All illustrations by New York artist, Hafeez Shaikh.

Has this ever happened to you? You are sitting at your kitchen table, thinking about an old friend who you haven't spoken to in a while. The phone rings and - wow - it's the same friend you were just thinking about! You say to yourself, "What a coincidence!"

You are on your way to work and, half asleep, you notice the license plate on the car in front. The numbers are the exact month and year of your child or parent's birth date. Confident that this must be significant, you play these numbers in the next Lottery game.

The appreciation of coincidental events in our lives is evident, yet the basis for our belief that these odd events "mean something" is hardly ever questioned. We seem to acknowledge that our lives follow some kind of pattern and these observation of special occurrences do not especially shock us.

Psychologist Carl Jung was the first scientist to attempt to explain this amazing phenomenon. Jung treated many hysterics and distraught people in his psychiatric practice. He was especially fond of hearing about patient's dreams. Over a decade of administering therapy, he noted an uncanny relationship between the content of dreams, odd coincidental events and the successful restoration to mental health of his patients.

In the following essay, author Stephen Davis explains the difference between what we know as coincidence, and what Jung later came to call "synchronicity." This is the first of several expeditions into the world of pattern, chance, magic and significance.


by Stephen J. Davis

Some people feel that coincidence is the guiding force in their lives. To them, coincidence is a force which influences decisions and plans and has as much impact on their lives as others who may believe in Astrology. People commonly equate the word "coincidence" with the word "chance." They often make statements to the effect that they "don't believe in coincidence". From that statement alone, however, it is impossible to tell whether or not such a person is a skeptic or a mystic! Their confusion arises out of their ignorance of the distinction between the terms "coincidence" and "synchronicity."

The definition of synchronicity, according to Carl Jung, is a meaningful coincidence, i.e. a coincidence that holds some personal significance for the observer. Jung writes,

"Although meaning is an anthropomorphic (of human origin) interpretation, it nevertheless forms the indispensable criterion of synchronicity. What that factor which appears to us as 'meaning' may be in itself, we have no possibility of knowing."

In line with Jung's writing, it has been suggested that the only validity of synchronicity lies in the observer's (participator's) opinion of whether the synchronicity gives a true rendering of his psychic condition- that the meaningfulness of a synchronicity can only be judged subjectively. It has also been suggested that the term synchronicity, for many, refers to a remarkable coincidence which would be assumed to have a very low probability of occurring, yet occurs just the same.

A growing number of investigators view synchronicity as a sign that we are living in an age of increasing interconnectedness, and postulate that we are heading toward an "omega point"-- an "end of all ends"-- when all things will be revealed as interconnected.

In physics, we are taught that every single particle in the universe has a gravitational effect upon every other particle, no matter how far the particles are separated. This unified effect supports the theories that all events are related, in some way, to each other. Thus it can be said that synchronicity is merely a very personal and subjective observation of this inter-connected universe of which we are but a small part.

Should synchronicity be a part of parapsychology-- or are para-psychological phenomena merely different manifestations of synchronicity? For example, precognition (the ability to see the future) can be imagined both as the ability to sense and predict the universal event patterns and to project them forward in time. But the same precognition can also be seen as having caused or triggered the predicted event. The association of the predicted event with the actual occurrence has no logical connection because of our concept of time. Nevertheless, the two events are somehow linked.

Synchronicity is also seen by some as a mystical event, one that illustrates how, at the same moment that a question arises, the answer too can be found. Again, the synchronicity events only seem unusual because they seem to defy our routine understanding of cause and effect and sequential, forward-moving time.

Jung had a female patient who was hysteric and in the midst of recovering her sanity by explaining her dreams. The woman began to recount a dream, in which a large beetle or scarab played a major role. At that very moment, Jung was distracted by a scratching noise outside his window and glanced to see its source. Outside of his treatment room window, Jung and his patient stared in amazement at as a large beetle moved against the glass. His patient saw this as a sign of recovery. To Jung, it was another clue to how synchronicity may work.

Despite its psychological components, synchronicity occurs independently of psychological or cultural conditioning, thereby revealing its objective components. It is suggested that synchronicities happen all the time, but we are not always aware of their existence. Synchronicity involves both physical and psychological components. There is the event (something that really happens in the world of the observer) and then there is the interpretation (the psychological meaning) of the event. This is not disputed. What is usually questioned is the nature of the relationship between the two components. Some synchronicities appear to be so ordered and meaningful that 'random chance', as an explanation, strains to accommodate them.

Anagramatic synchroncities come closer to blurring the distinction between the creativity of the human mind and any hypothesized pre-existent order. Anagramatic synchronicities consist of rearranging the letters of a single word or group of words - as in a sentence - to make an appropriate descriptive sentence that is then interpreted. For example; the letters of the word "desperation" may be rearranged to produce two such sentences: "I at rope's end" and "A rope ends it". In this example, someone looking for a meaningful interpretation will likely select the solution to the anagram that reflects their own emotional state. Thus it can be argued that synchronicity is not only subjective in nature, but also influenced by the observer's state of mind.

Sometimes, the synchronicity is not obvious to everyone universally, but is significant only to a select group or culture who share a common background of language, symbols and traditions. This is what is known as psuedo-coincidence. Is it considered good fortune to have it rain on your wedding day? If a coyote crosses your path is this a sign that something bad is about to happen? If you crack an egg and find a double yoke- is this good? These are examples of some of the events that have special meaning only to certain cultures and are not universal.

Every culture has unwittingly acknowledged synchronitity. It has been called coincidence, luck, fate, omens, destiny, karma, miracles, chance, providence, intuition and serendipity! Many ascribe that the main distinction between these different types of phenomena involves the percentage of "inner knowing" to that of "outer knowing." In other words, it depends on how much the observer tends to "read in to" the event and the degree to which this "meaning" is believed and understood. This, of course, suggests that some people can be more invested in interpreting synchronicities than others and thus explains why we have shaman and "seers" who are trained to recognize synchronous events.

Carl Jung was curious about transcendental nature of synchronicity. With the new perspectives in quantum physics and relativity theories, Jung felt justified in speculating that synchronicity was a-causal. Jung observed that in order to qualify as a synchronicity, the many elements that make up a synchronicity must belong to causal events chains (a series of events where each event brings about the subsequent event), and that these chains must have no common origin.

Winning the lotto by playing a relatives birth dates is a poor, but effective example. The event chain producing the relative's date of birth and the chain which selected the lotto numbers have no detected common origin. This is certainly a clear, unambiguous understanding of the term a-causal as it relates to synchronicity.

Lest we paint a completely rosy picture of synchronicity, we should perhaps stop to consider the possibility of "harmful or even fatal synchronistic occurrences..."(Jule Eisenbud, as quoted in Incredible Coincidence by Alan Vaughan). Some synchronicities, instead of bringing a feeling of togetherness and harmony, may actually engender just the opposite- feelings of utter discord, which may be based on mutual misunderstanding, or a sort of mutual repulsion. Void of any objective discord, they are nevertheless subjectively perceived as such by the observer. Some call these "bad omens."

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of synchronicity involves its creative character. Jung called synchronicities "acts of creation in time," and explained that, by calling synchronicity a "creative act," he was not asserting that synchronicity was entirely a subjective interpretation of the events by the observer, but that the observer was guided in the interpretation by cultural metaphors.

Cultural metaphors are like stories, symbols or ideas that are common to humanity. For example, water is a metaphor of life, of cleansing and of new beginnings. The conquest of killing a dragon is a metaphor for the struggle of good over evil. These symbols are learned early and influence how we structure and understand the world and events around us. Jung attempted to quantify these metaphorical symbols that appeared common to virtually every culture and tradition of humanity. He postulated that such metaphors and symbolism were part of a "universal collective unconscious" and that these symbols would be important when looking at the interpretation of synchonicity and dreams.

Many scientific discoveries have been made from observations that were recognized first as synchronicity, and later, when the causal chains were found to have some common basis in natural law, these same synchronicities became science. Remember, true synchronicity must have no common source to the causal event chains.

There are certain caveats when it comes to considering synchronicity in the light of creative possibilities. First, we cannot force a synchronicity, nor can we expect to find one on command. Ascertaining the difference between a true synchronicity and a psuedo-coincidence is the goal of forming good criteria. Second, we must always beware of "reading into" things and relying exclusively on personal, subjective meanings. In other words, some events may truly be synchronicity. Recognizing them and their significance can be highly beneficial. But attempting to see synchronicity in each and every event in our life is an almost certain prescription for paranoia and delusional pathology.

This has, perhaps, been a bewildering introduction to the many levels of intrigue one is faced with in the study of synchronicity. The field is rich with possibilities. Get out your notebooks! We will pick up from here in the next issue.

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