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Most of us can look back on our lives and remember chance encounters, usually with people but also with works or art or even places, that had a special meaning and impact, perhaps even changing the direction of our lives. It is these “synchronistic encounters” common to human experience that Jungian analyst and author Jeff Vezina explores in his book Necessary Chances: Synchronicity in the Encounters that Transform Us. Inspired by the Jungian theory of synchronicity as well as chaos theory from the field of mathematics, Vezina writes from the perspective of a new field of study he calls “relational synchronicity.”
Vezina takes abstract theories that might seem daunting and presents them in a personal and highly readable style by using numerous stories and examples from his own life and those of his clients. In this short book of one hundred and sixty pages, he is able to introduce original ideas of how we experience synchronicities, or “meaningful coincidences,” and explain these in the context of other basic Jungian concepts like the collective unconscious, archetypes, complexes, the Self, and individuation. In doing so, he offers an introduction to Jungian psychology as well as a fresh take on such concepts for more experienced readers. In addition, Vezina offers a layperson’s discussion of chaos theory and quantum physics, showing how these fields of scientific study are beginning to overlap with psychology and religion.
To define what he means by a “synchronistic encounter,” Vezina begins by discussing Jung’s theory of synchronicity, which is most easily understood as a “meaningful coincidence.” He emphasizes the acausal nature of synchronicity, distinguishing it from a causal event, which is one that is reproducible. The author tells the story of the two synchronistic encounters that led to Jung developing his theory of synchronicity over a period of thirty years. Around 1920, Jung hosted Albert Einstein at several dinners, where the two men discussed Einstein’s theory of relativity. Jung said “Einstein started me off thinking about a possible relativity of time as well as space” in the realm of psyche, postulating that what is true in the world of matter holds true in the world of psyche. A second synchronistic encounter was with Nobel prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who encouraged Jung to expand and refine his theory of synchronicity. Pauli came to Jung as a client during a turbulent time in his life, which led to a twenty-five year friendship and collaboration between these two famous men. Pauli was drawn to Jung’s work and began to develop what he called a “neutral language” that worked equally for physics and depth psychology, matter and mind. At Pauli’s urging, their work together culminated in a joint publication of essays by both men, entitled “The Interpretation and Nature of the Psyche,” in 1952.
The theory of synchronicity was explained by Jung in his story of a very rational client of his, who was resisting the therapeutic process until a synchronistic encounter occurred. As the woman was telling Jung about her dream of a scarab beetle, this rare insect flew into the window of the room. Jung opened the window, picked up the insect, and handed it to the woman, who was stunned and transformed by this “meaningful coincidence” and only then began to open up to the therapy.
The title of the book, Necessary Chances, refers to chance occurrences that might be called “necessary” because they influence and guide our lives in certain directions. The subtitle, Synchronicity in the Encounters that Transform Us, emphasizes that these encounters can alter the course of our lives in some way. Vezina outlines four aspects of a synchronistic encounter:
- Acausal: no causal connection between two events but rather a connection through meaning
- It creates an emotional reaction in the person
- It has a symbolic and transformational effect
- It occurs more often in times of distress and transition
These features distinguish it from a mere coincidence, which is defined as random events that coincide but have no symbolic meaning, emotional impact, or transformational effect. Mere coincidences can occur that are not synchronicities.
A majority of the examples in the book are of synchronistic encounters between people, particularly in romantic relationships but also in brief encounters, perhaps on a trip or at a party, where a coincidence sparks a connection and even alters the course of a life. In addition, there are meaningful encounters with a work of art, like a book, movie, or even a place. Jung’s synchronistic encounter with a book, the I Ching, and its translator, Richard Wilheim, played an important role in bringing ideas of eastern religion to the west for the first time, in the 1900’s. In the chapter “Places that Haunt Us,” Vezina discusses how, like migrating birds, we are mysteriously drawn to certain landscapes and locales. Jung, for example, was attracted by water from an early age, and places near water played important roles in his life.
Jeff Vezina specializes in the area of depth psychology and film, and he uses a personal example of a movie, “Magnolia,” which has had important symbolic meaning in his life. He points out that films, often a reflection of the collective unconscious, developed at the same time as psychoanalysis, in the early 20th century. Cinema might be seen as a system of new myths or collective dreams which express the “major anxieties and questions of society.” In a method similar to dream analysis, he uses films in therapy, to help clients analyze movies that have had significant impact on them, to bring symbolic meanings to consciousness.
Synchronicity, like depth psychology in general, is based in symbolism. How symbolic patterns unfold in our everyday lives was a major contribution of Jung, but many critics rejected his ideas as unscientific, accusing Jung of mysticism. The author states that as quantum physics has begun in recent times to expand the parameters of science, synchronicity, which is a part of eastern traditions like the Tao, may come to be better understood and accepted.
According to Jung, Vezina says, our modern age is limited by rational thinking that is too “bright,” making it hard for us to recognize symbols, much like a bright sky makes it hard to see stars. Just as we see more stars in total darkness, we are better able to perceive symbols in times of darkness in our lives, which is also when we are more likely to have synchronistic encounters – as if the psyche is trying harder to communicate with and guide us in our darkest times.
To understand symbols, we need to distinguish a symbol from a sign. A sign points to something that is known, like a traffic light telling us to cross the street. A symbol, though, points to something unknown or ineffable. Symbols help us relate to the unknown and therefore are abundant in religion and art. Jung said symbols are spontaneously created and come to us from the wisdom of the collective unconscious, which he defined as a “field of fundamental possibilities, a deep layer below our personal unconscious that is shared by all humans and passed down through history. This deep layer of the unconscious, he theorized, exists outside of time and space and exerts it influence on our perceptions and emotions in a way similar to gravity. A synchronistic encounter is not a sign, telling us what to do, but rather a set of symbols that hint at something that we must flesh out and interpret for ourselves, much the way we might reflect on the meaning of a dream.
In discussing patterns, Vezina relates how symbols are used to express patterns and tell stories, much as the women in Fez, Morocco, tell the stories of their ancestors by weaving patterns into their carpets, saying “Indeed, we are all treading on an immense carpet with patterns for all to see, woven by the soul of the world.” He emphasizes how synchronistic encounters can help us uncover the patterns, which he calls life themes, that repeat in our lives. Repetition, he says, is “at the basis of life.” We can learn to identify these themes in our lives and the history of our parents and grandparents, perhaps even making a chart of family events as a tool in uncovering our family stories. By making these themes more conscious, we can begin to direct and change our own life story.
Vezina first became interested in synchronicity through studying chaos theory, a mathematical concept that examines how, in nature, order seems to come out of chaos, in the form of repeating patterns. This field of study, made possible by computer modeling in recent years, looks for fractals, or repeating geometrical patterns, represented by mathematical formulas plotted on a graph. In this way, we can see patterns emerge and see order emerge from chaos. In the same way, the author says, we can detect subtle patterns emerging from the random events, or chaos, of our lives, and synchronistic encounters are one such way these patterns are expressed:
“We may sometimes have the intuition, during a synchronicity, that it is connecting us to a much larger chain of events … this underlying order may be in some mysterious way attempting to reorganize our life.”
Vezina says that we cannot cause or create synchronistic encounters, for synchronicity eludes the control of the ego. Instead, we can make ourselves available for the unconscious to relay messages and guidance to us through synchronistic encounters by paying attention and allowing ourselves to open to the mystery of life.
In closing, the author says synchronicity was the theory that brought Jung perhaps the most criticism and admits that it is a difficult subject to study. He hopes his book advances a few hypotheses on the subject of synchronicity and helps readers begin to explore the areas of acausality and the irrational, saying that expanding our mindsets beyond rational thinking can be helpful as a counterbalance to a “cold, rational, and mechanical world.”
As a reader, I found myself giving into the mindset I allow when watching a movie or reading a novel, a “suspension of disbelief” that helps me to enter the world of the imagination and the unknown. Our daily lives are influenced by a series of unknowns and chance occurrences, and Vezina hopes to help readers to better understand, accept, and be guided by such “necessary chances.”
In the end, we have free will and can choose to acknowledge or ignore these symbolic themes in our lives:
“We can remain deaf to these symbolic motifs that subtly play themselves out in our relationships. We can remain blind to these amazing coincidences that bring us soothing works of art at times when we most need them. We can ignore the clues that guide us towards settings that will be determining for our encounters. We can believe that these meaningful coincidences are just the fruit of imaginary projections, a weakness in reasoning. We can be convinced that these chance occurrences are not necessary and only happen in books and movies. But by turning our backs on this aspect of reality, we are turning our backs on one of the essential aspects of life: beauty.”
- Adele Tyler