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13.7: Personality Theory in Real Life

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  • Synchronicity - Coincidence or an Experience with Mystical Spirituality?

    Many people are deeply religious and many others consider themselves to be just as deeply spiritual, though not connected to any specific religion. As important as religion and spirituality are in the lives of many people, psychology has tended to avoid these topics, primarily because they do not lend themselves readily to scientific investigation. Jung certainly did not avoid these topics, and he studied a wide range of spiritual topics. For example, he wrote the foreword for Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching (Wilhelm, 1950), he wrote psychological commentary for a translation of The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (Evans-Wentz & Jung, 1954), he discussed the psychology of evil in Answer to Job (Jung, 1954), he wrote about Gnostic traditions at length (see Segal, 1992), and one of the volumes of his collected works is entitled Psychology and Religion: West and East (Jung, 1958). In addition to his varied spiritual interests, Jung became interested in psychological phenomena that could not be explained in scientific terms. Such phenomena do not necessarily require a spiritual explanation, but in the absence of any other way to explain them, they are often thought of in spiritual terms. One such topic is synchronicity.

    Jung uses the term synchronicity to describe the “coincidence in time of two or more causally unrelated events which have the same or a similar meaning” (Jung & Pauli, 1955). In particular, it refers to the simultaneous occurrence of a particular psychic state with one or more external events that have a meaningful parallel to one’s current experience or state of mind. I would like to share with you two experiences of synchronicity from my own life. Having a Ph.D. in physiological psychology, and having spent a number of years conducting biomedical research, it seems rather strange to be sharing experiences that can be classified as extrasensory perception, or ESP. Jung also found it difficult to address this topic:

    …If I have now conquered my hesitation and at last come to grips with my theme, it is chiefly because my experiences of the phenomenon of synchronicity have multiplied themselves over the decades…As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist I have often come up against the phenomena in question and could convince myself how much these inner experiences meant to my patients. In most cases they were things which people do not talk about for fear of exposing themselves to thoughtless ridicule. I was amazed to see how many people have had experiences of this kind and how carefully the secret was guarded. So my interest in this problem has a human as well as a scientific foundation. (pp. 5-6; Jung, in Jung & Pauli, 1955)

    Synchronicity Experience #1: In February, 1992, our first son, Mark David Kelland, Jr., died at birth. Later that year, I was traveling across the country, taking a whole week to get to a neuroscience convention in California, and I decided to hike up Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico (13,161 feet). I arrived a little late in the day, but decided I had enough time to make the climb and get back down off the ridge before dark. I just made it, but still had a few miles to go on the jeep trail down to the parking lot. Along the way, I stopped and looked back up at Wheeler Peak. I turned off my flashlight, and in the dark I could just make out the outline of the mountain against the night sky. I prayed to God for a sign that our son was in Heaven. The instant I said “Amen,” a brilliant shooting star streaked across the sky and descended behind Wheeler Peak! I took it to be the sign I had asked for.

    Synchronicity Experience #2: While growing up, we lived next door to Bill and Jackie O’Reilly, who co-owned the corner drugstore in the center of Foxborough, MA. When I was young I mowed their lawn in the summer and shoveled their driveway in the winter. When I was old enough to get a regular job, I asked Mr. O’Reilly for a letter of recommendation for a job at the local newspaper. He declined, saying he wanted me to work at their drugstore. But he didn’t say anything else, until Mrs. O’Reilly told him to give me a job. So, I worked at the drugstore from the age of 15 to 20 years old. I even began college at the same school they had attended: the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. Although I changed schools and switched my major to psychology, I was always hopeful that the O’Reilly’s would be proud of me. Unfortunately, Bill O’Reilly died a week after I graduated from college. Jackie O’Reilly retired and sold their building, and the old corner drugstore in the center of town ceased to exist.

    Eventually I moved away, pursued my career in psychology, got married and had children, and visits to Massachusetts became few and far between. One night, about 25 years after I had worked at the drugstore, I had a very vivid and moving dream. I was standing in the center of Foxborough, looking at the building where the drugstore had been. I was overwhelmed by a profound sense of sadness, sad that things must change with time and cannot remain the same, no matter how much we may long for the past. I awoke from that dream astonished by its sense of reality and its emotional impact. The next morning my mother called me, and told me that Jackie O’Reilly had died during the night! Was it merely a coincidence that I dreamt about O’Reilly’s Pharmacy and felt the sadness of watching time pass away, while Jackie O’Reilly was in reality passing away, or was it something more? There can be no scientific explanation. I searched my mind for anything that might have coincidentally caused me to think about the drugstore the day before, but nothing came to mind except for an alternative explanation, which was not at all scientific. Had Jackie O’Reilly’s spirit passed by and said goodbye, on her way to the great beyond?

    In the quote cited above, Jung wrote that he was amazed by how many people have had experiences of synchronicity. The questions I would pose to you are quite simple. Have you ever experienced synchronicity? If you have not, do you consider it possible that such events occur as something more than simple (if improbable) coincidence?

    Before dismissing synchronicity as non-scientific, keep in mind the circumstances that led Jung to this theory. In addition to personally knowing Wolfgang Pauli, Jung also knew Nils Bohr and Albert Einstein (both of whom, like Pauli, had won a Nobel Prize in physics). Although these men are considered among the greatest scientists of modern times, Einstein perhaps the greatest, consider some of their theories. For instance, Einstein proposed that time isn’t time, it’s relative, except for the speed of light, which alone is always constant. In recent years, experimental physicists have exceeded the speed of light, broken Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (which, by definition, couldn’t be broken), and proposed that it might be possible to get something colder than absolute zero. How can we accept things that cannot be observed or proved as scientific, while rejecting something that Jung and many others have observed time and time again? Jung was impressed by the possibility of splitting atoms, and wondered if such a thing might be possible with the psyche. As physics suggested strange new possibilities, Jung held out the same hope for humanity (Progoff, 1973).

    Regardless of whether the strangest of Jung’s theories are ever proven right or wrong, at the very least they provide an opportunity for interesting discussions! There also happens to be another well-known person in the history of psychology who has experienced synchronicity and who talked about many of her patients having had out-of-body and near-death experiences: Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. In her book On Children and Death (Kubler-Ross, 1983), Kubler-Ross describes even more serious concerns than Jung about discussing this topic, but as with Jung, she has also met many, many patients who have had these experiences:

    …I have been called every possible name, from Antichrist to Satan himself; I have been labeled, reviled, and otherwise denounced…But it is impossible to ignore the thousands of stories that patients - children and adults alike - have shared with me. These illuminations cannot be explained in scientific language. Listening to these experiences and sharing many of them myself, it would seem hypocritical and dishonest to me not to mention them in my lectures and workshops. So I have shared all of what I have learned from my patients for the last two decades, and I intend to continue to do so. (pg. 106; Kubler-Ross, 1983)

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Jung studied and wrote about topics as diverse as alchemy, astrology, flying saucers, ESP, the prophecies of Nostradamus, and synchronicity. Does this make it difficult for you to believe any of his theories? If you don’t believe anything about any of these topics, are you still able to find value in other theories proposed by Jung?