As Dr Larry Brooks once said: ‘Day after day, hour after hour as therapists we hear the most intimate details of a person’s life. We absorb the pain, complaints, anguish and hope of our clients.’
What we absorb triggers empathy, anger, personal pain, as well as doubts about our capacity to help or the capacity to believe in our clients. As old-fashioned as it sounds, I’m interested in the truth – what it is that really matters in the effectiveness of treatment and our relationship with each other.
Carl Jung first defined synchronicity in the 1920s as the ‘simultaneous occurrence of two meaningfully but not causally connected events’. I can relate to this definition, as someone who experiences synchronicities on what seems to be a fairly regular basis in my psychotherapeutic practice. In his book Synchronicity: The Marriage of Matter and Psyche, F. David Peat suggests that synchronicities can help a person move forward and enter a new phase of their life, but it is a journey that the one experiencing the synchronicity must make alone.
Contrary to popular belief, the notion of synchronicity is not inconsistent with a scientific mindset. Indeed, Carl Jung developed his ideas on synchronicity in part through discussions with Albert Einstein. He wrote about synchronicity only after Wolfgang Pauli, another father of quantum mechanics, convinced him to do so. Synchronicity has some features in common with the physical phenomenon of entanglement, whereby physical particles at vast distances from each other have been found to interact instantaneously.
Synchronicity goes beyond space and time. For example, a person may have the repeated synchronistic experience of going to phone someone, when that particular person phones them at exactly the same time.
I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all experienced that fleeting moment where a strange and often random occurrence leaves you wondering ‘How is that possible?’
Alan Vaughan’s Incredible Coincidence: The Baffling World of Synchronicity is a hugely entertaining book as well as scientifically and spiritually perceptive. The book will motivate the reader to awaken to what our ‘spirit’ may be nudging us to pay attention to: How to design the patterns and meaning in our life’s conscious and unconscious evolution. Vaughan explores how we can apply in our own lives the personal and the transpersonal significance of these strange ‘coincidences’ that Jung termed ‘synchronicities’.
Another interesting book is one by Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint. As one reader puts it: ‘The key issue of this book is the author’s contention that there is meaning in the universe, even if an organisation and emergent complexity are built into the nature of the atoms and the structures of the molecules that they form, especially the molecules of living matter.’
‘People love mysterious things, and synchronicity is like magic happening to them,’ says Carolyn North, author of Synchronicity: The Anatomy of Coincidences. ‘It gives us a sense of hope, a sense that something bigger is happening out there than what we can see.’ Some people might think of it in terms of the odds. If there is a one-in-a-million chance of that coincidence happening, why make such a big deal of it?
After all, somebody has to win the lottery. This point of view has a certain validity: synchronicity is part and parcel of physical laws. It doesn’t defy the natural order of events; it simply raises more questions than can easily be answered by a cause-and-effect equation.
Synchronicity is not a concept that we’re all familiar with. The concept may not be firmly rooted in our minds, and because we don’t have a label of mental framework for it, we may not notice it or sometimes doubt it’s happenings. So when synchronicity happens, many people overlook it or call it something else. They might say: ‘I got lucky,’ or ‘That happened just in the nick of time,’ or ‘It came out of the blue,’ or ‘It jumped out at me.’ Later on, when asked if they have experienced synchronicity, they can’t remember any. All those incidents are filed away in their memory but under the category of luck or fate.
Among his patients, Jung observed that synchronicity often happens during circumstances of emotional intensity and upheaval, and often peaks right before a psychological breakthrough. These situations of an ‘aroused psyche’ include such life-changing major events such as births, deaths and turning points or personal crises.
Charlene Belitz and Meg Lundstrom explain that: ‘Another time when synchronicity abounds is when we are on the road, away from home. Amid new surroundings, eating new food, talking to new people, we may find ourselves looking for clues in ways that we generally don’t in our familiar workaday world. It seems to happen particularly with travel that involves risk: if our plans are open-ended rather than set in stone, if we’re travelling alone rather than with a tour group, if we’re submerging ourselves in a foreign culture rather than skipping over its surface, then we’re more likely to have meaningful coincidences’.
In his book Coincidences: Chance or Fate, Ken Anderson, spent years documenting a series of coincidences drawn from real life. Among the many coincidences that Anderson introduces in his book is an event that took place during the summer of 1979 in Norway, published from the local daily paper. Robert Johansen, 15 years old, was fishing in Fjord when he captured a beautiful cod of ten pounds that he proudly carried to his grandmother Thekla Aanen for lunch.
It can be imagined the astonishment and the commotion of the woman when cleaning up the fish, she found in the stomach a diamond ring that she had lost fishing in a fjord ten years before. That jewel was a family memory that women handed on themselves generation by generation and, in the end, it returned home.
Unfortunately, there is no scientific or objective way to determine whether synchronicity is valid or not; it’s all subjective personal opinion and experience and flexible definitions. There is, however, recent research that tries to explain scientifically how we can identify, understand, and perhaps even control the frequency of coincidences in our everyday lives. Dr Bernard Beitman, a leading expert on coincidence studies, proposes the notion of ‘grid cells’ located in the brain, near the hippocampus as attribution to synchronicity.
Dr Beitman explores theories from quantum physics to human psychology to explain synchronistic events usually attributed to luck, paranormal happenings or religion. Beitman provides personal experiences, historical events, and other stories, to document events that defy the odds of probability and change lives. Even more, interestingly, he looks at the roles that individuals play in creating and observing coincidences, especially during times of intense emotion, need and transition.
In relation to this, physicist F. David Peat writes: ‘Science may, in the end, have to look in new directions if its understanding of nature is to continue. Already many scientists are dissatisfied by the ‘reductionist’ nature of some branches of science and with the claim that an ultimate level of reality is shortly to be reached as a result of research on elementary particles… The idea that reality may unfold into a complex, and potentially endless, series of levels changes the whole meaning of reductionism… Any level of scientific explanation depends on, and is conditioned by, concepts and meanings that arise in other levels…’
I have come to realise over the years how difficult it is even in therapy for our minds to understand and to ultimately to accept that the patters of synchronicity events actually have happened in the first place.
My own ability to observe, track, integrate and interpret synchronicity patterns in therapy has evolved substantially over the years. I am sceptical and being appropriately sceptical is a vital part of the therapeutic process, but that does not grand me license to refuse to believe my client simply because it makes me feel psychologically or emotionally uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, synchronicity is an interesting philosophical idea and at the end of the day what matters in our relationships with each other is based on trust. Trust is a major ingredient (and arguably even the most important one) of determining if our relationships will work or not. Trust is a massive concept, with definitions that change depending on the discipline it is being defined within. I believe that trust is a human impulse for survival, as well as the driving force that keeps us moving forward in life.