Nowadays, the tensions run high between the purely scientific way of seeing the world and one which assumes the existence of a power greater than ourselves, and like it or not, we all find ourselves in a state of profound transition around the place of sacred stories in our lives. Are my beliefs "fictions" in the least respectful sense of the term, a set of self-serving fantasies I have formulated or made up about the nature of existence to reassure, comfort, or delude myself? It is possible to "prove" the existence of God somehow, if all we have are our subjective experiences -- what has happened to us individually, what we have felt, what it meant?
Wherever there are deep questions, wherever there is a story to be told, whether there are transitions to be made, there, too, we have found synchronistic events very often playing an important and sometimes decisive role. And, with regard to the stories of our spiritual or religious lives, the acausal connecting principle which is at the heart of a synchronistic experience, the way that objective reality is brought into a meaningful relationship with subjective experience, affords one way to bridge the conflicting demands of rationality and belief.
Ask someone how they mey their spiritual teacher and embarked upon what they consider their spiritual path, and more likely than not, it happened synchronistically. What I didn't expect, however, in talking to people about their spiritual lives, was how few people had ever told anyone else the story of their spiritual awakening, a sign, in my opinion, of just how devalued (or perhaps protective) people have become about these sacred stories which, in other cultures, have a central place in human relationships. I felt very privileged, for this reason, as I listened to tale after tale unfold of how, through sheer chance, people found themselves on the road to higher consciousness.
In retrospect, it should not have seemed strange to me that, as I was about to sit down to begin writing this first draft of this chapter, I got a phone call from a young woman named Ellie. Having been told by a friend of hers that I was writing a book on synchronicity, she thought she would give a call and offer me the story of her spiritual awakening. I had intended to write that day, but I decided to practice what I preach about synchronicity and be open to the potential meaningfulness of this coincidence. I changed my plans in order to meet with her that day, and soon after, in the sunlight of a California spring, we managed to find one another in the crowded shopping mall near her school.
"I've never really sat down and told anyone this," she said, equally shy and self-confident, "but the reason I'm here talking to you, doing what I am doing in my life at all is pure chance." Describing herself as a science major at UCLA without any exposure to spirituality or psychology, Ellie told me that the year before, at age 25, she had undergone a "mid-life crisis," knowing that the scientific career she had always trained for was not what she really wanted to be doing but having no idea what her calling might be.
"It was like I was at the end of my life as I had known it. Not that I ever considered suicide or anything like that, but I just knew that the life I had been living was over." By chance, a friend gave her a copy of one of Marianne Williamson's books, which Ellie read with some interest, the first ever of this sort of reading she had done. Intrigued by Williamson's spiritual perspective, she thought she might like to go hear Williamson talk, but the location of the talks and the fact that Ellie did not have a car made it rather impractical. Upon discovering that Williamson also had a radio show, Ellie took the time to tune in to the show on a regular basis, finding herself over a period of six months more and more drawn to its spiritual message.
Ellie found herself intrigued in particular by Williamson's frequent references to a spiritual community center called the Agape Center and, through directory assistance, she got its phone number, discovering then that it was located by sheer luck only a ten-minute walk away from where she was living. As Ellie began to attend the center's events on a regular basis, at the same time her uncle, who was in training as a hypnotherapist, asked Ellie if she might want to do some hypnotherapy with him, not for psychotherapeutical purposes but rather to help break her of her habit of nail-biting.
"So there I was, really without intending to, going to the Agape Center and in hypnotherapy," she said to me, proceeding slowly in her story, almost as if it was hard for her to believe herself. One night, as her process of inner awareness continued in both venues, Ellie was sitting in a bookstore, leafing through a magazine when a book left on the table in front of her by someone else caught her eye. Coming across the book by accident, in this way, she took a brief glance through it, and though not overly impressed by it, she nevertheless found in it a reference to Ken Wilber and transpersonal psychology, neither of which she had previously heard of and about which she knew nothing.
Shortly after this accidential acquaintance with the idea of transpersonal psychology, Ellie had a transformative spiritual experience during her regular meditation which she describes as a "communion with her higher self." During this experience, her long period of confusion and lack of direction was finally brought to a close, for in it she received a vision of what it was that she should be doing in her life, what her purpose was, and how she should go forward. She told me that what she was told in her vision was that transpersonal psychology was the path she was to follow, even though at the time of the vision, she did not know what transpersonal psychology was.
In a cafe, shortly after this experience, Ellie found herself making eye contact with a young man across the room. After avoiding his eyes numerous times, she instead "went with the flow of the experience," introducing herself to him and beginning a conversation. Toward the end of their talk, learning he was a sociology major, she asked him, on the off-chance, if he knew what transpersonal psychology was. He initially said he had no idea, but then, upon reflection, said that he had had a friend whose mother had gone to some school up north that specialized in psychology, a school named John F. Kennedy University, but that he didn't know much more. Ellie smiled as she continued the story.
"So the next day I called information and got the number of JFK. I called them and asked them, the way I had been asking lots of people over the months since that moment of clarity, did they know what transpersonal psychology was? The guy laughed at me. 'We only have a whole master's program in it.' And that's how I ended up going to graduate school here, how I ended up deciding to be a psychotherapist. A whole series of chances: Williamson's book given to me out of nowhere, picking up that book in the store by chance, being told by my higher self that transpersonal pscychology was my path, and then just happening to meet a man who directed me to JFK, who himself didn't even know what transpersonal psychology was!"
As the result of what looks on the outside to be simply a series of chances, Ellie appeared quite certain that she was doing what she needed to be doing, both for her spiritual life and her vocation, and the role that chance seemed to play in moving her toward where she felt she needed to be obviously imparted an element of wonder to her story, as is always the case in synchronistic experiences.
Now many of us could probably tell similar stories of how we ended up doing what we needed to be doing in our lives, inwardly or outwardly, and Ellie's story, with its random occurrences, has none of the drama or astronomically remote improbabilities that some of the other stories of meaningful coincidences we have heard have. What it is important to see, though, is the meaning which Ellie made of the random occurrences: that a series of external chance coincidences felt as though they led her, geographically and spiritually, to a place where she found what she considers her spiritual vocation. She did not set out to find JFK. She did not decide to become a psychotherapist. She did not sit herself down one day and say, "I am going to do something about my spiritual emptiness" and begin attending church deliberately and consciously in a search for spiritual fulfillment. In fact, at the beginning of what she came to see as her spiritual awakening, she had no idea what to do or where to go to resolve her disenchantment with the scientific career she had been pursuing.
The connections that occurred for Ellie indeed occurred to her, without her causing them, and yet, they took on great meaning and import for the direction of her inner and outer life. Did she interpret the events of her life in this way in retrospect? Did she "make up" this story, in the sense that she read meanings into these chance events? Yes and no. As she tells the story, the external opportunities of the Agape Center, hypnotherapy, and transpersonal psychology happened by chance to enter her life at a point of openness to transformation, to which she responded by taking action. As with all the stories we have seen, a coincidence can hold meaning or not, depending on the attitude we bring to it.