Mind, Psyche, Spirit
Synchronicity is the Tao of Psychology
by Jean Shinoda Bolen
The understanding of synchronicity is the key which unlocks the door to the Eastern apperception of totality that we find so mysterious - C. G. Jung
I went to the mountains when I was a youngster and lay in my sleeping bag under the stars, seeing the vastness of the Milky Way above. What my eyes saw, my soul experienced. I felt a sense of reverence and awe at the boundlessness and beauty of the universe. It touched me. I felt God’s presence in the mountains, trees, and immense sky. What was above me and around me and included me was unlimited, eternal, and alive. It moved me. Wisps of clouds would pass overhead. I would see a shooting star and make a wish, and, without knowing when, seeing would end and sleep would begin. It comforted me. Then morning would come, crisp and invigorating, and I would awaken to find the sky blue or gray or brilliantly dawning in gold and orange. Not a start would be seen in the now bright sky. It would be time to get up and get moving, to be up and about.
Most of the time, we are all up and about, coping with what needs to be done and with the people around us. We focus on what is in front of us, dealing with the tangibles of our lives in the hurried time and limited space available. In the light of our everyday world, we cannot see the stars. Even at night, our vision of the heavens is limited by the lights of our cities and the pollution in the air from our machines. We are enclosed in buildings, walled in, nature around us shut out; we are kept too busy with the events of our evenings to be able to look up and experience the awesomeness of the night time sky. But whether seen or unseen, the stars are there. There is an expanding, infinite, timeless, yet moving universe of which we are a part. To know this intuitively, by glimpsing a portion of the heavens at night before falling asleep once again, resembles what the Zen practitioner seeks in meditation—the moment in which the vision of the Tao is experienced.
Intuitive Feeling, Reverence & Meaning
Whether I am lying under the stars, sitting in zazen or at peace in prayer, the intuitive knowledge that there is a patterned universe, or an underlying meaning to all experience, or a primal source, to which “I” am connected, always evokes a feeling of reverence. It is something known rather than thought about, so that explanatory words are inadequate—as the Tao Te Ching begins, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” Yet examples help, because almost all of us, often early in our lives, have had an intimation of what is called the Tao. Although words cannot adequately describe something experienced intuitively which has a quality of revelation such as the eternal Tao or the reality of God, they can transmit an idea. There are good reasons to discuss that which cannot be known fully through words—because intellectual acceptance of a spiritual concept, coupled with receptivity, can lay the groundwork for intuitively felt experience.
The eternal Tao or great Tao had many names representing the idea that there is an eternal law or principle at work, underlying what appeared as a perpetually changing world in motion. Taoists referred to it by many names, including the Primal unity and Source, the Cosmic Mother, the Infinite and Ineffable Principle of Life, the One. Tao has been referred to as the right, the moral order, the principle, the nature of life forces, the idea of the world, the method, or the way. Some even have translated it as God. Richard Wilhelm, the sinologist and translator of the I Ching translated Tao as meaning. In many respects, the concept of Tao resembles the Greek concept of logos. All efforts to explain it use words that stand for abstract ideas or metaphors. The Tao Te Ching itself says,
The Tao is an empty vessel, it is used but never filled…hidden deep but ever present…like water which gives life to the ten thousand things but does not strive…it cannot be seen—it is beyond form, it cannot be heard—it is beyond sound, it cannot be held—it is intangible…it cannot be exhausted…the Tao is hidden and without name, the Tao alone nourishes and brings everything to fulfilment…all things arise from the Tao…it is the source of the ten thousand things…the great Tao flows everywhere.
A Unifying Principle in the Universe
The experience of the Tao or of a unifying principle in the universe to which everything in the world relates, underlies the major Eastern religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Zen. Although each religion may call the experience by a different name, the essence of all varieties of Eastern mysticism is the same. Each holds that all phenomena—people, animals, plants, and objects from atomic particles to galaxies are aspects of the One.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the most well-known religious poem of Hinduism, the god Krishna’s spiritual instruction is based on the concept that all the myriad of things and profusion of events around us are manifestations of the same ultimate reality, called Brahman—the inner essence of all things; its qualities are as the Tao—beginningless, incomprehensible, indescribable, an ever-transforming essence of all things, unifying and underlying the numerous gods and goddesses that are worshipped. The manifestation of Brahman in the human soul is Atman,an aspect of the one cosmic reality of Brahman.
In Buddhism, the mystical experience of awakening constitutes an incomprehensible reality (acintya) where all elements are as one—participating in the undivided “suchness” (tathata), the all-pervading Buddha essence of Dharmakaya. Zen emphasizes the experience of direct mystical awareness of the Buddha nature of all things, where one experiences being an integral part of the great continuum of all that is. Confucianism and Taoism are two complementary poles—one pragmatic and the other mystical. Underlying both is the eternal Tao.
While the major Eastern religions are based on the perception of the unity and interrelationship of all things and events, and experience the many forms of the ten thousand things as manifestations of a basic oneness, the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes opposing dualities: God above, sinful human below, soul in opposition to world, spirit struggling to overcome flesh, upright man resisting Eve-like woman.
The Evolution of Western Science & Philosophy
Until recently, the concept of Eastern totality has been absent from Western scientific thinking, which focuses on duplicating experiments based on cause and effect, in which one distinct variable at a time is considered. Any “oneness” between the observer and the observed was “unthinkable,” as in “too ridiculous” rather than as in “wisdom beyond thought.” But with the advent of quantum physics and relativity theory, a radical transformation is taking place. It leads us to a view of reality very similar to the Eastern mystic’s intuitive vision of reality: an interconnected cosmic web in which the human observer is always a participator. Time and space become a continuum, matter and energy interchange, observer and observed interact.
To questions about the nature of the universe, the “answers” Western science is arriving at via extraordinarily sophisticated machinery and equally complex mathematics, is apparently none other than what an Eastern mystic experiences in solitary meditation as the eternal Tao. What they share are the two basic themes of the unity and interrelationship of all phenomena, and the intrinsically dynamic nature of the universe.
Western philosophy, like Western religion, has been dominated by the spirit-matter duality. Rene Descartes’ “Cartesian” division of nature into two fundamentally different worlds of mind and of matter, is a prime example. It is paralleled by classical “Newtonian” physics with its mechanistic model of the universe. Just as there have been Western mystics in the closets of orthodoxy, there have been philosophers who envisioned a continuously changing, inter-related universe. Two of the most noteworthy were Heraclitus of Ephesus, who taught that everything grows and is eternally in the process of becoming, and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who saw the human as a microcosmic expression of the macrocosm.
The Acausal Connecting Principle in Psychology
In psychology, only C. G. Jung has addressed this issue, describing synchronistic events as manifestations of an acausal connecting principle equivalent to the Tao. He theorized that people as well as all animate and inanimate objects are linked through a collective unconscious. Just as modern atomic physics acknowledges that the researcher affects whatever he or she studies at the particle level, Jung suggested that the psyche of the observing person interacts in the moment with the events of the outside world.
Jung described synchronicity as an acausal connecting principle that manifests itself through meaningful coincidences. There are no rational explanations for these situations in which a person has a thought, dream, or inner psychological state that coincides with an event. For example, a woman has a vivid dream that her sister’s house is on fire and impulsively calls to see if she is all right—there is a fire, and the call that awakened her may have saved her life. Or, a researcher is stumped at a crucial point needing some obscure highly technical information, and at a fund-raising dinner finds himself unexpectedly seated next to a person who has the information. A woman arrives in a city, wanting to contact a former roommate, cannot locate her, and steps into a crowded elevator to find she is standing there. I think of someone, the phone rings, and the caller is the very person I’ve had on my mind.
All these are examples of synchronicity, varying from the dramatic to the commonplace. In each situation, a person was struck by the coincidence and could not explain how it could have come about. Intuitively, each event felt significant and raised the possibility of there being an invisible, unknown connection or way in which things happen. Jung, by saying this phenomenon was “synchronicity,” gave it a name. He also indicated its importance, saying that, “The understanding of synchronicity is the key which unlocks the door to the Eastern apperception of totality that we find so mysterious.”
Through synchronicity the Western mind may come to know what the Tao is. As a concept, synchronicity bridges East and West, philosophy and psychology, right brain and left. Synchronicity is the Tao of psychology, relating the individual to the totality. If we personally realize that synchronicity is at work in our lives, we feel connected, rather than isolated and estranged from others; we feel ourselves part of a divine, dynamic, interrelated universe. Synchronistic events offer us perceptions that may be useful in our psychological and spiritual growth and may reveal to us, through intuitive knowledge, that our lives have meaning.
Every time I have become aware of a synchronistic experience, I have had an accompanying feeling that some grace came along with it. Each time another person has shared a synchronistic event with me, I felt like a privileged participant. There is something awesome and humbling, yet moving and knowing about glimpsing the Tao through synchronistic events.
The Neuropsychology of Subjective Experience
Just as stars cannot be seen in midday, yet are there nonetheless, in our Western minds the conditions are not right for “seeing” a pattern of underlying oneness. Recent interest in right and left cerebral hemisphere brain functioning may explain why this is so. We have favoured a certain kind of consciousness at the expense of another. Research into how our brains work shows that it is correct to sometimes say, “I have two minds about this,” because we do have two minds that function quite differently within our heads. Like night and day, the right and left cerebral hemispheres are different in their perceptions and way of working.
The left hemisphere contains our speech centres, controls the right half of our bodies, and uses the logic and reasoning of linear thinking to arrive at assessments or conclusions. It focuses on what is tangible and measurable—“left brain” thinking is the basis for all scientific experimentation and observation. The left hemisphere sees the “bits” or “parts” and the cause-and-effect relationships between them, rather than the whole interacting picture. Its relationship to the world is to see the world as being separate from itself, something to use or to dominate—its style is active and “masculine.”
The right cerebral hemisphere is quite different: images, rather than words, are its tools. It knows through intuition what the totality of a picture is, and also experiences a sense of what something emerged from and what it may become. The “right brain” can contain ambiguities and opposites. It takes in the whole of an event at once, rather than focusing on a detail or part, and can simultaneously perceive and feel about what it takes in. The right hemisphere compares through metaphor rather than measurement. Its style is receptive and reflective, a more “feminine” mode than that of the left hemisphere.
Resolving our Cultural Complex
The masculine culture of the Western world has devalued right hemisphere functioning, and our experience collectively and individually is poorer for that devaluation. Intuition is put down as mere “woman’s intuition”; reacting to a situation on a feeling level is drummed out of little boys, who are urged to be logical at all times. The message of our culture is that artists, musicians, poets, and women can function through these “inferior” ways, but real men do not. Consequently, anything that cannot be perceived and judged through the five senses and thinking is considered of little value, and gradually many individuals cease to experience what it is like to be moved emotionally by music, or by a symbol, or to have an intuition about an underlying reality.
Western civilization has thus allowed one half of the brain to devalue, repress and dominate the intuitive perceptions of the other. For it is through intuition that we can experience the totality and underlying connections or patterns invisible to the senses that are so central to Eastern mysticism. We need not travel to the East to become aware of its wisdom. Rather, since we have the potential to experience and perceive within us, we need only awaken it. The journey to the East is really an inward one.
As valuable as the intellect is, it has limitations related to the question of “whole and part”. To experience the eternal Tao requires that our consciousness perceive through the workings of the right cerebral hemisphere, by turning off the analytical, skeptical workings of the left hemisphere. As Goethe said, we murder when we dissect. We kill off the vitality of experience, murder the spirit and deny the soul, when we require that everything be processed through our left hemisphere’s logical computer-like workings.
By insisting that the scientific method is the only means by which anything can be known, the doors of perception are closed, the wisdom of the East is denied us, and our own inner world becomes one-sided. East and West are actually two halves of a whole—they represent the two inner aspects of each individual man and woman. The psychological split needs healing through an inner union, allowing flow between left and right hemispheres, between scientific and spiritual, masculine and feminine, yin and yang. It is then possible for us to be aware of being separate individuals yet also conscious of relating to a greater whole; of living in a world of linear time, yet capable of experiencing the timelessness of an eternal reality of which we are a part; of seeing with daylight perception as well as starlight vision. Our consciousness is then experienced as moving, rather than fixed.
The following passage of T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton conveys the relationship between a “still point” and the “dance” that is like the Tao underlying all movement, or the stillness of God at the heart of all activity.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
To continue with Eliot’s metaphor, we are part of a dance in which nothing that happens to us or in us ever repeats itself exactly, while the underlying connecting principle to which everything in the universe relates, including us, remains always the same.
◊ Jungian psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen MD is the author of The Tao of Psychology, from which the above article was extracted. Publ. here 12.10.16.