: Open Court Pub.