This seminar essay, and the one that will follow is a discussion which uses Chapter 14 in the Portable Jung: On Synchronicity (found as an afterward to the 1951 The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche – CW Vol. 8 pars. 969-997 – I will also in this multi-part discussion draw on an expanded version of this essay Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principal published as Part VII the same volume – CW Vol. 8 pars 816 – 968) as its starting point.
Chapter 14 is a fairly brief outline of Jung’s thoughts on synchronicity. He initially hesitates to define it but wants the reader to know that the term has “something to do with time” and with simultaneity – the meaningful coincidence of two or more events that appear, subjectively, to be interrelated in such a meaningful way that it is hard for us to accept that mere probability is at play.
Jung will spend a great deal of this essay trying to empirically distinguish between “runs” of chance / normal probability and what he will call the acausal connections of synchronicity. Meaningful events, close to each other in time that have a strong resonance to each other but do not in any way cause each other. Jung will also suggest that these may have some actual, mild deviation from strictly calculated probability. This seems to be an important point to him in this chapter.
Remember, Jung had been interested in spiritualism and religious matters continuously since childhood, his father a minister, his mother seemingly suffered from fairly severe depressive and dissociative episodes, and came from family with a history of visions and premonitions. Jung’s cousin was a fairly well known medium, an early subject of his paranormal research – later “debunked” – in an era where psychology as an extension of the medical model – and spiritualist movements such as theosophy were in active competition to claim, explain, and define uncanny/unconscious/unexplained phenomena. Jung had dealt for many years with accusations by colleagues, competitors, and by Freud of succumbing to superstition, excessive religiosity and occultism who saw him as betraying the scientific method and empirical standards. They saw his exploration of such “parapsychological” subjects as undermining the medicalization of the concept of personal unconscious conflict as the core explanation for symptoms associated with mental illness and disturbance. To the Freudians, Jung, essentially, was playing for the wrong team. Jung, by his own view, was psychiatrist whose persona remained fairly strongly identified with the medical profession and who valued empiricism – even as he acknowledged its limitations – and sought to examine such phenomena as beliefs which may be proved true or false or remain improvable but which exist in fact as real beliefs that have real psychological effects in and of themselves. He wants to examine the processes, influence and outcomes of believing in things, as well as consider why we believe in anything, and the common shapes and forms that such beliefs take.
One can sense that being dismissed as “religious” pierces him, and Jung seems to work very hard to establish that he is approaching these synchronistic phenomena from an empirical perspective, rather than relying on anecdotes of how the uncanny experiences manifest and may be utilized in the psychotherapeutic process.
Synchronicities are a combining of deeply subjective perceptions or events with apparently random objectively occurring events. Moreover, our subjective experience is engaged in such a meaningful way that is often difficult for us to dismiss these correspondences as random. These events of happenstance may correspond so directly with our inner lives and experiences that they appear to us as signs, omens, portents, or we may experience them as uncanny, numinous, or even miraculous.
Jung points out that many “runs” of coincidences occur within the realm of common probability – He gives a simple enough example of a person who encounters the same number three times in one day: – on the street car they are riding, a telephone number, and in the evening on their theater ticket. A normative coincidence that most of us might not even notice, or if we did – we might not think much about it.
But – if we extrapolate beyond Jung’s example – if we were to add an intensely emotional subjective component – say the person involved had had a dream the night before – where his grandfather had handed him an important message and when he opened it the number was written on the paper – and then he had gone on to experience the repeating coincidence. Or – say that the number corresponded to a pivotal experience in the person’s life – say – the birthdate of the person’s deceased daughter – many would be more likely to interpret those events as “beyond chance” and “not just random”
Perhaps this would be due partially due to the length of the coincidental “run” being extended from three occurrences to four – but if the fourth occurrence was again something merely objective instead of a dream or a birthday – say a number of a radio station posted on a passing billboard – we would probably simply think to ourselves: “Hmm. Weird coincidence!” and think nothing further of it.
It when such coincidence which resonates or activates something that has deep emotional or psychological meaning to us, when the scenario becomes a too meaningful to seem “random”. We might believe that the dream “foretold” the numbers we would encounter the next day. We might consider what, if any, message we were to derive from the destination of the streetcar, the person we were talking to on the phone, or the play we were seeing. Some might even consider buying a lottery ticket after a dream and a set of coincidences like that – to test how long and how lucky the “run” is. Or, some might take it as a “sign” that a deceased loved one was still present with us, looking over us, or “sending” us a numerical birthdate message as a consolation.
Jung writes in detail in this essay about ESP experiments and about a small data set of correspondences between astrological charts and marriage partners. For myself, I think these kinds of phenomena can emerge from subjective experience, and be extremely valuable clinically without any need for there to be any mathematically increased improbability to support their “reality.” People “really” consider them to be meaningful – and most therapists I know who have done this work for a long time have come to experience such extraordinary twists of fate and luck that we have all surrendered to the fact that the “uncanny” exists as a real influence on human behavior – we have all worked with clients who have been bereaved who have experienced the felt presence, or a “sign” from a dead loved one – and the comfort that is drawn from the experience is real whether the event falls inside or outside the established odds of likely probability.
But, Jung needs to establish that there is some different kind of confluence at play, otherwise, these experiences can be dismissed as delusions or superstitions or “magical thinking” or as an irrational defense – and those who engage in Freudian medical models of the time would see their job as needing to confront or undermine, or interpret as a symptom, arrest or an indication of a childhood complex.
Jung saw these synchronicities as important and useful clinically – not as illusions to be confronted or as symptoms of ego-deficits, and in order to value them in his historical context, he had to try to make a case that they were subjectively meaningful and objectively real.
We are not, in our current place in history, engaged in the same struggles that Jung was in his era and culture – and perhaps we are in an era where the limits of science, the place of the unknown and the unknowable, is a less threatening notion. And Jung’s arguments in favor of magnetic influence of the planets and ESP research seem less than compelling.
That being said: Jung is also talking about phenomena that has become much more accepted in terms of scientific inquiry – and so in someway, the notions behind synchronicity seem less outlandish to us today with many more generations of research into quantum physics. What Jung is trying to establish in this discussion is that heightened subjective experiences may change something about our experience of time and space. Or that perhaps our internal subjective state has some non-causal effect on the manifestation of objective events. And we know now, that just the fact of being observed at all, even by an electronic non-conscious “eye” can change the way particles behave during experimentation.
Jung actually worked very closely with physicist Wolfgang Pauli in trying to understand more about how time and space seem to work so differently in our subjective lives than it does by empirical measurement. If you want more information about their collaboration you may want to read a book called: 137; Jung, Pauli and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession by Arthur I. Miller. If time and space are “not real” in and of themselves, but only concepts that emerge as a result of our creating objective measures – what is time and space from a purely subjective experience- might it be felt and lived much more fluidly in ways that are very different than the mechanistic measurements we believe it to be?
Time in itself is non-existent. There is only the current of events which we measure with the time-concept. For the… man close to nature, the course of time is not an abstraction; for him there is only what is just before one, the now, and what is behind. He has no clock by which he could read the time with numbers; he is entirely in this stream of events which steadily flows on down into a dark hole. It meets us out of the dark future, flows through us, and sinks down behind us again into an endless darkness. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
It is in this strange subjective kind of dream-time –where our subjectivity might slip ahead to anticipate the future in a dream or “feel” the danger threatening a loved one thousands of miles away that Jung thinks synchronicity might emerge from.
But, I’m not sure you have to understand the origins or even agree with Jung’s hypothesis about the ultimate source of meaningful coincidence in order to work constructively with such coincidences when they emerge. In the upcoming seminar/s we will talk about some of Jung’s examples of synchronicity, and some of my own – and consider how we might respond to such occurrences in the psychotherapy office. We will also consider synchronicity as a kind of heightened intuitive state and as an instinctive method of perceiving which may be activated in times of crisis, change or transformation.