Synchronicity: Carl Jung’s principle for understanding Time and Timelessness
I have often been asked ‘why time’? Why have I spent the last twenty years of my life studying the topic; and how is this related to Jungian theory and practice[i]. Time is an extremely obscure concept; it is also an indispensable element of our experience. It is the barometer of every human expression. There is always an implicit (if not explicit) assumption regarding time behind every theory concerning the nature of human existence. Each field, approach or statement needs to rest against a temporal background; each uttered sentence assumes a temporal frame. Giving a short answer to the importance of temporality in our lives is impossible, but I’ll attempt to summarize the backbone of the premise, because I believe it is imperative to try our best to understand temporality and our experience of it, or to least say that we have done our best in trying to understand it. Because the way we experience time is intimately related to our experience of life. The way we conceptualize and understand time dictates the way we use time, and that, in fact, alters our experience of not only time, but life itself; it can enhance meaning and improve the quality of our experiences.
For Carl Jung, the psyche and the cosmos at large, in all their manifestations, are at their core timeless. He was a thinker who (with the help of his contemporaries i.e. Einstein and Pauli) opened his horizons beyond linear clock time: he embraced timelessness. He believed that in order to appreciate the whole of our experience we must reach beyond causality. According to Jung’s theory, time in the psyche, as well as in the outer world, is relative at large; our conscious mind is ‘trapped’ in linear time, but we can expand our experience by accepting timelessness as a modality of the world. Jung’s theory tried to encompass reality in its entirety; the physical as well as the psychic realms, and the way these interact and meet.
Jung’s conviction in a non-traditional temporal frame, his understanding regarding the interconnection of time and timelessness, and his acceptance of the oneness in nature, allowed for experiences such as future-telling dreams, synchronicity, telepathy, and other similar inexplicable-by-causality events to be experienced and be considered plausible and even probable. This theory is ideal for those of us who want to (attempt to) perceive time beyond the linear model and reach into an experience that is multidimensional and relative. The acceptance of this assumption regarding temporality can lead to a different experience of time, and life.
When we speak of causality, or the cause-and-effect principle we rely by default on linear time. The past causes the present which in turn causes the future. Jung’s theory assumes that a principle other than causality must be in operation. He coined the term “the acausal connecting principle of Synchronicity” to describe it. In this model, causes and effects are inter-twinned and interconnected in a non-linear, unpredictable manner: everything (causes, effects, past, present, future etc.) coexists simultaneously and interacts. According to this temporal understanding, the past, the present, and the future are not sequentially arranged. In the psyche the linear time’s demarcations all coexist in a relative state. Everything is simultaneous and contemporaneous. This implies that the past does not cause the future, and this in turn implies that the future is alive, as it were, in the present moment. Synchronicity can help us ‘see’ the workings of time and timelessness, in ‘real time’. For Jung: “[Synchronicity] cannot be a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity. Because of this quality of simultaneity, I have picked on the term ‘synchronicity’ to designate a hypothetical factor equal in rank to causality as a principle of explanation.”[ii] The workings of time are at the core of the principle of Synchronicity (hence Chronos is embedded in the term). Synchronicity deals with an inner experience – a thought, vision, event, dream, etc. – that is non-causally connected with an outer event.
Jung observed that there are certain patterns that occur between psychic images and objective events that are not causally connected but are nonetheless meaningful. He found these patterns particularly interesting and worth investigating, and thus he devoted attention to this phenomenon. His devotion to synchronicity led to the development of his theory, and to a deeper understanding about the working of the psyche and the cosmos, and the interconnection between the two. As the quote above suggests, causality for Jung was not sufficient in explaining the workings of nature; there had to be an additional principle; and synchronicity filled that position.
An often-quoted example of synchronicity is a case presented by Jung known as “the golden scarab incident”, which has become the symbol of the principle. While his client was describing the dream regarding a golden scarab jewellery, an actual scarab tapped on Jung’s window. He opened the window, caught the beetle in mid-air, and handed it to her, with the words: ‘Here is your scarab.’” What were the chances that a scarab would tap on Jung’s window at that exact moment in time, that his client was narrating her dream of a golden scarab? Jung pointed out that this incident cannot be understood by causality: The dream did not cause the beetle to tap on the window. And, certainly, the insect did not cause the dream. Nonetheless, these two events, the inner event of a dream and the outer event of the insect at the window were meaningfully connected for Jung and his patient. And for this meaning to be attributed by Jung and his patient these two events had to happen around the same time. As Jung said, this was a falling together in time. Had these events happen separately in time, say for example the beetle tapped on Jung’s window two weeks later, these events would not be connected meaningfully by Jung or his patient. Time’s flow, and the attention given to the events that happen within each time-frame is essential. For Synchronicity to attain such an important role in Jung’s theory, he had to accept non-linear time, multidimensionality and interconnection between the inner and outer realms. He had to accept that beyond time, there is timelessness, there is an alternative temporal reality that operates outside linear and fixed time.
Synchronicity is a beautiful phenomenon that never ceases to inspire. It is humbling, and owe-inspiring, and it tends to happen quite often. In order to accept the occurrence of synchronicity one has to let go of causality, and with it all things linear. Relative time must be embraced or at least accepted as a possibility. Connection of one’s self with the outer world must also be accepted as not only possible, but also essential. Synchronicity is worth considering as a good enough proof of the workings of nature, which operate beyond causality. It is also a phenomenon that can help each one of us seize the moment. The more you ponder on this phenomenon and the more you accept it as a reasonable occurrence in your daily life, the more it happens. If you pay attention to this reality, then you evoke synchronicity. Indeed, as Jung put it, Synchronicity is an ever-present reality for those who have eyes to see. If you ‘tune into’ this unorthodox and acausal workings of time, if you accept the idea that there are timeless portals through which you could enter, even for a moment, you can experience this reality.
The way Jung perceived time determined his experience of time, and in effect his experience of life. And the same holds true for each one of us. Jung’s acceptance of time’s relativity and of a timeless reality allowed for his exploration of prospective dreams and synchronistic experiences among other non-causal phenomena. He encouraged his readers to develop an approach to time that would invite the investigation of non-linear, multidimensional temporal experiences. For Jung the psyche exists above and beyond the physical reality. The psyche is a phenomenon in its own right which transcends the material world, including the realms of time and space. Jung attempted to reconnect the psyche with the world, and to demonstrate that the psyche reaches, influences and connects to the outer world, to nature and the physical end of the spectrum. The underlying world-process is beyond linearity. Jung’s approach demonstrates that in order to inclusively cover the temporal spectrum we have to supplement linear time with relative time, because these two kinds are not contradictory, they are in fact complementary, and govern our lives.
We live our lives in a clock-bound world dominated by its fixed keeping of time. Nonetheless, if we choose to pay attention, we might realize that we are also inundated by paradoxical temporal occurrences in dreams, in the analytic situation, or even in inexplicable – by causality – coincidences that defy the clock. Time and Timelessness define our experiences and existence. However impossible it is for consciousness to grasp concepts that lie beyond conventional time, a sufficient way of negotiating our temporal experience is imperative. We should aim at cultivating such a temporal way of thinking and perceiving reality. It has been observed that “time and space are things that we do, and have to do, to make sense of a world which really makes no sense at all.”[iii] I would add that sense-making could be facilitated if we search outside the realm of the ordinary and temporally-linear. Jung’s theory, and in particular its temporal implications, allows us to reach beyond the everyday time-bound world into a greater realm, rich with meaning and connections. This is a realm that can inspire a feeling of fulfillment and interconnection with the world, nature and our psyche.
Time is something we can have, but only if we decide to do so, and if we pay enough attention. Time is of essence; it is a divine gift that needs to be wisely handle, like life itself. And just like with pretty much everything else in life, the more we get to understand it, the more we can experience its complexities, and the more we can enjoy it.
[i] For more details regarding the topic, and my particular take on it, you can read Yiassemides, A. (2014, 2016) Time and Timelessness: Temporality in the Theory of Carl Jung. London & New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
[ii] Jung, C. G. (1952) The Structure and Dynamic of the Psyche; Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, in CW, Vol. 8.
[iii] Noel-Smith, K. (2002) ‘Time and space as “necessary forms of thought”’, Free Associations, 9 (C): 394–442.