Synchronicities Give Shape – and Meaning – to Our Lives
Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. – Albert Einstein
This newsletter explores the uncanny moments when seemingly random events coincide – happen at the same moment in time – in ways that seem to be connected in their meaning. Or the way events over long stretches of time seem to be connected in their meaning in ways that are invisible at the time and seem unfathomable in retrospect and yet shape and guide the unfolding of our lives.
Synchronicities happen in ways that are not related by cause and effect – you think of a friend you haven’t thought of in years and he calls you that afternoon – but they are related in significance of meaning.
We all experience these synchronicities all the time – you get a chilling sixth sense about a loved one far away and then learn of their injury in a car accident at the very moment of your intuition. There are many documented stories of a clock stopping at the time of their owner’s death. We notice the coincidence of these events and notice the meaning flowing underneath the random events when we’re paying attention. When we do pay attention, we begin to see in the patterns of events a hint of a hidden order that gives shape to the unfolding of lives.
The car won’t start in the morning; your neighbor gives you a jump start. He casually mentions a job opening at his company perfect for your son coming home for summer vacation next week. Or you read a quote that stops you in your tracks; you mull it over for a few days and begin making decisions that re-arrange the priorities of your life.
And when we open to the meanings of the patterns at an even deeper level, we can drop into a profound, unfathomable sense of being guided, supported, gifted by a grace, a presence, a life force, the benevolence of the universe in a way that seems to penetrate the anonymity of God or a divine order or consciousness, however we might label the mystery of life far beyond our internal control. We see the grace of synchronicity that happens all the time, too; we notice if we pay attention.
I had my own experience of synchronicities lining up to change the direction of my life 25 years ago. When I chose to retire from being executive director of a non-profit organization I had founded 5 years before, the next job was the “random” being hired to raise money for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. I’m passionate about protecting wilderness, so the job seemed a good fit. Eventually one of the attorneys in our Alaska office mentioned her trip rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon a month before. That sounded intriguing, so I did the same trip two months later. On the third day, my arm muscles were sore from all the paddling, so I sat out the morning with the guide on the oar boar. I casually (?) mentioned that if I had another life, I would become either a marine biologist or a psychologist. The guide asked me how old I was, and I told him, early 40’s. He looked me straight I the eye and said, “You have this life.” I was in graduate school in psychology in less than a year. These chance events led to a career path, a life path, that has given shape and meaning to my life for the last 25 years.
Even the focus of this newsletter began with a thread of my friend Eve giving me Phil Cousineau’s book Coincidence or Destiny? for my birthday. Random? Eve’s gift and vision opening a thread of curiosity in my general quest for understanding how life works. I began reading the book the day Rick Hanson invited Will Pye to guest teach in our local meditation group. I set Coincidence or Destiny? aside long enough to read Will’s book Blessed with a Brain Tumor that weekend and write the Resources for Recovering Resilience post to post the next week. Chapter 4, “The Gift of Purpose” is all about Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity. The day I finished the post Dave Richo’s The Power of Grace: Recognizing Unexpected Gifts on Our Path arrived in the mail, with his focus on:
“We have found out, again and again, that more seems to be going on in our life than can be accounted for by our own efforts or our own level of knowledge. We keep noticing that something more is afoot in the world than just ourselves and what we do. Our forward move on life’s path does not seem to be based solely on our accomplishments, merit, or our sense of worthiness. Something seems to helping us, an empowering force around us that yet seems to be within us.”
Then I pick up Coincidence or Destiny? again and find:
“According to Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian thought, the whole Cosmos is perpetually in motion, every particle shifting in relation to every other particle, everything synchronized in time and space. To the ancient Chinese, it was simply a fact that correspondences existed between our individual lives and the grand sweep of the universe at any given moment in time.” – Carolyn North, Synchronicity
It’s the paying attention to the meaning hidden in the threads of the synchronous events that opens us up to unexpected gifts we can notice, we can trust, we can choose to use.
May these reflections and exercises be useful as well as intriguing to you and yours.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to explain coincidences of phenomena that had no cause and effect relationship but were profoundly connected in meaning. Jung saw meaningful coincidence, rather than mere coincidence or random chance, as a governing dynamic for all of human experience and history.
“One of Carl Jung’s patients was a young woman who was resistant to his form of transpersonal, archetypal treatment because she was so much “in her head.” One day she shared a dream in which she was handed a golden scarab. As Jung listened to her, he was distracted by the tapping of a beetle at his window. He opened the window and it flew into the room. It was a Scarabaeidae beetle, a close equivalent of the scarab in his patient’s dream. Both Jung and the young woman could see the synchronicity in that event and she become more open to the spiritual dimension of life.”
– Dave Richo, The Power of Coincidence: How Life Shows Us What We Need to Know
While the word coincidence is sometimes used interchangeably with synchronicity, for the folks who diligently study synchronicities, there is an important difference. Coincidence refers to events that coincide – occur simultaneously – but have no apparent causality. I.e, I close the front door to my house just as the phone begins to ring. One event does not cause the other. Synchronicity requires a noticing, a curiosity, a reflection about the events that seem linked together by meaning, even guidance.
Perhaps there is a cause and effect relationship. Many scientific discoveries are a good example. The Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming noticed that fungus spores that accidentally landed in a petri dish of bacteria killed the bacteria surrounding them in the dish. The random event, and the curiosity about the event, led to the discovery of penicillin, which led to the saving of millions of lives, including mine when I had scarlet fever at 6 years of age. (In Exercises to Practice below, we learn ways to cultivate the prepared mind that can look for and notice the potential meaning we know may be fortuitously lurking under random events.)
But often there is meaning without a linear causality:
“Norma orders a red dress for a party but a black dress is delivered to her. As she is about to phone the store to report the error, her sister calls, “Mother has died. Come for the funeral.” Norma thought she was in control of her life; she thought she knew what would happen next and what she would need. The synchronous event told her otherwise and outfitted her for what was actually coming next; something much more momentous was about to occur. Synchronicity is the surprise that something unplanned or unwanted suddenly fits.”
– Dave Richo, The Power of Coincidence: How Life Shows Us What We Need to Know
Another story from Carl Jung: Returning from a lecture he had given, he had lain awake in bed for a long time, when: “At about two o’clock – I must have just fallen asleep – I awoke with a start and had the feeling that someone had come into the room; I even had the impression that the door had been hastily opened. I instantly turned on the light, but there was nothing. Someone might have mistaken the door I thought, and I looked into the corridor. But it was still as death. ‘Odd,’ I thought, ‘Someone did come into the room! Then I tried to recall exactly what had happened, and it occurred to me that I had been awakened by a feeling of dull pain, as thought something had stuck my forehead and then the back of my skull. The following day I received a telegram saying that a patient of mine had committed suicide. He had shot himself. Later I learn that the bullet had come to rest in the back wall of his skull.”
– Phil Cousineau, Coincidence or Destiny?
Folks who delve into the meaning of synchronicities often go one level deeper, to a message hidden in the meaningfully linked events that guides us, warns us, confirms us on our path. These messages in the patterns of linked events, correspondences, correlations, parallels, often come from an external source at a time of internal crisis.
In his book, Phil Cousineau gives an example from his own life story.
“One summer I was staying in a small Paris apartment with a friend I had met at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. I was attempting to organize and art and literary tour for the following summer, but my plans were in shambles. It was as if the fates had conspired against me. Three of my announced guest lecturers had suddenly backed out. My schedule hotel claimed to be booked up. One of the older restaurants in the city where we had reserved a banquet room was attempting to gouge me.
“On my last scheduled morning in town, poetically rainy and gray, I paced the room wondering if I should cancel the tour, cut my losses, and get out while I could. Then, on a hunch, as I’ve often done throughout my life for inspiration, I randomly picked up a book off my friends’ bookshelf. It just happened to be Shakespeare’s magnificent Richard III. Absentmindedly, I riffled through the pages until I stopped as if on command to a page whose first line read:
“Stay you, bear the course, and set it down…”
“Immediately I read this as a sign, not in a generic, impersonal sense likea newspaper horoscope, but as a finger-from-the-clouds kind of sign to me. There was nothing cosmic about the moment, but a cool confidence began to brim at that very moment. Whatever had been so painfully disconnected in me about Paris suddenly felt reconnected. I read the moment as more than coincidence. I knew on a gut level that I must not procrastinate any longer, and instead must commit to the daring but doable tour. It even dawned on me that I could stay on after the tour and live there for several months, something I’d wanted to do since I was a boy.
“Virtually within hours the phone was ringing with calls from three lecturers who had heard I needed replacements, a hotel that had just had a cancellation and now could take my group, and an affordable three-star bistro on the Ile St-Louis agreed to host our banquet. For the coup de grace, later that day I finally got a commitment from the legendary George Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Company, to use his landmark bookstore as a daily meeting place.”
I have my own small example of the power of synchronicities to guide us to our deeper wisdom and intuition. Sometimes when I’m in my garden, talking with a friend on the phone, a hummingbird will come to feed at the feeder or from the flowers. I’ve learned to pay special attention to whatever my friend was saying just as the hummingbird showed up. It usually had some deep significance, worth noting, and the hummingbird showing up has become a symbol to pay attention, don’t let the meaning of things go by too quickly.
Then devotees of synchronicity delve another layer deeper into the realm of mystery, “seeing how deep was the place from which my life flowed.” – James Joyce, and learning to trust the “more”:
“If we look back over the episodes and milestones of our lives, we notice that often something beneficial was happening that was not the result of our choice, effort, or expectation. We were somehow guided to or given an impetus to make a leap into something news. That special assistance, unearned, unforeseen, unplanned, often unnoticed, is a description of grace, the gift dimension of life.
“With or without religion, any of us can believe in – and most of us have noticed – a resource beyond our own will or intellect that helps us on our path. This is grace, a power that is beyond our control or ability to predict, something beyond mere chance, something that blesses us beyond our ability to bless ourselves…. Once we notice and acknowledge the workings of grace in our daily experience we begin to see it as an underlying element in all that happens and as an indispensable feature of human growth…. There is more to life than we thought possible. We can only come upon it with an aptitude for immense surprise:
“More is present here than just you and me.
More happens that what we make happen.
More is afoot than what we see in front of us.”
– David Richo, The Power of Grace: Recognizing Unexpected Gifts on Our Path
Now we can come to see the power of synchronicity to shape our lives, and can come to trust that, in fact, some force of the universe is deeply guiding and supporting us.
Synchronicity can be just what it takes to spring us into changes and awakenings that we are ready to experience. Synchronous moments bid to us to pay attention to what comes now or next on our journey. From this point of view, awkward jolts can become graceful transitions, and stops and can become steps.
– Dave Richo, The Power of Coincidence: How Life Shows Us What We Need to Know
My own story of this being held, guided, supported:
I booked my flights to attend one day of a conference in San Diego. Then belatedly e-mailed one of the speakers, whom I hadn’t yet met in person, to ask if we could have lunch. He was already booked but invited me to a dinner party afterwards with him and several other speakers. I had already booked my flight to return just after the conference was over; it would have cost more than the entire trip to reschedule the flight.
The morning of the conference my early flight was cancelled because of mechanical failure. Southwest Airlines put me on the next fight, no problem, but that flight would arrive too late for the beginning of the conference and to hear one of the speakers I was especially interested in. The customer service representative (it may have helped that the conference was on Compassion and that she noticed on her flight roster that my middle name is Joy – her name as well) offered to re-schedule me on a later flight at no charge so that I could stay at the conference a little later. Meaning I could attend the dinner party which led to much deepening of friendship (and a vacation later) with the speaker I had wanted to have lunch with.
Will Pye writes in Blessed with a Brain Tumor of coming upon a quote, “Death is certain, its timing uncertain; so what is important now?” and experienced an exceptional reaction inside his own mind, “Yes! That’s it! That nails it!” several days before his diagnosis of a low-grade glioma in his brain. He returned to his journal a few days later, and there was the previous entry, “Death is certain, its timing uncertain; so what is important now?” “In case I might not have worked out the message of the tumor without it, the quote clearly pointed to the diagnosis being my wake-up call, inviting greater urgency to make my life a satisfying answer to the question.”
May your own experiences, noticing synchronicities and trusting the paths opening through them, bring you to deeper richer experiences of the trustworthy unfolding meaning of your own life.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE MEANING
Synchronicity is an inexplicable but profoundly meaning coincidence that stirs the soul and offers a guiding glimpse of one’s destiny. Synchronicity is less a phenomena to be proved than a fascination to be lived.
– Phil Cousineau
Synchronicity is a mind-boggling and sometimes eerie rendezvous between the world and our inner selves. Something happens in the external worlds and it fits exactly with what we need right now, showing that our human nature and mother nature are two sides of one coin.
– Dave Richo
The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily – perhaps not possibly – chronological. The time as we know it subjectively…is the continuous thread of revelation.
– Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings
Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.
– Emma Bull
There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly marvelous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them.
– Edgar Allen Poe
A university can provide you with a library, but what makes the book you are not looking for fall off the shelf and into your hands is not understood by any university.
– William Irwin Thompson
The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.
– W.H. Murray, the Scottish Himalaya expedition
Synchronicity shows us that more is at work than can be accounted for by chance. Since correlations are happening beyond our control, we trust that something, we know not what, is always at work, we know not how, to make us more than we are now, to make the world more than it is yet.
– Dave Richo
So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clue divine
– Emily Dickinson
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends
Rough-hew them how we will.
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Awareness of synchronicity makes you a person of more depth, especially as you see the underlying significance of your story and the world’s story as one and the same. This kind of awareness leads to a synchronous, melodic, harmonizing of the music in your soul and the rhythms of the cosmic spheres – which are, of course, one and the same.
– Dave Richo
The believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. He knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. There is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.
– Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom
Synchronicity can pave the way for people coming together. By unraveling the circumstances through which two people meet to enter a significant relationship, the delicate, unseen hand of fate, destiny, synchronicity, or underlying Tao – by whatever name the matchmaker is called – can be discerned.
– Jean Shinoda Bolen
May the time come when humans, having been awakened to a sense of the close bond linking all the movements of this world, shall be unable to give themselves to any one of their tasks without illuminating it with the clear vision that their work – however elementary it may be – is received and put to good use by a Center of the universe.
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Diving Milieu
That underlying connection (with others) is the Tao, and a synchronistic event is a specific manifestation of it.
– Jean Shinoda Bolen
Many applications of the coincidence method will therefore be found in the large field of nuclear physics, and we can say without exaggeration that the method is one of the essential tools of the modern nuclear physicist.
– Walther Bothe
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
[These two stories are among 87 included in Phil Cousineau’s Coincidence or Destiny?]
My mother died very suddenly of a heart attack just before Thanksgiving. Of course, we were all in shock to lose her without warning and were coping in whatever way we could. I had worried about attending the wake. I thought it would be a grueling ordeal and wasn’t sure how I would hold up. But it turned out quite differently. There were so many people who came to share their feelings. I couldn’t believe how many people told me, “She was my best friend.” Each one of them would lean closer to whisper in my ear, so that others would not hear and become jealous.
Back home, while washing up after the wake, a single, tiny bubble appeared in the kitchen, then floated from one person to another in the room. Believe it or not – it changed directions two or three times. Finally it hovered over an empty chair and disappeared.
You may say that there’s nothing unusual about a soap bubble popping up, especially when the sink if full of bubbling foam, but we were all mesmerized. The fact that it was just one bubble, and they way it moved, seemed quite extraordinary, as if to acknowledge each member of the family. We took it as a sign of our mother’s presence. You might even say that we ourselves caused the changes in direction, just with our breathing, but I swear no one wanted that bubble to disappear, and we all held our breath until it was gone.
After the funeral, we mentioned the story of the dancing bubble to a number of people, who indulgently nodded along with our recitation, perhaps more touched by our wish to believe in this sign than by any belief on their part in its reality. But there was one person for whom this story took a more serious turn. I told it to Genya, just as I tell it to you. But Genya did not nod or smile or pat my hand. She burst into sobs.
It was Genya who found my mother dead. Genya had been my mother’s hairdresser for almost forty years. That morning she came over to give her a new perm. My parents were coming to Boston for Thanksgiving, and, of course, my mom wanted to look her best. Genya came in the side door, which is always open then we’re at home and called for my mother, Mary. When Mary did not answer, Genya called again. Still no answer. Genya went through the dining room to the bedroom, still calling and looking for her.
Then she saw my mother, lying on the bed, as if peacefully asleep. But when Genya once more spike her name, Mary did not respond. Genya rant to touch her. Mary’s hand was cold. She wasn’t breathing. Genya called out the window to my father, who was working in the yard. As he came running in, she noticed there was a single, tiny bubble on the corner of her mouth.
As we talked, it was clear that Genya blamed herself for not being able to do more for my mother. She kept saying that if only she had come earlier, they might have been in time to revive her. My mother was her best friend. If only, if only….
We had already deeply reassured her that it wasn’t her fault, but Genya was distraught. She couldn’t get over what she had seen. She hadn’t mentioned the bubble to anyone before, but it was one strange detail that stuck in her mind. So it meant a lot to her to hear about the light, entrancing dance of the bubble in our kitchen.
Our story seemed to help change the meaning of the bubble for her. No longer was it locked in the image of her mortifying discovery, but transformed now to another – of my mother Mary’s spirit continuing to grace us.
I am an “animal” person. There are people who love their creatures, treat them decently, and think of them as pets. Then there are those of us who have a deeper soul-connection with our furballs. We treasure their lives and mourn their deaths in the same way we would that of a best friend. All of the animals I have shared my life with have been unique, but Napoleon was undeniably special.
Nappie was a big, beautiful, indomitable long-haired tabby cat. He was part ancient-souled curmudgeon, part sweet impish little boy. At times he could be quiet superior, but other moments surfaced where you witnessed his vulnerability and realized he was feeling scared our hurt.
One of this most enduring qualities was his role at “The Caretaker.” When I became sick, he would lie on my chest looking quite concerned, and stare straight into my face, as if to ask, “Are you OK?” He was my lifeguard and kept an anxious vigil by the bathtub to ensure I didn’t drown. When my other cat had kittens, although incapable of being the biological father, Nappie still decided it was his duty to supervise their hygienic needs. A gigantic pay would gently pin a tiny head to the ground, and despite loud and squirmy protests, the entire furry body would be thoroughly cleaned. We were together for many years, and like an old married, couple, we understood and tolerated each other’s idiosyncrasies.
Napoleon died recently following unexpected complications from surgery for a tumor that was compressing his heart. Over the course of four years, I had experienced and grieved a series of devastating losses, and I can’t help but wonder if my caretaker adopted some of my pain. Mourning loss of his incredible spirit was not that dissimilar to grieving the loss of my dad and the separation from my husband.
Shortly thereafter, I was suddenly forced to vacate my residence in Los Angeles. I needed to find a home in a relatively safe neighborhood that would allow animals and still be affordable. I scoured ads and showed up at open houses only to realize that decent homes rented in seconds, whyle duply places in dangerous neighborhoods still demand top dollar. I panicked that I wouldn’t find a place for my animals and me to live.
Time was running out when I spotted an ad that read, “PETS OK.” I raced to the house, praying I would be the first prospective tenant. But others were already negotiating. My “Urban Guerilla” surfaced, and I literally bolted through the premises, saying, “Good neighborhood! Great backyard for my dog! OK price – I’ll take it!”
“These people in front of you want it, too,” was the landlady’s response.
My heart sank.
Resigned, I walked through the house more slowly, wondering what it would have been like to live there. I noticed the leather couches had deep scratch marks.
“Where is you dog,” I asked the landlady, who had been living in the house. She paused and fought back the tears.
“My dog died suddenly of cancer about six weeks ago. Every day I live here, all I can do is think about him.” I felt badly for her. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I lost my favorite kitty about six weeks ago from heart problems, and I know how sad you are feeling.”
Before this moment we were strangers, but now we were sisters in grief. She showed me a picture of a handsome dog. “I miss Napoleon so much, ” she said.
I almost fell over. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
I “miss Nappie so much, I can’t stay here, I really have to move on.”
“But my kitty’s name was Napoleon….”
I believe that in many ways our animals take care of us. A woman whom I had just met had lost her Napoleon at the same time that I had lost mine. She desperately wanted out, and I desperately wanted in. I can’t help but wonder if our two Napoleons somehow collaborated or if my Nappie, always my caretaker in a final gesture, found me this wonderful home.
– Pamela DuMond
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
The key to noticing synchronicity is the noticing. When I told a friend I was writing this newsletter on synchronicity, he said, “Oh yeah. A client of mine told me he had a dream about walking on the beach and finding a cat to bring home. The next day, he and his girlfriend went to the beach and as they were walking along a man stopped them and asked them if they wanted this cat to take home. And they did.”
If synchronicity is somewhere, sometimes, isn’t it everywhere, all the time?
Mindfulness practice – noticing our experience as it is happening in the moment – is terrific preparation, even a pre-requisite, for noticing synchronicities. We pay attention to the experience and inquire into the meaning of the experience. With a deepening mindfulness practice we can notice:
1) Events, and the links of meaning between events even if, especially if, there is no causal connection.
2) Our own felt sense of “something is significant here” even if we can’t explain what or why.
3) Messages, signs, premonitions, even those we perceive in hindsight much later.
Probably the most important pre-requisite to noticing synchronicities is simply to believe that synchronicities happen. We can’t make them happen, but we can notice them when they do.
Coincidence or Destiny?: Stories of Synchronicity that Illuminate Our Lives by Phil Cousineau.
The Power of Coincidence: How Life Shows Us What We Need to Know by David Richo.
The Power of Grace: Recognizing Unexpected Gifts on Our Path by David Richo.
Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principal by Carl G. Jung.
The Tao of Psychology: Sunchronicity and the Self by Jean Shinoda Bolen.