‘Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy.’
— Marcus Aurelius
Magical thinking is a term often used in a derogatory sense to denote a childish, primitive or immature state, particularly in contemporary psychology, which defines a type of belief that one’s inner state, feelings, thoughts and ideas can influence outer world events in the material world. Similar to and often linked to religious belief, “magical thinking presumes a causal link between one’s inner, personal experience and the external physical world.”Despite the overwhelming impact science and rational thinking has had on humanity in its capacity to make credible predictions based on empirical research, observation and theory, and to relegate notions of magic to ‘failed science,’a vast majority of people still participate in magical thinking and practices everyday as a means to creating meaning and exerting control over the seemingly arbitrary happenings of their everyday lives.
Rodney Stark distinguishes magic from religion in the sense that while they share a belief in the supernatural realm, magic concerns a human being’s belief ‘that they may directly affect nature and each other, for good or ill, by their own efforts (even though the precise mechanism may not be understood by them), as distinct from appealing to divine powers.” Contemporary forms of magic and magical thinking can be found in abundance through our world including practices such as divination, astrology, new age oracle and psychic readings, and belief in superstitions such as the avoidance of crossing a black cat or raven lest it invoke bad luck or touching wood when hoping what one has spoken may not come to pass.
Though broad and difficult to define, ‘magic continues to invade popular imagination and idiom”as it fulfils a very real need for human re-enchantment in a world that has become increasingly material and mechanistic and as psychologist Carl Jung poignantly expressed, returns to human beings a purpose for existence, namely to “kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
One of the more popular and prominent examples of magical thinking and its associated practices found in contemporary times is that of ‘synchronicity.’ The concept has been most famously introduced and coined by Carl Jung in his experience and work with analytical psychology where he refers to synchronicity as ‘a kind of simultaneity’ or ‘meaningful coincidence’of a human being’s inner state with an outer event in which there is no obvious or apparent causal relationship. The groupings of such experiences or events can be found in a range of occurrences experienced by many people including seeing certain number sequences many times throughout a day, to experiencing a sense of foreknowing that one will meet someone and then later encounter them in the street, seemingly by chance. Jung attempts to explain that whilst words such as ‘precognition’ or ‘clairvoyance’ or ‘telepathy’ have been given to explain these happenings, “they are not scientific concepts which could be taken as statements of principle, for no one has yet succeeded in constructing a causal bridge between the elements making up a meaningful coincidence.”Therefore this type of thinking clearly fits within the realm of magic though much research and theory has been carried out in exploring this popular phenomenon.
In exploring why synchronicity has captured the attention and imagination of so many people who engage in magical practices such as dream tending, astrology and the I-Ching as well as reading oracles, all of which grow out of this concept of synchronicity, Dan Hocoy posits that “human existential needs for meaning, connection, and agency appear to make up the fertile ground, while personal experiences of meaningful coincidences, especially profound and numinous ones, seem to constitute the seed of belief in synchronicity.”In our basic human need to make meaning of our lives and counter the existential angst that our existence is entirely random and meaningless, synchronicity provides a kind of magical proof that there is some kind of higher principle or order at work.
Many famous and significant cases of synchronicity have been recorded throughout time and have predicted major world events such as the well-documented account of the Swedish scientist-mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, who on July 19, 1759, while having dinner with friends in Gotenborg, had the revelation that a large fire had broken out in Stockholm (almost 300 miles away).”These more profound experiences have lifted what in some cases might be mere coincidence or ‘magical thinking’ towards the numinous, spiritual or religious or on the other hand toward the material, scientific and earthly realm through investigations into the links between synchronicity and many discoveries and theories on quantum physics of the 20thcentury.
Of the many practices associated with the concept of synchronicity as magical thinking, two popular examples are the oracle known as the I Ching and the practice of astrology. According to Jung who explored the I Ching closely in his investigation of the phenomena of synchronicity, “the I Ching presupposes that there is a synchronistic correspondence between the psychic state of the questioner and the answering hexagram.”With no way to objectively determine the facts but relying heavily on the psychic state of the individual to directly affect the result, this is a clear example of a magical practice based in synchronistic thinking. Astrology on the other hand, can be seen as a type of meaningful coincidence “in the process of becoming a science”as its investigations, theory and research move more towards a causal relationship between planetary aspects and the birth time of the individual.
As well as divination, synchronicity is also linked to the imaginal realm of dream work and altered states of consciousness where people feel themselves connected to guides, animals and spiritual figures. Stories abound of people who have experienced precognitive dreams and visions of events including the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986 where “large numbers of people had dreamed in advance that the plant was unsafe and a nuclear accident was imminent.”
Regardless of where magical thinking and practices surrounding the phenomenon of synchronicity sit between the threads of religion, magic and science it is clear that humanity has a great need to continue to engage in these practices to create greater meaning, depth and enchantment in our lives.
· Vandenburg, Brian. ‘Magical Thinking’, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/science/magical-thinking
· Stark, Rodney. ‘Reconceptualizing Religion, Magic, and Science’, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 43, 2001.
· Davies, Owen. ‘Magic A Very Short Introduction’, Oxford University Press, 2012.
· Jung, C. G. “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”, Fontana Press, London, 1995.
· Jung, C. G. ‘Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8: Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche.” Edited by Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull, Princeton University Press, 1969. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hhr1w.
· Hocoy, D. ‘Sixty Year Later: The Enduring Allure of Synchronicity”, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 2012.
· Lorenz, H. ‘Synchronicity in the 21stCentury’, Journal of Jungian Studies, Vol. 2, 2006.
Vandenburg, B. ‘Magical Thinking’, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2016
Stark, R. ‘Reconceptualizing Religion, Magic, and Science, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 43, 2001, p103.
Ibid, pg 109.
Davies, O. ‘Magic A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2012, pg 1.
Jung, CG. “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”, Fontana Press,1995, pg. 358.
Jung, C.G. ‘‘Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8: Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche”, 1969, pg 425.
Hocoy, D. ‘Sixty Year Later: The Enduring Allure of Synchronicity”, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 2012, pg 467.
Ibid, pg 468.
Jung, C.G. ‘The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche”, Collected Works, Vol. 8.
Lorenz, H. ‘Synchronicity in the 21stCentury’, Journal of Jungian Studies, Vol.2, 2006.