From imploding economies to hurricanes and tsunamis, from astounding corruption to war and terrorism, from catastrophic climate change to thermonuclear weapons in the Middle East, the clichés of doom that lately populate the course of human events is more than enough to tilt a sane citizen into apocalyptic anxiety. Perhaps I paint too broad a stroke on it, but I’m nonetheless going to venture to say that worrying about civilizational collapse is like worrying about whether or not one’s relationship will end in a painful breakup. I don’t mind admitting that I’ve spent some time worrying about both of these things—one of them even came to pass—and I can testify that no amount of worry could have prepared me for the agony, and the ecstasy, that eventually came of it.
As it happened, I was in the midst of writing my second novel, Nine Kinds of Naked, a novel that presumed to explore the theme of synchronicity. I had dared myself to write Nine Kinds of Naked without a plan and only according to the synchronicity of my daily experience. This turned out to be a terrifying endeavor, and one that I was entirely unprepared to meet. I remember complaining aloud one day, voicing my frustration that it wasn’t working, that I was trying to write about synchronicity rather than allowing the story to simply proceed by its own design. I had read every book on the topic, taking careful notes the way my graduate training had habituated me to do, and there I was writing the book as an exhausted intellectual rather than as an inspired artist. I found myself writing about a phenomenon that I only dimly recalled from years earlier in my life, not something that I was experiencing in the present moment. I felt that I was failing my project.
Then, a long-term relationship I had been in very abruptly ended.
I was propelled into a six-month period of unparalleled and nearly nonstop synchronicity.I only mention this very personal detail of my life because of what happened to me afterward: I was propelled into a six-month period of unparalleled and nearly nonstop synchronicity that continued to reverberate for another full year and upon which I’m still surfing the shockwave. I’m not speaking here about the typical woowoo: seeing your former lover’s initials on a license plate or hearing another lovesick pop song every time you click on the radio. There was plenty of that, but if those wan synchronicities are supposed to be the thumbprints of Providence in the margins of my life, then Providence is much too tame. I’m speaking here of the truly uncanny, the highly improbable, the perpetual coincidence of my life intersecting perfectly with the lives of everyone around me. Shortly after my split, for example, suffering with grief one day on my porch, a rare car passed my house, windows open, broadcasting the gaudy voice of a radio commercial advertising I know not what: “It’s a big change,” the radio yapped in passing. “Heal naturally.” And as we’ll see, that’s the most insignificant example I can remember.
I lived in an A-frame house at the time, and my bedroom was a loft over the main living area. Since I had a deadline to meet, I decided to set the alarm on my downstairs stereo in order to discipline myself against staying in bed all morning feeling sorry for myself. The stereo was supposed to just turn on in the morning, supposedly at whatever song had last been playing on the CD – in this case, the CD was an entire disc of mp3 albums. I certainly had not been listening to the Magnolia soundtrack—in fact, it was an album I was scarcely familiar with—but that is what my stereo came alive to in the morning. Specifically, it was an Aimee Mann song, Wise Up. I idly wondered to myself why the stereo was playing that album, and then, despite my brilliant strategy to get myself out of bed, I proceeded to lie there feeling sorry for myself anyway.
Then something truly peculiar occurred. The refrain to the song is, “It’s not going to stop till you wise up,” which Aimee Mann sings repeatedly throughout the song. At first, I’m only vaguely aware of these lyrics, still half asleep and wishing to God this annoying song would end already. But after I’ve drifted in and out of sleep again a few times, I realize the goddamn song is still playing: “It’s not going to stop till you wise up.” Now I’m wide awake, but still wanting to stay in bed feeling sorry for myself, if only this fucking song would stop playing already. I note the time on my cell phone and see that the song has apparently already been playing for 23 minutes. Seven minutes later the song is still playing, though I listened carefully and I never heard it start over. Exasperated, I throw the covers off and head downstairs, a full half-hour after my stereo alarm first went off. Examining the situation, I discover that somehow my stereo had not only chosen a song that I had not been listening to the night before, but that it also had chosen to play that song on repeat. Furthermore, the song begins and ends with the exact same piano instrumentation, which was why I was unable to discern when it ended and when it began again. Go ahead, give it a listen for yourself if you don’t believe me.
In any event, I got the point.
Some time later, I was invited to a Carnival party with some friends. I declined, feeling the pressure of my deadline, but then the hard drive on my laptop crashed, locking me out of my novel for the weekend until the computer repair shop could recover its data by Monday. So off to the masquerade I went, and had quite a time of it, one highlight being a brief though memorable dance with a mysterious woman. The next Monday morning, picking up my laptop from the computer repair shop, I turned around, and there was my ex-partner walking in, holding her laptop as well. Stunned, I mumbled some charm resembling, “my hard drive crapped out,” to which she responded, “mine too.” We agreed to meet for tea, at which time I learned that it was her with whom I’d shared that brief and memorable dance, though I didn’t recognize her at the time beneath the masquerade. We nonetheless shared a healing conversation over tea.
* * *
In my research on synchronicity, I had learned that it is most likely to emerge during and after ego-shattering experiences.In my research on synchronicity, I had learned that it is most likely to emerge during and after ego-shattering experiences. These include near-death experiences, the deaths of loved ones, the ends (or the beginnings) of love relationships, shamanic/visionary experiences, travel, and so forth. Psychology typically deems it a form of dissociation in response to psychological trauma, and this is probably correct, at least at its own level of analysis. After all, when I measure it against my own experience—in which the entire world and my presence within it seemed indistinguishable from a dream—that defines dissociation, certainly. And yet this explanation by itself left me feeling deeply dissatisfied, implying as it did a dismissal of my experience. And the experience of synchronicity is profoundly personal. It relies upon your subjectivity and the meanings you bring to your life. Because of this, it is irrelevant to debate whether or not it’s real in the sense of what we might vainly refer to as objective reality. There’s an unavoidable arrogance in presuming to evaluate not merely the truth of someone else’s experience, but actually the truth of the meaning of someone else’s experience. In the latter case, it has absolutely nothing to do with anyone but the person involved.
My understanding eventually relented, and I came to the view that synchronicity is the face of a deeper level of interconnectivity. This dovetails with Eastern notions of nonduality, the mystical perception that unity is the underlying reality, and that individual consciousness is actually the necessary illusion of distinction, the dark side of the Tao, so to speak, that which hears the tree falling in the woods. In this view, then, whenever the structures of one’s mind are shaken, the mind opens into a wider perception of reality that is hallmarked by synchronicity, understood here as a dissolution of the boundary between the interior and the exterior worlds. Fundamentally, the ego is the illusion that you exist separate from everything else, it is that which walls you off from the flow of undivided unity. Whenever these walls collapse, the flow of undivided unity rushes into your life, and synchronicity is the face of this perception.
* * *
I inadvertently compelled myself to contemplate the absence of courage not only from my deck, but also from my very own life.Shortly after I’d completed Nine Kinds of Naked, I was at a music festival and I made it my business to blast around offering one-card tarot reflections to people that I met, just for fun and synchronicity. Late in the evening of the last night, I met a woman, and we talked for a few hours, and as we parted I offered her a one-card reading from my Osho Zen Tarot deck. She drew the Courage card (pictured at the opening of this essay), displaying a picture of a flower growing through a crack in a rock. As she was recently coming though a breakup of her own, this had a particularly poignant meaning for her, so much so, in fact, that I had an unprecedented impulse to tell her to keep the card, which she did—though upon reflection I must admit that I was probably also just being a cheesedick trying to charm another meeting with a beautiful woman. In any event, I never saw her again, and since I open my tarot deck nearly every day, I inadvertently compelled myself to contemplate the absence of courage not only from my deck, but also from my very own life.
But first, immediately after we bid each other good night, I walked toward the main road and happened across a friend of mine who was in his car, leaving. The backstory is that he’d spent the night before with a woman and he’d hoped they’d hang out again, but it was a festival after all, and it just didn’t flow that way. It’s a common enough story. Despite the shallow exhortations of our beer-fisted and bikini-clad media, sexual intimacy is often a tremulous endeavor with potential both for enormous healing and enormous pain. In any event, I saw him leaving, wished him safe travels, and asked him how his night went. He responded with a shake of his head, dismay and defeat palloring his expression, issues of childhood abandonment clearly having been triggered. Myself, I was in a roaring good mood, so I slapped the hood of his car and told him to go park it and walk with me, which he did, parking about fifty yards up the road. As it turned out, however, by the time he had walked back toward me, the woman who had sparked his healing crisis was wandering toward me from the other direction. I didn’t have to do anything but step out of the way as they met where I was standing, for life is not just about me, and here I was a mere servant to their synchronicity.
What matters is that the coincidence had meaning for the individual, carrying a potential psychological breakthrough.Then, at a book signing a couple of weeks later, during which I read from Nine Kinds of Naked—which, remember, revolves around the theme of synchronicity—a young college student, who happened to be in the store and heard my talk, approached me afterward and told me she had never heard of synchronicity and wanted to learn more about it. I was meeting friends for dinner, but I promised her I’d permit her to interrogate me over tea later. It was a full and stimulating conversation, her wanting me to specify the precise metaphysical mechanism by which synchronicity occurs, and me explaining about nonduality and the illusion of separateness and how we’re all dreams in the mind of God and yes maybe so but maybe also mealy mysticism and ultimately what really matters is that there’s a correspondence between the inner world and the outer world and if it has meaning for an individual and clarifies their confusion and lights their path then it doesn’t really matter if we’re all temporarily stable matrices of energetic probabilities, knots in a doily, or concentrations of consciousness in an infinite field of experience. What matters is that the coincidence had meaning for the individual, carrying a potential psychological breakthrough. Tarot, I said, is essentially intentional synchronicity, seeking a window into one’s psyche to focus a particular issue. I then proceeded to tell her about the woman I met at the festival who pulled the Courage card and who I let have the card, and how the coincidence of the card served her—and me—so profoundly.
“Here,” I say, cavalier as I pull out my tarot deck. “Let me show you how synchronicity works.”
“Hey,” she interrupts. “I have that deck.”
“You do?” I reply, surprised that someone who’s never heard of synchronicity would have a tarot deck.
“Well, not really,” she concedes. “I received it as a Christmas present from my mom a couple of years ago. I actually cut the whole deck up and made a collage out of it.” She pauses. “Well, not the whole deck,” she admits. “I kept my favorite card.”
“The Growth card.”
“The Growth card,” I repeat, pausing as I scan my recollection of the deck. “I don’t think I know the Growth card. What’s on it?”
“Umm, it’s a picture of a flower growing through a crack in a rock.”
I cock my head incredulous. “That’s not the Growth card,” I say. “That’s the Courage card I was just telling you about, the card I gave away.”
Courage is locating oneself in the heart rather than the head.She’s skeptical, and says she’s pretty sure it was the Growth card, and so I pull out the booklet that accompanies the deck, demonstrating that it was indeed the Courage card that she kept, and also demonstrating that there is no such card as the Growth card. She’s amazed, as am I, and ultimately she was so impressed by the synchronicity that she gifted me her Courage card a few days later. It’s all shiny and new and really stands out in my beat-up old deck, and every time the card emerges I am reminded of this sequence of events and the contemplations that followed. Did you know, for example, that courage comes from the Latin cor, “heart”? Courage is locating oneself in the heart rather than the head, and the expansiveness of the heart—in contrast to the constriction of the ego—this is love, and this is the space we truly share in common. Hammered out of boundaries and convinced it is alone, the ego can only blink stupidly at the grace, the immensity, and the magic of the heart’s experience.
* * *
In one of his most potent remarks, Arthur C. Clarke asserted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Taking him at his word, then, the prickling astonishment that follows the experience of synchronicity—the sensation that something magical has just occurred—this is but an artifact of our limited technology of mind. Synchronicity is only astounding, in other words, when we persist in the delusion that we are distinct from the all and everything. Expanding consciousness beyond the limited point of view of oneself and into the unlimited point of view of undivided unity, this—as if it were so simple—this is the technology of magic.
The only thing to mourn was the liberation from my own illusions.So although my breakup catalyzed what an external observer may at first grunt judge to be a breakdown, from my point of view the only breakdown was the delusion that I was in control of my life. All the walls—of identity, ambition, and security, of any illusion that I knew who I was, or where I was, or that I had any clue at all what was happening in life—all of this collapsed like an obsolete civilization and permitted eternity to course through me as never before. Insofar as apocalypse derives from the Greek apokalyptein, “to unveil,” this was some version of my personal apocalypse, and since apocalypse is the etymological antonym of hell, which derives from the Old English helan, “to veil,” the only thing to mourn was the liberation from my own illusions.
In a similar fashion, this is what we’re facing when we worry about the collapse of our social structures. Despite our roads and skylines, despite our bridges and our borders, despite our military-industrial complexes and hypercorrupt transnational corporations, society does not actually exist anywhere but the human mind. As a mental construct, society provides us with a shared illusion of meaning, purpose, and order, and it stabilizes our existence thereby, but, paraphrasing Terence McKenna, it is not our friend. At best it is what Aldous Huxley referred to as a reducing valve to our perception, and at worst it is what Robert Anton Wilson called “the devil’s masquerade,” a Luciferian diversion from the truth of existence.
And the truth, or something resembling it, is that if you walk outside right now, hold your hand up to the sky, and pinch a millimeter of heaven between your thumb and forefinger—the truth is that if you were to focus the Hubble Space Telescope on that random sector of sky between your thumb and forefinger, that one dot on the overwhelming vault of heaven, you would discover thousands of galaxies. This is the cathedral of eternity in which we find ourselves, and this magnificent insignificance is what we do not see when we imagine that we are—or that we could ever be—in control of this juggernaut that is barreling down the shuddering tracks of history.
Nothing is wrong, everything is on track.As McKenna also intones on one of my favorite Shpongle tracks: “Nothing is wrong, everything is on track.” And indeed it was, for as it turned out, my matrimonial cataclysm was just the apocalyptic knock I needed to inspire the novel some part of me had dared myself to fathom. I gave up, I surrendered, and it was only then that Nine Kinds of Naked could proceed according its own synchronicity. There was a tremendous relief in this giving up of control, in surrendering to some chaotic process infinitely larger than myself, in realizing not only that I am not in control of my life, but also that I don’t have to be.
So here we yawn at millennium’s dawn: bugles are blasting and the walls of civilization are crumbling, chaos is seeping through the cracks and crawling out of the shadows, monkeys are brandishing guns and the ice caps are melting besides as chaos gazes unfazed at the clamor of humanity sounding for all the universe like the echo of a distant wind chime. That which we thought was stable, safe, and secure is not, that which we sacrificed so much for is failing, that which told us who we are is collapsing like the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope. But as our broken social structures collapse, humanity—barbaric, beautiful humanity—may rediscover the awesome divinity that inhabits the core of our consciousness as one by one we give up control because society may not be our friend but chaos is our mother and our mother is an order unfathomable, a layer of complexity much deeper than the dim and flimsy arrogance of ego can admit. Welcome our selves to the cathedral of eternity, the dimension in which we step out of that steaming pile of ego that passes for human consciousness and at last surrender into a higher order of experience in which our interconnectivity one to another becomes blindingly obvious, and we see, and we know, and we remember, that there is so much more happening in life than we have ever been led to believe.
Synchronicity on the sultry soothe of your day,