Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Coincidence - A Window on Eternity

'The depths of our psyche we know not, but inwards goes the mysterious way. In us or nowhere is eternity with its worlds: the past and the future'. -  Novalis

Many people world-wide have experienced a remarkable coincidence in their lives, and yet coincidence, in particular, meaningful or significant coincidence, remains a little understood phenomenon. 

Although the word 'synchronicity' has now become a fashionable word to describe significant coincidence, very few know the word was coined by the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung (1875-1961)  to define his psychological theory on meaningful coincidence. 

However, long before C.G. Jung, the seventeenth century hermetic philosopher and physician Thomas Browne (1605-82) also held an interest in coincidence, introducing the word to English readers in his medical essay A Letter to a Friend. Browne was fascinated enough the phenomenon of coincidence enough to make it the very framework of his esoteric discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658). Throughout its highly compressed and dense imagery, Browne's ringmasters in rapid procession a multiplicity of coincidental evidence of the number five and the Quincunx pattern, firstly in art, then in nature, notably botany, to spiritual symbolism and finally to the 'Quincunx of Heaven'.   

New  insights into the phenomenon of coincidence can be gained through juxtaposition of the ideas of C.G. Jung with those of Dr.  Thomas Browne. The subject of coincidence is one of a number of interests the two physicians shared. Both men maintained a medical practice throughout their lives, both engaged in deep analysis of themselves and their dreams, both studied comparative religion and read alchemical literature closely, sharing an interest in the pioneering Swiss physician, Paracelsus (1493 –1541) along with his foremost advocate, Gerard Dorn (c.1530-84). And finally, both were interested in unusual psychic phenomena such as coincidence or synchronicity, as Jung termed it. 

One of the most accessible books on C.G.Jung is his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961) in which Jung narrates of his relationship to his one-time mentor, Sigmund Freud, his psychology and 'discovery' of the archetypes, his world-wide travels, visiting and hearing the dreams of various indigenous peoples along with his highly original interpretation of alchemy, as well as the many extraordinary coincidences which he experienced in his life-time. 

C.G.Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections is prefaced by a verse composed by the English poet Coleridge. Selected by Jung's secretary Aniela Jaffe to describe the Swiss psychologist, Coleridge's notebook verse is in fact about someone he greatly admired, none other than Thomas Browne ! A remarkable coincidence first detected in 1996 when beginning what is now a quarter century of Brownean studies. Coleridge's verse reads - 

He looked at this own Soul 
With a Telescope.What seemed
all irregular, he saw and
shewed to be beautiful
Constellations: and he added
to the Consciousness hidden
worlds within worlds.
C.G.Jung's major writing on coincidence  'Synchronicity:An Acausal Connecting Principle'  was first published in 1952 . Its useful to be clear on the meaning of the word 'acausal' in the title of Jung's essay, which like the word 'asymptomatic', meaning without showing symptoms, acausal means without any known or perceived cause. Jung states- 

We do know at least enough about the psyche not to attribute to it any magical power, and still less can we attribute any magical power to the conscious mind.....The great difficulty is that we have absolutely no scientific means of proving the existence of an objective meaning which is not a psychic product. We are, however, driven to some such assumption unless we want to regress to a magical causality and ascribe to the psyche a power that far exceeds its empirical range of action. [1]

Jung's essay on coincidence, which he terms Synchronicity, includes a long statistical analysis of astrological data of married couples and a chapter on the forerunners of Synchronicity naming Kepler, Paracelsus and Pico della Mirandola, among others, who speculated upon the phenomenon of coincidence, each of whom were once well-represented in Thomas Browne's library.

C.G. Jung found confirmation of his ideas on synchronicity in the Chinese oracle of the I Ching, also known as the Book of Changes. Consisting of 64 Hexagrams made through casting coins or yarrow-sticks which are read as either broken or whole, Yin or Yan, each of the 64 configurations of the I Ching has a highly philosophical verse attached to it. Readings of the I Ching naturally stimulate  the possibility of synchronicity. In Jung's view -

The Chinese mind, as I see it at work in the I Ching, seems to be exclusively preoccupied with the chance aspect of events. What we call coincidence seems to be the chief concern of this peculiar mind, and what we worship as causality passes almost unnoticed. ....Just as causality describes the sequence of events, so synchronicity to the Chinese mind deals with the coincidence of events.   [2]

Unlike the Greek-trained Western mind, the Chinese mind does not aim at grasping at details for their own sake, but at a view which sees the detail as part of a whole...The I Ching, which we can well call the experimental basis of Classical Chinese philosophy, is one of the oldest known methods for grasping a situation as a whole and thus placing the details against a cosmic background - the interplay of Yin and Yang. [3]

Called by short-sighted Westerners a "collection of ancient magic spells" an opinion echoed by modernized Chinese themselves, the I Ching is a formidable psychological system that endeavours to organize the play of the archetypes, the "wonderous operations of nature" into a certain pattern, so that a "reading" becomes possible. it was ever a sign of stupidity to depreciate something one does not understand.   [4]

Hexagram 27 of the I Ching (above) is named The Corners of the Mouth. Providing Nourishment. 
Its accompanied by the verse -

Perseverance brings good fortune.
Pay heed to the providing of nourishment.
And to what a man seeks
To fill his own mouth with.

Jung concludes his essay on Synchronicity, defending his hypothesis thus-

'Synchronicity is no more baffling or mysterious than the discontinuities of physics. It is only the ingrained belief in the sovereign power of causality that creates intellectual difficulties and makes it appear unthinkable that causeless events exist or could even occur.... Meaningful coincidences are unthinkable as pure chance. But the more they multiply and the greater and more exact the correspondence is, the more their probability sinks and their unthinkability increases, until they can no longer be regarded as pure chance, but for a lack of a causal explanation, have to be though of meaningful arrangements... Their 'inexplicability' is not due to the fact that the cause is unknown, but to the fact that a cause is not even thinkable in intellectual terms  [5]   

*   *   *  *  *

Marie-Louise von Franz (b. January 4th 1915 - d. 17th February 1998) was one of C.G.Jung's most gifted followers (above with Jung). She first met the Swiss psychoanalyst in 1933 when aged 18 and subsequently became his lifelong collaborator, translating important alchemical manuscripts for him until his death in 1961. Von Franz was one of Analytical Psychology's most original thinkers. In 2021 on January 4th, the date of Marie-Louise von Franz's birthday,  the first volume of von Franz's collected works was published, with a projected plan for the subsequent 27 volumes to be published in the following 7 years until 2028. 

Like the British broadcaster, writer, politician and chef Clement Freud (1924 - 2004) grandson of Jung's one-time mentor, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Von Franz was immune from Christianity's prejudice towards gambling, and once stated in her informal  and intuitive lectures- 

'If you are a gambler, and I hope you are, then you know that one is always torn between two possibilities - either to have a system, or to trust to what I would call the unconscious, and what another gambler would call his god of luck, Lady Luck or whatever'. [6]

Thomas Browne in his early years, also enjoyed the thrill of game play. In his spiritual testament  Religio Medici he declares-

'Tis not a ridiculous devotion, to say a Prayer before a game at Tables; for even in sortilegies and matters of greatest uncertainty, there is a settled and pre-ordered course of effects; 'tis we that are blind, not fortune: because our eye is too dim to discover the mystery of her effects, we foolishly paint her blind'.[7]

According to von Franz-

'Gambling is one of the greatest of human passions. The fascination with it, in my view, comes from the fact that what one ultimately comes in contact with here is one's own unconscious, the secret of synchronicity, and thus with the creative activity of God or divine destiny'.. [8] 

In his European best-seller Religio Medici (1643) Thomas Browne, like many devout Christians of his age then and now, attributed fortune and chance to the 'hand of God.' 

Fortune, that serpentine and crooked line, whereby he draws those actions his wisdom intends in a more unknown and secret way; This cryptick and involved method of his providence have I ever admired, nor can I relate the history of my life, the occurrences of my days, the escapes of dangers, and hits of chance with a Bezo las Manos, to Fortune, or a bare Gramercy to my good stars:....... Surely there are in every man's life certain rubs, doublings and wrenches which pass a while under the effects of chance, but at the last, well examined, prove the mere hand of God:   [9]  

It is however, the human mind or psyche, not God which concerns the modern-day psychologist when examining the phenomena of coincidence.  

In  a series of lectures collected under the title of  'Synchronicity and Divination' von Franz states- 

'By introducing the concept of synchronicity, Jung opened the door to a new way of understanding the relationship between psyche and matter.... a completely unresearched area of reality.

One cannot speak of alchemical symbolism without referring to Jung’s important - if not most important - discovery of the synchronicity principle, that is, his discovery that symbols produced spontaneously by the unconscious through the actions of the archetypes tend to coincide in a meaningful way with material occurrences in the external world, constituting an exception to the causal determination of all natural processes still widely espoused by natural science. This points empirically to an unobservable cosmic background, which imparts order to psyche and matter at once.

Marie-Louise von Franz was also one of the first to elaborate in depth upon fairytales, recognizing the wealth of archetypal material they contain as well as their mapping of the trials, dangers and rewards of the individuation process, that is, the hazardous journey in becoming a whole and integrated individual. A typical, astute remark and observation of her's being -

'In European fairytales, the wizard generally represents the dark aspect of the image of God which has not been recognised in the collective unconscious.' [10]

One motif in fairy-tales is the valued item which is returned through unexpected, coincidental ways. In Hans Christian Anderson's The Tin Soldier, a one-legged toy soldier is discarded, and after many adventures is swallowed by a fish. By a remarkable coincidence after the fish is caught and sold at market and prepared by a cook,  the toy soldier falls out of the fish, returning to the home of the child who owned him.    

The mystery of coincidence remained of interest to Sir Thomas Browne in his old age. In his Museum Clausum (circa 1673) a bizarre list of lost, imagined and rumoured to exist, books, pictures and objects, there can be found the item of -
A Ring found in a Fishes Belly taken about Gorro; conceived to be the same wherewith the Duke of Venice had wedded the Sea. [11]

Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) is surely his greatest contribution to the literature of coincidence. In what is one of the most idiosyncratic of all writings in English literature, Browne utilizes the coincidence of the number five along with its various derivatives, notably the Quincunx pattern, in order to demonstrate order and the myriad of interconnections in the universe. 

Number has defined as the most primitive instrument of bringing an unconscious awareness of order into consciousness, and in The Garden of Cyrus Browne's fascination with Pythagorean numerology is given full vent, supplying his reader with evidence of the coincidence of the number five in subjects as diverse as Biblical scholarship, Egyptology, Comparative religion, the Bembine Tablet of Isis, mythology, ancient world plantations and gardening, geometry, sculpture, numismatics, architecture, paving-stones, battle-formations, optics, the camera obscura, zoology, ornithology, the kabbalah, astrology, astronomy and not least in numerous botanical  observations which anticipate modern-day studies in genetics, germination, generation and heredity, 

In the opening of the third chapter of The Garden of Cyrus Browne adjusrs his focus from 'sundry works of art' to 'natural examples'. He seems surprised that the 'elegant ordination' of the Quincunx pattern which is 'elegantly observable'  seems to have been 'overlooked by all'.
'Now although this elegant ordination of vegetables, hath found coincidence or imitation in sundry works of Art, yet is it not also destitute of natural examples, and though overlooked by all, was elegantly observable, in several works of nature'.

Unsurprising in this cheerful, light-hearted and playful half of Browne's diptych discourses, pastimes and games are alluded to including chess and backgammon, archery, skittles and knuckle-stones as well as singing and music-making. 

*  *  *

Since earliest time the uncertainty of life has inspired humanity to devise a number of ways to predict  the future. In bibliomancy a random verse from the Bible is selected as advice, in hydromancy, the ripples and reflections of water are interpreted, and in belomancy, the flight and resting place of arrows is consulted. But perhaps the strangest of all divination methods must surely be gastromancy in which the rumblings and gurglings of the digestive tract and stomach are interpreted as if the speaking voices of spirits. 

Browne alludes to the little known of esoteric art of Geomancy in The Garden of Cyrus, a divination technique and schemata which like the Chinese Book of Changes or I Ching involves a schemata based upon chance, but far less developed and rudimentary, with only 16 configurations to the I Ching's  total of 64 configurations.

Geomancy (from Greek of Geo earth and mancy divination) is a method of divination which interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossed handfuls of soil, rocks, or sand. The most common form of geomancy involves interpreting a series of 16 figures formed by a randomized process followed by analyzing them.

According to Von Franz, 'Geomancy is a "terrestified" astrology. Instead of taking the constellations of the stars and using them for divination, one makes the constellation of the stars oneself on the earth (Ge means earth) and then proceeds as in astrology. [12]

Geomancy was one of the most popular forms of divination throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In England it was practiced by Robert Fludd (1574-1637) and John Heydon (1629 – 1667).  It would appear that Browne also took an interest in Geomancy. He owned one of the very few books written exclusively on the subject, a copy of the little-known of Henry of Pisa's Geomancy is listed as once in his library. [13]   

Its in a series of queries challenging his reader, slowly building to the apotheosis of The Garden of Cyrus  that Browne alludes to geomantic formations thus- 

'Why Geomancers do imitate the Quintuple Figure, in their Mother Characters of Acquisition and Amission, &c somewhat answering the Figures in the Lady or speckled Beetle ?' 

The five points of the quincunx  can be seen in  the geomantic configurations of aquisitio and amissio (above) as well as albedo and rubedo, two stages of the alchemical opus. The two terms aquisitio and amissio mean gain and loss respectively. They are both equal values as a minus and plus and  are associated with both the quincunx pattern and the number ten ( 5+5 = 10 -5 = 5). 

Browne's Garden of Cyrus can be interpreted as representing the 'whitening' or albedo of the alchemical opus; its apotheosis the short-lived red hot Rubedo of the alchemical opus. The other half of the diptych Urn-Burial equates to the black despair and melancholy of the initial Nigredo stage of the alchemical opus in its subject-matter and imagery. [14 ] 

Digressing slightly, another alchemical polarity which corresponds well to Browne's diptych discourses is the Massa confusa and the Unus Mundus of alchemy. With its procession of Time and successive civilizations, allusion to grieving, bereavement, the passions and the vain-glory of humanity, Urn-Burial can be said to portray the Massa confusa, loosely translated as Ball of Confusion, the initial, Nigredo-like stage of the alchemical opus. Likewise The Garden of Cyrus with its persistent demonstration of the archetypal patterns of Geometric design, the Platonic Forms, Number and  Order, are all indicative of the interconnectiveness of the Universe, and point towards the Unus Mundus or One  World of alchemy. 
Its in his vastly underrated essay A Letter to a Friend (circa 1656 pub. post. 1690) which is packed full of case-histories and medical gossip concerning health, disease and illness, that Browne makes an astounding analogy, likening coincidence to the tail-eating snake known as the Uroboros. Citing 'the Egyptian Hieroglyphick of Pierus', (pictured below) Browne states-

'that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence, which tho Astrology hath taken witty pains to salve, yet hath it been very wary in making Predictions of it'.

The symbol of the uroboros is in many ways the basic mandala of alchemy. Originating in ancient Egypt,  Greek depictions of it stress its duality or polarity through contrasting colours. The words Hen to pan 'Everything is One', are inscribed in its centre.

As a symbol of Eternal Return or Recurrence, Thomas Browne surely knew of the complex symbolism of the uroboros involving Time and Space. His associating it with the phenomena of coincidence is quite remarkable. It was the Brownean scholar Frank Huntley who first noted that Browne's diptych Discourses of 1658 are uroboros-like in their  circular construction

C.G. Jung noted - In the age-old image of the uroboros lies the though of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.  The uroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite i.e. of the shadow. This feedback process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the uroboros that he slays himself and brings to life, fertilizes himself an gives birth to himself. [16]


Although the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer considered coincidence to only be meaningful to those to whom it happens, here's a few personal ones, several of which seem to be connected with books, unsurprisingly. On arriving at the North Sea, commencing reading an Aldous Huxley novel, within a minute the words 'North Sea' on its page. Showing a book on flower symbolism to a lover with the same name as the author, recovering from the shock of a gas-boiler 'boom' to sit down and begin a new chapter of Charles Dicken's 'David Copperfield' entitled 'I take part in an explosion'. Listening to music on earphones in a park, the  word 'Michael' is sung, a split-second later someone calls out the name 'Michael. But perhaps most intriguing of all,  daily living a coincidence for 25  years. My home address is identical  not only to the date of birth but also to zodiac sign, albeit by substitution of Latin astrological nomenclature to Saxon. (Aquarius/Waterman).  

At its very lowest level detection of a coincidence affirms that an an individual is being attentive and aware, able to observe the world around them, possessing a good memory, and able to make connections about the world around them. 

From personal experience I can confirm that coincidences often occur when an emotionally charged situation arises. An aura of the numinous is often attached to them. It is also sometimes when the archetypes are activated that coincidences can occur. Near endless in number the dominant archetypes in Jungian psychology include the lover, the old wise man, the great mother, the helpful animal, the trickster and death. Coincidences can occur when the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious meet or collide.

At present synchronous events can be seen as reminders that we are far from understanding everything about humanity's place in Time and Space, or of the human psyche. As C.G Jung states- 'Consciousness is too narrow and too one-sided to comprehend the full inventory of the psyche'. [16]  Coincidence, in particular meaningful coincidence, serves to  remind us that we neither fully understand ourselves, nor our relationship to Nature, on either a collective or an individual basis. As if nodal points on an invisible Network of Time and Space, (incidentally, Thomas Browne is credited as the first to use the word 'Network' in its meaning of an artificial construction) or black holes in deep Space which puzzle science, synchronicity and meaningful coincidence are windows which can open to eternity.  


*  Thomas Browne: Selected Writings ed. Kevin Killeen pub. OUP  2014
* Synchronicity An Acausal Connecting Principle C.G.Jung  pub. RKP 1972
*  The I Ching or book of Changes Cary F. Baynes pub. RKP. 1951
* Alchemical active imagination -Marie Louise von Franz pub. Shambala 1997
* Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche -Marie-Louise von Franz pub. Shambala Press 1999 
* On Divination and Synchronicity - Marie-Louise von Franz pub. 1980 Inner City 
* The Feminine in Fairytales - Marie-Louise Von Franz pub. Spring Publications 1988

[1]  C.G. Jung Foreword to Baynes edition of I Ching
[2]  CW 10 968/973
[3]  C. G. Jung Foreword to Baynes edition 
[4]  CW 14:401
[5] On Synchronicity
[6] On Divination and Synchronicity - Marie-Louise von Franz 
[7] Religio Medici Part 1 : 18
[8] p.67 Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche -Marie-Louis von Franz
[9]  Religio Medici Part 1 Section 17
[10] Miscellaneous Tract 12 Item 20 of 'Antiquities and Rarities of Several Sorts'
[11] The Psychological Meaning of Redemption motifs in Fairytales - Von Franz
[12] On divination and Synchronicity- Von Franz
[13] 1711 Sales Catalogue  p.30 no. 11 H. de Pisis Geomantia Lugd. 1638 
[15] CW 14: 
[16] CW 14:759

This one for the Jungian blogger, Ms. Monika Gemini with thanks for her insights and virtual company over the years. 

Postscript - Norwich's local newspaper, the EDP published an article featuring historical photographs of the statue of Sir Thomas Browne on January 27th. Link to photos of statue of Sir Thomas Browne