This season’s Mind & Supermind lecture series kicks off April 27 at the Lobero Theatre. Dr. Richard Tarnas, professor of philosophy and cultural history at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and also a teacher of depth psychology at Santa Barbara’s Pacifica Graduate Institute, will speak about synchronicity – a term coined by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. In his days at Harvard, synchronicity and related ideas offered Tarnas, in his words, “a wider range of metaphysical options to engage life.”
In his latest book, Cosmos and Psyche, Tarnas recounts Jung’s classic example of synchronicity in which a difficult client, who always had a ready but limiting explanation for everything, was sharing details of a dream in which an emerald green scarab beetle played a significant role. At the very moment she was sharing the details of her dream, Jung heard a tapping at the window. He opened it, and in flew a green scarab beetle just like the one in the client’s dream. For good measure, the beetle landed on Jung’s hand so he could show it to his client, who was thereafter a bit more receptive to new possibilities.
Tarnas spoke to me by phone.
What is synchronicity?
A synchronicity is a meaningful coincidence, usually of an outer event with an inner state, in which there’s no apparent causal connection between what’s happening outside and what’s happening inside.
On observing a synchronicity, one has a sense of uncanniness, as if the universe were somehow orchestrating events in such a way that there’s a kind of intelligence at work. Since we live in a universe that we understand by our conventional scientific understanding to be one ruled by chance and impersonal mechanistic forces, these kinds of coincidences shouldn’t be happening. Yet many people do have these kinds of experiences and find them extraordinarily meaningful, because they seem to suggest that a deeper order or larger pattern is at work, as if meaning and purposes are being carried by something more than just the human being.
In our time many people are holding a tension between two very different world views. Synchronicity is at the borderline of those two views. On the one hand, there is the mainstream scientific view of the universe that understands life and the cosmos to be evolving in a random, purposeless way. On the other hand, we all have within us certain deep psychological and spiritual values and aspirations, and those values and aspirations are not answered by conventional scientific understanding. Synchronicity is an empirical phenomenon that many people have experienced that allows us to address this issue of where purpose and meaning come from. Is it just our projection? Is it just a human phenomenon? Or is there something larger?
Can synchronicity be influenced by our state of mind – by intentions, or affirmations, or prayer? Or is it more like grace which is bestowed from outside: you either receive it or you don’t, but there’s not much you can do about it?
I would have more of a sense that human participation can play a role. Let me add that my personal view is that grace comes in a context of a whole lifetime of actions and intentions that I suspect are part of the picture, so it’s not just a random phenomenon. I think the human being can play a role in evoking synchronicities and grace, not least by being open and sensitive to their possibility.
Do omens in traditional cultures have any relationship to synchronicity?
Synchronicity is a modern concept formulated by a modern psychologist in the 20th century to explain an experience and phenomenon that had been observed for millennia in traditional and tribal cultures. Most traditional cultures have a way of looking at the world as capable of carrying meanings and purposes that are communicated by various means, of which omens would be one. You don’t need a concept of synchronicity in a primal traditional culture. You only need it in the modern context where events are considered to be caused by human purposes, or else they are purposeless.
What are the deepest implications of synchronicity?
I think synchronicity offers us a remarkable opportunity to open our philosophical horizon to the possibility of a different kind of worldview that can accommodate the natural human aspiration for meaning and purpose.
Synchronicity seems to work like a kind of invitation to participate in the unfolding of purposes and meanings, that while they are focused in some mysterious way on my life, or your life, or the life of the individual experiencing the synchronicity, they seem to be grounded in something larger than just our own human subjectivity. And that’s an extraordinary thing. It provides us with something like an intimation of a spiritual realm of being.
Richard Tarnas will speak on Exploring Synchronicity: The Experience and the Implications, at the Lobero Theatre on Monday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Mind & Supermind lecture series. For more information, visit lobero.com. To reserve a ticket to the free lecture, call 687-0812 x0.