What is Synchronicity?
The term synchronicity is coined by Carl Jung (a Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology). It is about acausal connection of two or more psycho-physic phenomena.
Because our scientific worldview is built on the concept of cause and effect, as a culture we tend to doubt and deny aspects of experience that aren’t measurable and verifiable. So often when events coincide in startling ways, the first words we hear or say are, “Oh, it’s just a coincidence.”
Some people might think of it in terms of the odds. If there is a one-in-a-million chance of that coincidence happening, why make such a big deal of it? After all, somebody has to win the lottery! This point of view has a certain validity: synchronicity is part and parcel of physical laws. It doesn’t defy the natural order of events; it simply raises more questions than can easily be answered by a cause-and-effect equation.
The concept that everything has a concrete cause is so entrenched in our modern Western mentality that it took considerable courage for Carl Jung to take on the subject of synchronicity. He didn’t discuss it in depth until the eighth decade of his life when, as he wrote in his preface to the I Ching, “The changing opinions of men scarcely impress me anymore.” A dramatic incident clarified his thinking on the matter. He had been looking for some way to break through to a patient who was super-rational, had rigid, stock answers for everything, and therefore was not doing well in therapy. He writes, “I was sitting opposite her one day with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab—a costly piece of jewelry. While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned around and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the windowpane from outside in the obvious effort to get into the dark room. This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, ‘Here is your scarab.’ The experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance.” On the basis of his work with his patients, Jung said that synchronicity is more likely to occur when we are in a highly charged state of emotional and mental awareness—when, in his words, the “archetypes,” universal images or themes underlying human behavior, are activated.
Before Jung, Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer documented another type of coincidence that he called seriality, in which things repeat themselves across time. He wrote of a case involving a Mr. Deschamps who, as a boy in Orleans, France, was presented with a piece of plum pudding by a guest of the family, Mr. de Fortgibu. Years later, Mr. Deschamps, now a young man, ordered plum pudding in a Paris restaurant, only to find that the last piece had just been taken—by Mr. de Fortgibu, who was sitting across the room. Many years later, at a dinner party where Mr. Deschamps was again offered plum pudding, he regaled his guests with the story and remarked that all that was missing was Mr. de Fortgibu. Soon the door burst open and in came Mr. de Fortgibu himself, now a disoriented old man who had gotten the wrong address and had entered by mistake.
When we talk about synchronicity within the book, we base it on Jung’s definition—
Synchronicity is the coming together of inner and outer events in a way that cannot be explained by cause and effect and that is meaningful to the observer.
—And we include in our discussions Kammerer’s recognition of seriality as a form of meaningful coincidence, which, while not considered by Jung, is encountered in such events as the significant repetition of songs, numbers, and phrases.
Synchronicity is not a word we have grown up with. The concept may not be firmly in our minds, and because we don’t have a label of mental framework for it, we may not notice it. Researchers in communication have found that when we lack a word for an object or a concept, we can’t identify it—and this can happen in the most literal of ways. For instance, in China, there is only one word for red—and people literally do not distinguish between rose, crimson, pink, and scarlet. They lack the vocabulary and therefore the perception that red comes in more than once shade.
So when synchronicity happens, many people overlook it or call it something else. They might say, “I got lucky,” or “That happened just in the nick of time,” or “It came out of the blue,” or “It jumped out at me.” Later on, when asked if they have experienced synchronicity, they can’t remember any. All those incidents are filed away in their memory, but under the category of luck or happenstance.
When you watch a 3-D movie, you put on special glasses and suddenly see images emerge that had been invisible before. Learning about synchronicity is like putting on 3-D glasses that allow totally new dimensions to pop out when you look over your life. Those dimensions have been there all along, but now you have the eyes to see them. Once you know what synchronicity is and how to look for it, you begin to notice it everywhere.
In order to understand synchronicity as it appears now, has appeared in your past, and will appear in your future, let’s look at the circumstances in which synchronicity shows up in your life and at the patterns it takes—single incidents, strings, and clusters.
As you read the following descriptions, read actively. Scan your memory for similar events. Think of what’s happened to you in the last few weeks and months and see what patterns emerge.
We experience synchronicity most often when we’re open and aware, which in turn is affected by the outer conditions in which we find ourselves and the inner conditions in which we put ourselves.
- Special circumstances such as births, deaths, and times of upheaval are outer conditions that push us toward openness because, as the ground shifts beneath our feet, we feel more vulnerable.
- Mundane circumstances of daily life can be rich with synchronicity if we have the right inner conditions—if we make ourselves more open to the world through personal awareness and inner work.
Let’s examine each of these.
Among his patients Jung observed that synchronicity often happens during circumstances of emotional intensity and upheaval, and often peaks right before a psychological breakthrough. These situations of an “aroused psyche” include such life-changing major events as:
- Falling in or out of love
- Turning points or personal crises
- Rescues from danger
Our awareness and uncertainty is heightened during these times of turmoil, change, and challenge. When we’re groping for solutions, or even learning how to appreciate unexpected joy, we are much more open to input from all sources. Synchronicity may reassure us, point us in a whole new direction, or give us the missing piece we need to make everything work.
Life passages such as births, romances, and deaths are times when the worries of daily life recede as we are drawn into the currents of a larger existence. Our ordinary routines are disrupted, our thoughts are focused on the changes in process, and our senses are wide open. We know that when the child is born, when the wedding is over, when the funeral is done, our life will be different in ways we can only dimly perceive now. We probably have a jumble of conflicting feelings. Along with our joy at a birth may come fear about our new financial responsibility; along with the grief of death may come relief at the end of suffering. We might be looking for direction, for answers, for reassurance that the good and right thing is happening. Beverly Fox Martin of Greenwood Lake, New York, tried to adopt an infant daughter for five frustrating years, and even had a name picked out—Kathleen, after her mother. On her mother’s birthday, Beverly went to her grave and prayed for her mother to intercede for her in heaven. She walked inside her home to hear the phone ringing. It was the adoption agency with an infant daughter. And what name had the child’s birth mother given her? Kathleen!
When we’re in love, synchronicity seems to jump out all over the place. We feel light-headed, happy, open; the world is smiling back at us, giving the relationship a sense of destiny. Irvin Thomas placed a personal ad in the local seniors paper that Joy Thompson saw only because she was throwing away someone else’s trash. They fell in love, and had to laugh at a peculiar coincidence: twenty-five years earlier, her children adopted a lost puppy and, out of the blue, named it Thomas Irving.
Synchronicity can also intercede at important points in a relationship. After a concert one night, Pamela LaTulippe of Boston broke up with her boyfriend. The next day walking down the street, she ran into the stranger who had sat next to them the night before. The woman told Pam what a wonderful couple she and her boyfriend made. Pam saw that as a sign she was supposed to work it out with him—and she did.
The death of a loved one can thrust in front of us life’s questions, creating openings for new understandings and making us more receptive to synchronicity. When Pina McGee’s mother passed away, Pina and her siblings found a letter to them in her Bible. In the letter she had included a poem. Two days later at the memorial service, the rabbi read a poem that he said had fallen from a book in a library years before. He said it seemed to him to apply to her. It was the very poem Pina’s mother had included in the letter.
Turning points occur when we have come to the end of the old and are on the cusp of a new life: we graduate, or lose our job, or buy a house, or our child leaves home. When our beliefs or values change, we may be prompted to leave a relationship or career, or stop drinking heavily, or move somewhere different. Whether we welcome the change or resist it, uncertainty is often present: What lies ahead? What can we do about it? Often in these times, synchronicity appears in dramatic ways. It moves us along, and it gives us a sense of reassurance and certainty about what we’re doing. Unsatisfied with his life and job in Kansas City, Raymond G. Spinnett was meditating one evening when he saw a clear picture of himself working as a laboratory technician in California. Two days later, he quit his job, hitchhiked out west, and took a bus to El Segundo to answer a newspaper want-ad. He couldn’t locate the address on the ad, and, discouraged, stopped at a sandwich shop. The waiter said, “Wait! It’s a misprint! This isn’t an address—it’s a phone number!” Raymond was the only applicant, and was immediately hired. “The typographical error in the ad reserved my new job for me,” he says. It turned out to be the same job he had envisioned a few days earlier, thousands of miles away.
Stories of rescues—someone being in the right place at the right time to save the day, and maybe a life—fill our daily newspapers and television reports. The rescuer and the person rescued were on paths that converged at exactly the right time, and often at least one was in that spot for the first time. Karen and Bruce Pane were driving to work through Brooklyn when they saw an apartment building in flames. Holding Karen’s coat taut between them, they caught six-month-old Amanda Morales as her mother threw her from a fourth-floor window. They had never been on the street before, and were there only because they were circumventing a traffic jam.
Another time when synchronicity abounds is when we’re on the road, away from home. Amid new surroundings, eating new food, talking to new people, we may find ourselves looking for clues in ways that we generally don’t in our familiar workaday world. It seems to happen particularly with travel that involves risk: if our plans are open-ended rather than set in stone, if we’re traveling along rather than with a tour group, if we’re submerging ourselves in a foreign culture rather than skipping over its surface, then we’re more likely to have meaningful coincidences. Suzanne M. Rodriguez was traveling through India, and she was deliriously happy. On a small train chugging up a mountain gorge, she threw out her arms in a burst of ecstasy and cried, “India!” At that precise moment, the train passed a rock on which was painted in foot-high letters, “SMR, I love you.”
When we’re open, responsive, and attentive to both the world around and the world within, we set up an environment that welcomes synchronicity. Then we may find synchronicity occurring every day, in the most ordinary of places: on the telephone, at the office, at the grocery store or shopping mall, in the library, at school, in the car.
Renee Schwartz of Dundee, Illinois, drove twenty miles to a new shopping mall, and searched its enormous parking lot until at last she found a parking spot—which turned out to be right next to her mother’s car. One night, Renee was sitting on the sofa talking with her twelve-year-old—named Destiny because she was conceived when condoms broke three nights in a row. When Renee got up, Destiny asked, “Where are you going?” “Kansas!” joked Renee. Twenty minutes later, Renee asked her daughter where she’d like to live if they ever moved. Destiny got a piece of paper and drew two circles, one for Illinois and one for Texas, where they had traveled. She made an X halfway between and said, “Here, two states up from Texas.” They opened an atlas to see where that was, and the X fell on Kansas City. The next day, Renee learned that the company she worked for would likely be moved—to Kansas City.
The more aware we are of our surroundings, the more likely it is that synchronicity will occur—and the surroundings can include such things as overheard conversations, articles in the newspaper, billboards, and songs on the radio. Steven Cooper of LaGrange Park, Illinois, was on his way to a country club to drop off cassette tapes he had duplicated for a cellist who was playing there. Driving down the highway, he crossed train tracks and didn’t know which way to turn—until, at that moment, on the radio came an advertisement for the country club, and the announcer said, “Turn right at the train tracks.”
DETECTING THE PATTERNS
Whether in special or mundane circumstances, synchronicity presents itself in many ways. It can be as dramatic as a firecracker or as subtle as the passing of a breeze across your cheek. You can understand in a flash what it means or its significance may engulf you months or years later. It can change your life forever or it can glance off you, leaving barely a trace of memory.
To understand how synchronicity manifests itself, we’ll look at the three patterns in which it appears in our lives: single synchronicities; strings of synchronicities that drive home a point; and meaning-packed, multilayered synchronicity clusters.
This is the simplest, most direct way in which synchronicity happens. The single synchronicity has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It stands out in clear relief from the rest of our everyday lives.
For example, you are walking down the street, and you cross paths with a friend you haven’t seen for many years. You do a double-take, stop, talk, say good-bye, and walk on.
What would make this encounter a synchronicity? Let’s look again at the definition of synchronicity: the coinciding of inner and outer events in a way that can’t be explained by cause and effect and is meaningful to the observer. Assume that there’s no causal connection: you did nothing to arrange the meeting with your friend and had no idea he was even in town. Perhaps you were thinking of him just the day before, for the first time in years: Your thoughts would be the inner event, the meeting the outer event, and the meaning might be in the wonder you feel at how things are connected. Or perhaps he fills a need for you: you’ve been thinking of buying a computer, and it turns out he’s just brought one himself and has some good tips for you. Your thoughts about your pending purchase are the inner event, the meeting and his advice comprise the outer event, and the meaning might be that now is the time to take the plunge into cyberspace. Or perhaps you’ve been trying to experience flow at deeper levels: your aspirations are the inner event, the meeting the outer event, and the meaning to you is that you’re on the right track.
What, then, would make it not a synchronicity? According to our definition, meaningfulness makes the difference. Your meeting with your friend would be “just a coincidence” if it had no meaning whatsoever for you: you saw nothing special in bumping into him and made nothing of it. The unlikely encounter wouldn’t lead you anywhere—not to inward searching, not to a nearby computer store, not to the power of flow.
Single synchronicities happen often in things like telephone calls, chance encounters, and lucky numbers. Bruce Kohler remembers how twenty years ago he had a sudden urge to call his father in Florida whom he hadn’t spoken to in several weeks. When he picked up the phone, before he touched the dial, he was flabbergasted to hear his father’s voice on the other end—trying to reach him.
Information you need might come your way through some surprising route at the moment you need it. Dame Rebecca West told philosopher Arthur Koestler how she had been researching a specific episode of the Nuremberg war crimes trials: “I looked up the trials in the library and was horrified to find they are published in a form almost useless to the researcher. They are abstracts, and are cataloged under arbitrary headings. After hours of search I went among the line of shelves to an assistant librarian and said, ‘I can’t find it, there’s no clue, it may be in any of these volumes.’ I put my hand on one volume and took it out and carelessly looked at it, and it was not only the right volume, but I had opened it at the right page.” Koestler writes that coincidences of what he calls the “library angel” are “so frequent that one almost regards them as one’s due.”
Just because a single synchronicity is simple in pattern doesn’t mean it can’t have a great impact. Looking back, you might find that a turning point in your life, such as meeting your significant other, was a single synchronicity.
STRINGS OF SYNCHRONICITIES
Synchronicities can happen one after the other, as though a point is being made over and over again. Perhaps the friend you bump into on the street was a high school classmate you once had a strong, unrequited crush on. Later that day, you hear on the radio a song that puts you right back into your high school days and the hopeless romantic longings you had back then. And two days later, you open the newspaper and read a story about a budding film star who originally had the same name as the friend you bumped into.
That would be a string of synchronicities. Depending on what you are going through in life at the time, it could have all kinds of meaning. Perhaps it brings your romantic ideals into focus, clarifying what you want from your current relationship. It might bring about a realization of how you’ve always put your friend on a pedestal and you decide to go visit the friend so you can develop a more realistic relationship. Or you might be pleased to realize that the type of rejection that caused you pain back then no longer does, and to you this is proof that you’ve grown stronger over the years.
Notice that it’s the sequence of occurrences that make this a string of synchronicities. Meeting your friend on the street after so many years might be considered a coincidence by anyone’s reckoning; hearing an old song on the radio or reading a name in a newspaper might not. But because the events occur one after the other, they resonate in your consciousness and have specific meaning to you in their totality.
Another way in which strings of synchronicities appear is in repeating numbers or words. A certain number may start to emerge as a signal of something important in your life. You may never have heard a word or phrase before, and then you’ll hear it several times, in different forms and contexts. Sometimes the connection of the phrase to your life is clear and direct; sometimes it’s a puzzle. Pam Makie went to an evening meditation class in New York City and found herself moved by a quote of Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” The next day, a successful psychologist who is a client of hers confided, “I’m having a really hard time. Everything is going really great—and my deepest fear is that of my own light.” Two days later, another friend said to her, “Did you ever read that book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being? You’ve got to have courage. You’ve got to stop being afraid of your own light.” Says Pam, “I got the message!”
You might find that your life repeatedly intersects or parallels that of another person. Judy Swierczek was visiting a friend in New York City when she saw “Marie Suzanne Rogers” on the apartment lobby mailbox. Since she knew someone by that name from grade school she knocked on the door and introduced herself. She was the same Marie, and they discovered that that had lived a block away from each other in Boston at the same time and had worked for the same travel company there, but at different times. They had both moved back to New York at the same time and worked for the same video development company, but at different times. Marie now lives in Hawaii, where Judy once lived, and of course works for the same company—but at a different time.
CLUSTERS OF SYNCHRONICITIES
A cluster is like a string in that it involves a series of linked synchronicities, but its pattern is richer and more complex: It involves many different types of synchronicity with multiple levels of meaning that coalesce over time around a particular theme. Out of a cluster you may draw not just a single message or a specific direction but a broader and deeper understanding of some basic dynamic in your life.
Let’s go back to that street you were walking down. You’re amazed to see the old friend you haven’t talked to since high school, and the coincidence is even more amazing because he’s in town for only two days, and for the first time in years. He invites you to join him and some friends for dinner that night. You just happen to be free because a few minutes earlier, the meeting you were supposed to attend was canceled. Struck by the timing, you say yes. You don’t mind being away from home for the evening because you’d had words with your spouse the night before: You had seen Apocalypse Now together, and you got into another heated argument over politics.
At dinner that night, it turns out that your friend’s two friends are Vietnam veterans. Here, you think, is a chance to get some information you can bring back home to enlighten your spouse. You bring up the movie and find out the two disagree about it and everything else about the war. As they launch into a discussion of their differences, you realize they’re exactly mirroring your fight from the night before. One of them says a phrase over and over that really hits you: “Let’s get to the heart of the matter.” You try to figure out why you feel tense, and then you recall that your father used to say those exact words to your mother when they were fighting. In fact, you notice that the man’s name, Don, is the same as your father’s. It brings back to you how much you used to hate to hear your parents arguing—and you start to wonder how much of your parents’ dynamic is affecting your current relationship.
But as the two talk, you see something remarkable happening: they come to common ground, a realization of how they’re bonded by the impact of their war experiences. On the way home, the radio plays, “Give Peace a Chance,” a song you haven’t heard in years; for the first time, you don’t think of it politically but as a song about relationships, especially your own. It makes you thoughtful, and when you arrive home, you’re no longer angry.
Let’s look at the synchronicities here: the significant encounter, the timely cancellation, the mirroring argument, the repeated phrase, the key song. These could all appear singly or in a string, but when they appear in a cluster, they can be particularly revealing.
The overall theme that emerges is conflict. Jungians might say that your fight of the night before aroused in your psyche a need for a deeper understanding of the issue, and that this created a kind of psychic energy that drew to you the synchronicities. You can derive many meanings from the cluster, including that you need to handle conflict better in your life.
The more deeply you understand synchronicity, the more you’ll be able to see the myriad ways that the Universe talks to you. Full comprehension of the language of synchronicity prepares you to recognize it in all its manifestations.