Edited August 2019
Mainstream psychology needs to do more to acknowledge a spiritual dimension in people’s lives. This includes a greater acknowledgement of mystical-sounding or paranormal experiences such as synchronicity, which involves strikingly uncanny and meaningful coincidences.
Many people identify themselves as being spiritual, although not necessarily religious, as a result of having such experiences. Synchronicity, as with many other spiritual or transpersonal experiences, is appreciated more through intuition rather than rational thought processes. It seems that an overemphasis on rationality throughout Western culture, including throughout the field of psychology, has led to an underrecognition or underemphasis of the relevance and importance of synchronicity and other transpersonal phenomena in people’s lives.
The notion of synchronicity implies that some coincidences are not merely the result of chance or mere happenstance. They are so subjectively compelling and meaningful that the person experiencing them may view them as ‘meant to be’. They seem to point to a hidden pattern or order to the universe. Synchronistic experiences typically have a numinous or sacred quality, evoking a sense of fascination, wonder or awe. As a psychotherapist with over 35 years’ experience, I have been struck by the increased extent to which my clients have divulged synchronistic experiences to me since they learned that I was writing a book on the subject. Not uncommonly, they have explained that they had not previously confided such experiences lest they appear psychotic. Here are two cases in point.
Eric, in his early 30s, presented with depression in the context of severe alcohol dependence from his adolescent years combined with methamphetamine addiction. Soon after he learnt that I was writing about synchronicity, Eric explained that he had been feeling suicidal earlier in our contact. At one point he was kneeling before a window, crying, with the barrel of a 9mm pistol in his mouth. He slightly chipped a tooth on the barrel. He was about to pull the trigger. He suddenly noticed a blackbird, like a raven, looking towards him from about 20 metres away. It suddenly took flight directly at him at full speed. It smashed into the windowpane immediately in front of him and fell down dead, “like a kamikaze pilot”. Eric put down the pistol. He had a ‘brief moment of clarity’, believing that the blackbird had sacrificed itself for him. The uncanny nature and timing of this event led him to feel he was meant to live. He soon booked himself into a rehabilitation program. He felt that the blackbird incident had strengthened his motivation to the point where he was only one of two people he knew of from the rehabilitation facility who overcame his addictions.
Eric explained that he hadn’t mentioned the blackbird incident to me because it might have seemed like ‘borderline psychotic behaviour’. He continues to believe that this synchronistic experience saved his life and helped his excellent recovery. Directly acknowledging his transpersonal experience in the therapy setting has seemingly assisted his engagement with therapy goals, his life meaning and achievement in resisting any relapse. He has now successfully returned to full-time work, married, and fathered a child.
I increasingly hear of clients describing synchronistic experience in conjunction with other paranormal phenomena, such as having a dream or vision that anticipates an event that occurs soon afterwards. The following synchronistic experience involved a ghostly encounter.
Diana, a woman in her early 40’s, was looking for direction in her life after leaving a marriage marked by emotional and physical abuse. She had a sense that she might somehow receive guidance for her future path from her ancestors. One day, she spent hours trying to research her family tree, but gave up in frustration as she found nothing useful. She nonetheless prayed that she would come across some useful information about her ancestors.
As Diana was in her bathroom preparing for bed, she was startled by a vision of a stooped old man. He was quaintly dressed in clothes of a former era. He looked at her and said, ‘the information you require you will have in the morning’. He then vanished. When she awoke, despite wondering whether it was just a hallucination, the striking nature of this encounter led her to resume her research. Within half an hour she came across completely unexpected evidence of a particularly well-educated and accomplished branch of her family contrasting with her own very modest educational and socioeconomic background. This markedly boosted her belief that she might be capable of pursuing further study at a point when she was at a crossroads in life. Despite also raising two young children under adverse circumstances, she was able to successfully apply for tertiary study and to achieve very good grades, all the while boosted by the numinous and synchronistic quality of this ghostly encounter. Diana went on to describe many other examples of synchronistic premonitions, including subsequent confirmation of her intuitive insights. She summed up synchronicity as ‘the universe telling you that you are getting warmer’. Such anecdotes are consistent with my own view that synchronistic experiences help guide us to our optimal life path, like a ‘tick from the universe’ affirming that we are on the right track.
There should be scope to acknowledge such incidents in the therapy setting, given their impact on someone’s life. However, I suspect that they are rarely disclosed. I suspect that most psychologists would be little prepared to meaningfully deal with such revelations, as there would be minimal reference to such experiences in most mainstream psychology courses.
It is nonetheless understandable that spiritual and paranormal phenomena are largely neglected in mainstream psychology. The field is established on a scientific foundation: we are meant to objectively research hypotheses using replicable methods. However, this is not the full story. We also wish to be able to acknowledge and explore the full range of human experience. Any psychological approach that leaves out some of the most subjectively relevant or important things in people’s life experience would be unduly limited. Strict behaviourism could only ever advance so far.
In my view, positive psychology is a field which is the most promising in exploring broader dimensions to people’s lives, including spirituality, whilst still adopting a considerable degree of scientific rigour. Positive psychology is a science of wellbeing in that it looks to objective empirical support for any interventions proposed to improve people’s mental health and wellbeing. Positive psychology research has recently highlighted the benefits of spiritual beliefs or practices for people’s wellbeing. These benefits include increased longevity, lesser alcohol and drug use, reduced health costs and greater resilience in adverse situations.
Synchronicity relates directly to the PERMA model of positive psychology, as outlined by its founder, Martin Seligman. He emphasized five domains as being integral to psychological wellbeing. These include positive emotions, engagement in activities and roles, positive relationships, personal meaning and accomplishment. Anything that is objectively demonstrated to enhance these aspects of our life experience is consistent with positive psychology. Eric and Diana’s stories illustrate the potentially beneficial, even profound, impact of synchronistic experiences in each of these domains.
The positive psychology field is now more explicitly incorporating spiritual themes related to life purpose and meaning. The goal is to draw on the best in ourselves, whilst contributing to something beyond ourselves. This has led to increasing acceptance in the positive psychology literature for such terms as ‘the sacred’ or pursuing one’s ‘calling’. This is not altogether surprising as early theoretical work in this field acknowledged the influence of such luminaries as William James, Abraham Maslow and Carl Jung (who coined the term synchronicity) who were all strongly interested in transpersonal phenomena.
It is only recently that I have felt emboldened to present on the phenomenon of synchronicity at scientifically based psychology conferences, including at a recent World Congress on Positive Psychology in Orlando, Florida. Psychology in the 21st-century is open to considering more intuitive and creative ways of thinking and perceiving the world whilst still aiming to be objective in exploring what impact they can have on our wellbeing.
In The Positive Psychology of Synchronicity: Enhance Your Mental Health with the Power of Coincidence I have set out to incorporate theory, anecdotes and personal and client examples to offer a 21st-century take on the legacy of Carl Jung, who so intriguingly introduced us to the concept of synchronicity sixty years ago. He first wrote about synchronicity in a book co-written with Wolfgang Pauli, a father of quantum mechanics. As their collaboration showed, just because something sounds mystical does not mean it is inconsistent with a scientific mindset.