Reply To: On Synchronicity and Meaning
Synchronicity is an endlessly fascinating topic.
One of the most common examples, something most have experienced in one form or another, is thinking out-of-the-blue of a friend or relative one hasn’t heard from in years when the phone rings, and there’s that same individual on the other end of the line.
Of course, in the modern world (grounded in the “rational” cause-and-effect orientation of Cartesian science) we are programmed to write that off as mere coincidence (“Over two billion phone calls are made every day in the United States, so it’s only natural that on any given day many will experience such random occurrences – nothing significant to that all.”)
I’ve also noticed over the years that many people who are vested in the belief that Life has inherent meaning can’t bring themselves to accept the possibility that there may be any significance at all to such common life experiences.
Of course, this ignores the subjective factor, which, as Joseph Campbell points out, is where meaning resides:
People talk about the meaning of life; there is no meaning of life––there are lots of meanings of different lives, and you must decide what you want your own to be.”
(An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms, p. 110)
In my personal experience, synchronicity abounds when I am paying attention to psyche. Jung and Campbell both imply the same: synchronicity is an upwelling from the collective unconscious; the snowballing of synchronicities is often a confirmation from the universe that one is on the right track. If one relaxes the grip of the rational ego, then one becomes aware of the irrational (e.g. paying attention to one’s feelings, or relying not just on logical thought, but on intuition as a guide – which often translates into a receptivity to synchronicity).
If one dismisses coincidences one may experience as lacking in significance and meaning, that reality holds true for them; it’s futile to try to persuade someone otherwise. But what I can’t do is discount my personal experience, anecdotal though it may be – hundreds of examples from over three decades detailed in my personal journals.
One off-the-wall example:
During my decade or so traveling the continent by thumb, I found myself one spring day on my way to Bellevue, Washington, on the north shore of Puget Sound, to check out the scene – lots of creative, artistic energy rippling around up there. Below Seattle (in Renton, home town to Jimi Hendrix) I caught a ride from two attractive, college educated women in their late thirties/early forties on their way to visit their daughters, who were attending the University of Western Washington in Bellevue.
We enjoyed a fascinating conversation over the next few hours. I mentioned that I was from California; turned out my benefactors hailed from the Pleiades star cluster!
Now I’ve been picked up by people from out of state, people from other countries, even people from another hemisphere – but this proved the first ride I’d received from anyone off planet!
(Actually, only the driver was from the Pleiades; the other lady came from the Dog Star – and it was all I could do to muzzle my inner punster, who wanted to ask, “Are you Sirius?”)
Apart from the question of origins, they seemed rather mainstream in appearance and profession – definitely conversant with the ideas of Joseph Campbell, somewhat less so with Jung – very friendly folk who sincerely believed channeled accounts from the Pleiades. Before accepting that ride, such accounts were completely off my radar.
The week after encountering the Pleiadians on the way to Bellevue, I was back in Portland, crashing at the home of a musician in a regional band. While perusing the contents of my friend’s bookcase, a volume entitled “Bringers of the Dawn” – teachings from the Pleiadians channeled by Barbara Marciniak – literally fell into my hands!
Accepting the synchronicity, I devoured the assigned reading, and found it quite enchanting.
(This launched a study of channeled works, from A Course in Miracles to the writings of Shirley MacLaine, Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God, J.Z. Knight’s Ramtha entity, as well as Urantia and even the Book of Mormon, in addition to works channeled from the Pleiades. I am fascinated by the emergence of these “new” myths: where do they come from, and what do they portend? No surprise I found multiple patterns recurring across these works; I will note that each contained multiple nuggets of wisdom common to all wisdom traditions; the danger, as with any revealed scripture, is in reading these metaphors literally – but that’s a post for another thread.)
Having a book “written” by Pleiadians fall into one’s handd would not be a meaningful coincidence for most people – nor for me, had that happened just eight days earlier – but coming in such close proximity to my encounter on the way to Bellevue, definitely an experience of synchronicity for me.
Two more examples, both drawn from dreams during my hitchhiking years:
On one occasion, sofa surfing at a friend’s, with less than ten dollars to my name, I woke from a dream where the right lens of my glasses had shattered (note: I am extremely near sighted and have worn glasses since age ten – I’d be seriously handicapped without them). As I was recording this in my dream journal, I found the image so disturbing that I was moved to take off my glasses and double-check just to soothe my nerves – and as I did so, the right lens fell off in the palm of my hand! The screw holding that part of the frame together was stripped, but I was not conscious of that fact; had I not checked as a result of that dream, the lens would have fallen out at some point that morning and cracked on floor or sidewalk – and I would have been in no position to replace those glasses. Instead, I was able to take my spectacles to an optometrist’s office a few blocks away and pay $2 to replace the screw.
On another occasion, I had hitchhiked down to the Santa Barbara area – my first visit to the campuses of the Pacifica Graduate Institute to check out their new MA/Ph.D program in Mythological Studies (and peruse Joseph Campbell’s personal library). While in the area I crashed with a friend in Isla Vista (the most densely populated square mile west of the Mississippi) attending U.C. Santa, who shared a flat in a converted house with three other students.
While there, my friend and two of his roommates (hale, hearty youths fifteen years younger and in much better shape than me) took me on a hike to the source of Ojai Springs. The trail began behind the campus to the St. Thomas Aquinas seminary near Ventura: the first half mile or so the trail passed through yellow grasslands, then twisted some distance uphill where I seriously lagged behind my young friends (every so often they would pause at a bend in the road and wait for me to catch up). Along the way we encountered a red, white and black kingsnake, and then a horned toad (which I had never seen before); in both instances “Dart,” one of my hiking companions (an anthropology major who was the nephew of the anthropologist Sir Raymond Dart), who had raised several snakes and lizards in his teenage years, carefully picked them up and let us examine them up close.
At this point I was experiencing serious deja vu – but several hours later, on our return, the source of that sensation became clear. My good friend Brent (whom his roommates called “Nag” because he loved Nag Champa incense) and I were walking side by side chatting away, while Dart and Phish (real name also Brent, but his friends called him Phish because he loved that band) were maybe five paces behind us.
Suddenly, Dart called out, “Nag – you almost stepped on a rattlesnake!”
That got our attention. We whirled around – and there, on the trail behind us, was a ten-inch baby rattlesnake! Dart picked up a forked twig and held it behind the baby snake’s head, picked up the reptile, and let us examine the creature. The baby snake’s rattle was shaking furiously, but had only a single segment, so was making no noise at all (something I did not know about baby rattlers). Dart explained that baby rattlesnakes are more lethal than adults. who strike quickly; baby rattlers don’t know to do that, and will instead latch on and pump all their venom into their victim – another fact I did not know.
At this point, I realized why I had the sense this had happened before, and shared that info with my friends. When we returned to to their flat in Isla Vista I pulled my dream journal out of my backpack – and there, in ink, was a detailed account I let them all read describing what we had all just experienced, recorded exactly forty days before!
Of course, I wrote this down at 4 a.m., bleary-eyed and not quite fully awake, so the language was somewhat poetic, but the correspondence is clear. In the dream journal I had observed walking through tall yellow grass, then following a trail uphill where “I lagged behind my brothers” (who in the dream did not resemble my siblings in waking life, but had that same feeling-tone to them); this was followed by finding a snake on the dream trail with the same color pattern as the kingsnake we encountered in waking life, and then, around the next bend, my dream journal records picking up “a snake with legs that looks like ginger root” (my clumsy attempt, at 4 a.m., to describe a horned toad, which I had never seen before).
There were other points of correspondence, but the kicker came near the end of the dream, where I recorded “almost stepping on a baby rattlesnake whose rattle was broken” that was more dangerous than a grown snake (I had no idea baby rattlers only have a single segment that you cannot hear, nor that they really are mor dangerous than adult rattlesnakes, at the time I had that dream).
My companions were blown away by the surprising details, including the sequential order of the dream events, that rang true in their experience!
Non-causal (the dream was recorded well over a month before the waking world experience), significant, and meaningful. Though I never did matriculate at Pacifica, thanks to an insurmountable gatekeeper called Tuition (nemesis of hippie hitchhikers), I have visited the campus often in an official capacity in later years, including multiple projects involving Campbell’s archives, as well as serving as co-chair of the international Symposium for the Study of Myth there in 2012 (which took two years of careful planning and collaboration with Pacifica faculty members).
Definitely counts as synchronicity in my mind.
Somehow you have premonitions of what’s to come, and events unfold in mysteriously appropriate ways, with what Jung called ‘synchronicity.’”
(Joseph Campbell, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words )
Campbell himself offers multiple compelling examples of synchronicity in his life, as does Jung.
How to explain this?
One can look at synchonicity as either something mystical, or as a natural dynamic, depending on the perspective one prefers (not that the two are mutually exclusive).
Jung turns to the collective unconscious. For example, though he often relates archetypes to instincts (which arise from the physical body), elsewhere (such as the Collected Works, Vol. VIII: Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, as well as his essay, “On Synchronicity”), he conceives of archetypes as existing outside space and time, believing them responsible for the “meaningful coincidences” we experience (for which he coined the term synchronicity). It’s difficult to empirically locate archetypes both in the body, and floating somewhere outside Time and Space in the same instant – unless we realize that “instincts” and “inherited structuring principle” and “gods” and even “archetype” are all metaphors for that which cannot be precisely defined, labeled, analyzed, or categorized.
Interestingly enough, quantum physics has opened up new perspectives, where causality – a function of space and time – does not apply at the particle level where time moves in more than one direction and associated acausal events occur simultaneously (e.g., Bell’s theorem and Feynman’s double-slit experiment, which highlighted the wave-particle paradox).
Which brings me to non-teleological thinking.
In the summer of 1932 in Carmel, California, biologist Ed Ricketts (patron saint of marine biology and deep ecology) had an order to fill for 15,000 specimens of gonionemus vertens – “a little pink jellyfish” – which supplied the funding for an expedition to study marine life in the Pacific Northwest. Ed persuaded his friend Joe Campbell to sign on, and the two young men (Campbell at age 28, and Ricketts, 34) spent the next ten weeks together, sailing with writer Jack Calvin and his wife aboard a thirty-three foot one-time naval launch, re-christened The Grampus, exploring tidal pools from Puget Sound to Sitka, Alaska.
Campbell and Ricketts, who were both reading Einstein, Bohr, Werner Heisenberg (“observation determines what is observed”), and other cutting-edge Nobel Prize physicists at the time, enjoyed lengthy discussions on the trip, out of which emerged “the great solid realization of ‘non- teleological thinking ’” (Letter from Joseph Campbell to Ed Ricketts, December 26, 1941, held by the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries). This theory is expounded in greater detail by John Steinbeck and Ed Rickets in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, published in 1941 (hence the reason for Campbell’s letter).
Non-teleological thinking steps outside the western tradition, looking on causal explanations as linear and limited. It does not deny the existence of causal connections, but examines them within the framework of the larger picture. No surprise it was originally resisted by the academic establishment as “populist science” (in much the same way Campbell’s work in myth was similarly dismissed for its populist appeal), though eventually Ricketts’ ideas laid the groundwork for a more holistic approach to science.
It is intriguing, though, that the non-teleological thinking espoused by Ricketts (a biologist), Campbell (a mythologist) and Steinbeck (a novelist) is completely compatible with the concept of synchronicity. The same can’t be said for Newtonian physics, nor the empiricism of Descartes.
At the same time, I do not discount metaphysical and/or paranormal explanations. Indeed, both C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell expressed a fondness for the paranormal and what many today discount as “fringe science.” Indeed, in Changing Images of Man, a futurist study compiled by Joseph Campbell and several other colleagues in the 1970s for the Stanford Research Institute think tank (today called SRI – which gave us the first weather satellite, color television, the computer mouse, solar energy, Arpanet – which we know today as the Internet – the acoustic modem, liquid crystal displays, GPS, ATMs, first email transmission over the internet, not to mention selecting the location of what was to become Disneyland and helping establish the Monterey Bay Aquarium), Campbell and his co-authors made a strong case for scientific research into the paranormal, including biofeedback, hypnosis, dreams, meditation and yoga, psychedelics, telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and more (many of which, considered scientific quackery at the time, have now entered the mainstream – such as the health benefits of yoga or psychedelics, biofeedback in brain research, etc.).
Is there a scientific mechanism underlying synchronistic phenomena? Perhaps, and perhaps not. I’m quite comfortable viewing synchronicity as an upwelling from the unconscious. They remain very much a welcome part of my experience that provide invaluable information, though I don’t rely exclusively on synchronicity to chart my course any more than I do logic, emotions, or astrology.
Another example of synchronicity: the same day Marianne’s initial post on this topic appeared (adjusting for the time difference), this fascinating two hour exploration by multiple scholars, including a Fulbright scholar and a a quantum physicist (as well as Dennis Patrick Slattery Ph.D., a frequent guest in our MythBlast forum), led by Dr. Joe Cambray, aired on the Myth Salon at Mythouse.org: Synchronicity – An Emerging Vision to Guide Us. If you are interested in the subject and have the time, this is worth viewing.