Synchronicity: Meaningful co-incidence

This blog was written nearly ten years ago as the Forward to a wonderful book by the Jungian analyst, David Holt I hope it encourages you to obtain his book, which is called:

The Clermont Story

On September 11th, 2001, the final draft of David Holt’s conclusion to The Clermont Story arrived through the post. (Clermont, incidentally, is where Pope Urban II preached the first crusade in 1095).  A few hours later, two aircraft crashed into the World Trade Centre, and another on to the Pentagon. The Twin Towers collapsed and the images which we watched on TV seared into the psyche with symbolic power.

Coincidence? Of course. Synchronicity? Without doubt.  But what does that mean? What is the ‘added value’ of that concept? Jung  speaks of ‘the simultaneous occurrence of two meaningful but not causally connected events’. Since synchronicity has been throughout the feeling-tone (as David would put it) of my connexion with The Clermont Story I will return to it later. But, put briefly, if you want one book to understand what is going on, what we are doing to ourselves and our world, this is it.

What is going on in our world? I am a rabbi, which means ‘teacher’. I teach in and out of the Synagogue, in formal and informal settings, often with Jews, but not exclusively.  In the face of the holocaust, of the tragedies in the Middle East and the continuing conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians which some now see as part of a wider conflict between Islam and the West, what can I teach? Where now do we find God? When the external world is so chaotic, how do we find meaning, or purpose? But formulating the question in this way suggests that there is an external world entirely independent of our psychological perspective when it is also certainly true that we do not only receive but also create our world. There are ontological questions here – the very formation of our thinking and understanding is at stake.

The Clermont Story explores these issues and in particular, its purpose is ‘to start fresh argument between christian and non christian…To take [this] up christian and non christian have to enquire together into their differences’ (p.2 – David throughout spells ‘christian’ with a small ‘c’).

One immediate response to September 11th, written the day after, pursues such themes:

To Islam, America seems to represent the presence of the demonic in the world. To most Westerners, Islam is a huge and shadowy unknown with a few markers of custom and practice that run directly counter to our standards of pluralism and human rights. The world is presently divided into polar opposites, each of which considers the other benighted and evil. We need much greater consciousness of nuance, or points of agreement, of shared values and concerns as well as considered reflection of the meaning of wide differences.1

In the face of globalization, this, of course, has to be a world-wide enterprise extending far beyond the relatively cozy world of Jew, Christian and Moslem – the ‘Abrahamic faiths’. It is now unavoidable, if we are to avoid increasing chaos and disharmony, that world religions and political leadership meet and reflect deeply together.  But if even these three Abrahamic religious traditions are locked once again in murderous conflict, surely it is grandiose to look beyond – and what does ‘reflect together’ mean?

It is here that The Clermont Story is so vital. Often when we feel lost and split apart, we ask ourselves ‘in what sense do our lives have meaning?’ Or purpose, or value? Sometimes, we look for answers outside ourselves, as if they were to be conferred upon us by God, or the Universe, by a priest or rabbi – or, most dangerously perhaps, in the unquestioned assumptions of our secular age.  At other times we imagine that such understandings are purely personal and subjective, and that we can only gain purpose or meaning in what we do, in our family life, in who we are. We then dismiss our findings as purely subjective, our own – ephemeral, fleeting, of no real relevance outside ourselves.

A central teaching of David Holt’s life and work is that neither of these two positions is adequate: meaning, purpose, value is neither given nor made.  Perhaps we may better describe the process as uncovering, finding or, perhaps, intuiting. The Clermont Story illustrates David’s interweaving of personal and political, dream and myth, history and philosophy, experience and knowledge more fully than any other writing that I know.  Events, stories, encounters, publications, life itself is worked through and then reworked to reveal deeper and fuller understandings.

There is a Chassidic story, recounted by Martin Buber in the beginning of his short essay The Way of Man.  It tells of a rebbe (a Chassidic word for rabbi) observing a student, who has fasted for several days but then, aware of his growing pride in his achievements, abandons the fast.  The rebbe comments, scathingly, ‘patchwork’. Buber recounts his dismay at his own early reading of this tale.  He would have expected, he writes, that the rebbe would have been more encouraging. Later, Buber comments, he realised that the rebbe was suggesting that the deeds were a reflection of a lack of unity in the soul. Still later, however, Buber was troubled, once again, by what such a teaching would mean.  As Buber uncovers the layers of his reflections upon the story, we are taken deeper and deeper into an analysis of our own life. It is exactly this that David achieves in his writing.  He makes us wonder how we are doing in our own self-understanding, and he makes it clear to us how much we miss. Buber suggests that the opposite of ‘patchwork’ is ‘all of a piece’ and David Holt’s work shows us how life can be seen as, and become, ‘all of a piece’ – not his alone, but ours.

And so to The Clermont Story. David’s work deals with central forces which manifest in our world today, sometimes seeming quite disparate and unconnected but which he links through a lifetime’s experience and research – Marxism and alchemy, Christianity and money, the metaphysics of time and exponential growth, the work of civilization ‘against nature.’ Though initially they may seem arcane and remote, bizarre in their juxtapositions,  The Clermont Story rightly puts Christianity at the centre of world history. David suggests (p. 71/2) that over centuries of disciplined intellectual questioning of the Eucharist ‘a space opened up between mind and matter which was altogether new in the history of mankind’ and that it was this ‘space’ (a Jew here would think of one of the popular mediaeval names of God – haMakom: the place) that made possible the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The work is in two parts. One part, the second – perhaps to be read first? – consists of key papers (from a twenty year period, 1974 –1994), which are both extremely simple and challengingly complex. They deal with topics which stir the roots of our being. Many of them I had known previously but when I received a first draft of this collection copy, I read and re-read them and immediately felt that this was too precious not to share widely. I asked David for eight more copies, which I sent to friends. Some responded, but others were overwhelmed. The mixture is so rich and varied, and potent – and, furthermore, there were sixty pages of introduction which wove still more questions into what could already seem esoteric.

It was those sixty pages which captured me, however.  Here was an outstanding example of Socrates’ ‘examined life’ where every scrap of evidence, of response, of personal and family history, of death and life, stammer, heart attack, masturbation, breathing, speaking, and, most of all, dreaming, were brought into relationship with the ‘objective’ material of closely argued texts which themselves raised fundamental issues about our lives and our world. Here was a twentieth century man (apparently – but sometimes he wrote as if Neanderthal, and sometimes from a century far into the future) who could not allow any moment to escape the rigour of his attention and the work of his pen.  I wondered what it must be like to live with him – and he allowed us to glimpse even at that: ‘Dad’s historical holies’ has been the ‘affectionate and impatient’ attitude of the family. (p.29)

Perhaps ‘Sacred Hunger’ is the most outrageous piece in the book, remaining unpublished for several years because sensed as ‘blasphemous’? Why? ‘It emerges’, (as Ted Hughes remarks about David’s lectures2), ‘from real work…not riffling through the card index’ (p.31) – dreams of eating flesh, thirty years sharing the Eucharist and then absorbing four books, all concerned with hunger and suffering and particularly with insatiability, leading to the modern hunger for unending growth. At the heart of the paper is a concern with time, not only time passing but metaphysical time, fulfilment in time and promise, also fulfilled and unfulfilled. Further, basing himself upon Whitehead, Holt introduces the absolutely critical contradiction that science ‘works’ though ultimately we do not understand why  (see p.111) and connects this with a consumerism which is designed to be unsatisfying.

In some ways, this is a central theme. It concerns ‘how christianity separates humanity from matter. There is an act, a deed of violence implicit in that separation which we, christians and non-christians, but for critically different reasons (my italics) are finding it difficult to own.’ (p. 92)  Holt develops his thinking: the Holy Spirit [the Third Person of the christian Trinity] is at work in the financial markets of the world and in our manufactures, in the research and development laboratories which create new appetites and jobs as well as the goods with which to feed these appetites and justify these jobs.  It is also lodged in our food chain, in the whole order of interdependencies of which hunger makes us part (pp 157-8 my paraphrase)

But the breadth and depth of his thinking is evident in his discussion, in ‘Sacred Hunger’,  of Chris Knight’s book: Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origin of culture.3  Here the talk really ‘comes together’. We share David’s excitement, as sex and time are here brought into relationship and can only wonder at his interweaving of history and ethno-ontology, (p.147). The world in which we live, it is clear, is not ‘given’ as an objective absolute but entirely dependent upon the form in which we receive it through our cultures and traditions. This understanding leads us directly to David’s conclusions and my deep involvement, as a rabbi, with them and with him.

Christianity is right to insist that the importance of that [Christ] event cannot be exaggerated and that it effects the whole world, whether the world call itself Christian or not. It is wrong in understanding that event as a redemption, a saving, of the world. On the contrary, Christianity has made it possible for humanity drastically to accelerate the destruction of the world.

His final introductory extract (page 62: Fresh Argument) offers a serious challenge to our responsa-bility for the future, and a call to which I felt drawn to respond: ‘I am asking for help with that argument…To answer that call, christians are going to have to admit that we got it wrong, non christians that we are living off a christian secret that we do not understand.’

It is this recognition that religious and cultural traditions are far more potent in our modern world than we acknowledge that has made me so sure of the long-lasting value of David’s life work. In the political maelstrom of the Middle East, for example, Jerusalem has been for over fifty years central in the dispute but only in the breakdown of the most recent talks did it become apparent that, quite beyond the understanding of the political leadership, the place of the Temple Mount itself has a continuing significance which overcomes political rationality.  There, Jew, Christian, Moslem are joined in bloody re-enactment of ancient rivalries which we may well only be able to break with the help of a global religious forum, and, maybe, the telling of dreams. David Holt helps us see why this may be so. But he does more – he shows us the power of the individual whose personal work can also bring about redemption. We can make a difference and we do have, as he puts it, responsa-bility – for the future.

As a Jew, I am challenged by David’s writing to acknowledge the negative side of Jewish exclusivity and ‘chosen-ness’, the emphasis on ‘the family’ which has kept others apart. I need to re-examine our understandable sense of victimisation, our attitude to conversion – and to Jesus, whom Buber called ‘my great brother.’  But given the extraordinary strength of the synchronistic happenings which have entered in to our relationship, I need also to ask: How can this be, what is the mechanism producing such synchronistic events?  David’s work leads us to ask whether we do not, in fact, phrase the question falsely. We might rather ask ‘how can it not be?’

The question is, most centrally, how it is that we are not constantly overwhelmed by the layers of meaning and richness that are potentially present at every moment. In order to function, we narrow our focus. As Koestler writes:

our main sense organs are like narrow slits which admit only a very narrow frequency-range of electro-magnetic and sound waves.  But even the amount that does get through these narrow slits is too much.  Life would be impossible if we were to pay attention to the millions of stimuli bombarding our senses – what William James called “the blooming, buzzing multitude of sensations”.4

David demonstrates how our fear of madness and psychosis closes to us aspects of our experience, which we must own if we are not to imperil our world. One of my early teachers suggested that religions exist not, as we may believe, to open us up to the wonders of God and the mysteries of religion, but rather, to ensure that we are not overwhelmed by them. By complete chance – is it? really? – I have just ‘come across’ a quote from Jung that ‘the Church serves as a fortress to protect us against God and his Spirit’.5

Kammerer, (quoted by Koestler), whose life was spent investigating the phenomenon put it very clearly:

The recurrence of identical or similar data in contiguous areas of space or time is a simple empirical fact which has to be accepted and which cannot be explained by coincidence – or rather, which makes coincidence rule to such an extent that the concept of coincidence is itself negated.6

David Holt’s extraordinary work allows us to observe what happens when the filter is opened up a little more fully than most of us dare, so that a much wider range of data can be taken into account.  The result is both a deeper and broader analysis of personal, social, political and religious experience. More than anything else, David’s work is founded in careful attention to dreams, even publishing his own, and encouraging the rest of us to do the same.7 How deeply that in itself links with my Jewish tradition and soul. How different our political and religious worlds would appear, were that to take place!  What themes would then emerge into the public realm, what opportunities would develop to handle our widespread concerns and underlying anxieties? David encourages us towards a more general realisation that dreams provide a major contribution for human communication.8 Perhaps, as David would say, we would be more able to ‘get the feeling right’. In the meantime, we have The Clermont Story as a hint of what is possible – and essential.

A final thoughtful and necessary response from ‘Sacred Hunger’ to those terrorist attacks on New York,  Washington and Pennsylvania:

A word about the feeling-tone of what I am going to be saying. It is pessimistic…The twentieth century has had and continues to have its catastrophes. They will continue and they will get worse.

But people will survive and some sort of world order will survive. Even though it is in a sense too late, it is nevertheless worth trying to understand what we are caught in. Because we will be able to respond to catastrophe…Our response to catastrophe can be more or less effective, more or less humane, more or less cruel. Present understanding will make a difference to future catastrophe.(p. 138)

1 Murray Stein, President of the International Association of Analytical Psychology (the IAAP, a Jungian grouping) writing in response to phone calls, faxesand emails from all over the world.

2 on Theatre and Behaviour

3 published by Yale 1991

4 Koestler, A. The Roots of Coincidence (London Hutchinson 1972)

5 C.G. Jung CW 18 par. 1534 quoted in Giegerich,W.The Soul’s Logical Life (Frankfurt Peter Lang 1998) p.20

6 Kammerer, P. Das Gesetz der Serie (Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart-Berlin 1919) p. 93 quoted in Koestler op. cit. p. 86

7 Holt, D.  Eventful Responsability (Validthod, Oxford, 1999) Sonu Shamdasani writes, in his introduction, ‘In the nineteenth century works on philosophy, physiology and psychology of dreams it was commonplace for authors to use their own dreams as a basis for their explorations and to publish them…In this regard, Sigmund Freud’s reliance on his own dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams followed a well-established genre…At the same time [this work]marked the  close of this genre, whose end it hastened. With the rise of the conception of dreams as disclosive of the hidden secrets of the personality, psychologists became increasingly reluctant to publish or publically present their dreams, except, that is, in a disguised form…[This] is the only publication of a dream book by a psychotherapist or psychologist that I have come across.

8 David’s own introduction to his dreambook gives the opportunity for research into the activity of dreaming as his principal justification and adds: ‘ one of the most urgent challenges to our imagination today [is] how to relate new understanding of our evolutionary inheritance with the eventfulness of everyday…if people will [publish their dreams] the whole climate of social imagination would change for good.’


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