I was walking down our rural road yesterday afternoon, just approaching a pine forest, and I heard the trees shake, then a gentle boom in the air, and looked up to see the white-tan underside of a huge bird, a snowy owl maybe, fly about 40 feet over my head.
And today, while walking I remembered and looked around for that bird. And I thought of asking my neighbor, who knows a great deal more than I do about the local animal population, what kind of bird it might be. Just a minute later, off to the side of the road, was the neighbor. He lived nearby and was removing old tires and other garbage people had thrown there. I greeted him, told him about the bird and asked if he thought it had been an owl.
He wasn’t sure. Owls, he said, are usually silent. Eagles change colors for the first four years of their lives, and there are increasing numbers in the area, so maybe it was a young eagle. And after I thanked him and left, I felt grateful for my neighbor, and realized how wonderful and weird it was that I had thought of him, and suddenly there he stood.
When I returned home, I started thinking about coincidences.
Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh used the term inter-being to explain the Buddhist teaching on interdependence. We all inter-are, in the sense that without the air, what could I breathe? Without the solidity of the earth, what could I walk on? Without the fertile soil, what food could grow? Without other people, would I know who I was? Thich Nhat Hanh said if we look at a sheet of paper, we can see a cloud in it, sunshine, rain, the tree that supplied the pulp for the paper, the loggers who cut the tree, the bread they ate that day, the wheat that went into the bread, the logger’s partner, their children, and finally ourselves.
But I don’t always feel this. I don’t always feel the soul of the world or that the world is alive or I’m part of it or it is me. I don’t always feel a connection. I don’t usually look at a stream flowing alongside the road and feel its waters as the blood of my veins.
And then, from the bookshelf next to where I was sitting, I picked up Devotions, a collection of poems by Mary Oliver. I randomly opened the book to a poem titled, “Some Questions You Might Ask.” The poem starts with the line, “Is the soul solid, like iron?” And later, “Who has it, and who doesn’t?” Does an anteater have a soul, she asked, a camel, or maple tree? A blue iris? A rose, lemon, or the grass?
Or the world itself? And I thought of my cats—and I felt such closeness to them. But do they have a soul, whatever that is? Do they feel they’re connected to the quiet underbelly of everything? And is that quiet underbelly soul?
And I turned the page of Devotions. The next poem in the collection was, “The Buddha’s Last Instruction.” And that last instruction was, “Make of yourself a light,” a line the poet remembers as she sees the sun blaze over the hills, and she feels herself “turning into something of inexplicable value.” As she turns into light?
The poet and essayist Donald Hall wrote that he loved re-writing more than writing and would often edit a piece a hundred times or more. Was this so he could use an incomplete poem to attract nuggets of insights or beauty to it as a magnet attracts iron fillings? Or so he could feel how his belly was the belly of everything?
Even though my mom died years ago, she still appears at times in my dreams and talks to me. Maybe we all have similar experiences now and then, not only with our mothers but with anyone dearly loved.
One night, as I grabbed hold of the door to the restaurant in our hometown where my wife and I were about to eat dinner, I suddenly felt an intense pain in my chest. I let go of the door and bent over. I stayed there for a few minutes, not able to move. My wife asked what was wrong, but I could barely respond. In a few minutes, the pain dissipated, I straightened up, and we went in to eat, shadowed by confusion and worry.
When we left the restaurant, I checked my cell phone for messages. I often turn it off. There was only one message; it was from my dad, but he didn’t say anything to me directly. Instead, I heard his voice at a distance, clearly upset, and mixed in with other sounds and voices. I was confused and felt a sense of dread. Then I realized I was listening to a recording of EMTs trying to revive my mom. It turns out she had had a heart attack as I was about to enter the restaurant. My dad found her a few minutes after the attack and called 911. Then he called me and accidently left his phone on, recording her death.
If I didn’t have a witness, many would doubt that this occurred. I even doubt it myself sometimes. Did one event, my mother’s heart attack, cause the other, the pain I had felt?
All these events are certainly memorable but are they coincidence⎼ or connected? Or synchronous? We need a little humility in these areas of depth psychology. The founder of analytical psychology, psychotherapist Carl Jung might argue they were synchronous, which he defined as “an acausal connection through meaning” or as events unconnected physically but clearly joined in meaning. But we need caution, clear-headedness in interpreting what seems synchronous.
Physicist Victor Mansfield wrote a wonderful book on the subject, called Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making which documents similar cases and theorizes about the nature of synchronicity and its source. And he spells out how our all too human tendencies toward thinking we know more than we do, or are what we’re not, can delude us. A synchronous event can lead us to feel so blessed it can inflate our ego and lower our self-awareness.
So, how do we increase our understanding of synchronicity or know if our sense of it is an insight or delusion? If synchronicity reveals a real connection, an interdependence of all of us and everything, why is there such social disconnection today? How can people ignore this inner treasure? Mansfield says that only in the silence can we “experience the highest octaves of the mind.”
And what in this case do we mean by meaningful? We usually think meaning involves making an intellectual or emotional connection, finding significance or value. But maybe it has to do with our ability to notice or attend, especially to notice what stirs us to speech and wonder.
Maybe if we practiced even a few minutes a day being aware of each phase of the breath⎼ the beginning, middle, and end of the inhalation, the pause and then the exhalation. Or for a few minutes a day we focused second by second on the feel of our hands in our lap or feet on the floor, we might feel the quiet and ease inside us.
Or if we developed the habit of looking deeply into those we speak with, so they sat comfortably inside us, and we felt their humanity⎼ that they, like us, hurt, love and dream. Or if we took frequent walks in nature so we felt at home in the forest, stream, or mountain; or if we walked in a city and enjoyed the great variety of people and noticed the creativity that went into so much of what was around us.
If we did this with utter sincerity, would we find that our deepest and most intimate self was a part of the quiet underbelly of everything? Would synchronous events happen more frequently, or at least synchronous events inspired by our love for the world and others? And then, when necessary, would we be better able to do what is needed, and face whatever needs facing, including our fears and pains?
This post is republished on Medium.
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