Synchronicity: Meaningful Patterns in Life

“Never do human beings speculate more, or have more opinions, than about things which they do not understand.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

From his childhood, Carl Jung experienced strange and seemingly unexplainable phenomena. He feared that he was going mad, and went on the quest to discover what they meant.

“I saw yellow waves, swimming rubble and the death of countless thousands… Two weeks passed then the vision returned, still more violent than before, and an inner voice spoke: ‘Look at it, it is completely real, and it will come to pass. You cannot doubt this.’ ”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Jung had these vivid visions just before the First World War broke out. When this happened, he was sure that no schizophrenia was threatening him. He understood that his dreams and visions came to him from the subsoil of the collective unconscious.

For Jung, the pressing question was, how are such meaningful events – not linked by any apparent causal chains – possible? What does this say about the physical universe? These were surprising juxtapositions that scientific rationality could not adequately explain.

As a youth, Jung not only experienced unusual visions, but also events that could not be explained in any manner. During the summer holidays, Jung was studying his textbooks and heard a sound like a pistol shot. He rushed to the room and saw that a solid table had split from the rim to beyond the centre. Some two weeks later, he heard another sound. This time he saw that inside a cupboard, the bread knife, which had been used shortly before, had been snapped off in several pieces.

Jung finished his medical studies and became a psychiatrist. During this time, he attended seances for communicating with the dead, and had an interest in parapsychology and the occult, mainly due to his own personal experiences. This formed the basis of his medical dissertation published in 1902, entitled On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena: A Psychiatric Study

On one occasion, Jung was having a conversation with Freud about parapsychology. Freud, in his materialism, rejected most of Jung’s questions as nonsensical. Jung had a strange sensation, as if his diaphragm were made of iron and were becoming red-hot. At that moment there was a loud noise in the bookcase, which stood right next to them, that both of them stood up in alarm, fearing the thing was going to topple over them. Jung told him: “There, that is an example of so-called catalytic exteriorisation phenomenon.” Freud replied that it was sheer bosh. Jung replied that it was not, and to prove his point he predicted that in a moment there will be another such loud noise. Another detonation went off in the bookcase. Jung wrote:

“To this day I do not know what gave me this certainty. But I knew beyond all doubt that the report would come again. Freud only stared aghast at me. I do not know what was in his mind, or what his look meant.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

In 1928, when Jung was drawing the mandalas present in his Red book, the sinologist Richard Wilhelm sent him a copy of The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Taoist alchemical book of life that teaches an ancient Chinese meditation practice for achieving wholeness. Jung was struck by the parallelism between the Chinese mandala and the one he was working on, and he immediately devoured the book. In remembrance of this event, he wrote under his mandala:

“In 1928, when I was painting this picture, showing the golden, well-fortified castle, Richard Wilhelm in Frankfurt sent me the thousand-year-old Chinese text on the yellow castle, the germ of the immortal body.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

This was a decisive point in Jung’s life, where his writings shifted to a focus on the psychological significance of alchemy. He wrote that:

“[From Wilhelm] the spark leapt across and kindled a light that was to become for me one of the most significant events of my life… Indeed, I feel myself so very much enriched by him that it seems to me as if I had received more from him than from any other man.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 15. Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature

Jung was particularly struck by a drawing of a yogi with five human figures growing out of the top of his head and five more figures growing out of the top of each of their heads. The picture, thought Jung, portrays the spiritual state of the yogi who is about to rid himself of his many egos and pass into the more complete objective state of the self.

Origins of Synchronicity

Jung coined the term synchronicity and mentions it publicly for the first time in 1930 in his memorial address for Richard Wilhelm, who also translated the I Ching, or Book of Changes. He referred to it as:

“[A] peculiar principle active in the world so that things happen together somehow and behave as if they were the same, and yet for us they are not.”

Carl Jung, Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice (Tavistock Lectures)

Jung equated it with the Chinese concept of Tao, the union of opposites from the complementary pairs of Yin and Yang. It is based on the oneness of man and the surrounding cosmos. This is akin to the alchemical credo: “As above, so below”, referring to the inner world and outer world, the psyche and matter, being one and the same.

The aim of the Taoist sage is to live in harmony with the Tao and thereby avoiding falling into one extreme or the other. This is, in fact, the goal of Jungian psychology, the balance of opposites (consciousness and the unconscious) is aligning the ego to the Self, as centre of the personality. Here synchronicity plays a vital role.

There is no linear evolution for individuation (self-realisation); there is only a circumambulation (the circling around) in which everything is related to the centre. This is represented by the symbol of the mandala. For Jung, finding one’s own mandala symbol is crucial for the development of the self. For this circular movement to take place, the mandala must have a symbol such as the sun, a castle or a golden flower in its centre. It is a visual image of the divine pattern, a manifestation of the Self.

The end result is the alchemical procedure mysterium coniunctionis (which is also the title of Jung’s last great work). The opposite sides of life are united in a holy marriage. There is a heightening and clearness of consciousness and a deepening sense of unity of being.

Jung comments that Ātman, Tao, and Christ are different cultural symbols for wholeness that correlate the inner self with the animating principle of the cosmos. It is no longer you who live, it lives you.

The oracle of the I Ching played an important role in developing his idea of synchronicity. He used it with his patients in psychotherapy and could remember a great deal of meaningful answers and unusual psychological insights. For instance, he recalls the story of a patient suffering from a mother complex, who feared his prospective marriage partner might be domineering. Jung opened the I Ching and it showed the hexagram 44, entitled Coming to Meet, which stated: The maiden is powerful. One should not marry such a maiden.

Jung’s experiments demonstrated that there are meaningful connections between the psychic realm and the physical world. He wrote:

“For more than thirty years I have interested myself in this oracle technique, or method of exploring the unconscious, for it has seemed to me of uncommon significance… [It relates to] a certain curious principle that I have termed synchronicity, a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since the latter is a merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve one out of another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance.”

Carl Jung, Foreword to the I Ching

What is Synchronicity?

Causality is the way we explain the link between two successive events. The cause of striking a billiard ball with a cue leads to the effect of the ball moving. Synchronicity, however, is a meaningful coincidence of outer and inner events that cannot be causally linked. The emphasis lies on the word “meaningful”. It occurs when an inwardly perceived event (dream, vision, premonition, thought or mood) is seen to have a correspondence in external reality: the inner image has “come true”. The inner world and the outer world coincide, bringing meaning to your life.

Synchronicity derives from the Greek prefix syn (together) and the word khronos (time). It means existing or happening at the same time. The word co-incidence implies various incidents happening together. However, a synchronicity is not a typical coincidence, but rather a meaningful coincidence of two or more events. The problem of synchronicity had puzzled Jung for a long time. When he was investigating the phenomena of the collective unconscious, he kept on coming across “coincidences” that were connected so meaningfully, that they broke all statistical probabilities.

We cannot imagine events that are connected non-causally and are capable of a non-causal explanation. But that does not mean that such events do not exist.

Atom and Archetype: Matter and Psyche

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli sought therapy from Carl Jung and shared many of his dreams. A prominent quantum physicist, who happened to have complex dreams, was an extraordinary find. After he no longer was a patient, he would keep up his correspondence with Jung. This is documented in the book Atom and Archetype, which feature the Pauli/Jung letters.

Through their joint effort, they’d come to see synchronicity as an acausal principle that transcends space, time and causality. It took nearly twenty years for them to reach the point of publishing their ground-breaking, controversial ideas. In 1952, Jung and Pauli published a joint volume, The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche. Later, Jung’s part, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, would be published in Volume 8 of his Collected Works.

He wrote:

“As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist I have often come up against the phenomena in question and could convince myself how much these inner experiences meant to my patients. In most cases they were things which people do not talk about for fear of exposing themselves to thoughtless ridicule. I was amazed to see how many people have had experiences of this kind and how carefully the secret was guarded.”

Carl Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle

Rhine: Extrasensory Perception Experiments

Jung did not have the necessary means to conduct scientific experiments on synchronicity. He refers to the extrasensory perception experiments of J.B. Rhine, who founded parapsychology as a branch of psychology. The experiments show evidence for acausal combinations of events, where chance concurrence represents a degree of improbability that would have to be expressed by an astronomical figure. It goes beyond the scope of chance and probability.

For instance, in a card experiment consisting of 25 cards with 5 different signs, the subject is separated by a screen from the experimenter, and had to try to guess the cards 800 times. One young man, who in numerous experiments scored an average of 10 hits for every 25 cards (double the probable number), once guessed all 25 cards correctly, which gives a probability of around 1 in 298 quadrillion.

Jung does not seek a complete description and explanation of these complicated phenomena, but to open up an obscure field which is philosophically of the greatest importance. His interest in this problem is not merely scientific, but most importantly he seeks to delve into the human soul.

Archetypes, Collective unconscious, Psychoid

Jung attempts to account for synchronistic events primarily in terms of his concept of archetype, which are patterns of instinctual behaviour responsible for the organisation of unconscious psychic processes. Archetypes constitute the structure of the collective unconscious, which represents a psyche that is identical in all individuals, and contains the images of all creation. It is the master-pattern of life.

The archetypes arrange the psychic material and produce meaningful patterns in the physical world. They cannot be directly perceived or “represented”, in contrast to the perceptible psychic phenomena. On account of its “irrepresentable” nature, Jung has called it “psychoid” (soul-like), which refers to the relationship between a person’s psyche and the physical world beyond that person’s body.

We find ourselves with a factor that has nothing to do with brain activity, but rather with meaningful patterns in our personal life. Meaningful coincidences rest on an archetypal foundation. Synchronicity is the deepest layer of archetypal reality where psyche and matter collide and become indistinguishable. This unitary dimension to all experience is the alchemical notion of the unus mundus (the one world). Jung writes:

“If mandala symbolism is the psychological equivalent of the unus mundus, then synchronicity is its parapsychological equivalent.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

Psychological life is an expression of nature. In this case, we have to suppose a “knowledge” prior to all consciousness. Synchronistic phenomena are thought to arise from activations of this level of reality. There seems to be an a priori, causally inexplicable knowledge of a situation which at the time is unknowable.

In therapy, seeing one person as radically separate from another is limiting. It is the field that connects and includes the two participants that is transformative. The unconscious communications that link both partners, may usefully be described as emerging out of the psychoid realm, because it transcends limited perceptions of analyst and patient possessing separate encapsulated psyches. It is particularly in the heightened tension generated by such a field that synchronistic events tend to occur.

The psychic life is fundamentally a shared unitary realm. The fullness of the Self is the pleroma, the place where past, present and future exist simultaneously. It is the idea that everything that will happen, has already happened. That is the magic of synchronicity.

Examples of Synchronicity

Jung tells us a story about the 19th century French poet Émile Deschamps who was given a piece of plum-pudding by a so-called Monsieur de Fortgibu. Ten years later he discovered another plum-pudding in a Paris restaurant, and asked if he could have a piece. It turned out, however, that the plum-pudding was already ordered—by de Fortgibu. Many years afterwards Deschamps was invited to partake of a plum-pudding as a special rarity. While he was eating it he remarked that the only thing lacking was de Fortgibu. At that moment the door opened and an old, old man in the last stages of disorientation walked in: de Fortgibu, who had got hold of the wrong address and burst in on the party by mistake.

Jung writes about what seems to be a synchronistic event:

“On April 1, 1949, I made a note in the morning of an inscription containing a figure that was half man and half fish. There was fish for lunch. Somebody mentioned the custom of making an “April fish” of someone. In the afternoon, a former patient of mine, whom I had not seen for months, showed me some impressive pictures of fish. In the evening, I was shown a piece of embroidery with sea monsters and fishes in it. The next morning, I saw a former patient, who was visiting me for the first time in ten years. She had dreamed of a large fish the night before. A few months later, when I was using this series for a larger work and had just finished writing it down, I walked over to a spot by the lake in front of the house, where I had already been several times that morning. This time a fish a foot long lay on the sea-wall. Since no one else was present, I have no idea how the fish could have got there.”

Carl Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle

When coincidences pile up in this way one cannot help being impressed by them. However, Jung had his doubts on it being a synchronicity, for there was no interaction with the inner world. He says it might well be the extremely improbable chance grouping of six events, the seventh event occurring months later.

Jung also cautions that synchronicity can be misused or misinterpreted in a pathological way. People may be carried away and start to see every event as meaningful. Jung had already commented on this in relation to situations where patients, particularly schizophrenics, interpret events as having a special reference to them. He wrote in a letter:

“I have often found that synchronistic experiences were interpreted by schizophrenics as delusions. Since archetypal situations are not uncommon in schizophrenia, we must also suppose that corresponding synchronistic phenomena will occur which follow exactly the same course as with so-called normal persons… The schizophrenic’s interpretation is morbidly narrow because it is mostly restricted to the intentions of other people and to his own ego-importance… [W]e must endeavour to find out what the unconscious thinks and adjust our attitude accordingly… Thus the synchronistic effect should be understood not as psychotic but as a normal phenomenon.”

Letters of C.G. Jung Vol. II (1951 – 1961)

On one occasion, Jung and the members of a seminar he was conducting on dream analysis were discussing the symbol of the bull-god in relation to the dream of an analysand. Unaware of the discussions of the seminar group, the analysand spent several days making a picture of a bull with the disc of the sun between its horns.

On another occasion, Jung wrote:

“For instance, I walk with a woman patient in a wood. She tells me about the first dream in her life that had made an everlasting impression upon her. She had seen a spectral fox coming down the stairs in her parental home. At this moment a real fox comes out of the trees not 40 yards away and walks quietly on the path ahead of us for several minutes. The animal behaves as if it were a partner in the human situation.”

Letters of C.G. Jung Vol. I (1906 – 1950)

The fox is the symbol of instinctive cleverness which told the woman to forget about her hesitations, and to conquer her intellectual blocks by trusting her instinctive wisdom which will show her the right way.

Jung gives us another example appropriate to synchronicity:

“I remember the story of a student friend whose father had promised him a trip to Spain if he passed his final examinations satisfactorily. My friend thereupon dreamed that he was walking through a Spanish city. The street led to a square, where there was a Gothic cathedral. He then turned right, around a corner, into another street. There he was met by an elegant carriage drawn by two cream-coloured horses. Then he woke up. He told us about the dream as we were sitting round a table drinking beer. Shortly afterward, having successfully passed his examinations, he went to Spain, and there, in one of the streets, he recognized the city of his dream. He found the square and the cathedral, which exactly corresponded to the dream-image. He wanted to go straight to the cathedral, but then he remembered that in the dream he had turned right, at the corner, into another street. He was curious to find out whether his dream would be corroborated further. Hardly had he turned the corner when he saw in reality the carriage with the two cream-coloured horses.”

Carl Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle

For Jung, the sentiment of déjà vu is based on a foreknowledge in dreams, that can also occur in the waking state. In this case, chance becomes highly improbable because the coincidence is known in advance.

Jung tells the story of one of his patients whom he pulled out of a depression. The patient’s wife put a tremendous burden on him which he was incapable of coping with. After a year of marriage, he fell into a new depression. Jung told him to come and visit him, but due to the influence of his wife, the patient did not reply back.

At that time, Jung returned to his hotel at midnight after lecturing. He wrote:

“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 though something had struck my forehead and then the back of my skull. The following day I received a telegram saying that my patient had committed suicide. He had shot himself. Later, I learned that the bullet had come to rest in the back wall of the skull.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

This synchronicity was observed in connection with an archetypal situation, in this case, death.  Jung had perceived something atemporal and aspatial which in reality was taking place elsewhere. In this case the unconscious had knowledge of his patient’s condition.

Perhaps Jung’s most well-known example of synchronicity is that of the scarab, an important Egyptian symbol in the form of the archetype of rebirth and transformation.

Jung had a hard time with his patient, who was “psychologically inaccessible.” The patient was extremely rational and would not believe anything about the unconscious. Jung wrote:

“A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since, and that the dream of the patient has remained unique in my experience.”

Carl Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle

This seems to suggest that abnormal random phenomena may occur when a vital need or urge is aroused. Jung handed the creature to his patient with the words, “here is your scarab.” The experience broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. It helped her get in touch with her feelings, and had a transformative impact on her, connecting her dream world to her waking life. Her ego died, giving birth to a new self.

Jung uses these examples only as a paradigm of the innumerable cases of meaningful coincidence that have been observed not only by him but by many others, and recorded in large collections.

Synchronicities accompany the crucial phases of the process of individuation. But too often they pass unnoticed, because the individual has not learned to watch for such coincidences and to make them meaningful in relation to the symbolism of his inner life.

Be on the watch for events in your life that may seem random, and see what meaning might come up for you if you let them live within you for some time. Synchronicity is a way of coming to realise what is in our deepest undiscovered self.

Synchronicity at Jung’s death

In 1961, Jung had just finished his last work, a contribution to Man and His Symbols entitled “Approaching the Unconscious”, after a dream advised him to make his works accessible for the general public. Three days before his death, he had several dreams, the last of which were communicated to us.

He dreamed that he was high up in a high place around a boulder of stone in the full sun. Carved into it were the words, “Take this as a symbol of the wholeness you have achieved and the singleness you have become.” In another dream he saw a square and trees growing in it. The roots of the trees were intertwined with gold, a symbol of resolution, the alchemical symbol of wholeness. The collective unconscious was saying to him as it were: “You have earned the freedom to move on! You have done your work. You have done it well and it will grow.”

Just before Jung’s death, his friend Laurens van der Post, who was on a voyage from Africa to Europe, had a dream of Jung waving goodbye. Nature joined in a couple of hours later. A thunderstorm swept over, and lightning struck and destroyed one of Jung’s favourite trees in the garden where he used to sit.  

Some years later, van der Post was filming a documentary at the Jung house in Zürich. When the moment came for him to speak directly to the camera about Jung’s death, and he came to the description of how lightning demolished Jung’s favourite tree, the lightning struck in the garden again.

Synchronicity is an ever-present reality for those who have eyes to see.

Synchronicity: Meaningful Patterns in Life

Synchronicity is a term coined by Carl Jung which describes a meaningful coincidence of outer and inner events that cannot be causally linked.

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