This essay is a continuation of discussion begun in Seminar #47 on Chapter 14 in the Portable Jung: On Synchronicity as its starting point. (found as an afterward to the 1951 The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche – CW Vol. 8 pars. 969-997) I will also draw on a later, expanded version of this essay Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principal– (CW Vol. 8 pars 816 – 968)
Many clients will report meaningful coincidences, uncanny dreams, anticipatory sensations that “something is about to happen” or a “feeling that it wouldn’t work out” – and depending on the therapist’s view of such experiences the sharing of such subjective experiences of “signs and omens” can either become an opportunity to deepen trust and exploration in the relationship – or if the therapist is dismissive or too expressive of skepticism – an event which drives such “irrational” yet meaningful sensations into deeper repression or out of the therapeutic relationship.
I was amazed to see how many people have had experiences of this kind and how carefully the secret was guarded. ~ C.G. Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principal
Client’s often report such experiences by preemptively dismissing them: “I know this is ridiculous and totally woo-woo but….” Even clients who are deeply anti-religious, strict materialists, or avowed skeptics hang onto synchronic experiences or “signs” like secret hidden treasures that can be very difficult for them to expose to anyone else.
It isn’t necessary to “believe” that synchronicities are “signs from the universe” or from a god to appreciate their existence, and the opportunity they may provide:
My tendency is to think of 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. I suspect that we gather many subliminally perceived pieces of data about the world and the patterns around us, and that synchronicities are what may happen when our unconscious begins to anticipate a shift in natural patterns or rhythms of living.
I don’t know that you have to believe that distant planets exert influence upon the lives of human beings to consider the archetypes and patterns that astrology attempts to talk about for example. The stories and seasonal shifts that astrology speaks to – the differing energies of spring, fall, winter, summer and the archetypal narratives we have created around the celebrations and rituals associated with the shift of the year – the long days of summer and long nights of winter and the transitional seasons – may have archetypal influence on how we see ourselves and the world without any “planetary influence.” How does it feel to be born in spring, to have your birthday each year emerge as the blooms are first coming out – how does it affect our identities to feel that our story begins and reboots each new year as chicks are being hatched and bulbs are blossoming? How might it feel different if you born in the dead of winter – your story starting over each year in on the darkest day? How might it shape, even in very subtle ways, how we experience ourselves and our identities to associate our personal new year/new beginning with “back to school” season or with the lazy relaxation of summer? How might our seasonal stories correspond or diverge from each other?
I was once, about 15 years ago, gifted an astrological reading – and the one “prediction” that it made was that I was susceptible to experiencing some kind of cancer or serious illness in my lower back or in my colon when I was fifty-two and that if I was vigilant I would come through – and that certainly, with hindsight that chart reading (on tape so that I could review and check my memory) came to seem like a very meaningful synchronistic event when I experience a cancer that involved lesions on my lumbar spine causing saddle paralysis.
In New York City it is extremely common for client’s to have consulted with healers or readers who use synchronistic methods such as tarot, IChing, astrology, mediums etc. If they tell us that they experienced something meaningful from such a reading – even if we do not “believe” in it ourselves, or think that the reader is merely a cold reader, the experience can be a very powerful method to examine our unconscious projections and processes of meaning making – and, in my view, unless the transactions are addictive, fiscally damaging, or are indicative of a kind of passivity or too exploitable gullibility in the client – or have left the client significantly disturbed or seem to be creating a destructive dependency. Just like dream work, I would not over-focus on synchronicitous content with a client who is having a challenging time staying grounded reality, or who has symptoms of psychosis or significant ego weakness or injury. But neither would I consider that the presence of interest in such content was inherently a sign of ego weakness. But, if the client is presenting it, it is probably most important to begin by exploring what meaning the client finds in these experiences.
Unless the client is really unable to think clearly generally, these are usually experiences where people “dip into the irrational” to allow their unconscious processes to come closer to the surface of their rational consciousness.
If we think of archetypes is as instinctive patterns of behavior that can be activated by objective or naturally occurring events, synchronicity often clusters around the activation of such instinctive energies. Synchronicities may be more likely to emerge when our anticipatory function (ie – intuition) is heightened for some reason – quite possibly from signals that were gathered subliminally, by our pre-conscious awareness – that our unconscious assembles and passes onto our conscious awareness through drawing attention to the coincidences in the world around us which coincide with our process of meaning making.
One can observe in everyday life how the unconscious anticipates things… Such peculiar beside-the-mark perceptions are very frequent… one generally overlooks them and thinks: ‘What a coincidence!’ But there are examples which are really marvelous… I am in the habit of saying ‘Now you must watch, now something will happen!’ ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
We may experience these things as “magical” because our meaning-making function is particularly heightened at the moment. And I don’t discount that there may be good reason for that in the external world. We don’t scoff or consider it magical when animals detect and respond to earthquakes before they occur, or when lost dogs are able to track down their owners who have moved to new homes across the country, or monarch butterflies migrate to a specific a breeding ground that they were born thousands of miles away from. We assume that the animals have some instinctive processes and sensory abilities that we have yet to understand – but we do not experience as magical or uncanny or even slightly irrational – even if we consider it amazing or beautiful. It seems to me as likely that we “read” patterns unconsciously and automatically without realizing we are doing so, just as all animals do.
I’ve written before about September 11th and the dreams that my classmates and I collected that seemed to anticipate those events. And whether you think of them as “fortune-telling” or magic, or you think of them as a manifestation of some kind of unconscious anticipatory pattern recognition, the point is that they offered a kind of preparatory service to the psyche’s of the people who dreamed them, and seemed to help those who saw their dreams as useful to them in negotiating the overwhelming experience
When a client reports an uncanny experience that has occurred in their lives outside of the therapy office they often interpret them very concretely and positively as magical or confirmatory signs that something is “right.” In my experience this is extremely common particularly when people are dating and looking for new romantic partners – and they very often feel that there are “little signs” that confirm for them that a potential partner is a good match. Sometimes people even have difficulty leaving an extremely problematic relationship because so many signs told them things were “right”
I don’t think Jung would disagree with me, that like dreams or any other unconscious content – synchronicitous experiences are not concrete signals that are to be obeyed, and whatever their function they are not necessarily confirming or positive. Oedipus tried to take the prophecy of the Delphic oracle at face value and it didn’t help him optimize his fate!
Synchronicities seem to be activated when the external environment in some way is summoning archetypal, instinctive content. Signs only indicate that something is shifting, or that some necessary experience is approaching. Often they are simply sparkly attention-getting messages from our depths that say, “Pay attention!” or as Jung says above “Now something will happen!” – What happens is likely to be both good and bad or neither. Jung tells a story of a client of his who died suddenly of an illness that had only presented with very mild, unconcerning symptoms. His wife anticipated his death because a flock of birds had settled on the roof of her home, as had happened before when several of her other relatives had died. In the essay Dancing In the Graveyard I present a long “run” of meaningful coincidences that happened in and around me after the death of Geoffrey Holder, who was featured in a recurring dream I’d had since childhood. Certainly these were not “positive” synchronicities, although they may have been preparatory or assisted me in negotiating such challenging if meaningful circumstances. They were simply coincidences that felt extremely meaningful to me just as my life was shifting into a season of dying and illness.
Or as Jung says: “The unconscious often knows more than the conscious” and synchronicity, deeply felt meaningful coincidence may simply be one of the ways it passes that knowledge upwards into awareness.
Perhaps on a day when a portentous subliminal instinctive knowing was not constellated in her unconscious – the wife of Jung’s dead patient would not have taken note of a flock of birds on her roof. Perhaps the portent – or her the ability to recognize portent –was subjective and activated inside of her. But it was activated. Perhaps synchronicity occurs when we are in need of heightened awareness at important crossroads, or, as we are moving into a new phase of life or consciousness. Perhaps the numinous quality of synchronicities is simply our unconscious awareness pulling toward the surface of awareness when our animal bodies sense change or danger or opportunity. “The conscious then comes under the influence of unconscious instinctual impulses and contents”
Perhaps such meaning-filled coincidental phenomenon takes place when our car is switching drivers – and the unconscious takes over the wheel at an important intersection.
So, when clients do talk about such “magical” feeling experiences – I don’t in anyway challenge their belief in the importance of the sign or symbolic occurrence, but I often do try to help them expand their interpretation of such signs and not assign positive or negative value judgments to them. We retain a choice about how we respond to such signals, and we do not have to commit to any course of action based on a “sign” or a synchronicity. Until the event has played itself out entirely, there is no way of knowing what they are indicating other than perhaps that something important is happening. Pay attention. This is a crossroads. This is a portal to another stage of living. Something different is occurring. Something is changing. Simply that.
Next seminar will continue this discussion, focusing on synchronicities which occur in the psychotherapeutic relationship and in the office – and what they may indicate about the transference/countertransference processes and the therapeutic process itself.