February 14, 2013

1. Synchronicity

I read a book called Synchronicity: Through the Eyes of Science, Myth and the Trickster, by Alan Combs and Mark Holland. When I started reading it, the ideas seemed strikingly close to my own ideas. I felt that I wasn’t learning anything new, I was just reading an account of my own theories. Later, however, I found much that was new to me — for example, the trickster motif, which I now realize is important in mythology and in Jungian thought.

I don’t regret reading the book, but I didn’t enjoy it, and can’t recommend it, because the ideas are presented in a dry way, with lots of strange polysyllables. Here’s an example: “The physical roots of the indicated holofield, in turn, are most reasonably sought in the Dirac sea of the quantum vacuum.”1 The book has too much jargon, too little plain English.

Synchronicity is a mystery, as the occult in general is a mystery, but the authors try to explain it, using strange polysyllables. The hapless reader is left dazed and confused, groping for meaning in a quantum vacuum, trying to stay afloat in a Dirac sea. The authors collect numerous explanations of synchronicity, and throw all of them at the poor reader. None of the explanations are clear or convincing. It would be better just to say that synchronicity is a mystery, give examples of it from history and literature, and describe how the theory developed in modern thinkers like Jung, Kammerer, and Koestler. If you want to try to explain the mystery, choose the most convincing explanation, and present it clearly and concisely, don’t confuse the reader with a dozen explanations.2

In an earlier issue, I said that I have two basic principles: everything is connected, and everything is alive. The authors of Synchronicity subscribe to these same principles, and say that they’re the basis of the mythology of the future, the new mythology that will function throughout the world. However, the authors expand the two principles into four principles:

  1. “the idea of profound wholeness”
  2. “the notion that at some fundamental level we are all interconnected” (I think the first and second principles are implied in each other — different ways of saying the same thing)
  3. “the concept of the universe as filled with life” (in contrast to “the Newtonian vision of a machine that runs relentlessly and unchangingly for all time”3)
  4. “the idea that creativity is basic to the nature of the cosmos”4

The authors frequently refer to Joseph Campbell, and quote his remark that “the first function of a mythology is to waken and maintain in the individual a sense of wonder and participation in the mystery of this finally inscrutable universe.”5 Surely the new mythology/worldview/philosophy/religion that’s developing now, that says everything is connected and everything is alive, achieves the function of a mythology better than the old mechanistic view of the universe.

As an example of the connected nature of the world, the authors discuss the “Hundredth Monkey Effect.”6 When people observed monkeys in Japan, they found that one monkey had learned how to wash potatoes in a stream, then other monkeys learned by watching the first monkey. When the number of “potato washers” reached a certain level, a critical mass, suddenly all the monkeys started using the technique, and even distant monkey colonies became potato washers. Apparently the idea of potato washing spread by a kind of telepathy. One is reminded of the “one percent effect”: if one percent of the population meditates, the crime rate appears to drop. Thoughts/ideas/feelings can spread by non-physical means, telepathic means, especially when lots of people (or lots of monkeys) are thinking the same thing.

The authors admit that the Hundredth Monkey Effect has been criticized by skeptics, but they say that a similar case is well documented: the case of an English bird, the blue tit.7 This bird learned how to open a milk bottle, and drink out of it. The technique spread throughout Britain and northern Europe, despite the fact that this species doesn’t travel far from its birthplace. As more birds used the technique, its “spreading power” seemed to increase, as with potato-washing among monkeys. “The habit of opening milk bottles appeared at a number of locations many miles from previous citings, including the spread to the Continent. Sheldrake estimates that the habit must have been rediscovered independently at least eighty-nine times in the British Isles alone.”

The authors say that, once a thought or behavior has arisen in one person, it can arise more easily in another; once an idea is “in the air,” in the atmosphere, it can start popping up all over. As an example, the authors point out that Newton and Leibniz invented calculus at the same time; discoveries are often made by multiple people at the same time.

My philosophy of history says that renaissance and decadence are states of mind (states of feeling, states of instinct) that exist in an entire society, pervade an entire society. Thus, my philosophy of history is akin to the Hundredth Monkey Effect, the one percent effect, etc. Could my theory itself be spread by a kind of telepathy? Will someone else develop the theory because the theory is “in the air”? Will lots of people become receptive to my theory because it has been “floating around” for a few decades?

It seems that, if the number of individuals engaged in a certain behavior reaches a certain level, a critical mass, then a kind of society forms, as in the case of the hundredth monkey.

If individual heart cells are placed in a petri dish, each contracts with its own individual rhythm. When some critical number of cells is reached, however, all fall into a synchrony which is characteristic of the normal action of the heart. Likewise, a few ants placed in a sandpile wander about aimlessly, apparently oblivious to each other. Continue to add new ants, however, and at a certain point they begin to self-organize into a working society.8

The authors contrast their view that everything is connected, and everything is relative, with Newton’s view, the mechanistic view. They quote Newton:

God in the beginning formed matter in solid, massy, impenetrable, movable particles.... Absolute space, in its own nature, without relation to anything external remains always similar and immovable. Absolute, true, and mathematical time, in itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.9

The authors argue that both relativity theory and quantum theory see the universe as inter-connected, and thus fundamentally different from Newton’s universe.

The relativity and quantum theories are now in the process of creating a new mythos, a new topology of reality.... Both relativity and quantum physics share the common perspective of wholeness. Relativity views space not as the void of Democritus — a region of nothingness between solid atoms — but returns us to a vision of the universe as a continuous, unbroken fabric. Atoms are special local characteristics of this fabric. The cosmos is of-a-piece, not empty.10

In their discussion of quantum physics, the authors note that “two particles that share a condition known as a singlet state (for example, they may have been two halves of some larger particle) retain a special relationship with each other even after they separate and go their separate ways.”11 In many previous issues, I’ve discussed this phenomenon, using the phrase “paired particles.” The authors describe how the spin of these paired particles is correlated; in quantum physics, this correlation is called “synchronicity.”

The “singlet state” is important; that is, the close relationship between the particles is important, even if they’re later separated. Location isn’t as important as relationship.

Events separated in space or time can share a more essential relationship than other events which may be physically near each other. Two persons who even at a distance share a common thought or feeling have more in common in this regard than do two who are near each other, who are even perhaps engaged in conversation with each other but do not share a common state of mind. Notions such as these, which run directly against the grain of mechanistic science, are strongly empathetic with synchronicity.12

The authors say that synchronicity will come to our aid if we’re in touch with our true being. As the shadow can arrange problems and disasters, so the Self can arrange fortunate coincidences:

When you choose to follow your bliss, when you make choices based upon an inner sense of fulfillment rather than outer demands, there is often a sense of “hidden hands,” of unexpected opportunities and unanticipated resources. This [is] the influence of the Self in the world of human affairs. [The Self] can influence events around us even at a distance, as in the old Taoist saying, “The right man sitting in his house and thinking the right thought will be heard a hundred miles distant.”13

Since the sage is in touch with his true self, the sage is often surrounded by helpful synchronicities, and may even rely on them for his livelihood:

Rama Tirtha first set foot in the United States in 1902. As he was disembarking from a steamer in San Francisco, a curious American noticed that he was not in the usual rush to get ashore and asked, “Where is your luggage, sir?”

“I carry no luggage,” the Swami replied, “but what I have about me.”

“Where do you keep your money?”

“I keep no money.”

“How do you live?”

“I only live by loving all. When I am thirsty there is always one with a cup of water for me, and when I am hungry there is always one with a loaf of bread.”

“But have you, then, any friends in America?”

“Ah, yes, I know one American — you....” They soon became companions.14

Since the sage lives from his true self,

his presence radiates a powerful, transforming effect on all around him. This wisdom is well known in the East, where an important part of spiritual work is simply to be with the teacher as often and as much as possible. The power of his presence alone is healing.15

I often quote the saying, “When the student is ready, the master appears.” This also works in the other direction: When the teacher is ready, the student appears. Our authors quote “the advice of the old alchemist to one of his disciples: ‘No matter how isolated you are and how lonely you feel, if you do your work truly and conscientiously, unknown friends will come and seek you.’”

In an earlier issue, I discussed James Allen and the power of positive thinking:

Trusting in the power of thought, Allen believed that, if he concentrated on his writings, somehow they would reach their intended audience — and they did. One might say, “When the book is ready, the reader will appear,” just as, according to an old saying, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.”

Allen believed that if the master did his work, disciples would come, and they came.

Our authors mention various techniques of foretelling the future, or receiving guidance about the future. One of the most well-known techniques is looking into a crystal ball. Why crystal? Because its clarity, its emptiness, its lack of content, makes the mind clear and empty, and thus receptive to unconscious images and intuitions.

Our authors discuss Arthur Koestler, who was fascinated by synchronicity, and wrote much on the subject.16 Koestler’s writings seem to have an elegance that’s sorely lacking in this book. Our authors use a Koestler quote as an epigraph:

There exists a type of phenomenon, even more mysterious than telepathy or precognition, which has puzzled man since the dawn of mythology: the seemingly accidental meeting of two unrelated causal chains in a coincidental event which appears both highly improbable and highly significant.

Koestler tells the story of the actor Alec Guinness, who once slept through two alarm clocks and missed a train — a train that later crashed. Was it just chance that Guinness missed that particular train? Our authors imply that it was more than chance, it was synchronicity. “A survey of twenty-eight train accidents that took place between 1950 and 1955 revealed that significantly fewer people rode the trains on the days of the accidents than on comparable days in earlier weeks and months.”17 One is reminded of the stories about people missing flights on 9/11/01. What would a survey of these flights reveal? Did more people miss these doomed flights than other flights?

Koestler discusses a “library angel,” who helps one to find the right book, the right page, etc. “Koestler comments that coincidences of the library angel-type are ‘so frequent that one almost regards them as one’s due.’”18

Our authors discuss Schopenhauer, whom Jung called “the godfather” of his idea of synchronicity.

In 1850, Schopenhauer wrote an essay, “On the Apparent Design in the Fate of the Individual,” dealing with the “simultaneity of the causally unconnected, which we call ‘chance’.... To ascribe an intention to chance is a thought which is either the height of absurdity or the depth of profundity — according to the way in which we understand it.... The fate of one individual invariably fits the fate of the other, and each is the hero of his own drama while simultaneously figuring in a drama foreign to him — this is something that surpasses our powers of comprehension, and can only be conceived as possible by virtue of the most wonderful pre-established harmony.”19

I might mention in passing that Schopenhauer was receptive to, and curious about, various forms of the occult, hence it isn’t surprising that he was aware of synchronicity.

In an earlier issue, I quoted Emerson’s remark about coincidence: “The hints we have, the dreams, the coincidences, do make each man stare once or twice in a lifetime.”

Our authors discuss Paul Kammerer, an Austrian biologist who was active in the early 1900s. Kammerer was a pioneer in the study of synchronicity, before Jung coined the term “synchronicity.”20 Jung was aware of Kammerer’s work, and Einstein found it intriguing. Kammerer was “a mentor and an example” to Ludwig von Bertalanffy, one of the founders of general systems theory. Koestler wrote a book about Kammerer called The Case of the Midwife Toad.

According to Wikipedia, Kammerer “claimed to find experimental support for Lamarckian inheritance.” As for Koestler, he “has been described as a neo-Lamarckian.” In general, people who are receptive to the occult believe that random mutation isn’t as important in evolution as modern science believes it is; they believe that some force is at work — some sort of will or creativity or synchronicity.

Kammerer collected examples of synchronicity for many years, and tried to fit them into an elaborate system of classification. Most of his examples are trivial — of little interest from a literary or historical perspective. Kammerer believed that “Events similar in form mutually attract each other to yield recognizable series of events.” He felt that he had discovered a natural law, The Law of the Series.

Kammerer had a special interest in periodicity, and studied Goethe’s theory of “revolving good and bad days,” and Freud’s speculations on the subject.21 Our authors point out that “a major sector of modern systems theory known as chaos theory or chaos dynamics is devoted in part to just those types of periodic processes that so fascinated Kammerer.” Researchers found that gamblers seem to go through periods or streaks; “Periods of good luck are followed by periods of bad luck.... The founders of chaos theory were more than casually intrigued by the behavior of the roulette wheel.”22

Our authors say that enthusiasm, excitement, activates the unconscious, and triggers occult phenomena, such as synchronicity. They say that Kammerer’s enthusiasm never flagged, hence he was always surrounded by synchronistic happenings. They also say that if a person becomes interested in synchronicity, or lectures about it, then synchronicities start appearing. They call this “the synchronicity of synchronicity.”23

Our authors mention several curious coincidences, such as the time that the young Abe Lincoln acquired a barrel of miscellanies, and among the miscellanies was Blackstone’s Commentaries — a law book that started Lincoln on his path to law and politics.

And then there’s this story about intuition:

John Walton, who hunted man-eating tigers for the state of Bengal in India during the first years of this century, discovered more than once as he tracked through the jungles that he had become the prey himself, and upon the prompting of some sixth sense turned around just in time to save himself.24

Our authors say that, if you look back on your life, you can probably divide it into chapters, divide it into

what Progoff calls major life units, periods when one is focused on a particular activity such as pursuing a career, becoming an effective parent, or developing a spiritual quest. Each of us can map out our own lives in terms of such units. They evolve out of what Progoff calls our core creativity, the central nucleus of creativity in one’s being.25

In earlier issues, we’ve often discussed the idea that the shadow arranges disasters. Our authors make a similar argument, but they use the word “trickster” instead of the word “shadow.”26 The trickster arranges mishaps that sometimes lead to spiritual growth. The trickster/shadow is stirred up if the unconscious is repressed. Our authors discuss the case of the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who repressed his feelings:

What resulted was an utterly disrupted personal life, vehement and unnecessary sarcastic attacks on fellow scientists, and frequent bouts of drunkenness. What also resulted was the famous Pauli effect, by which delicate laboratory instrumentation collapsed upon Pauli’s mere appearance!27

Our authors tell us that an example of the trickster is Hermes, also known as Mercurius. Among other things, Hermes was the patron of boundaries and of commerce. Primitive commerce often took place at a boundary. A person from one village would leave his goods in a border area, and then someone from the neighboring village would take the goods, and leave his own goods in exchange. Thus, the traders wouldn’t actually meet. Since people outside the village were feared, primitive man avoided meeting them.28

Our authors point out that Hermes not only represented physical boundaries, but also boundaries and transitions in our attitudes, our state of mind, our life. Thus, Hermes reminds us of the Tibetan concept of the bardo, which means a transition time. Since the ultimate transition is from life to death, both Hermes and the bardo are associated with the realm of the dead.

Our authors recommend Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman, which touches on synchronicity. According to Wikipedia,

Michael Harner is widely acknowledged as the world’s foremost authority on shamanism and has had an enormous influence on both the academic and lay worlds.... What Yogananda did for Hinduism and D. T. Suzuki did for Zen, Michael Harner has done for shamanism, namely, bring the tradition and its richness to Western awareness.

2. Rebecca West

The book on synchronicity drew my attention to an English writer named Rebecca West. She was born Cicely Fairfield in 1892, but called herself “Rebecca West” after an Ibsen heroine. While still in her 20’s, she became a prolific writer, “an eloquent spokesperson for feminist and socialist causes.”29 At 24, she published a short book on Henry James.

Meanwhile, she had started an affair with H. G. Wells when she was just 21. Though she had other affairs later in her life, her affair with Wells produced her only child, Anthony West, who criticized his mother for her indifference toward him.

She travelled frequently. Her visits to Yugoslavia resulted in a 1,200-page book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. She covered the Nuremberg Trials, and wrote a book about them called A Train of Powder. In addition to travel writing, political writing, and literary criticism, West wrote several novels, including an autobiographical novel called The Fountain Overflows. Her last book, a study of the year 1900, is described as “cultural history.”

When she died in 1983, William Shawn (editor of The New Yorker) said,

Rebecca West was one of the giants and will have a lasting place in English literature. No one in this century wrote more dazzling prose, or had more wit, or looked at the intricacies of human character and the ways of the world more intelligently.

George Bernard Shaw said that “Rebecca West could handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could and much more savagely.”

While many of her contemporaries were seduced by Communism or Fascism, West was critical of both. She had no enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution: “In West’s view, Communism, like Fascism, was merely a form of authoritarianism.”

3. Robert D. Kaplan

Wikipedia’s article on Rebecca West called my attention to Robert D. Kaplan, an author and journalist who became well-known for his book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, which was published in early 1993, as the Yugoslav wars were intensifying. Kaplan has been embedded with American troops, and has published two books about the American military. Kaplan’s most recent books are Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (2010), and The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2012). (Peter Zeihan, author of The Accidental Superpower, has also written about geography and world affairs.) Kaplan has been interviewed on Booknotes, Q & A, and In Depth. Robert D. Kaplan should not be confused with these other Kaplans:

  • Lawrence F. Kaplan, a journalist and foreign-policy specialist
  • Justin Kaplan, author of biographies of Twain and Whitman
  • Fred Kaplan, who wrote biographies of Henry James, Dickens, Carlyle, and others
  • another Fred Kaplan, who has written about American foreign policy

© L. James Hammond 2013
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Footnotes
1. Appendix III, p. 161. Though the body of the book isn’t as difficult to read as Appendix III, it suffers from some of the same flaws. back
2. Occasionally, though, the authors admit that synchronicity can’t be explained: “Beyond all our best efforts to understand it, in this book and elsewhere, synchronicity still embraces a deep enigma.”(Ch. 6, p. 143) The authors also admit that you can’t prove synchronicity, you can’t prove that it isn’t just chance: “No amount of arguing will finally settle the question of whether all coincidences amount to nothing more than mere happenstance.... There is no hard evidence in the matter of synchronicity, and arguments can be built in both directions.”(Appendix II, p. 159) back
3. Introduction, p. xxxvii back
4. Introduction, p. xxxvi. Perhaps this “creativity” is a factor in evolution, perhaps evolution isn’t driven only by random mutation. Some people argue that this creativity means that life and consciousness must have evolved at various points in the universe, not just on earth; life and consciousness are, if you will, the destiny of matter.(Ch. 2, p. 29) back
5. Part Two, epigraph, p. 63 back
6. Introduction, p. xxxvi, xxxvii back
7. Ch. 2, p. 26. Our authors note that telepathy sometimes overlaps with synchronicity. In fact, all sorts of occult phenomena can be viewed as types of synchronicity. “Koestler [was] the first to realize clearly that if one pushes the limits of synchronicity one eventually includes most of the traditional topics in parapsychology.”(ch. 2, p. 35) back
8. Ch. 2, p. 43. When discussing my theory of history, I used the term “organic level” to describe the point at which a society becomes an organism, and shares an instinct: “A society that is completely undeveloped and hasn’t reached the organic level, such as European society during the Dark Ages, doesn’t seem to have either renaissance-type or decadent eras.” Such a society might be compared to a handful of ants, wandering aimlessly about, not yet in sync, not yet at the level of an organism. back
9. This quote is actually from the Foreword by Robin Robertson (pp. xvi, xvii). It should be noted that Leibniz disagreed with Newton, and believed that both time and space were relative. back
10. Introduction, pp. xxx, xxxi back
11. Ch. 2, p. 13 back
12. Ch. 2, p. 20 back
13. Ch. 6, p. 125. In an earlier chapter, the authors say that meditation and prayer can trigger synchronicities.(Ch. 3, p. 58)

In order to follow your bliss, “one must be able to say no to the incessant demands of an impersonal, bureaucratic world.” Perhaps this reminds you of our recent discussion of Gabor Maté’s book, When the Body Says No; Maté also says that one must be able to say no. back

14. Ch. 6, p. 132 back
15. Ch. 6, p. 130 back
16. Among Koestler’s writings on synchronicity are The Roots of Coincidence, The Challenge of Chance, and The Case of the Midwife Toad. back
17. Ch. 6, p. 127. Elsewhere our authors consider the possibility that the thought of crashing helps to cause the crash; thus, the people who avoid the train aren’t anticipating the crash, they’re causing it. See Chapter 2, page 33. back
18. Ch. 2, p. 21. One of my own experiences with “book synchronicity” involved Ed Banfield, my former professor. In the mid-1980s, I lived in Boston for a year and a half, and during most of that time, Banfield paid me to get books for him at the library, and to do various other jobs. I often lunched at his house. One day he read me a quote from Nietzsche, and asked me where it came from; I said that it came from Beyond Good and Evil. Then he gave me a copy of Beyond Good and Evil, and asked me to find the quote. I immediately opened the book to the very page that contained the quote; he laughed. He was testing my knowledge, and he was testing it in the area where he knew it was strongest.

I first heard of the “library angel” when I read a sketch of Erwin Panofsky, the art historian. Panofsky’s friend Walter Friedlaender said that when Panofsky was born, a fairy came to his cradle and said, “‘Whichever book you open, you will find precisely the passage you need’.... This well-attested serendipity, however legendary in its origins, served Panofsky throughout his life.”(Panofsky sketch by William S. Heckscher, in the back of Panofsky’s Three Essays on Style, pp. 175, 176) If synchronicity (and other occult phenomena) result from enthusiasm, strong feeling, inspiration, then Panofsky’s “library synchronicity” might be viewed as a sign of his enthusiasm, his inspiration. And indeed, when you read his writings, you feel that he had an unusual degree of enthusiasm. back

19. Ch. 4, pp. 67, 68. Does the phrase “pre-established harmony” remind you of Leibniz? Our authors tell us that “Schopenhauer himself no doubt owed a debt to Leibniz,” but they don’t give any examples of this debt, they don’t demonstrate any link between Leibniz and synchronicity. Leibniz was known for his optimism (everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds), Schopenhauer for his pessimism. How did Schopenhauer reconcile his pessimism with “the most wonderful pre-established harmony”? Perhaps his pessimism grew out of youthful melancholy, and his idea of harmony developed later in his life. back
20. Our authors say very little about synchronicity in China, and don’t tell us if Kammerer was aware of Chinese interest in the field. back
21. In my teenage years, I had a keen interest in periodicity, and this was a factor in my later interest in periods of history, periods of decadence and renaissance. My interest in periodicity was aroused by fluctuations of mood. My moods oscillated regularly and predictably, like the swinging of a pendulum; if a good mood had lasted for four days, then the bad mood that followed it would also last for four days. As time went on, my moods lengthened: instead of lasting for three or four days, they lasted for eight or nine days. Finally, in the middle of my first year in college, one mood lasted for two weeks, and after that my moods ceased oscillating regularly and predictably, though I still had good moods and bad moods. My oscillating moods made me see the world in a dualistic way, and made me receptive to Hegel’s theory of a dialectic, a clash of opposites.

Many people have experienced oscillating moods. According to Freud, those who suffer from melancholy experience oscillating moods: “it is a very remarkable experience”, wrote Freud, “to observe morality... functioning as a periodic phenomenon.... The melancholic during periods of health can, like anyone else, be more or less severe towards himself; but when he has a melancholic attack, his super-ego becomes oversevere.”(quoted in E. Hitschmann, Great Men: Psychoanalytic Studies, “Boswell”) back

22. Ch. 1, pp. 7, 8 back
23. Ch. 4, pp. 77, 78 back
24. Ch. 2, p. 47 back
25. Ch. 6, p. 124 back
26. Our authors say that the trickster acts on behalf of the shadow. Perhaps it would be simpler to say that the trickster is the shadow — “trickster” and “shadow” are synonyms. The only difference is that the trickster is a mythical figure, the shadow a psychic force; in other words, the trickster is a personification of the shadow. back
27. Ch. 6, pp. 107, 108. I’m reminded of Dean Radin’s Conscious Universe, which tells of a person who caused toasters and other household machines to malfunction. back
28. Ch. 5, p. 93 back
29. Wikipedia back