Liminality, Synchronicity, and the Walls of Everyday Reality

(Liminalities, Cycle 1, Part 1)

A seminal moment in the formation of Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity came as he was treating a highly educated woman who, by his description, was locked in a rigid Cartesian rationalism that hindered her therapy. The basis of all depth psychotherapy is the airing of unconscious psychic content and its integration with the conscious sense of self, but this woman was centered in a view of reality that denied the existence or significance of such things and kept her wholly imprisoned in her rational ego.

One day as they sat together in Jung’s office, the woman told him of a dream from the previous night in which she was given a golden scarab beetle. As an iconic symbol of death and transformation in ancient Egypt, the scarab is a symbol resonant with psychological meanings, as Jung was well aware. But the situation quickly transcended the realm of purely abstract symbolism when Jung heard a gentle, insistent tapping on the window behind him. As he later recounted,

I turned round and saw a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window-pane from outside in the obvious attempt to get into the dark room. That seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), whose gold-green colour most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, “Here is your scarab.” The experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results. [1]

This event became the chief instance that Jung regularly referred to as an illustration of synchronicity in action.

* * *

“Unlike the shaman’s experience of the Otherworld as a daimonic realm entered during altered states of consciousness, this different kind of initiation happens the other way around: the Otherworld enters this world. Our everyday reality becomes heightened, full of extraordinary synchronicities, significances, and paranormal events. People who investigate the daimonic are particularly prone to these — although they can happen to anyone who is engaged on a search for some sort of knowledge or truth (every scholar, for instance, knows how the very book he requires can fall off a library shelf at his feet!).”

— Patrick Harpur, Daemonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld

* * *

The term “liminality” comes from early 20th-century anthropology. It was first developed by the French ethnologist and folklorist Arnold van Gennep and then taken up famously by British cultural anthopologist Victor Turner. Both used it to describe the status of people undergoing cultural initiations and rites of passage into adulthood, when, according to the rules and beliefs of a given society, they had left childhood behind but not yet finished the ritual and achieved full adult status. During this interim such people are, in van Gennep’s and Turner’s terms, “liminal beings,” meaning they stand not inside but between culturally established categories of identity, in an interstitial position.

The word “liminal” itself comes from the Latin limen, or threshold, as in the threshold of a doorway. It refers metaphorically to an interstice, a halfway position, a zone of betweenness, a location or position or status that “falls between the cracks.”

It’s instructive to draw a connection between this and sociologist Peter Berger’s idea, laid out in his classic book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of  Sociological Theory of Religion, of the “nomos,” the socioculturally constructed universe of shared beliefs and meanings that represents the boundaries of what a given people recognize — and are able to accept — as “reality.” To be separated from the nomizing influence of society, he says, is to be in danger of experiencing a sense of meaninglessness, which in his view is

the nightmare par excellence, in which the individual is submerged in a world of disorder, senselessness and madness.  Reality and identity are malignantly transformed into meaningless figures of horror.  To be in society is to be “sane” precisely in the sense of being shielded from the ultimate “insanity” of such anomic terror. [2]

* * *

“Fragments represent the state of in between-ness, the source of all creative thought … Fragments are holograms of thought. Each piece contains the whole.”

— Lauren Albert, “Fragnotes

* * *

As Jung defined it, synchronicity is an “acausal connecting principle” that manifests in the form of “spontaneous, meaningful coincidences of so high a degree of improbability as to appear flatly unbelievable.” [3] That potent little word “meaning” is the key: a synchronicity is the convergence of two or more events in a mesh of meaningfulness, so that, instead of one of them causing the other — a relationship that is of course the basis of physics, and also of material science in general — they mutually illuminate and say something about each other. It thus bridges the gap between the subjective world of the psyche and the objective world of (seemingly) external phenomena. Something happens, a particular concentration of objective events presents itself, that harmonizes uncannily with a person’s psychic state and effectively serves as an expression of it by “the world” at large. In illustration of this, Jung wrote,

Take for instance my case of the scarab: at the moment my patient was telling me her dream a real “scarab” tried to get into the room as if it had understood that it must play a mythological role as a symbol of rebirth. [4]

* * *

“The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, they walk Serene and Primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.”

— H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror

* * *

In his essay “A Way of Writing,”  the late poet William Stafford spoke of the “strange bonus” that sometimes happened to him when he pursued the act of writing in a deliberate attitude of ignorance. Instead of planning and thinking ahead of time, he said he made a discipline of setting aside time each morning for writing, and then he spent that time noting down whatever came to him. “At times,” he said,

without my insisting on it, my writings become coherent; the successive elements that occur to me are clearly related. They lead by themselves to new connections. Sometimes the language, even the syllables that happen along, may start a trend. Sometimes the materials alert me to something waiting in my mind, ready for sustained attention. At such times, I allow myself to be eloquent, or intentional, or for great swoops (Treacherous! Not to be trusted!) reasonable. But I do not insist on any of that; for I know that back of my activity there will be the coherence of my self, and that indulgence of my impulses will bring recurrent patterns and meanings again. [5]

* * *

“In our wakeful awareness, most of us in the modern west quite automatically address the world with the questions ‘How does it work?’; ‘What caused it?’ But when we confront our dreams, such questions have no satisfying sense to them. Instead, we put a question of an entirely different order, one which our ancestors habitually asked of their experience as a whole, awake or dreaming. We ask, What does it mean?’ For we at once recognize in our dreams a symbolic presence which makes what is before us other and more than it seems … [H]ere [in dreaming] is the dark mind thrusting forward a rival Reality Principle and, in the course of each night’s adventures, gaining our acquiescence. Psychiatry has learned to salvage this and that from the rich contents of the dreams. But until it integrates the dream as medium of experience into our lives, it has not reconciled the antagonism that divides the soul most radically, that between the contending realities of the waking and dark minds.”

— Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends

* * *

In On Not Being Able to Paint, the classic Freudian study of artistic creativity first published in 1950, British author and psychotherapist Marion Milner, writing under the pseudonym Joanna Field, recounted and reflected on her experience of learning to produce meaningful drawings and paintings by surrendering to the subjective pressures within her psyche.

She describes how she deliberately worked for awhile in accordance with the idea, gleaned from a book she had read, that in art one should simply “find what the eye seems to like.” Over a span of weeks she produced a series of drawings that she collectively titled “Earth,” and only afterward did she realize that what she had drawn — an approaching storm over a dark sea where a mythic snake and a New Mexican Indian drum rise from the waves; a dove hovering over water; messy, chaotic scribbles; a tree; a sea wall — were united by the theme of chaos encroaching on order, as in the biblical story of Noah and the great deluge with its waters of primal uncreation that wiped out the world, after which a dove brought back evidence of solidity’s reappearance from beneath the deep.

“Someone once defined truth as that which continues to exist when you have ceased believing in it. The inversion of our customary view of the relative relationship between subject and object, ourselves and our world, qualifies as precisely that.”

This was all in harmony with an unsettling recognition about the nature of perception and subjective identity that had been subtly emerging out of certain experiments that she had lately been making in perceiving the world’s visual appearance nakedly and truly, without preconception. At the time she made the “Earth” series, she had been noticing for awhile that “the effort needed in order to see the edges of objects as they really look stirred a dim fear, a fear of what might happen if one let go one’s mental hold on the outline which kept everything separate and in its place.”  This was in turn a facet of the wider realization that had begun to grip her as she saw that “original work in painting, if it was ever to get beyond the stage of happy flukes, would demand facing certain facts about oneself as a separate being, facts that could often perhaps be successfully by-passed in ordinary living.” [6]

* * *

“It would be erroneous to think of these situations [in which the reality of everyday life is put into question] as being rare.  On the contrary, every individual passes through such a situation every twenty hours or so — in the experience of sleep and, very importantly, in the transition stages between sleep and wakefulness.  In the world of dreams the reality of everyday life is definitely left behind.  In the transition stages of falling asleep and waking up again the contours of everyday reality are, at the least, less firm than in the state of fully awake consciousness.  The reality of everyday life, therefore, is continuously surrounded by a penumbra of vastly different realities.  These, to be sure, are segregated in consciousness as having a special cognitive status (in the consciousness of modern man, a lesser one) and thus generally prevented from massively threatening the primary reality of fully awake existence.  Even then, however, the ‘dikes’ of everyday reality are not always impermeable to the invasion of those other realities that insinuate themselves into consciousness during sleep.  There are always the ‘nightmares’ that continue to haunt in the daytime — specifically, with the ‘nightmarish’ thought that daytime reality may not be what it purports to be, that behind it lurks a totally different reality that may have as much validity, that indeed world and self may ultimately be something quite different from what they are defined to be by the society in which one lives one’s daytime existence.”

— Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy

* * *

For many readers — perhaps for you — the concept of synchronicity sounds pointedly absurd. Coincidences, we’re wont to say, even the most highly improbable ones, are simply random events with no intrinsic meaning. Any meaning they seem to possess is simply our own projection. Subjective and objective reality are discrete categories. To muddle them is to engage in “magical thinking” of a grossly primitive, naïve, and — when it comes right down to it — foolish and destructive sort.

And as for the in-between spaces of liminality, well, you know, who really cares? Liminality is fine as a sociological theory or whatever, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the real, workaday world of everyday life.

This line of thinking, however plausible and reasonable it may sound to some ears, is the expression of a cultural bias and worldview based on reductionism and materialism. Its claims are really begged questions, but because we inhabitants of modern-day, post-industrial, corporate-consumer technocracies live, move, and have our being within its all-encompassing cloud of ideological fog, we generally fail to see this.

Sometimes, however, we find that events line up as if in direct challenge to that dogmatic slumber. Someone hands us our golden scarab, flown fresh on glistening wings from the dark mind of our dreams into the clear light of day, and the seams of our world split open all around us, and we find we’re floating and stumbling through a real-life Twilight Zone.

* * *

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown … Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse … The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether of not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.”

— H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

* * *

In the first chapter/lecture in Psychology and Religion, titled “The Autonomy of the Unconscious Mind,” Jung wrote:

It is an almost ridiculous prejudice to assume that existence can only be physical. As a matter of fact the only form of existence we know of immediately is psychic. We might well say, on the contrary, that physical existence is merely an inference, since we know of matter only in so far as we perceive psychic images transmitted by the senses. We are surely making a great mistake when we forget this simple yet fundamental truth … Imaginations do exist and they may be just as real and just as obnoxious or dangerous as physical conditions. [7]

Elsewhere, and expanding on the same point, he wrote,

[W]e shall do well to admit there is justification for the old view of the soul as an objective reality — as something independent, and therefore capricious and dangerous. The further assumption that this being, so mysterious and terrifying, is at the same time the source of life, is also understandable in the light of psychology. [8]

The great secret of life, which, in order to be grasped as more than a mere philosophical abstraction, requires not just intellectual understanding but a true awakening along the lines of the 180-degree perspective reversal produced by Douglas Harding’s headlessness experiments, is simply this: contrary to popular, ingrained, pre-programmed, deep-rooted assumptions, subjectivity is not an abstraction or reduction from objectivity. Rather, objectivity is a reduction from subjectivity. We think of ourselves as private little islands of mind living in a big open space called the Real World (meaning the objective, disenchanted, de-souled universe of materiality and physicality) and jostling frequently up against a human society of similarly isolated little minds. We think that we ourselves are encompassed and contained by “The World.” But in point of phenomenological fact, the opposite is true. The World exists and subsists within us.

Again, this is no idle philosophical speculation. Someone once defined truth as that which continues to exist when you have ceased believing in it. The inversion of our customary view of the relative relationship between subject and object, ourselves and our world, qualifies as precisely that.

To be continued…


[1] The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 512.

[2] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Notes Toward a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 22.

[3] The Portable Jung, 510.

[4] C. G. Jung, Jung on Synchronicity and the Paranormal, ed. Roderick Main (London: Routledge, 1997), 105.

[5] William Stafford, “A Way of Writing,” in Writing the Australian Crawl (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1978), 18-19.

[6] Joanna Field, On Not Being Able to Paint (J. P. Tarcher, Inc., 1957/1983), 13.

[7] C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1938), 11.

[8] C. G. Jung, “The Basic Postulates of Analytical Psychology,” in Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. W. S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes (San Diego: Harcourt, 1933), 183.


About Matt Cardin


Posted on July 23, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Love this post, Matt. You write surefootedly about topics that I can barely begin to touch coherently, though I find myself drawn to consider them often. I have a lot of reading to do…

    • I love interacting with people who resonate with the same ideas. So I appreciate the feedback, Wendy. I also love reading things that provoke and inspire me to pursue further reading, so I’m happy to perform the same function for you. 🙂

  2. Thank you for A) Considering this, B) Researching this, and C) Publishing this so that people of likeness can find it.

    -Mind meat 🙂 Thank you for your efforts!

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