Safety: Synchronicity and Soul-Making
Phoenix, Arizona, March 12,
1999. That afternoon I spend several hours revising a lecture. Having just used
the ideas a few days before to write a draft of a chapter for my new book,
recently submitted for publication, I am particularly eager to discuss them. The
central idea is that for Plotinus, the great second-century Neoplatonist, the
very essence of soul is finite, divisible, and subject to the destruction of
time and, simultaneously, infinite, indivisible, and immortal. In each
experience, at every level, no matter how mundane or exalted, we are both
limited, finite creatures, subject to decay, and simultaneously immortal,
transcendent beings. This is the unique nature of soul.
Revising the talk puts me in
a lovely feeling state. I am grateful for the privilege of being able to discuss
such noble ideas, but it is after 5:30 PM. My hosts are going to meet me in the
motel lobby and give me a ride to the lecture at 6:45. I have to eat and shower
in a little over an hour. I have to get going!
I walk briskly in the
brilliant sunshine alongside a six-lane highway full of zooming cars. It feels
good to get out and move. But where is that restaurant the motel clerk told me
about? After walking for five minutes or so, I see the restaurant, but it must
be another five minutes away. Maybe this was “down a little ways” by car,
but it is a full ten minute walk. Now I am really feeling time pressure.
At the intersection, I see
the restaurant directly across the street from me. There are stopped cars in the
nearest two lanes, but the third lane, farthest from me, is empty. Despite the
flashing red hand telling me not to cross, I think I can make it to the median
divider. I run out into the crosswalk, in front of the two lanes of stopped cars
to my left. Just into the third lane: thud!
I come to consciousness
lying on the ground and hear a car skidding to a halt ahead of me. I drag myself
up from the pavement. I am way outside the crosswalk now and cars are flying by
on all sides of me. There is a deep pain in my left shoulder and I am sore all
over as I stumble toward the little black sports car that just hit me. My heart
“I am really sorry,” I
tell the driver.
“You scared the hell out
of me! Are you all right?”
“Can you call an
ambulance? My shoulder is busted and I am pretty banged up.”
I feel an extraordinary
combination of extreme gratitude and pure terror. He pulls the car off to the
intersecting road and calls the police with his cell phone. Two beautiful young
women come running up to me.
“Are you all right? Wow! I
never saw anything like that! You just flew through the air. Can we help?”
With the low sun streaming
through their hair to give them halos, they look like angels. I ask them if they
can get the book I was carrying. I point it out to them, forty feet from the
site of impact.
From past experience, I know
that when my ego is off center stage, as it is now, the chance for an inspired
lecture increases. Although the pain is severe, I still want to give that talk.
I ask the police, “Do you think I can make a 7:30 lecture?” They stare at me
as though I am from Mars. In fact, maybe I am. Who else would run out in front
of cars to save time?
While they are taking
pictures of the sports car I sit on the grass beside it and look it over. The
right headlight is smashed, a bit of my blood and scuff marks are on the hood,
and the right side of the windshield is badly smashed up.
“The patient is ambulatory
and we are taking him to the emergency room now,” says the paramedic on his
cell phone. I get on a gurney and appreciate lying down. On my back, I notice
the vast cobalt blue sky. It seems to lift me up and out of myself.
“You have a beautiful sky
“Oh, you will really like
the ceiling of the ambulance.”
They put an intravenous line
into my hand, put an oxygen mask on me, and test for internal injuries, nerve
damage, etc. They are so kind. I feel such genuine concern for them. I don’t
want them to worry about me. I know I am OK. I want to reassure them, to put
their minds at ease. I thank them repeatedly and inwardly give sincere thanks to
all the higher powers.
“You were amazingly lucky.
You really damaged that car and you seem pretty good.”
At the hospital emergency
room, kind and capable hospital staff take care of me. More questions, more
probing, blood pressure measurements, and more amazement. They clean the wounds
on my left knee and put ice packs on my right leg and left shoulder. The nurses
point out to each other the book I was carrying and keep remarking on the title:
Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. It never occurred to me before
they mentioned it.
After being there for about
twenty minutes, I hear a great roar from a helicopter. It sounds like it is
coming through the roof. There is much bustling about and people leave me for
more pressing matters. They wheel in a burly man in his thirties, his head in a
restraining cage to prevent spinal injury. His plaid shirt is soaked in blood.
For a second our eyes meet and I fall into deep pools of terror. I feel such
compassion for him and realize that it could easily have been me.
I am very thirsty, but they
will not give me water for fear that I will vomit. After an hour and a half, the
police come and make me fill out an accident report. I give them all the detail
possible and fully admit my guilt and stupidity. Another helicopter delivery
interrupts us. They give me a ticket for $98.00 for crossing against the light.
After three hours in the emergency room, x-rays, and various tests, all they
could find is that I have a badly separated left shoulder, banged up legs, and a
nice selection of bruises, aches, and pains. I have no broken bones and not even
scrapes from where I hit the pavement. They put my arm in a sling and discharge
me. In my shaken state, I take a cab back to my motel.
I have a prescription for
some powerful painkillers. Although I am in a good bit of pain, it seems
manageable. Despite the doctors warning that I won’t be able to sleep without
the pain-killers, I decide to skip them tonight and not look for an open
drugstore. I’ll just take some aspirin. I think it is more important for me to
face the significance of what happened with a clear head.
I call my wife, Elaine, who
is visiting friends in Tucson. No answer. I leave a message saying it is not an
emergency, but please call me back. I keep putting ice on my various bruises and
reading Crossing to Safety. I am looking for some clues to the meaning of
it all. Because of traveling, I only got a few hours of sleep the night before.
However, I am so full of pain, adrenaline, and joy that I cannot consider
Over the years, I have
developed a method for dealing with nightmares and dreams with troubling
imagery. I get out of bed, sit in a meditation posture, close my eyes, and hold
the troubling images as vividly as possible in my mind. I set aside any
intellectual formulations and interpretations and just concentrate on the
images. I become one with them, soak myself in them, no matter how horrendous
the images. Eventually this technique drains the fear and loathing from them and
I can get back to sleep. I also believe that it allows the images to do their
work, to perform the unconscious compensations, even when I don’t understand
them analytically. Several times, I try this technique on my accident. I let the
thud, blackness, pain, terror, and the fear of what easily could have been bathe
me in all its ferocity. Still, the adrenaline pours through me. It is difficult
getting comfortable in bed, but I eventually get to sleep around 3:30 AM. I
awake a few hours later and feel like the voltage in my nervous system is on too
high a setting. Despite the pain and exhaustion, I am in a state of extreme joy
I have been to the edge of
the abyss. In my thanksgiving, I rededicate myself to realizing soul in both its
divisible and indivisible nature.
Explanation: Sir Isaac Newton and Causality
While in the emergency room,
I try to reconstruct what happened in the accident. I never did see the car
coming, nor did the driver see me. When I ran in front of the car, its headlight
hit the left side of my left knee. There could have been little or no weight on
that leg; otherwise my knee would have been shattered. Instead, judging from the
huge bruise on the inside of my right calf, my left foot slammed into my right
calf and knocked me off my feet. Then, as the marks and blood on the car hood
showed, I flipped up on the hood with my feet toward the driver’s side. The
windshield then slammed into my left shoulder, throwing me up and outward, and
the car drove underneath me as it screeched to a halt. I cannot remember either
how I went through the air or landed. The impact must have knocked me
unconscious and I flew through the air like a rag doll and hit the ground in
that state. It must have prevented me from trying to catch myself and, since I
could not resist, it reduced the injury of the fall to the ground.
Around 6:00 AM the morning
after the accident, I return to the accident site. I go there as part of my
exercise of facing the terror as directly as possible. I also realize that two
simple measurements and some easy calculations based upon Newtonian physics
could yield an estimate of how fast the car was going. I need to measure the
distance between the site of impact and where the headlight glass landed and get
the height of the headlight.
I learned many years ago how
to pace off strides that are very close to three feet each. I find that the
first fragments are fully 13 paces (39 feet) from the impact site in the
crosswalk and the farthest ones are 18 paces (54 feet). I revisit the site at
noon on the next day and re-measured the position of the glass fragments. I want
to see if the traffic moved the fragments. I can measure no noticeable change in
the position of the glass. I even return a week later, just before flying home.
I pace off the distance of the fragments again and find no noticeable change.
You don’t need much physics knowledge to appreciate that the car must have
been going fast to throw glass more than fifty feet.
My calculations show that
the car was traveling 40 miles per hour, with an uncertainty of about ten miles
per hour in either direction. These estimates seem high, but the driver was
passing the cars still stopped in the two outside lanes. He was also
test-driving the sports car from a dealer. It would not surprise me if he were
enjoying the acceleration and handling of that car.
Being hit by a car going at
that speed and ending up with only a badly separated shoulder and a few cuts and
bruises is not a miracle. The Catholic Church defines ‘miracles’ as divine
interventions that suspend the physical laws of nature. I agree with David Hume
who long ago pointed out how incoherent such an idea is. Nevertheless, within
the context of what could have happened in my accident, I am extremely
fortunate. Appreciating how fast the car was going only deepens my gratitude.
Explanation: C.G. Jung and Synchronicity
As the terror and adrenaline
rush subsides, the gratitude and devotional feelings grow. I only want to live
each moment as though it is my last and devote myself to finding out who I truly
am. I used to react so passionate to all sorts of inconsequential things. Now
all this ballast of normal consciousness is thrown overboard as I sail on sacred
seas. From now on, I have no time for trivial concerns or activities.
Despite the reality and
sincerity of my new realizations and associated reforms, I am a boring saint,
full of pious platitudes and worn nostrums. However, I know Elaine will not have
to suffer me for too long, since the shadow will erupt soon enough and
send all my pious philosophizing out the window. I know the old “Vic will
return,” but now it is all light and gratitude. I want to make the most of it.
We had planned some touring
on our way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I will give another talk. However, I
need to recuperate; so we find this extraordinary hacienda in the desert and
stay there for several days. There I am in a state of unmitigated bliss. Every
detail of the desert is radiant, fresh, and clear. The lodge owner loans me a
little CD player and I listen to the music intended for the canceled workshop in
Phoenix. Each note of Samuel Barber’s second movement of his violin concerto
is a blessing. I write some email to friends back home telling them what
happened and expressing the depth of affection for them that in normal
circumstances goes unsaid. The flood of loving and supportive email that comes
back surprises me and moves me to tears.
Looking back, it is clear
that the week following my accident was the most beautiful spiritual experience
of my life. I certainly would not have chosen that way to get such an
experience, but it was still priceless.
There are some obvious and
important lessons from the accident. I have been blessed with much energy.
However, I often squeeze in too many experiences and rush like a madman to
execute them all—the hubris of Mars. I can abuse my blessing. Without
dismissing that critical lesson, there must be more to it. Beside my own belief
in this, there is the uncanny title of the book I was carrying: Crossing to
Safety. Although I don’t recommend the book, under the circumstances, the
title is striking. The title of that book is taken from a Robert Frost Poem
entitled “I Could Give All to Time.”
In my new book, I give a
detailed analysis of this poem. I’ll not duplicate that here, but merely say
that the poem explains how “Crossing to Safety” only occurs when we make
contact with the indivisible, immortal aspect of soul. Only that element of
us is safe from the ravages of time. Any intimation of the immortal aspect of
soul is a profound spiritual experience and therein lies our true “crossing to
In my accident, I crossed to
safety physically and was profoundly grateful for it. However, I also crossed
briefly to the side of immortal soul, and that safety is of a deeper order.
Although I could not hold on to that light from beyond my ego, I will always
cherish my experience of it. I will also always cherish how the two types of
knowledge deepened each other. The physics made me appreciate the grace more
fully. The grace helped me appreciate the lawfulness of the Newtonian cosmos,
while showing me its limitations.
In this light, I can
interpret my experience as an initiation into the indivisible and
immortal aspects of soul, into that beyond the reach of time, the realm of real
safety. It came about through nearly destroying the body, the expression of the
finite aspect of soul. In a sense, I had a mild form of near death experience,
one of those life-transforming events, which some people have when they are very
close to death and are resuscitated. I did not have the usual visionary
component, but did experience a transpersonal reality and its transformative
Types 1 and 2: Explanations
In type 1 explanations, the
emphasis is on causality, one well-defined thing affecting another through the
exchange of forces, energy, or information. For example, the headlight hits the
left side of my left knee with little weight on it, my left foot slams into the
left side of my right calf, and I am flipped up on the hood without having my
knees shattered. This is a completely impersonal and universal process, governed
by Newtonian physics. Although the timing had to be just right, there is nothing
special or unique in this for me. You could replace me by a crash dummy and
study the phenomena with a high-speed camera. Since the phenomena are all
entirely objective in this explanation, not dependent upon our likes or dislikes
or whatever local customs apply, we could repeat the experiment with the crash
dummy as many times as necessary and expect repeatable outcomes. The meaning
that emerges from such explanation is restricted entirely to the impersonal,
material, factual level of the event. In other words, it is devoid of higher
meaning with a complete emphasis on the literal significance of events.
In contrast, type 2
synchronistic explanations are a-causal or non-causal, not governed by forces
and physical energy exchange. Instead, they are symbolic expressions of a
transformative meaning, of significant episodes in a person’s individuation,
of coming to be what we are meant to be, of actualizing our unique wholeness.
Because of this, they are unique to the individual. If you put somebody else in
front of that little sports car, it would have a different significance for that
Of course, such experiences
are unrepeatable. Yes, I could run in front of speeding cars more than once, but
each time it would be a different experience, since I am transformed and
therefore different after each event. Finally, rather than objective in the
scientific sense, these experiences are deeply subjective intuitions of meaning.
and its Challenges
As a physicist, I revere a
scientific view of the world. Science brings us many fruits, both good and bad,
and it has irrevocably transformed our knowledge of the universe and ourselves.
Yet, it does not answer all our needs for explanation. For example, standard
science has no place for soul. In contrast, Type 2, synchronistic explanations
are dramatic a-causal expressions of meaning, critical for our psychological and
spiritual development—our soul-making. They cannot be understood
scientifically, nor should they be. However, taking synchronistic events
seriously poses several challenges.
My carrying the book Crossing
to Safety certainly did not cause the favorable outcome of my accident, nor
did my accident cause me to carry the book. Although quantum mechanics, with its
pervasive a-causality, helps us appreciate the limitations of causality, most of
us find a-causal explanations difficult to accept.
Although not appearing in
the synchronicity story above, such experiences often involve knowledge that
transcends the normal boundaries of space and time. Despite the inability of
science to explain such phenomena, we can get information through non-sensory
channels. As I have shown in my previous book, Synchronicity, Science, and
Soul-Making, synchronicity experiences often express such knowledge.
Occurrences of space-time transcendence are also well documented in controlled
Despite our usual belief in
a Cartesian split between the subject and the world, synchronicity experiences
give us empirical evidence for a unity underlying spirit and matter. The unity
expresses itself in the soul-making meaning embodied in both our psyche and the
world. Perhaps this experience of unity is what makes synchronicity so
Nevertheless, I suggest that
the greatest challenge presented by synchronicity is neither its a-causality,
nor its space-time transcendent nature, nor its implication of unity. Instead,
it asks us to reevaluate affliction and appreciate that our greatest healing
often springs from our deepest wounds.
Victor Mansfield is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Colgate University
in Hamilton, New York, USA. There he also teaches popular courses, including
Jungian psychology and Tibetan Buddhism. He developed his keen interest in
depth psychology and Eastern philosophy while earning his Ph.D. in
astrophysics at Cornell University. A student of traditional wisdom, both
East and West, for nearly thirty years, he has practiced and studied with
spiritual leaders in the U.S., Europe, and India. Among his publications is
the book Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making. He has given
lectures and workshops from coast to coast in the USA and several countries
in Europe. You are warmly invited to his web site at: http://www.lightlink.com/vic.