Only in modern times would we even need the word “synchronicity.”
Psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875–1961) identified the concept of synchronicity and gave it this name, but “synchronicity” was such a natural part of life throughout human history it didn’t require a name. Philosopher and psychologist at the California Institute of Integral Studies Dr. Richard Tarnas looks at why this concept entered the Western consciousness when it did and why it’s so important to the modern mind.
“I have gradually stopped believing in just about everything. But I do believe in synchronicity,” Dr. Jeffrey Kripal, chair of religious studies at Rice University, once told Tarnas. Tarnas sees synchronicity as a way to reconnect with the world around us, to find meaning in post-modern life.
He defined synchronicity during a recorded talk at the Synchronicity: Matter & Psyche Symposium last year: “Synchronicity describes the phenomenon of observed coincidences, in which two or more independent events having no apparent linear causal connection nevertheless appear to form a meaningful pattern.”
In the primal worldview, Tarnas said, people viewed themselves and the world around them as having interrelated meaning. He illustrated this with a picture of one circle inside the other. The inside circle represents the self, or the ego. The outside circle is the world. The barrier between the two is permeable. In the modern worldview, however the ego is delineated from the outside world by a solid line.
In the past, if a person was thinking about someone he hadn’t seen or even thought of in many years and that person appeared unexpectedly, it would often be assumed that thought and the event were connected. Today, if that happens, it’s often dismissed as “just coincidence.” It’s not generally part of modern thinking to assume that a person’s mind is somehow connected to the world outside it in such a way as to allow that person to intuit the arrival of a long-absent friend.
A Cartesian worldview (named for 17th century philosopher René Descartes, well known for having said, “I think, therefore I am”) prevails in which the self is isolated from the outside world, Tarnas said. The self contains meaning, but the world around it is void of meaning. It’s objective.
In other words, in the past, synchronicity was a given. People’s internal and external worlds were fluid and it wasn’t surprising that something in the outside world should be connected to one’s thoughts. It was also taken for granted that God or Providence or other forces beyond the human world were governing chance events. Nowadays, however, synchronicities are often ignored as “merely” chance events.
The seed of reductionism planted during the scientific revolution of the 16th century grew to be “very robust indeed,” Tarnas said, by the 19th century. Jung thus brought synchronicity into the disenchanted Western worldview at a critical time.
“Synchronicity reveals the meaningful connections between the subjective and objective world,” Jung wrote. He is quoted by Connie Beyer in her book “Everything Is Personal”: “Synchronicity is an ever-present reality for those who have eyes to see.”
Tarnas related a synchronicity from his personal life, one of many he has observed. His good friend, former president of the British Astrological Association Charles Harvey, died in Britain. Some of his family in the United States got together for a memorial at the Presidio, a park area near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco’s Bay Area. They had a building in mind there in which to gather, but they found it full of people.
Tarnas remembered a little chapel nearby and suggested they go there instead. It was the perfect place.
Harvey’s sister-in-law stood to say a few words about Harvey, but her eyes suddenly widened in surprised and she stopped speaking. Tarnas and others followed her gaze and saw a golden plaque on the chapel wall that read: “In honor of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Harvey (1845–1910).”
The small memorial service had unexpectedly found its way to a place where the name of the deceased was inscribed.
Victor Mansfield, a Cornell University physicist who wrote the book “Synchronicity, Science, and Soul Making,” said that synchronicity poses big problems for the modern world psychologically and philosophically, noted Tarnas. Mansfield had seen too many synchronicities in his own life and the lives of others to dismiss them as “mere coincidence.”
Mansfield said, “They are especially troubling experiences for me as a physicist trained within the culture of scientific materialism.”
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