Chance Encounters with a Mystic, Gnostic Muse
Serendipitous discussions in a coffee shop with Jungian scholar Kathleen Damiani about Neoplatonism, David Bohm, and other topics
When Carl G. Jung coined the term synchronicity to denote meaningful acausal connections, he looked for examples in his life and in the lives of his patients. Cases in which a certain object or image manifested itself in various forms within a short period of time resonated with him.
One famous story that Jung told is that of the golden scarab:
A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream, I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from the outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which, contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt the urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since.
Even though Jung often drew from his own experiences in describing synchronicity, he cleared realized that anecdotal evidence would not be enough to establish a broader principle. In tandem with quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli, he aspired to firm up the idea by deepening its connection with modern physics. In addition, he sought examples of themes, or “archetypes,” that emerged in various cultures without apparent causal linkage.
Though Jung was specific in his definition of synchronicity, a more colloquial meaning has emerged, denoting events that seem serendipitously connected without apparent explanation or causal linkage. For example, two people arrive in an airport transit lounge in a foreign country, strike up a conservation, and learn that they had each attended the same high school, graduating within five years of each other. Synchronicity, they might cry out. However, no matter how unlikely an event might seem, we must grapple with the fact that, due to statistics, seemingly unlikely occurrences happen all the time. Take for example, a group of more than 23 random people. There is more than a 50 percent chance that at a least two of them share the same birthday. Statistical analysis reveals many such oddities.
This whole discussion is a prelude to an account of some unusual events that happened to me while I was writing my book Synchronicity, while sitting in a certain cafe. The incidents were pure chance, but still memorable to me.
Around the time I started writing the book, I was leaning over my laptop in one of my favorite coffee shop, trying to focus on my writing, not conversation. Nevertheless, I started to hear a woman speaking about neo-Platonism and Gnosticism. Given that those were some of the very topics I writing about at the time, I introduced myself. We began to discuss such ideas.
The woman turned out to be Kathleen Damiani, a Jungian scholar interested in Gnostic writings, neo-Platonism, and other topics, and author of the book “Sophia and the Dragon.” As the cafe was closing for the day, she quickly jotted down some references for me to look up, which I did.
Although I returned to the cafe regularly, I didn’t see her for many months. I kept writing frantically, hoping to meet a deadline for the first draft of the book. Then, on the very day I was completing the manuscript, as the cafe was about to close, she walked into the coffee shop again. She vaguely recognized me and re-introduced herself. I told her that I had just finished the draft, including a section on quantum physics and the work of David Bohm and others.
Surprisingly, she replied that she knew people who were friends with Bohm, and seemed knowledgeable about quantum physics. Then, she told me she needed to finish up the conversation, as she was about to move to another state, on the other side of the country. So the last day for me writing the draft manuscript turned out to be her last day ever stopping by the coffee shop, and her last day in that region of the country. How lucky I was to get to chat with her again, given those circumstances. Not synchronicity, mind you, but good fortune.
Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of sixteen popular science books, including Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect.