Synchro-missity


In recent times the term “synchronicity” has become one of the trendiest words in circles that self-identify as conscious or transformative. The Internet contributed to this, no doubt, by exposing so many of us to schools of thought like Jungian psychology (the origin of synchronicity) that had been partially or totally omitted from general education programs. However, common discussion and application of the term doesn’t take into consideration the fact that the Internet and connected technologies are constantly influencing our perception of supposed synchronicities. When we evaluate these phenomena more closely, it becomes unclear whether we’re identifying them correctly or interpreting them in a useful way.

The word “synchronicity” first appeared in the 1950s, when Carl Jung brought it forth in the development of archetypal psychology. Jung defined the term in 1951 as “a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.” [1] He applied the term not only to these striking coincidences, but also to parapsychological occurrences like clairvoyance, telepathy, and precognition. Yet it’s important to acknowledge that these phenomena are much older, or even timeless; examples abound in various artforms throughout human history.

Admittedly, the literature on the subject remains somewhat confusing. And the combination of most of Jung’s work having been translated into English and most people hearing about it by word-of-mouth (or word-of-comment-thread) means that our current understanding of synchronicity is probably very much based in the early-21st century cultural milieu. Most people who speak of synchronicity today use it to imply that some event was “a good sign.” Hardly, it seems, does anyone take a bizarre coincidence as a bad omen. Either way, what remains uncertain is how to qualify or quantify a synchronicity and what do to about it.

Jung expressly believed that these incidents involve some mechanism beyond time and space operating in an acausal fashion. In other words, they couldn’t be formulated like a physics equation in which a force acts on an object to produce some specific result. The events couldn’t even be conceptualized in such a way that would make much rational sense. On the contrary, Jung thought that the qualification would be for a coincidence “to appear flatly unbelievable.” So something happening at a probability of 1 in 5 would be less remarkable than something happening at a probability of 1 in 5,000,000.

Yet quantification of a synchronicity still seems difficult. Jung mentions a string of six coincidences that he considered to be in the realm of chance, and hence not a synchronicity. He only says that the greater the number of aligned incidents, the less they could be written off to chance – that is, the more inclined we are to adopt a parapsychological or “mystical” explanation.

This uncertainty probably contributed to an oversimplification in the following decades. For instance, Jung’s colleague Marie-Louise von Franz sticks with the “meaningful coincidence” description and writes, “The emphasis lies on the word ‘meaningful.’” [2] This brings us to a key point I’d like to make. We must ask, “Meaningful [it] to whom?” [it] The answer is, first and foremost, to the subjective observer of the coincidence. Stated differently, the perception of a synchronicity says something about the person witnessing it.

It seems that many common coincidences are currently referred to as synchronicities. Looking back through my own past, one example that comes to mind involved the songs played on commercial FM radio stations when I was in high school. At the time it was deemed “a sign” if a certain song came on at a certain time when me and my friends (or significant other) were doing a certain thing together. Actually those songs were (and still are) played at a very specific frequency to illicit that exact kind of response. Marketers have used mass psychology for nearly a century to influence the feelings and actions – especially the buying actions – of the unsuspecting public, even before the term “synchronicity” existed.

That example was from the late 1990s, before social media really emerged on the Internet. Now we’re all more interconnected – at least digitally – than has ever happened before in human history. My experience with this seems intimately connected to Facebook, so that’s a main source of my theories on the matter (though really it’s a whole array of networks, publications, and content creators). When we put together social networks, event listings, and groups/organizations, a lot of eerie things start happening. We’re no longer only associated by geography, religion, or genetics; now we’re also linked more and more by common interest, worldview, and mutual acquaintance. Many people enter our attention field – and our lives – who would have remained in oblivion on the past.

However, geography does still seem to play an important part – since many events are labeled synchronicity when digital reality unexpectedly overlaps with consensual reality in a physical place. In actuality, you’re more likely to run into someone three times in a week if you’re in a small college town versus a giant metropolis. But if it happens in either place – maybe with someone you had previously only known through Facebook – does that count as synchronicity? It might help to keep in mind the complex algorithms that govern social networks on the Internet, and the fact that these were created by human beings – not divine or interdimensional ones. Still, what if you had an inexplicable feeling that you would run into that person that day, or you had a dream about them the previous night? Then does it qualify?

Maybe a better question is: why look for and report on synchronicities? What do people get out of it? For one thing, it adds some excitement and cosmic significance to our lives, and plenty of us could use more of that. But there’s also a social rank that comes with it – a sort of spiritual prestige. And the social media relationship runs both ways. It’s oh-so-tempting to report on Facebook and other networks that you are “getting signs from the universe.” Think of all the “likes” you could accrue! In other words, it gives someone cool points. It’s a catchy word that slips easily off the tongue and lands smoothly on the eardrums.

These days, in such communities, it implies a personal fault if you’ve never experienced a synchronicity. If you go to a music festival and don’t witness at least a few, the implication is even more severe – surely leaving many feeling disconnected. In certain new age hotbeds, these statements are made not as metaphysical speculation, but as dogmatic declarations of presumed fact. And the “meaningful coincidence” type of synchronicity doesn’t come with the negative social stigma that still surrounds parapsychological experiences like clairvoyance and telepathy. It doesn’t take a controlled study to see that people talk about these latter experiences less frequently or publicly.

None of this might matter to you if you’ve never felt misled by apparent synchronicities. Since I started noticing and investigating them more around 2010, they have sometimes helped me, sometimes hurt me. So recently I started to wonder if what matters most is how to approach them, regardless of if they can be ranked or categorized based on some objective authority.

I’ve always been a person who lives by intuition and gut feeling, but recently I spent almost two years subscribing more or less fully to the new age premise that “things will unfold the way they’re supposed to.” In that state, synchronicity recognition became a primary mode of decision-making. It made for quite an adventure, but all the while I felt totally ungrounded – like a mythical tornado or flood was always about to carry me away. Instead of congealing into a more fulfilling, balanced existence, everything just fell apart.

When I press my self-examination further, it’s clear that most of my experience with synchronicity has happened in a romantic context. That is, I’m a relationship-oriented person; I tend to be preoccupied with those kind of interpersonal relations. In process work, the post-Jungian paradigm developed by Arnold Mindell, relationship is considered a “channel” through which we receive information (an idea influenced by neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP). Other common channels include visual, auditory, movement, feeling (proprioception or emotion), and world (group or Earth). These are the pathways of our perception that coalesce into our experience of reality.

When a cluster of synchronicities would happen with a woman, I usually interpreted it in a romantic way. I’d come to believe that we were supposed to be together – or at the very least, we were supposed to have an affair. This approach has failed me more than any other. It also left me open to manipulation and abuse by more socially cunning folk.

It seemed that I turned a symbolic corner when one of the biggest synchronous clusters of my life happened with a woman this past spring. We were both new residents in an unfamiliar city connected by mutual friends who had met and fallen in love at a festival abroad. She mysteriously knew two of my first roommates in the city, from two different houses. On our first visit, riding around on surprisingly similar bikes, we ran into yet another one of my roommates; then one of the aforementioned roommates showed up! This new acquaintance’s name even appeared in the little quote on my tea tag the morning after we met. All this was accompanied by a gut feeling that we were meant to know each other, and the simple fact that she’s a beautiful young woman.

But the assumption that the universe meant to suggest romance led nowhere. It wasn’t until I was able to completely deactivate a possible romantic interpretation that our friendship really started to blossom on much higher level. Studying this closely in my own life allowed me to tweak my deep-seated programming that had me always looking for some mythical “other half” to complete me (just like in the movies, of course). On the flip side, if someone calls out a synchronicity involving me, I can keep my head on straight while also opening up to the possibility of genuinely connecting with them.

I believe we could all benefit from examining our own perception of synchronicities to see if we’re applying the information in a way that really serves us. The things that seem like synchronicities to me ultimately say something about my own psychology; what I do with them says something about my own behavior. This is such a great source of potential self-awareness! But we capitalize on this treasure only if we’re willing to do the work. It seems to me that, if synchronicity has any consistent meaning for everyone, it is, “Pay attention! Something important is happening!” Instead of blindly following the apparent suggestions of synchronicities, we can take them as potential moments of self-revelation that will hopefully stand as markers on the path of our unfolding destiny.

My most profound synchronicities have actually occurred with visual content in meditation and dreams. They have brought both wonder and inspiration to my life, leading to arduous but worthwhile changes. These are stories for another occasion, indeed. But more importantly, the experiences are eternal mysteries that will probably unravel with layers of meaning as my life progresses.

Synchronicity matters most to the subjective observer – and that is what makes it so interesting. It introduces the idea that part of the individual experience is actually sovereign to the objective, scientific paradigm (so-called). It’s at the core of Jung’s belief that our theories and systems only help us in how close they approximate real individual human beings. I believe our understanding of how to spot synchronicity and what to do with it is only just budding. We, in our own lives, can be pioneers of this relatively new conceptual technology, contributing to a more holistic and magical society of the future.

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NOTES:
1) Jung, C.G. “Appendix: On Synchronicity.” Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
2) von Franz, M.-L. “The Process of Individuation.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. by C.G. Jung. New York: Laurel Books, 1968. p. 226.