What is Synchronicity?

In the 1920s, Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung coined the term ‘Synchronicity’ to point to the meaningful interactions of events / objects and the internal states of the mind. Synchronistic events, he theorized, are the mysterious interactions of the psyche (our mind, thoughts) and the outside world, and speak to a far richer reality than we may suppose. Synchronistic events are not described causally; our internal states of mind don’t cause events to occur in outside reality. Synchs are described meaningfully — they are the interplay of personal meaning and the external world of occurrence.

This mysterious phenomenon of consciousness occurs rarely for some and as a matter of regularity for others. For the majority of people who describe synchronistic events, it is an overwhelmingly meaningful experience.

In September of 2014 I attended The Synchronicity Symposium, held in Joshua Tree. The ‘lessons’ I present here are based on the various lectures and workshops and insights I teased out when reflecting on how some of Synchronicity related back to my travels.

“All the events in a man’s life stand in two fundamentally different kinds of connection: firstly, in the objective, causal connection of the natural process; secondly, in a subjective connection which exists only in relation to the individual who experiences it, and which is thus as subjective as his own dreams.” — C.G. Jung

“Synchronicity reveals the meaningful connections between the subjective and objective world.” — C.G. Jung

Lesson 1: Act and a way will (usually) open.

It requires innumerable and subtle acts of coincidence to exit a city like Los Angeles.

I begin to realize this as I wedge my dust-streaked car into the column of morning traffic and point myself towards the San Gabriel mountains and the desert and Joshua Tree. To pack my bags and plot my course with the intention of escaping LA is an unconscious act of faith that the Powers That Be (God, chaos, nature, karma, the flying spaghetti monster — pick one) will even allow such a journey to take place. Yet everyday I walk out the door with a certain unconscious confidence.

A million unforeseeable obstacles could sideswipe my journey — I could wake up with Ebola, get a flat tire, win the lottery, or be arrested under false charges of impersonating a police officer. I could be run off the road, have a brain aneurysm, have my cat go missing, have an existential breakdown, or I could simply change my mind and decide to drive in the opposite direction.

Anything could happen.

A host of forces, many blind and chaotic, need to conspire in my favor to undertake any journey, however humble. But notice how often we are allowed to slip into our little schemes without being diverted or squashed like a bug? I believe when we act with intention (i.e. step out of the house, into the world ) it sends a ripple of coincidences out that opens a way for our little plots and schemes. To be more available to synchronistic events, we must answer the Call to Adventure and go forth into the world with intention. We must act.

We must place our bodies and our minds in the world and see what happens.

Lesson 2: Synchronicity clusters at important events (including travel).

Jung suggested that the phenomenon of synchronicity seems to cluster around impactful, transformative, and important events. In his talk entitled ‘Varieties of Synchronistic Experiences’, author, professor and cultural historian Richard Tarnas echoed this point and invited his listeners to pay special attention at times of birth, death, and transformation. I believe that synchronicity also clusters around the travel experience.

A journey abroad is often a transformative experience, at least I have found this to be the case.

I believe the transformative power of travel can be found in the moments where the contents of the soul are challenged and expanded by the contents of the world. A symbolic, self-transformative chord is struck where one might feel for a moment that the universe is working in one’s favor and that perspective is lifted from its usual narrow confusion to glimpse a state of grace.

My first travel experience at the tender age of 20 was a whole course in synchronicity. I had some different ideas back then — I was kinda sorta homophobic and unabashedly ultra conservative. I was a nice guy, just a little ignorant. By turns, travel forced me to question and ultimately destroy so many of the ideologies I had come to identify with.

Sitting alone at a dining room table in a hostel, my first night abroad on a 3-month walkabout across Italy, I am befriended by a lesbian couple who take me under their wing for 3 days of exploration around Lago di Como. Before that, the phrase ‘my lesbian friends’ had never passed my lips. Next I was introduced to, and traveled a stretch with, a socialist from Berlin who politely challenged my neo-con prerogative until I had to concede to myself that although I wasn’t a socialist I could no longer defend many of my previously held positions.

This was the synchronistic medicine of travel — to find underdeveloped points in my ego and psyche and put people in my path that would directly challenge them and create a new perspective with which to view the world.

It was stated several times at the Symposium that synchronistic events are often experienced around these certain periods such as birth and death. My travels through Italy were a journey of healing after the passing of my father. It seems that I was primed for synchronicities — pried open by the vacuous force of death and available for rapid transformation.

Lesson 3: Nothing stops moving.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You cannot step twice into the same river.” I think that insight applies everywhere; you also can’t visit the same cafe, street, borough, or country twice. Everything has shifted in subtle and sometimes enormous ways. Just as the river is in continuous flux and is therefore essentially impermanent in nature, so is the rest of life — including us as individuals. You aren’t the same person you were 10 years or even 10 minutes ago. Nothing stops moving. This means that new experiences, new perspectives, and new opportunities for synchrony are always opening up to us.

For travelers this goes double.

Sometimes it feels like the earth is whipping past under your feet. Sometimes it feels like each pregnant moment dies before it reaches you to give way to the next. Since nothing is fixed, you know that every circumstance is pregnant with the next — that life requires constant improvisation and adaptation. Those that embrace and take advantage of this constant flux get in The Flow. Flow requires a liquidity of movement and thought, like a river finding the path to the sea. I believe that people that experience a lot of Flow are more open to synchronicity and meaningful coincidences. They don’t fight the current, they ride it. They see where the flow is moving and respond in kind. Flow is the difference between being swept downstream and riding the current.

Lesson 4: Pay attention

“Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.” — C.G Jung

When describing his theory of the human mind existing as an immaterial ‘field’ of consciousness, Symposium keynote speaker Rupert Sheldrake points out that the Latin root for the word “attention” is attendere, which means “to stretch towards.” He suggests that when paying attention there is a literal stretching / expanding of consciousness towards that which is perceived and attended to by the mind.

Other speakers also stressed the need to pay attention, to watch the world and yourself, and to especially attend to relationships, dreams, and synchronicity. Inattention will keep the deeper meanings and possible new perspectives at bay. Thankfully, many methods for gaining and keeping attention are widely available: meditation, writing, mountain climbing, painting, yoga, and many others. I like people watching for honing my attention — sitting with a coffee and seeing what I can see while also watching my watcher — seeing where the unfolding scene takes my mind.

As travelers we have a lot to pay attention to.

As travel writers, photographers, and filmmakers we have even more to pay attention to. At times it seems that there is too damn much to pay attention to. It is then that the quality of our attention counts most. A practiced mind can hold a higher quality attention than an unpracticed one. This is what we refer to when we speak of a photographers ‘eye’, not only their skill with a camera but also their skillful use of attention.

To develop an ‘eye’ is an art the traveler has many occasions to develop. This eye can be for photography, illuminating humanity through narrative for gaining self knowledge. At any turn of the road a traveler has new needs of his attention and new opportunities to further develop it.

Lesson 5: Individual experience matters most.

“Synchronicity means the simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with one or more external events which appear as meaningful parallels to the momentary subjective state…” — C.G. Jung

In his session entitled ‘The Quest for Gnosis’, author and theological scholar Gabriel D. Roberts stressed a point that resonates with me deeply as a traveler — intrinsic, experiential knowledge is the most valuable form of knowledge we possess, and should be sought out constantly. I would go further and say firsthand, experience-built knowledge is the only knowledge worth a damn. Gnosis usually denotes a ‘spiritual’ knowledge, but I tend to think of it more broadly as self knowledge. It is knowledge built on experience, on reflection.

Travel and self knowledge go hand in hand.

Nobody can tell you what you learned from travel, how you grew or were challenged, or what synchronistic moments you experienced. Only you know. It is at its root a supremely individual experience. By relying on this type of personal experience, we are also accepting personal responsibility for our knowledge or lack thereof. We are responsible for finding, creating, and engaging the ‘important’ experiences that give us firsthand knowledge of the world. Travel can give the raw data, the raw potential for growth and synchronicity, but we have to take responsibility for meeting it head on.

It is only in the arena of individual experience that synchronicity can take place.

Lesson 6: Find the gifts of exile.

Travel can be a type of self-imposed exile. We may banish ourselves into the world to try find our way back anew. Far from the familiarity of culture and kin, a certain stoic loneliness can set in as the exile unfolds. It is here that you meet yourself away from your routines and habitual personas, and see what you are away from the things that had helped defined you.

This is the gift of exile — the medicine of self knowledge.

Dreamworker and artist Toko-Pa illuminated this beautifully at the Synchronicity Symposium:

“Every heroic myth will see to it that the hero or heroine must endure a period of her own exile. It’s only then, when the way home is completely lost, that she comes into contact with the true medicine of her calling.”

She is harkening to an important principle in the Hero’s Journey — Joseph Campbell’s mythic story structure. The Hero, facing difficulty and exile, finds her true calling. In the myths, this true calling is in service to her community and enriching to the world. This healing gift of exile is referred to by Campbell as “the elixir.”

Synchronistic events may help point to the gifts of exile. I found that hidden contents of my psyche are made manifest and challenged during the self-imposed exile of travel — providing me the essential gift of self knowledge and the opportunity to face myself, by myself. Often times, synchronistic events can usher in the gifts of exile through encounters with people, ideas, and new perspectives.

Lesson 7: Avail yourself.

Avail has two meanings:

1. Use or take advantage of (an opportunity or available resource). “Josh did not avail himself of my advice.”
2. Help or benefit. “No amount of struggle availed Josh.”

If the two meanings can be taken at once, as two sides of the same coin, “availing yourself” means you are taking advantage of the moment as an opportunity to open yourself up and help others. Availing — whether you are availing yourself of the water of a found coconut or availing yourself to your community beach clean up day — is the dance of taking and giving.

To travel well you must avail yourself.

Walking into the session, ‘Exile & Belonging’, by Toko-pa, this was brought to my attention by my own neurotic self. I was feeling introverted and shy — there were 100 people in the room and I knew no one. You would think I would be used to this sort of thing as a traveler, but I’m not. In order to not have to face people and meet them, I had my back turned and was pretending to be absorbed in my notes. I felt out of place.

“Belonging is not a place. It is a competency.” — Toko-Pa

Toko-Pa shared many insights during her talk, but it is this quote that is circled twice in my notebook. By behaving in a shy manner, I was not availing myself and I was having the distinct feeling of not belonging because of it. Belonging is not a place, it’s a perspective and a willingness to avail yourself.

In our lives we will be in many places, in many rooms, and mostly with strangers. A feeling of belonging is a practiced art of flow and availability — available to others, to creativity, and to yourself. When you are available and availing, synchronicity shows up to the party and brings friends.

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Jung was the first to say that synchronicity is as much a mystery as it is anything. And that is why I love it so much — you can see in glimpses the faint glimmer of some enormous interconnection, like the infinitely jeweled net of Indra cast over the cosmos, but yet it remains beyond comprehension.