Some Recent Findings on Synchronicity, Dream-Like Experiences, and Spiritual Emergence Processes By Darlene B. Viggiano, Ph.D. (MFT)

Abstract

Data driven, criteria-based science on dream-like experiences, spiritual emergence processes, and the Jungian concept of synchronicity is presented in a hermeneutic literature review and multiple case studies, based on a recent dissertation from Saybrook University, San Francisco.  The article covers as well some of the experiential and personal accounts of the above phenomena according to the study participants, and certain philosophical and theoretical aspects of Jungian hermeneutics.

Introduction

What is the role of dreams and dream-like experiences (DLEs) in spiritual emergence processes?  This was the research question for a recent dissertation (Viggiano, 2010), on which the current article is based.  The Spiritual Emergence Network has described spiritual emergence processes as being marked by difficulties with psychospiritual growth.  Such processes also have been called psychospiritual crises, spiritual awakening, spiritual transformation, and sudden mystical experiences.

The nature of the data regarding dream-like experiences (DLEs), spiritual emergence processes, and the Jungian concept of synchronicity spanned electronic, semi-structured interviews, published literature, historical documents, biographical narratives, and within- and cross-case analyses.

A comparison of interviews with various criteria for identifying the Grofs’ (1989) spiritual emergence processes, Lukoff’s (2007) Visionary Spiritual Experiences (VSEs), and findings from the hermeneutic literature helped to identify and validate possible roles of dreams/DLEs, and to provide data reduction and triangulation.  This article focuses on the Jungian concept of synchronicity as a DLE.  Synchronicity is defined as “A phenomenon where an event in the outside world coincides meaningfully with a psychological state of mind” (Sharp & Jung:132, 1991).

Literature Review

Hermeneutics is a “philosophy of understanding and interpretation that involves both the interpretation of the text as well as self-interpretation,” leading to what has been called “hermeneutic reflexivity” (Todres & Wheeler:2, 2001). Dilthey applied hermeneutics to human science, using interpretation in a back and forth manner “between what is already experientially evident to us and our broader context” (Todres & Wheeler: 4, 2001).  As in Gadamer et al.’s (2005) hermeneutic circle, spiritual dreams and DLEs invite one to retain ambiguity, seek beyond the phenomena themselves, and to stay in the mystery.  Thus, hermeneutics seems eminently appropriate for a study of these experiences.

A key to Jungian hermeneutics is to amplify the symbol rather than reduce it, to let it inspire rather than to concretize it, and to synthesize the symbols while distinguishing the objective and subjective interpretations.  In these ways, it is possible to extend meaning while limiting literality and respecting the mystery.  Consider the following text by Singer (1972):

It seems to me that the spiritual experience of the individual within the group requires a taking in of the experience in a highly personal way, as Jung would have said in an expression he used often, sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity.  This view of experience is essentially what Jungian psychology is all about: the seeing of a single experience as an aspect of totality, and a seeing of one’s self as a part of the whole, and the whole of one’s self as the synthesis of many parts (Singer:149-150, 1972).

Regarding psycho-spiritual transitions in particular, Bolen (1994) noted that “the invisible spiritual world and visible reality come together; here intuitive possibility is on the threshold of tangible manifestation” (p. 8).  People in transition may begin to want to live their dreams, having reached a point where living in culturally expected ways seems no longer to satisfy the soul—if doing so ever did—such that prior lifestyles can not be maintained.  Bolen further observed that during “significant junctures and passages when the former fabric of life comes apart at the seams and old patterns unravel, dreams and synchronicities often become more important and numerous” (p. 106).

A general, guiding principle that Bulkeley (2000) put forward is “If we want to make an honest and thorough examination of the full range of extraordinary dream phenomena, we must not be scared off by theoretical assumptions about what is or isn’t possible” (p. 99, italics in original).  The same seems to apply to synchronicities as DLEs.  As Jung (1961/1989) himself noted, “In general one must guard against theoretical assumptions.  Today they may be valid, tomorrow it may be the turn of other assumptions” (p. 131).  He further observed that the concept of synchronicity can be likened to physics in terms of its discontinuities, and that it is one’s belief in causality as the supreme arbiter of events which produces the inexplicability of the synchronicity.

In regard to their role in spiritual emergence processes, both synchronicity and visions seem prominent in leading to spiritual transformation.  Indeed, Grof himself (2006) observed that “impressive series or clusters” of “aggregate synchronicities” could be involved in various spiritual emergencies (p. 53), and that synchronicities are in fact “extremely frequent” in such cases (p. 317).  Additionally, Ferrier (1999) studied hermeneutically, heuristically, and phenomenologically, the spiritual development of seven participants who “experienced numinous dreams, visions, voices, and/or synchronistic events” that led to relocation and other lifestyle changes (p. ii).  In fact, Krippner and Thompson (1996) noted that Native Americans have used dream-work approaches whether attempting to understand a dream, reverie, vision, or daytime imagery.
 
A River of RocksMethodology

The information obtained from seven electronic, semi-structured interviews and from participants’ documentary evidence was examined in terms of group findings, and is reported in the form of multiple case studies.  Cases were analyzed based on various criteria from the Grofs’ (1989), Lukoff (2007), Vaughan (1991), and others.  Specific methods of analysis included conceptual, descriptive, graphic, thematic, and theoretical.  The hermeneutic method of analysis involved a reflective interpretation: as Kvale (1996) noted in his book on qualitative research, the “purpose of hermeneutical interpretation is to obtain a valid and common understanding of the meaning of a text” (Kvale:46, 1996).

Structured questions began with: 1) “Do you feel that dreams and/or visions (including such experiences as daydreams, reveries, or other imagery) played a role in your spiritual emergence process?”  2) “What examples of these life experiences can you share?”  Additional probes unfolded from here in a threaded,electronic interchange.

Analysis

Variables within interviews and variables compared among interview reports were analyzed for emerging patterns about possible roles for DLEs, which ended up including synchronicities, in spiritual emergence processes.  In comparing interviews, the Visionary Spiritual Experiences (VSE) criteria of Lukoff (2007) helped identify spiritual emergence processes.  Criteria from Vaughan (1991) on healthy spirituality helped corroborate the salutary nature of individual spiritual emergence processes.  Frequency codes were used to determine dominant themes.
For example, first a cross-case theme of spiritual emergency was identified based on concepts listed in the frequency coding SY, for spiritual emergency (which included experiences such as spiritual transformation, crisis, awakening, metanoia, initiation, rebirth, a dark night of the soul, or development that went deeper than the participant could digest).  Then, by searching the interviews for dream-like as both a key word and code, and for spiritual emergency as a coded concept, interviews that contained these search terms were further explored for spiritual emergencies in which DLEs potentially played a role.

Findings

Of seven cases studied, four involved unsolicited accounts of synchronicities as dream-like experiences that played a role in spiritual emergence processes. In the interview questions, the researcher never mentioned and had not yet even thought of synchronicities as being a type of DLE, which had been exemplified as involving daydreams, visions, or other imagery.

Jung (1961/1989) had originally intended for synchronicity to apply to cases when inner and outer reality seem to be in correspondence to one another, as with verified premonitions, or when there seems to be a correspondence between simultaneous inner realities separated by geographical distance.  As he had observed, “Time and again I encountered amazing coincidences which seemed to suggest the idea of an acausal parallelism (a synchronicity, as I later called it),” (p. 374).

The following table shows an example of how the four cases related to the literature in terms of cross references:

Synchronicities Jung (1961/1989, 1964) Bolen (1994) Coward (1996) Grof (2006)

Case 1:
Carl, from Massachusetts, is a doctor of psychology.  His case illustrates an example of a role for synchronicities as DLEs in a spiritual emergence process.

Regarding a healing he conducted, he wrote:

I was doing a [session] for a man in a public park.  I was representing his father who had abandoned his mother when she got pregnant.  Out of nowhere, an old man walked up to us.  The client asked him who he was and the man said, ‘I’m your long lost father.’  (He wasn’t really.)  They left the park together and now meet every week for coffee at a local diner.  I could go on and on with these stories.  It happens all the time.

How Carl’s case relates to the literature. Carl’s case meshed well with Vaughan’s (1991) concept of healthy spirituality.  It encompassed evidence of Vaughan’s concepts of “personal freedom, autonomy, and self-esteem, as well as social responsibility” (p. 116) and authenticity, “facing our fears,” “insight and forgiveness,” “letting go of the past,” “love and compassion,” and “psychological maturity,” (p. 117).  It also matched Vaughan’s observations regarding a reduction of fear and anxiety, an openness of heart and mind, an increase in kindness and compassion, a willingness to risk loving without attachment, a commitment to truth, authenticity and responsibility, and an acceptance of one’s own and everyone else’s human frailties. (p. 118)

Indeed, Carl’s livelihood entails leading others “from fear to love, from ignorance to understanding, and from bondage to freedom” (Vaughan:118, 1991).  His case additionally echoes related concepts regarding mature spirituality.  His healing sessions address intergenerational family problems and are in keeping with the knowledge that “mature spirituality will only occur when we internalize the fact that our egos are only a small part of a larger mystery” (Hollis:205, 2005).  That mystery, in this case, appears to include synchronicity.
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