[A talk given at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Illinois on October 29, 2017]
Early one morning back in August I was sitting in my office when I received a text from my friend and your fellow parishioner Tina Harlan. She asked me if I’d be interested in speaking to a group at her church some Sunday on the subject of “thin places,” which she told me was the theme for the coming year’s adult forum talks.
I was stunned when I received this invitation, but not for any reasons you might imagine.
The night before I’d been reading a book by the journalist Krista Tippett entitled Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. In her book, Tippett describes a sabbatical she’d taken to Ireland to complete a writing project she’d been working on. She notes that the rocky seacoast of western Ireland, where she’d settled in to work, is a part of the country that the ancient Celts had believed was teeming with “thin places,” or locations where the veil between the divine and the human becomes completely transparent. I’d never come across this phrase “thin places” before, so you can imagine how surprised I was to receive this invitation.
After receiving Tina’s text the next morning, I called her to share this remarkable coincidence. I told her I’d be happy to speak, but after we ended our call I realized that I had no idea what I would speak about. Then I understood. I’d talk about synchronicity – which is, after all, how this whole thing got started in the first place.
Synchronistic events, or “meaningful coincidences” like the one I’ve just described, really are wonderful examples of “thin places.” Over the years, I’ve come to understand that the synchronistic events I’ve experienced represent a source of deep spiritual wisdom, wisdom that time and again has provided me with invaluable insight into how to handle some of my most perplexing personal challenges.
I’d like to start out this morning by offering a brief definition and history of “synchronicity.” Then, I’ll provide a couple more examples of synchronistic events I’ve experienced in my own life, and I’ll suggest some ways we can make events like these more accessible and intelligible. Finally, I’d love to know if any of you have experienced synchronicity and, if so, how you made sense of these encounters.
My aim this morning is not to try to convince you that synchronicity really exists. Some people argue that it doesn’t, that it’s just an illusion created by what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” or the human tendency to pay attention only to those data that confirm our personal view of the world.
I’m an empiricist – I believe that everything I need to know in life I can learn through my own experience, even if I can’t always understand or explain my experience logically. Similarly, I believe that only you can decide for yourselves whether synchronistic events are real and whether they have anything of value to offer.
The word “synchronicity” literally means “together in time.” One dictionary defines synchronicity as “simultaneous events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.” The term was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in the 1930s to describe certain extraordinary experiences he had had while analyzing patients in his Zurich clinic.
Jung wrote at least two articles on the subject of synchronicity, which he considered to be an extremely important dimension of human experience. The first, which appeared in 1949, was a foreword to a new English translation of the ancient Chinese oracle The I Ching, or Book of Changes. The second, published in 1952, is an article entitled “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle.” I’m going to return to the I Ching in a few minutes.
Here’s one way I like to think about synchronicity. I’ve come to believe that our shared human experience is essentially a comedy – a divine comedy, to borrow a title from Dante – and that living our lives with or without the benefit of synchronicity is a little like the difference between performing stand-up comedy and improv comedy.
Most of the time we live our lives as though we’re performing stand-up. We tell ourselves stories that lead to punchlines that we hope will make us laugh and feel better about ourselves. We imagine a clear line of cause and effect that transports us (we hope) from where we are now to a future where everything will be wonderful and we’ll finally find the peace and contentment we so desperately desire. We’re all about the future, always thinking about getting some place that’s better than where we are now.
Unfortunately, though, the stories we tell ourselves don’t always pan out – the inexorable laws of cause and effect seem to fail us. Things oftentimes don’t go the way we’d hoped, and we end up bitter and resentful because when we get to the end of our story, it turns out that our punchline’s not as funny as we’d hoped it would be.
This is when we sometimes decide to make an important change in our lives. We decide to begin living our lives as though we were performing improv rather than stand-up.
We stop fantasizing about some ideal future where everything will be perfect, and we begin to appreciate what we have right here, right now, responding on the spot to whatever circumstances present themselves.
At first this transition from stand-up to improv can leave us feeling disoriented and somewhat adrift. Because we’ve left our stories behind and are no longer attached to any particular outcome, it feels like we have nothing left to hold on to. It feels like we have no ground under our feet.
Fortunately, this initial disorientation never lasts very long. A friend of mine who works in the improv business once told me that she considers every line her stage partner hands her to be a “gift,” an act of grace. And she told me that because she considers every line to be an act of grace, no line can ever be wrong or mistaken.
For those of us who decide to live improvisationally, this is how we begin to think about whatever happens next in our lives. We recognize that what comes next is an act of grace that can never be wrong, regardless of the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about how our lives were supposed to be.
I’ve come to believe that an appreciation for synchronicity is an indispensable part of living improvisationally. Just as there are no mistakes in improv, there are no mistakes in synchronicity.
A synchronistic coincidence, like a great improv line, exhibits a kind of inevitability. As we like to say after the fact, “it was meant to be.” A great improv line perfectly captures the spirit of the moment in which it is spoken – the mood of the audience, the “gift” our stage partner hands us, even our own intuitive sense of where our skit is headed. Likewise, a synchronistic coincidence perfectly expresses the unique quality of the particular moment in which it occurs. It’s an exponent of all of our worries, fears, hopes and dreams. It’s also a reflection of the all of the conditions that, at this particular moment in time, define the world in which we live – a world that, if we stop to think about it, is really nothing more than our own projection of these same worries, fears, hopes and dreams.
I’d like to share with you a couple more examples of meaningful coincidences I’ve experienced over the years.
The first occurred in 1984, when I was living in Atlanta. I remember the year because it was my first encounter with synchronicity, or at least the first I can remember. I’d decided to buy a house – my first house, to be exact – and I was worried about spending too much money. Buying a house was for me a long, frustrating process — every house I liked I couldn’t afford, and every house I could afford I didn’t much like. This went on for over two months. One night I was venting to a friend, and he suggested – half-jokingly – that we consult his copy of the I Ching about my situation.
I was somewhat familiar with this Chinese oracle – I’d read excerpts in a college class on Asian literature – but I’d largely written if off as a curiosity of pre-scientific civilization. Still, just for fun, we threw the coins. (Just for reference, one consults the I Ching by throwing three coins six times, and the particular combination of heads and tails that turns up directs you to one of 64 hexagrams in the book. Each hexagram describes, in general terms, a different set of circumstances, pronounces judgment on the significance of these circumstances, and offers advice on the best way to work through them.) My six throws directed me to Hexagram #60, which is entitled “Limitation.”
I won’t read the whole hexagram, but I do want to read a couple of sentences that appear near the beginning of the narrative. Here’s what they had to say about my situation at the time:
“The Chinese word for limitation really denotes the joints that divide a bamboo stalk. In relation to ordinary life, it means the thrift that sets fixed limits upon expenditures.”
Now, this warning about the importance of not spending beyond one’s means was coincidence enough, given my search for a house to buy, but what happened the following Sunday was nothing short of astonishing.
I was looking at houses with a realtor, and we came to the last house on our list for the day. It was a small, well-preserved 1920s bungalow, and while it needed some minor work, it was within my budget. Here’s a photograph of the house.
After walking through the various rooms of the house, we ended up on an outside deck that overlooked a spacious back yard and – to my utter disbelief – a long row of tall, mature, bamboo trees – the first bamboo trees I’d seen in Atlanta, even after living in the city for nearly two years.
The second coincidence I’ll share with you occurred nearly 20 years later, in 2002. I was driving my family from Chicago to Cleveland for my father’s funeral. We were all in the car, my wife and two young children, with my dad’s ashes in a burial urn packed carefully in the trunk.
It had been a challenging week for me, and nothing I did made it any easier for my family. Hovering just overhead were some unpleasant circumstances with estranged family members who were threatening to challenge the legality of my father’s final documents – and I wanted the whole thing to be done with. Not surprisingly, I got pulled over for speeding on the turnpike just east of Toledo by an Ohio state trooper.
I tried to explain to the trooper why I was in such a hurry, but he was unimpressed. As he handed me a ticket for a $150 fine – I’d been driving considerably over the speed limit – he gave me a long look heavy with consequence and said, slowly and deliberately, “Son, you need to slow down.”
Now I thought that warning was odd – it sounded jarring to me, given that I was at least ten years older than the state trooper. After we arrived in Cleveland and had checked into our hotel, I sat down to read through the instructions on the ticket. I noticed the trooper’s signature. His first name was Edmund, which also happened to have been my father’s first name.
The three examples of meaningful coincidences I’ve shared with you this morning were all significant events that would be hard for anyone to miss. Many synchronistic events, though, are less consequential – a friend you’ve just been thinking about, whom you haven’t seen in years, steps out of a storefront and nearly runs into you on the sidewalk. Or an old song from high school that’s been playing and replaying itself in your head for the last hour or so suddenly comes on the radio.
And then, of course, there are all the meaningful coincidences we never even notice because we’re not paying attention to what’s happening around us. We’re so caught up in our stories, so distracted by all the internal conversations we have with ourselves, that we miss what’s right in front of us.
How many of us, for example, have driven home from work, or from a friend’s house or the store, and as we pulled into our garage realized that we had no recollection whatsoever of our drive home?
This begs the question of what, if anything, we can do to become more aware of these kinds of events when they occur in our lives—what we can do to take greater advantage of this wonderful source of unsolicited wisdom.
I don’t believe we can go out and search for synchronicity the same way we might go out and search for the perfect living room rug. In fact, I suspect the opposite is true: the harder we try to find meaning in events around us, the less successful we’ll be. Synchronicity has to find us. Probably the most we can to do is to cultivate the conditions favorable for synchronicity to show its hand. We have to learn how to become attentive and receptive to an entirely new source of wisdom in our lives.
So what can we do to increase the likelihood that synchronicity will speak to us? I have a couple of suggestions.
First, I think it’s important to become and remain aware of whatever pressing questions animate our lives…questions that rise to the surface and beg for our attention in moments of solitude and silence.
Niels Bohr, winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with quantum mechanics, once wrote that “there are two kinds of truth, small truth and great truth. You can recognize a small truth because its opposite is a falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another truth.” I think the same holds true for questions – there are small questions and great questions. An appropriate response to a small question is typically an answer. An appropriate response to a great question is often times another great question.
The question I posed to the I Ching when I was house hunting in Atlanta was a small question. To be clear about what I wanted to know, I wrote it out on a piece of paper. “How should I go about buying a house?” Small questions tend to be of the moment and usually involve concerns that accumulate on the surface of our lives. Great questions, on the other hand, are profound and hint at concerns that percolate up from the very core of our being.
One of my favorite examples of a great question comes from the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, who expressed it this way: “How do we live a life we can’t hold on to? How do we live with the fact that the moment we’re born we move closer to death; when we fall in love we sign up for grief? How do we reconcile that gain always ends in loss; gathering, in separation?”
I think it’s telling that we’ve become conditioned in our culture to value answers over questions. For the sake of efficiency, we’ve come to view questions as obstacles to our progress, as problems to be solved as quickly as possible. We might be better served to think of questions – at least great questions – as mysteries to be explored, savored, and lived. One step we can take to become more aware of synchronicity is to pay more attention to asking ourselves the right great questions. Because when everything is said and done, the right answer to the wrong question is not very useful at all.
A second suggestion I’ll make is that we strive to live these great questions – our great questions – in a spirit of what the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls “contemplative inquiry.”
“Contemplative inquiry” is a way of finding our way through the world that honors the value of both our conditioned need to answer questions quickly and our deep, abiding human desire for spiritual consolation and growth.
As a species we’ve become quite accomplished at the inquiry part of “contemplative inquiry.” We’re really good at focusing our logical minds on answering whatever questions we encounter in life. At this point in our evolution, though, we might want to devote more time to strengthening our contemplative muscle, to becoming more sensitive to the quality of our inner and outer experience.
To make the most of what synchronicity has to offer us, I think it’s helpful to develop a disciplined, contemplative practice of some kind – prayer, meditation, yoga, or simply walking mindfully in the woods – any activity that expands our capacity to see new things, or to see old things in a new way. I’m talking here about cultivating that illusive quality of mind we call “presence.” We’re often reminded that we must be present to win, and I think that’s more true than we’ve ever really imagined.
Shunryu Suzuki, the late founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, described the contemplative mind as a “beginner’s mind.” In his famous book on meditation titled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki writes that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” Let’s not forget that this is how we learned about the world when we were children. A child doesn’t know what’s possible or impossible and so is entirely open to exploration, experimentation, and discovery.
Now that we’re adults – now that we’ve become experts at life – I fear we’ve become less imaginative about how to seek new knowledge. I think the most important lesson synchronicity can teach us is that our greatest insights often come from where and whom we least expect to find them – the homeless woman sitting on the park bench, the plumber fixing our clogged kitchen drain, or even our surly, next door neighbor who’s never satisfied with the way we cut our grass.
If we can find time to sit in silence for a few minutes each day with a contemplative mind, paying close attention to the world around us and within us, it’s likely we’ll hear a great question calling our name.
“Is it possible that for the last 10 years, I’ve been working in a job that no longer inspires me?” “How well do I really listen to my kids when I get home from work, and what is it that keeps me from truly hearing what they want to tell me?” “What habits in my life might be keeping me from becoming the person I want to become, or perhaps more importantly, from appreciating the person I already am?” Our aim in contemplative inquiry is not so much to find answers to our questions as to allow the answers to find us. This is one way synchronicity can be very helpful.
So these are my two suggestions for how to make synchronicity a greater part our lives. Identify and live the great questions that challenge us to discover a deeper truth. And develop a contemplative practice that helps us cultivate a “beginner’s mind” so that we can see the world with new eyes, in a spirit of childlike curiosity.
But I’m guessing that many of you already know this, so at this point I’ll stop talking. I’m interested in hearing about your own encounters with synchronicity. What did these encounters feel like, and what, if anything, did you learn from from them?