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 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. 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.
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