Earl was trying to track down
an out-of-print book called The Adventures of Marco Polo. He
scoured two used book stores in New York City, had no success, and caught
a taxi to a third. The cab driver was unusually chatty, and during their
conversation, Earl glanced at his license on the dashboard. His name?
Art was sitting at his computer typing an e-mail missive when
his cat Coal jumped from his lap onto the keyboard. Before Art's startled
eyes, as the cat shifted from key to key, its paws tapped out the word
emerson on the screen. "To make it even weirder, I've been studying
Ralph Waldo Emerson intently for the past year, and the study has taken on
a very symbolic meaning to me," he says, still in shock. "My wife was
sitting next to me at the computer, and if I'm sent away for being crazy,
she has to go, too!"
The uncanny coincidence. The unlikely conjunction of events. The
startling serendipity. Who hasn't had it happen in their life? You think
of someone for the first time in years, and run into them a few hours
later. An unusual phrase you'd never heard before jumps out at you three
times in the same day. On a back street in a foreign country, you bump
into a college roommate. A book falls off the shelf at the bookstore and
it's exactly what you need.
Is it only, as skeptics suggest, selective perception and the
law of averages playing itself out? Or is it, as Carl Jung believed, a
glimpse into the underlying order of the universe? He coined the term
synchronicity to describe what he called the "acausal connecting
principle" that links mind and matter. He said this underlying
connectedness manifests itself through meaningful coincidences that cannot
be explained by cause and effect. Such synchronicities occur, he
theorized, when a strong need arises in the psyche of an individual. He
described three types that he had observed: the coinciding of a thought or
feeling with an outside event; a dream, vision or premonition of something
that then happens in the future; and a dream or vision that coincides with
an event occurring at a distance. No one has come up with a definition
that has superceded his, although there has been debate on whether events
linked to precognition and clairvoyance should be included as
Some scientists see a theoretical grounding for synchronicity in
quantum physics, fractal geometry, and chaos theory. They are finding that
the isolation and separation of objects from each other is more apparent
than real; at deeper levels, everything -- atoms, cells, molecules,
plants, animals, people -- participates in a sensitive, flowing web of
information. Physicists have shown, for example, that if two photons are
separated, no matter by how far, a change in one creates a simultaneous
change in the other.
Whatever its cause, the appeal of
synchronicity runs deep. "People love mysterious things, and synchronicity
is like magic happening to them," says Carolyn North, author of
Synchronicity: The Anatomy of Coincidence (Regent Press).
"It gives us a sense of hope, a sense that something bigger is
happening out there than what we can see, which is especially important in
times like this when there are so many reasons for despair."
The more pragmatic a person, the greater a surprise a
synchronistic incident is -- even mild ones of the sort that happen to
most people sooner or later. For example, Bruce, a corporate lawyer, was
stunned the day that, just as he was getting ready to dial his father, he
picked up the phone and heard his father's voice on the other end --
calling him. "I said, 'Holy smokes!' We were both dumbfounded!" he
recalls. For a moment in time, synchronicity shattered their assumptions
of cause-and-effect reality.
Some people, however, would shrug and call this intuition. How
are the two different?
At first blush, synchronicity and intuition seem to be separate
phenomena. Synchronicity happens "out there": against the odds, something
in the Universe seems to swing into place to answer an inner need we have.
Intuition happens "in here": it's an inner knowing, an ability to tune
into knowledge in a nonrational, nonlinear way. We know something but we
don't know how we know it.
Yet the boundaries get fuzzy very quickly. Jung's definition of
synchronicity clearly incorporates precognition and clairvoyance, which,
by some people's definition, are also types of intuition: they are
certainly inner knowing. For example, here's a mind-boggling synchronicity
story that is just as mind-boggling when viewed as an intuition story.
Pam's father was chopping down a tree for firewood when it suddenly fell
on him, crushing the left side of his face almost beyond recognition and
shattering his back. Against all odds, he shoved the tree off of himself
and walked a mile for help. Pam flew to Ithaca, New York, to be with him.
It wasn't until weeks later, when she had returned to New York City, that
she picked up the tablet she had been taking notes on in class at the time
the accident had happened. She had been idly doodling in the margins --
and her drawings included a face with the left half shaded in black and a
person's back with two Xs on the spine, marking the same vertebrae that
her father had broken.
If we eliminate Jung's two psi-related definitions and just
focus on the coinciding of inner and outer events in a way that defies
causal explanation, there can still be an overlapping, because the inner
event can be an intuitive hit. In practice, synchronicity and intuition
sometimes seem so intertwined that it's hard to tell where one leaves off
and the other begins.
Shelley was sitting at Notre Dame in Paris giving her sore feet
a rest. The shoes she had worn from the States had turned out to be
painful, and her limited budget didn't allow her to buy another pair.
Suddenly she felt an inner prompting, and she got up, walked out of the
church, and turned left. Following her promptings, she made several other
turns to arrive at a square. There, on top of a trash can, sat a pair of
brand new black boots with no signs of wear -- in exactly her size. "It
was perfect," she said. "If they had been inside the trash can, I wouldn't
have pulled them out. If they had been worn before, I wouldn't have put
them on. And they were so stylish I never could have afforded them
So is this an intuition story or a synchronicity story?
Intuition got her to the boots. Synchronicity provided her with precisely
what she needed: she was virtually handed the boots by the Universe.
Some synchronicities are not the delivery of objects but of
insights: something in the outer world crystallizes or confirms an inner
process. Those synchronicities can "feel" much like intuition: it's sudden
information perceived by the psyche and experienced as true. "They're both
messages, but one is internal and one external," says John Graham, a
former foreign officer who with his wife, Ann Medlock, runs the Giraffe
Project, an intrepid organization in Langley, Washington, that recognizes
people who stick their necks out for the common good. The organization
lives hand to mouth on donations, but John intuitively knows when a big
check is in the morning mail, and the amount is often synchronistically
the exact amount they need to pay a pressing bill. "Synchronicity and
intuition are saying the same thing, it's just as if one were speaking
French and the other Spanish," he says.
David Spangler, an author, teacher, and former guiding light of
Findhorn, believes the two have many underlying similarities. "Intuition
is another form of synchronicity: When I intuit something, there's no
apparent cause-and-effect relationship between my knowledge and how I got
the knowledge," he says. "Likewise, synchronicity is precipitated
intuition: we know of a connection not inwardly but outwardly, through
action and perception. In both cases, the pattern carries the same
message: we live in a world more intricately and holistically organized
than we may ever have previously supposed."
Ultimately, it seems that our perception
of the two is based on how we experience the boundary between our inner
and outer environments. The more we feel a part of all around us, the more
we engage in a dance of energy and input from all sides. At that point, it
doesn't matter, except as a point of passing interest, where the
information comes from: it just comes.
Yet, until we live at that exalted level of consciousness, we
can make good use of the interplay between the two. For example, some
people develop their intuition using synchronicity as a tool. They follow
an inner urge or message and watch for the results: if a meaningful
coincidence results, it is a sign to them that they're on the right track
and that they can trust that voice in the future. For instance, Kathleen
was driving toward the mountains for a hike when she made a split-second
decision to go to a pottery studio instead. "I don't know why -- it just
felt right," she says. She had thought about stopping there before but had
never gotten around to it. Just as she walked in the door, a woman was
putting the finishing touches on a large ceramic pot. "It's a drum," she
told Kathleen, "But I don't know anything about putting a skin on it."
"I've make drums!" exclaimed Kathleen. "I know where to get the skins!"
They quickly agreed to collaborate; in exchange, the woman will give her
lessons. "It confirmed my intution," says Kathleen, "and let me know that
pottery is something I should definitely pursue."
Conversely, some people make active use of intuitive skills to
garner useful coincidences. Ray Simon, a Massachusetts writer, is
constantly scanning the environment for oddities; he runs quick intuitive
checks on them and follows where they lead him, often with fortuitous
outcomes. For example, he was at a library looking up material on Alfred
North Whitehead. A computer search listed 12 references, the third of
which was blank. He pulled up the information on the third, found out that
it actually referred to a book on Sartre, and so went to the shelves to
find it. "These things are annoying to follow," he says with a laugh.
"Your reasonable mind wants to do things that make sense." Next to that
book was a different one on Sartre, a comic book that laid out his
philosophy in a whimsical format. "I needed that information because I
write computer manuals, and it's an ongoing battle to stay light," he
says. "That book enriched my life and expanded my thinking about what
could be done."
There's something about turning one's choices over to intuition
that seems to avail oneself to synchronicity," says Allan Combs, Ph.D., a
psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville who
co-authored Synchronicity: Science, Myth and the Trickster
(Marlowe). "In practice, that can mean moving from moment to moment when
making decisions, even small decisions -- especially small decisions! If
you expect the unexpected, synchronicity will emerge."
Intuition, researchers have found,
flourishes in a person who is open, receptive and nonjudgmental.
Synchronicity has had little research -- it defies laboratory tests, of
course -- but people who have studied the topic report a phenomena which
Alan Vaughan, author of Incredible Coincidence: The Baffling World of
Synchronicity (Ballantine) calls "the synchronicity of synchronicity."
Just having an active interest in the matter seems to make synchronicities
happen more often -- in part, of course, because we notice them more.
Likewise, synchronicity too seems to be dampened by cynicism and
doubt. Although some synchronistic events, like some intuitive hits,
cannot be easily ignored, others are of a subtler nature -- almost
dreamlike in their metaphorical patterns -- and it takes practice both to
notice and decode them.
In her book The Tao of Psychology: Synchronicity and the
Self (HarperCollins). Jean Shinoda Bolen writes about being at a
dinner party with friends when one woman raised a question: Occasionally,
when she closed her eyes, frightening demonic images would appear. Should
she confront them? examine them? immediately turn her attention elsewhere?
As they discussed the matter, a skunk started scratching at a sliding
glass door in front of them, trying to get inside.The hosts had never seen
a skunk in the area, and after discussing how odd it was to see one trying
to approach people, they joked about how unlikely it was that anyone would
open a door to one. It was only later that Jean and her husband realized
that the skunk provided a synchronistic answer to their question: Just as
a skunk would stink up a living space, allowing demonic images in would do
the same to one's inner space.
Says North: "If your belief system is such that intuition and
synchronicity are real and significant, you will notice them. If your
belief system is that they're hogwash, you won't."
Belief systems also dictate what people attribute the workings
of synchronicity to. When it occurs, they may thank their luck, or fate,
or destiny, or karma, or a miracle, or angels, for example. "Synchronicity
happens when God wishes to remain anonymous," goes one saying. Carrie and
Dan view as divinely inspired the string of happy coincidences that have
allowed them to adopt and raise eleven disabled children on Dan's salary
as a school cafeteria worker. One month, hit with several emergencies,
they had no money to pay rent -- until lightning struck, hitting two of
their trees. When the insurance adjuster came by, he wrote out a check so
they could have them taken down, but he said to Carrie with a smile, "If I
were you, I wouldn't bother taking those trees down -- you're only going
to lose a branch." The check exactly covered their rent. Said Carrie: "We
thanked God. We walk in his shadow."
As was true with Carrie and Dan, synchronicity seems to appear
often at times of personal crises and at such passage points as births and
deaths. Sunbathing on a Caribbean beach with her friend Sandy, Mary found
herself thinking sadly about Beth, a mutual friend of theirs who had died
unexpectedly two weeks earlier. Softly, she started humming "Amazing
Grace." When she finished, Sandy said, "That's so strange. I was just
thinking about Beth, and `Amazing Grace' was her favorite song." Mary was
stunned: she had never associated the song with Beth. They later learned
that at the exact time Mary had been humming, Beth's family had been
holding a private memorial for her.
"Synchronicity seems to happen when you're intensely caught up
in something that's very deep -- for instance, falling in makes it pop all
over the place," says Combs. "A lot of activities that tap into the deep
mystery of life -- things like meditation, contemplative prayer -- also
seem to stir it up."
Synchronicities are sometimes regarded as signs, and some people
consciously use them to make decisions in life. In the novel The Celestine
Prophecy, a bestseller which thrust synchronicity into the public
consciousness, James Redfield says that all coincidences are significant
because they point the way to an unfolding of our personal destiny.
MaryAnn had moved to London to live with her boyfriend, only to
discover that she hated the city and that he had a nasty streak. One
morning at 6 a.m., after a tearful fight with him, she fled the house and
was out walking the dank, grey streets, feeling completely miserable.
Suddenly a dead bird fell out of the sky and landed at her feet with a
plop. "That did it," she says. "It was a sign from the Universe and it was
shouting, `Go home!' And I did."
Often synchronicities are simply a lark, a wink from the cosmos.
Rebecca, a screenwriter, was researching the life of a mysterious woman, a
famous writer's lover who had died tragically at a young age. Driving to
Boston to view the writer's archives, Rebecca on a whim stopped off at the
sprawling cemetery in the woman's home town, and quickly chanced upon her
gravestone. On top of it was sitting a rabbit, its pink nose quivering. At
the sight of Rebecca, it started skittering around in circles. In Boston a
few hours later, she was reading through the writer's diaries when in the
margin of a page, she came upon a few lines of curlicue, schoolgirlish
handwriting, which she recognized as being the young woman's. The words?
"Thank God for the rabbits and their funny little habits."
(Originally published in Intuition Magazine, May 1996)
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