— Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man
Most people have some inkling as to the meaning of the word synchronicity.
“Chance? Coincidence? Signs?” they’ll usually reply when asked.
Religious fundamentalists and conservatives tend to have a knee jerk reaction to the idea synchroncity, seeing it as the workings of Satan. Meanwhile, materialistic skeptics usually dismiss synchronicity as some kind of flaky New Age fantasy.
More mature psychologists, theologians and thinkers, however, are seriously considering the implications that synchroncity might have for cosmology and ethics in the 21st century and beyond.
The term synchronicity was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961).
At one time Jung was a close friend and colleague of Sigmund Freud. But these two titans of modern psychology had a falling out in 1914, mostly due to Jung’s rejection of Freud’s dogmatic insistence on the primacy of the libido.
Before their split, the two corresponded a great deal about the emerging school of psychoanalysis. One of the topics mentioned in their letters was Jung’s idea of synchronicity, which at that time wasn’t clearly defined.
Freud mostly ridiculed the idea, but Jung’s personal encounters with synchronicity along with his study of quantum physics gave him solid grounds to advance this cutting edge concept.
Synchronicity suggests that mind and matter, along with past, present and future exist in a potentially meaningful continuum. As such, it compels us to rethink everyday assumptions about self and environment, causality and time.
By the 1950s, Jung had outlined three types of synchronicity:
1. The meaningful acausal coincidence of a psychological event and an external observable event, both taking place at or around the same time.
This first type of synchronicity might be illustrated as follows: You’re driving home and begin to think of a friend whom you haven’t seen for years. Upon entering the front door you find that the very same friend had just phoned and left a message on your answering machine.
2. The meaningful acausal coincidence of a psychological event and an external observable event, the latter taking place outside the individual’s range of sensory perception.
The second type of synchronicity is illustrated by the documented vision of the Swedish scientist and mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Jung reports that Swedenborg inwardly saw a devastating fire that raged approximately 100 miles away in Stockholm, representing what psi researchers now call remote viewing.
3. The meaningful acausal coincidence of an internal psychological event with an external observable event, the latter taking place in the future.
Also called precognition, this type of synchronicity is found throughout the history of religions. In the Biblical tradition, for instance, Jesus accurately predicts Peter’s finding a coin in a fish’s mouth, as well as his own betrayal, death and resurrection (Matthew 17:27; 26:23; John 2:19).
One could argue, however, that Jesus was absolutely certain that this precognition would come about. He knows because he’s God. So Jesus’ predictions might be construed as ‘synchronicities’ by non-Christians but not by himself and his followers.
For Christian believers, Jesus’ accurate predictions are sure evidence of God’s plan of salvation. And this is a bit different, theologically speaking, from the notion of synchronicity as set forth by Jung.
The chicken or the egg?
Jung says that synchronicity involves an acausal relationship between ego consciousness and the external environment. That is, synchronicity just happens, not caused by any single event.
He also cautions against actively searching out instances of synchronicity. In this regard, Jung says synchronicity is never sought nor anticipated, but discovered.1 Jung adds, however, that the conscious ego is guided by the archetypes of the collective unconscious toward the experience of synchronicity.
If this sounds confusing, it is.
The difficulty may be attributed to Jung’s theoretical limitations along with the somewhat mysterious nature of space-time. After all, the issue of causality vs. acausality is still hotly debated within academic, theological and scientific disciplines.
Some illustrations, analogies and possibilities
While reading these, please note that I’m trying to illustrate some of the complications around the idea of synchronicity within the context of Jungian theory. This might be limiting. For instance, is the dream angel in the last analogy really a “positive archetypal force” or could it be, as many religious persons would believe, a bona fide angel?
I only offer these asides as food for thought:
- Is synchronicity causal or acausal? – Jung’s take on acausality can be confusing…
- A fictional example of false or mistaken synchronicity – A German submarine officer in WW-II looks through the periscope…
- An analogy illustrating how deceptive spiritual influences might contribute to a belief in synchronicity – A lonely man called Lorenzo visits a fortune teller…
- An analogy illustrating how positive spiritual influences might contribute to a belief in synchronicity – A woman named Annabelle dreams of a beautiful angel …
Ethics and synchronicity
We’d do well to remember that synchronicity is ethically ambivalent. Neither good nor bad in itself, synchronicity is variously experienced by saints, devil-worshippers and the insane.2
In instances of psychological inflation,3 individuals may act in horrendously cruel ways while believing they’re God’s special gift to humanity. Unfortunately, synchronicity may be extremely dangerous when experienced by a demented person who interprets it so as to inflate his or her ego. In such intances the immodest identify with archetypal forces and adopt a false and destructive sense of superiority.
Jung says this kind of self-aggrandizement can occur when psychological complexes remain unresolved. So an Adlerian inferiority/superiority complex may be reinforced by the alleged experience of synchronicity.4
Arrogance and synchronicity
Synchronicity isn’t exactly the most popular topic of conversation in contemporary society. And it likely wouldn’t be a great opener at cocktail parties.
It’s difficult to know if this taboo arises from fear, ignorance or some combination of the two. But it seems reasonable to say that not too many Western people experience synchronicity on a regular basis.
While this may be the case in most so-called developed nations, the paranormal writer Colin Wilson inverts Western wisdom by suggesting that the healthy mind, not the weird or deranged one, regularly experiences synchronicity. In keeping with this idea, saints, gurus and shamans from a wide variety of spiritual traditions often claim to live in an almost perpetual state of synchronicity.
Could the spiritually wise be more aware and, therefore, better attuned to synchronicity than the unwise?
Well, maybe. But this kind of thinking arguably leads to unhealthy, elitist attitudes.
Quite possibly one form of wisdom is characterized by an acute awareness of synchronicity. But those claiming to be wise often seem to be lost in a world of fantasy, wish-fulfillment, paranoia, confusion, deception and error.
This wouldn’t be a huge problem if misguided people always kept to themselves. But we often hear of arrogant charismatic figures so wrapped up in their own little bubble of ‘reality’ that they hoodwink, exploit and abuse others—emotionally, economically, sexually and sometimes fatally.
Indeed, some sham gurus and alleged guides seem more like puffed up bullfrogs presiding over mud ponds instead of sincere, humble individuals who are closely connected with the Holy.
The big picture
On a more optimistic note, synchronicity may point to a Divine Plan within God’s Creation. It’s hard to say if Jung would have seen it this way. But the Biblical Isaiah illustrates an essentially theological perspective which could account for what many see as synchronicity:
This plan of mine is not what you would work out, neither are my thoughts the same as yours! For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than yours, and my thoughts than yours.5
In his book, The Rupture of Time, the Jung scholar Dr. Roderick Main writes extensively on the wider implications of synchronicity:
Synchronicity suggests that there are uncaused events, that matter has a psychic aspect, that the psyche can relativise time and space, and that there may be a dimension of objective meaning accessible to but not created by humans… If the psyche can relativise time and space, then it becomes possible for temporally and spatially distant events somehow to involve themselves in the here and now without any normal channel of causal transmission. If there is a dimension of objective meaning, this implies that the meaning we experience in not always or entirely our subjective creation, individually or as a species, but that we may be woven into an order of meaning that transcends our human perspective.6
While the idea of synchronicity might seem obscure and perhaps difficult, its defenders will say that it’s a relatively new concept, one that compels us to take a fresh look at ourselves and our place in the ever-changing cosmos.
1. (a) The philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716) says in his Monadology that the soul, body and all of creation exist in a “pre-established harmony.” But for Leibniz the ultimate cause of cosmic interconnectedness is the Divine Will of an eternal Creator, existing beyond time and the cosmos. (b) Freud wrote to Jung that synchronicity is merely the product of unconsciously projected desires. In another letter, however, Freud concedes to an “undeniable cooperation of chance.”
2. (a) For instance, after denying Jesus, Peter heard the cock crow as predicted by Jesus (Matthew 26:74). (b) A comprehensive discussion of the arguably relative idea of insanity is beyond the scope of this article. But perhaps we could tentatively define insanity as “holding a rigid belief in the truth of ideas, persons, objects or processes which are false, to the extent of losing the ability to make reasonable judgments.” This definition is, of course, problematic in that so-called madpersons may see or believe in things that are existing, meaningful and true, but which are visible and understandable only to themselves. To complicate matters, some philosophers speak of imaginary ideas that have, at least, a subsistence, if not a true existence, such as the idea of a “round square.” See William T. Blackstone, The Problem of Religious Knowledge: The Impact of Contemporary Philosophical Analysis on the Question of Religious Knowledge (N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 12.
3. Most of Jung’s concepts are competently defined in Daryl Sharp’s Jung Lexicon.
4. (a) See the discussion in ETs, UFOs and the Psychology of Belief.
(b) Jung and Adler’s concepts are noted here for the sake of argument. The idea of so-called “archetypes” and Adler’s emphasis on a “Will to Power” are much debated within depth psychology and related disciplines.
5. The Living Bible (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1973) Isaiah 55:8-9
6. Roderick Main, The Rupture of Time (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2004),
My Ph.D. Thesis
“Synchronicity: New Age Fantasy or Face of the Future?” Copyright © Michael W. Clark. All rights reserved.
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