I did not go looking for Petra. Petra found me.
Four times last week, mention of the World Heritage site
in Jordan made famous by the 1984 film Indiana Jones and
the Last Crusade crossed my path. (Petra is where Indy
finds the Holy Grail.) I normally don’t spend much time
thinking about these particular ancient ruins, even if the
series of tombs and façades carved into the walls of a deep
sandstone canyon 2,300 years ago is rather remarkable.
Then one night at a neighbor’s house, someone I’d never
met before told me a spellbinding story about her recent
visit to Petra. A few nights later, another woman I hadn’t
previously met told me stories about her visit to Petra.
The next morning, I opened my email to find a newsletter
from a travel-writer friend who’d recently visited—you
guessed it—Petra. Finally, when I turned on the TV last
night, there was Indiana Jones standing at Petra’s façade.
What are the odds? Why now? What did it mean?
Was the Universe trying to tell me something? Was I
supposed to visit Petra? Is this what Carl Jung meant by
Jung used the term synchronicity to describe a series of
random coincidences that seem somehow meaningful. My
four Petra encounters had no direct link to one another—
and they certainly didn’t cause each other. Yet, as Jung
would suggest, something worth investigating is moving
just beneath the surface. Before we dive into the depths of
synchronicity, we have to first understand Jung’s concept
of the collective unconscious.
Jung learned the concept of the individual
unconscious—the idea that the bulk of our consciousness
is hidden from our surface awareness and that deep,
instinctual drives and early childhood conditioning
compel much of our adult behavior—from his mentor
Sigmund Freud. In neurotic individuals, Freud argued,
talk therapy and dream analysis could help lay bare these
hidden or unconscious drives, thereby freeing us of their
powerful and destructive influence.
No doubt influenced by his study of Hinduism,
specifically the idea of Atman or Universal Self, Jung
took Freud’s idea of the individual unconscious and
universalized it. For Jung, there is a single “collective
unconscious” at work in the world, and all human beings
regardless of culture or century of origin are tapped in
to it. In fact, it is from this collective unconscious that
archetypes arise—universal ideas that take diverse form
as local religious narratives, mythological symbols, and
sacred artifacts. By becoming fluent in the language of
archetypes we can understand the deepest meanings
of our wisdom traditions and honor our own sacred
For Jung, synchronicities are encoded messages that
surface out of the collective unconscious, much as do
dreams, myths, or intuitions. As such, synchronicities
are potent glimmers of metaphorical wisdom to be
interpreted carefully and creatively. It is not the case
that the Universe wants me to go to Petra—that would
be a far too literal or pedantic reading of the metaphor.
Instead, something much richer and more profound is
being prodded by the nameless sacred source beyond.
In this sense, Jung believed, synchronicities can be seen
as signposts pointing the way to our most authentic,
most fully realized life—if we cultivate the simplicity and
openness it takes to understand them.
So what exactly do my four encounters with Petra
mean? I can’t say. However, the less I think about it, the
more I understand.
Spirituality, philosophy, and mythology from the world’s wisdom traditions
PETER BOLLAND IS A PHILOSOPHY PROFESSOR
AND CHAIR OF THE PHILOSOPHY AND HUMANITIES
DEPARTMENT AT SOUTHWESTERN COLLEGE IN
CHULA VISTA, CALIFORNIA. HE IS A FREQUENT
GUEST SPEAKER AT SEVERAL NEW THOUGHT
CHURCHES. BOLLAND ATTENDS THE UNITY CENTER
IN SAN DIEGO. VISIT PETERBOLLAND.COM.
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