Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream
As a child, I had deep and profound experiences of Déjà vu to the point where I would purposefully try to act out of step with the sequence I knew was taking place in front of me. Most often, any attempt to break the spell, to do anything which might stop the unexplained happenings which were affecting me was unsuccessful and even contributed to the effect. I even went so far as to study C.G. Jung’s work on dream interpretation and to try practice lucid dreaming so that I could take an active role in my dreams and therefore in my waking life. Performing a series of almost self-hypnotic practices as I lay in my bed just before sleep helped, as did writing my dreams down after awaking. I reached a point of being able to, for example, remember the experience of controlling flight while in a dream. I was able to achieve recognition that I could affect events unfolding up until the moment when my mind considered the fact that I was experiencing itself in a dream state. Dreams seemed to be grouped into patterns and often were repeated nightly. In my experience they were repeated to the point where I began in my conscious understanding to make sense of and interperate them. Inexplicable dreams such as repeated and revisited dreams and nightmares were common.
A very significant set of dreams I had was of three separate pyramids; The first surrounded by desolation and desert as if I was witnessing the remains of the past, The second in the midst of vast jungle at the top of which could be seen a panorama of lush nature and beauty, and the third pyramid was made of glass and steel, inside which I wandered aimlessly until I was brought by my father to a room in which the rules of the game were presented to me as a giant chess match with peoples lives as the pieces.
It is in light of my attempts to interperate and affect my dream states when I was younger that I read C. G Jung’s work entitled Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle.
The book approaches a subject which in past centuries would have been the domain of mysticism, religion, or alchemy and with an eye toward the attempts of modern physics to begin to offer a psychological explanation for events such as precognition, powerful coincidences, “big” dreams, déjà vu, and even prayer. Personally, my experiences with déjà vu, the non-local power of thought, and the presence of meaningful coincidences has diminished as I have become more and more a part of the social and economic milieu which is adulthood. Perhaps it is a lack of sleep, perhaps it is the full demands and responsibilities of home and family, perhaps it is just for lack of trying, but I no longer have access to what I once was certain was my own personal connection to the collective psyche. In modern adult life we seem in most cases to compress or even repress our exposure to events which do not fit the typical day to day understanding of the world. Our exposure to such experiences is limited into smaller and smaller isolated incidents such as the birth of a child, a wedding, or the death of a loved one. But being so disconnected to life outside of our conscious minds we tend to find ourselves out of practice when it comes time to recognize the presence of meaning beyond ourselves. Most people pass off as juvenile the connection to this part of life, until of course we find ourselves faced with the inexplicable. If we are lucky, we can at some point in our lives come face to face with this experience. Most people will however either ignore such an opportunity or will take solace in the religion in which they were raised, seeing the experience as a sign of the power of God. For the most unlucky of us, we go though life altogether unaware of meaning outside of our consciousness, and have our first (and last) experience with it at the moment of our own deaths. For the majority of people in this situation however, the opportunity to recognize meaning in death is ignored just as it was repeatedly in life. For those people the future seems uncertain, and for them we should try not to unnecessarily swat mosquitoes.
It’s not however just extraordinary atypical experiences that present meaning to our consciousness. Jung is most famous for his idea of the “collective unconscious”, a sort of shared network of experience which each individual psyche draws from and contributes to. In this work on Synchronicity, written in tandem with Wolfgang Pauli, Jung uses the findings of quantum physics and special relativity to provide the backdrop for an attempt to understand both the typical experiences of the psyche and the atypical events which we often dismiss as either coincidence or randomness.
As Jung begins the work he states:
“Modern physics has altered our understanding of the universality of natural law. Very small levels of physics demonstrate that causality is a relative law, that it is only statistically valid. We understand that psychologically the experiences of multiple individuals produce a consensus ominum out of the majority of similar observations.”
Each of us shares and communicates information about the world which functions according to a set of laws, at least according to the majority of human experience. There are of course always those rare experiences which are unique. According to Jung we use words like “chance” or “coincidence” when describing events which do not fit within the sensible understanding of normal causality. For Jung, these are “acausal” events we cannot explain as chance and ignore. It is important that everything that happens is not either A) completely predicable and causal; or B) Completely random and the result of pure chance. The fact that in general, existence is a mix of the two points to the fact that in the world it is the statistically valid which rules; it is the “predominance of the probable” which seems to best describe reality. In this world when we make statements of fact or observations from experience we can at most say that we know the statistically true. Everything around us points to the dominance of it; nothing is absolute, yet everything isn’t relative. As Jung says “It is the occurrence of the statistically improbable, rather than the statistically probable occasional randomness which points to the flaw in our predominant understanding of events.”
To well documented occurrences such as improbable sequences of occurrences (events, symbols, numbers, etc..); to the appearance of a series of events which are causally unconnected, but which each express similar meaning to an observer we ascribe the title of “meaningful coincidence”. To events of this kind we attribute luck, both good and bad, without requiring or seeking out a full causal explanation. Generally, as long as these events do not exceed the limits of probability we are comfortable with assuming the nature of reality. However, the very existence of order instead of randomness, of laws instead of chaos is itself however something of an improbability. Why something instead of nothing? Why this reality instead of an alternative? Why is the probable probable and the improbable improbable? Various explanations throughout history from a “preexisting harmony” to the operation of fate, to the free exercise of matter in a void, to the constant battle of competing wills have all been used to attempt to explain why reality is the way it is.
In an attempt to begin to answer some of these questions Jung states that to the equation of space, time, and causality a fourth principle must be introduced, that of synchronicity, or the “acausal psychically conditioned relativity of space and time”. In other words the existence of events which are simultaneous in either time across space or in space across time, but without a causal connection can be seen to exhibit a meaningful presence in relation to the psyche. Like the effect that the observation of subatomic particles has on their position in space according to the principles of quantum physics, so to psychologically a person’s psyche does not just passively observe events unfolding according to a chain of cause and effect. Instead, the psyche conditions the relativity of time and space. Experiments with phenomenon such as ESP point to the influence of one’s positive or negative expectations, ones preconceptions or beliefs, and ones level of interest or boredom, in the outcome of events which are not the result of a causal connection and which do not necessarily require a proximity in space or in time in their effect. Traditionally, the acausal effect of the psyche was reserved for beliefs such as the practice of magic or the power of prayer.
The experiments of JB Rhine with “Extra Sensory Perception” and “New Frontiers of Mind” for Jung provide evidence for the non-local (that is acausal across space and time) nature of the effect of the psyche on the results of the physical world. Not to be confused with a belief in a sort of energy transfer, synchronicity is posited to be a kind of simultaneity. In other words, the psyche, what we normally call “our mind”, but which for Jung is both our conscious mind and its unconscious state, is able to have an effect across space and time, not through some sort of energy moving at the speed of light, but though the relativity of space and time itself. Just as an electron can be said to be in two locations at once across a spectrum of potentiality until such time as it is observed and the wave spectrum of potentiality collapses into a focal point in space; so to does the psyche inhabit an unconscious spectrum of potentiality until such time as the focal point of consciousness observes the unconscious.
“In themselves, space and time consist of nothing, they are hypostatized concepts born of discriminating activity of the conscious mind, and they form the indispensable co-ordinates for describing the behavior of bodies in motion. They are, therefore, essentially psychic in origin, which is probably the reason that impelled Kant to regard them as a priori categories. But if space and time are only apparently properties of bodies in motion and are created by the intellectual needs of the observer, then their relativization by the psychic conditions is no longer a matter for astonishment but is brought within the bounds of possibility. This possibility presents itself when the psyche observes, not external bodies, but itself.” (pg 20)
As Jung suggests, an understanding of the nature of reality according to the findings of quantum physics and special relativity forms the basis on which an understanding of synchronicity is possible. Synchronicity is not just the occurrence of two events at the same time, but the simultaneous occurrence of two meaningfully but otherwise unrelated events. Synchronicity is “the simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with one or more external events which appear as meaningful parallels to the momentary subjective state – and in certain cases, vice versa..” (pg 25) In other words it is a relationship, however subjective, between a psychic state and a corresponding external event.
We can see this in our dreams. In a case such as lucid dreaming which I mentioned earlier the mind or psyche inhabits a spectrum of possibility such as flight until such time as the conscious mind observes itself dreaming. But a question arises. If in dreams the unconscious mind exists potentially across a statistical spectrum of space and time, does it necessarily cease to exist as such when consciousness collapses it into a single local point? If it is possible to lucid dream is it possible to tap into the unconscious while awake? Surely dreaming is just imagination right? Surely all that we dream simply takes place among neurons in our brains right? What then of experiences of people who dream or see premonitions of events? What then of the waking experience of intuition where no reason can be given but which compels people to choose previously unknown possibilities? If you’ve ever had, or been struck by the story of someone close to you who has had one of these experiences, it becomes more and more difficult to dismiss this line of thinking as just naive mysticism.
Jung relates examples from his experience analyzing patient’s dreams and psychic states, cases where material events inexplicably coincide with a patient’s dream imagery or psychic state. Most often, it seems to Jung, the unconscious mind is able to manifest in situations where a patient has reached a dead end using their conscious mind to understand their situation. Often the seeming impossibility of coincidence between say a dream of a volcano erupting and the realization that upon waking that there was a volcano eruption half way around the world, is enough to propel the patient past their preconceptions of what is possible and impossible and begin to open their mind to the unconscious. Interestingly, Jung states that a person’s emotional state has a significant determining factor in the manifestation of the unconscious in our lives
“The observer can easily be influenced by an emotional state which alters space and time by “contraction.” Every emotional state produces an alteration if consciousness… that is to say there is a certain narrowing of consciousness and a corresponding strengthening of the unconscious which, particularly in the case of strong effects, is noticeable even to the layman. The tone of the unconscious is heightened, thereby creating a gradient for the unconscious to flow towards the conscious.” (pg 30)
Throughout history instruments such as astrology, or the Tarot, or the I Ching have been used as a material canvas or symbolic language by which the presence of non causal, synchronistic events might occur and be interpreted. Each method, used for the purposes of creating randomness by which the non-randomness of the acausaly connected can appear, has numbers at their source. It is Jung’s contention that numbers are formative part of reality. In his words “numbers were as much found as invented.” (pg 41) The basis of all divination, all dreams, all religion, all thought could said to be numbers. The concept of numbers even belies our need to visualize, categorize, and observe reality. First there was One. And then two appeared, a splitting of the unity. Then a third or fourth and so onward into infinity. This process underlies every material or psychic construction to such a degree that reality, without these categories is by definition, inconceivable. We have only to witness the still unexplained “miracle” of the first cell division at conception. Two individuals, an egg and a sperm come together to create one cell, which divides into another, and so on… Patterns of thought, individuals among species, organic DNA, and inorganic chemical structure all are examples of a simple numeric process repeated in variation to infinity.
Taking this logic and applying it to our study of the psyche we can postulate that if the unconscious exists as a field of statistical probability and consciousness exists as a single focal point it should be possible to express the relationship in terms of numbers. If our psyche and everything that exists have at their source numbers, we can also postulate that that it should be possible that dreams, thoughts, people, animals, objects, planets, galaxies, and “God” express their relationship in terms of numbers. We see then the possibility that we have within us the means for an intimate connection with all that exists. These ideas are of course ancient and lay at the root of most human cultures. Jung, however was one of the first to begin to apply the lessons of modern science to the understanding the psyche, of the world at large, and of our place within it. From his single focal point on the idea of synchronicity, which Jung advanced at the very end of his career and life, a large horizon of possibility opened up for future decades and centuries of the evolution of our understanding of reality.
Looking back on the experiences of déjà vu in my youth I wish I had learned to incorporate those moments into my life instead of consciously seeking to reject them. I wonder if the dreams of the three pyramids weren’t symbols of paths I was to take in the future: my education, my marriage, and my work. I wonder if the pyramid in the desert wasn’t Egypt to which I traveled when I was in college, I wonder if the pyramid in the jungle wasn’t Coba in the Mayan Riviera in Mexico which I visited on my honeymoon. Finally I still wonder if the dream of the pyramid of glass and steel wasn’t an archetypal representation of how I would spend hours, days, and years inside man made towers laboring at seemingly abstract and innocuous numbers.