Four times last week it crossed my path, you know, the world heritage site made famous by the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (It’s where Indy finds the Holy Grail). I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the ancient ruins of Petra, even if it is a remarkable place – a series of tombs and facades carved into the walls of a deep stone canyon in Jordan 2,300 years ago.
Then one night at a neighbor’s house someone I’d never met told me a spellbinding story about her recent visit to Petra. A few nights later another woman I’d never met told me stories about her visit to Petra. The next morning I opened my email to find a newsletter from a travel writer friend who’d recently visited – you guessed it – Petra. Then last night I turned on the TV and there was Indiana Jones standing at the façade of Petra. What are the odds? Why now? What did it mean?
Was the universe trying to tell me something? Am I was supposed to visit Petra? Is this what Carl Jung meant by synchronicity?
Jung used the term “synchronicity” to describe a series of random coincidences that seem somehow meaningful. My four Petra encounters had no direct link to one another – and they certainly didn’t cause each other. And yet, Jung suggests, something worth investigating is moving just beneath the surface. But before we dive into the depths of synchronicity we have to first understand Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious.
Jung learned the concept of the individual unconscious from his mentor Sigmund Freud – the idea that the bulk of our consciousness is hidden from our surface awareness and that deep, instinctual drives and early childhood conditioning compel much of our adult behavior. In neurotic individuals, Freud argued, talk therapy and dream analysis could help lay bare these hidden or unconscious drives, thereby freeing us of their powerful and destructive influence.
No doubt influenced by his study of Hinduism, specifically the idea of Atman or Universal Self, Jung took Freud’s idea of the individual unconscious and universalized it. For Jung, there is a single “collective unconscious” at work in the world, and all human beings regardless of culture or century of origin are tapped into it. In fact, it is from this collective unconscious that the archetypes arise, universal ideas that take diverse form as local religious narratives, mythological symbols, and sacred artifacts. By becoming fluent in the language of the archetypes we lay bare the deepest meanings of our wisdom traditions and honor our own sacred significance.
For Jung then, synchronicities are encoded messages that arise from the collective unconscious, much like dreams, myths, or intuitions. As such, synchronicities are potent glimmers of metaphorical wisdom to be interpreted carefully and creatively. It is not the case that the universe wants me to go to Petra – that would be a far too literal or pedantic reading of the metaphor. Instead, something much richer and more profound is being prodded by the nameless sacred source beyond. In this sense, Jung believed, synchronicities might be signposts that point the way to our most authentic, most fully realized life. If we cultivate the simplicity and openness to understand them.So what exactly do my four encounters with Petra mean? I can’t say. But the less I think about it, the more I understand.
[This piece originally appeared in my A to Zen column in the March/April 2019 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]