Synchronicity in Counselling
It’s surely happened to all of us, and it will probably turn up at some stage in your therapy rooms, too: a client confides that, just when she was thinking of someone from the past whom she hadn’t seen for many years but who had a huge impact on her life, she runs into that person in a highly “coincidental” way. Another client feels despairing about gaining clarity on his life, and no amount of “talking cure” in session has helped him. Then, when he is doing something totally unrelated to thoughts about his future, something happens to put the answer plainly in front of him — and it’s so obvious that he can’t believe he didn’t think of it before.
Synchronicity experiences — that is, those of meaningful coincidence — are defined as “psychologically meaningful connections between inner events and one or more external events occurring simultaneously or at a future point in time” (Roxberg, Ridgway, and Roe, 2015). The question for us as mental health helpers is: how shall we help clients to regard these events? And if they are helpful, how shall we help clients to “see” them more readily?
Synchronicity in the context of modern life and psychology
Jungian analyst Carl Jung once observed that “Synchronicity [a term he coined over 100 years ago] is an ever-present reality for those who have eyes to see” (Harris, n.d.). It is all about meaning, and we can acknowledge here that it often makes no sense on a purely rational level, yet it makes deep and undeniable sense to those who experience it, probably because it connects us with a web of understanding that Jung relates to the collective unconscious. He considered it the true psychology, in that etymologically, the word “psychology” means “study of the soul” (Mackey, 2016b). Chris Mackey, a fellow of the Australian Psychological Society who has written extensively about synchronicity, notes that there is little soul in mainstream psychology, and even less in modern psychiatry, which is even more reductionistic than psychology.
In a similar vein, counsellor Craig Poulton discusses a conversation with a friend in which they confronted the grim reality that modern psychology, such as reflected in the DSM, is quick to label an unusual experience pathological, and barely recognises the often subtle line that distinguishes true experience of synchronicity from “delusions of reference”, defined as “the feeling that casual incidents and external events have a particular and unusual meaning that is specific to the person” (Poulton, n.d.). The former could reveal genius and the latter madness, so it is crucial to differentiate. Ideas of reference become delusions of reference — that is, harmful — when they are characterised by certainty (the individual is certain they are real), incorrigibility (even with concrete evidence, the person cannot be convinced that the delusion is false), and impossibility (the delusion is not capable of being true). The typical mental health conditions in which they show up are: bipolar disorder, brain injury, schizotypal personality disorder, non-drug induced psychosis, stress, and dementia (Better Help, 2018).
How can synchronicity help us?
This post, however, isn’t about delusions of reference. If/when a client relates a highly meaningful coincidental experience and that client is operating in consensual reality, how should we see its occurrence? How shall we help the client to understand it? How can it be helpful to the client?
Synchronicity, spirituality, and science: Not opposed to one another
Mackey (2015) notes that synchronicity can help bridge science and spirituality in several ways. First, there is scientific evidence for phenomena in the natural world that have features in common with synchronicity. One is entanglement, a well-established physical phenomenon in which two particles that have previously come into contact with each other have later been found to interact instantaneously despite being separated by vast distances. If physical matter can be instantaneously connected at a distance, why cannot human consciousness? Secondly, the experience of synchronicity can enhance individuals’ spiritual development in terms of promoting a sense of purpose and meaning. Finally, recent studies in brain science have demonstrated that synchronistic experiences can potentially enhance mental health by promoting neurogenesis and neuroplasticity (more on these last two below) (Mackey, 2015).
Mackey (2015 and 2016a) further asserts that science and spirituality are not antithetical to one another, although they sometimes appear to be, and a belief in the validity of the synchronistic experience is consistent with scientific mindset. In fact, Jung developed his ideas on synchronicity partly as a result of conversations with Einstein! Jung believed that neurosis came about from individuals’ detachment from spiritual experience, and even went further, insisting that transpersonal perspectives were more consistent with modern physics (i.e., more scientific) than concepts that excluded notions of connectedness between internal consciousness and external matter.
How it helps
Many are the stories of synchronicity coming to the rescue of someone who was in need. Abraham Lincoln is said to have bought a seemingly worthless old barrel, only to find inside a full set of law books, which he studied to become a lawyer and subsequently, a politician (Macklin, 2015). Winston Churchill received a lot of help from synchronicity. The day before taking a preliminary examination to be placed in a sought-after position, Churchill was told that the students taking the test would be asked to draw a map of a country, but they didn’t know which one. He knew that others were better prepared than he was. The night before the exam, he put the names of all the countries in the world into a hat and drew one. It was New Zealand. He memorised the map and the next day encountered the first question on the exam, which was: “Draw a map of New Zealand”. He received very high marks on the exam and got into the military, providing an essential step on the path to becoming Prime Minister. While in the military, he went to open a car door, but something told him to stop and open the door on the other side. He did and thus avoided death by car bomb. Twice during World War I, he walked away from a spot that a few moments later was hit by a shell (Beltman, 2017).
Synchronicity appears to be connected to spirituality — especially in its manifestation as the pursuit of life purpose or destiny — in a way that implicates what we can refer to as a larger organising force. It most easily seems to happen when we are open to intuition and in a state of “flow” as defined by Csikszentmihalyi (Oppland, 2016). Mackey (2015) considers synchronistic experiences to be a “tick from the universe”: an affirmation that we are going in the right direction, and that, therefore, “the universe will provide”, especially when we are in harmony with ourselves and others. Mainstream psychology and health services have recently increased their interest in spirituality in response to new research evidence showing the benefits of religious faith. Those benefits — recognised as widely as in medical schools, positive psychology fields, and CBT practices — include reduced incidence of depression, less alcohol and drug abuse, less suicide risk, reduced risk from various physical illnesses, greater longevity, and increased individual happiness. When we appreciate the validity of synchronicity as demonstrating a larger organising force, we have an enhanced sense of meaning, purpose, and connection; thus our wellbeing is supported (Mackey, 2015).
Brain science, too, is in on the benefits act, with emerging evidence showing that the wonder and awe of numinous experiences (synchronicity is numinous by definition!) lead to neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Such experiences lead to the activation of genes that release dopamine, which assists motivation and goal-directed behaviour. With synchronicity, a whole new paradigm for interpreting events opens up to us, expanding our perspective and facilitating new ways of perceiving and addressing life challenges (Mackey, 2015).
Helping clients to become aware of synchronicity
For those clients who are open to experiencing the advantages of synchronicity, but who are not yet aware of its effects in their lives, you can suggest that they:
- Become aware that most events happen in relation to their life purpose; there is meaning behind most life events experienced. The Universe/Divine/Greater Organising Principle wants us to succeed!
- Reflect upon moments in their past where a seemingly random event has delivered a golden opportunity. This will not only manifest feelings of gratitude and awareness, but will allow the client to see and believe that it really does work.
- Look for the deeper meaning behind each event in life. Even the most mundane experience may have a valuable piece of wisdom to share.
- Consciously anticipate synchronistic moments in daily life. It is in this state of alertness where we will attract what we most greatly wish to have. However, we must anticipate without attachment to any specific outcome. The Dalai Lama affirms, “I am open to the guidance of synchronicity, and do not let my expectations hinder my path”.
- Use their intuition. Upon meeting someone new, they can ask why they met this person at this particular moment in time, and then tune in to any intuitive hunches, physical emotions, or random thoughts that may come (Macklin, 2015).
Synchronicity doesn’t happen — at least obviously — in every session with every client. But when it occurs, or a client is open to working with it, the capacity to tune into meaningful coincidences can help clients transcend limited ideas of themselves which are past their use-by date, ushering in an expanded sense of harmony, peace, clarity, and purpose which may be worth many sessions of merely rational talk. It allows both client and therapist to experience the direct evidence that life is much more than physical-material survival, and brings us ever closer to full connection with our most inclusive, authentic sense of ourselves.
- Beltman, B. (2017). The psi of coincidences. Psychology Today blog. Retrieved on 4 June, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Better Help. (2018). Ideas of reference: Definitions and examples. Better Help. Retrieved on 4 June, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Harris, D. (n.d.) Synchronicity: A meaningful coincidence. WordPress.com. Retrieved on 4 June, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Mackey, C. (2015). Synchronicity, science and spirituality. Synchronicityunwrapped.com.au. Retrieved on 4 June, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Mackey, C. (2016a). Synchronicity — empower your life with meaningful coincidence. Livingnow.com.au. Retrieved on 4 June, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Mackey, C. (2016b). Synchronicity, the lost soul of psychology and psychiatry. Synchronicityunwrapped.com.au. Retrieved on 4 June, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Macklin, H. (2015). Synchronicity and meaningful coincidences. Your Zen Life. Retrieved on 4 June, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Oppland, M. (2016). Mikhali Csikszentmihalyi: All about flow and positive psychology. Positive Psychology Program, from: Hyperlink.
- Poulton, C. (n.d.). Synchronicity and psychology. Growing Awareness Counselling. Retrieved on 4 June, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Roxburgh, E.C., Ridgway, S., & Roe, C.A. (2015). Issue 2: The use of qualitative research in developing users’ and providers’ perspectives in the psychological therapies. European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, Vol 17, 144-161.