What is Synchronicity?

"A Wink from the Cosmos," by Meg Lundstrom

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? Marco Polo!

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 No one has come up with a definition that has superceded his, although there has been debate on whether events linked to precognition and clairvoyance should be included as synchronicity.

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 myself!"

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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