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THE GIFT OF ASTONISHMENT

by Gregg Levoy

In the fall of 1982, toward the end of my tenure as a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, I was given a job offer I couldn’t refuse. The company that owned the paper, Gannett, was starting up America’s first national daily newspaper in Washington D.C.----USA Today-----which, in a fit of positive thinking, they were comparing it to France’s Le Monde and Russia’s Pravda. The Washington Post , however, didn’t exactly share their enthusiasm and would later refer to the new newspaper as "News McNuggets."

Gannett took roughly 100 reporters from about that many of its newspapers and offered them the following deal: if at the end of a four-month trial period the paper flew and you fit, you became a journalist in Washington D.C. If it didn’t fly or you didn’t fit, you were guaranteed your job back at whatever paper they took you from.

I leapt at the chance, and it never entered my mind that I might be going back to Cincinnati. I was determined to fit, in part because ever since my third year out of eight at the Enquirer, I had heard a call to move on, and I figured that USA Today was the answer to it.

Three months into the four-month trial period, however, they sent me back. The official reason was that there wasn’t a fit, which in hindsight I convinced myself was a compliment. The unofficial reason, the one I knew in my gut, was that going to USA Today at all was an elaborate form of avoidance that simply caught up with me. I was trying to avoid having to make a nerve-wracking decision: whether to quit my job at the Enquirer to become a freelance writer, which in some private core of myself I knew was what that call that began in my third year was really about.

I returned to Cincinnati shell-shocked, and embarrassed, and extremely glad that I didn’t share those few choice parting words I was tempted to share with a handful of coworkers and superiors before leaving triumphantly for what I thought would be greener pastures. I also went back knowing that I had to make a big change, but not knowing what or how.

A few days after quietly resuming my job at the Cincinnati Enquirer, I was driving home from work listening to a song on the radio called "Desperado," by the Eagles, and as I pulled up to the curb in front of my house, the last line I heard before turning off the ignition was, "Don’t you draw the queen of diamonds, she’ll beat you if she’s able, the queen of hearts is always your best bet." I turned off the car, opened the door, stepped my foot onto the curb, and there at my left foot was a playing card. It was the queen of hearts!

I sat asbolutely dumbfounded, wondering what Fate could possibly be trying to communicate to me with such a gesture. When I mentioned the incident to a friend that evening, she said, with an extravagant quality of assuredness, that when you’re on the right path, the universe winks and nods at you from time to time, to let you know. She also said that once you start noticing these little cosmic cairns, once you understand that you’re on a path at all, you’ll begin to see them everywhere.

Well, I didn’t know I was on a path, I told my friend, much less whether it was the right one. I simply found myself unable to make heads or tails of the episode and ended up filing it under Unexplained Phenomena, which for me include deja vu, extrasensory perception, spontaneous healing, water witching, and certain incomprehensible acts of forgiveness.

Even more remarkable than finding that queen card, though, was that over the next few years, as I searched for a sense of direction, I found five more queen cards, and in incredibly improbable locations such as a conference room inSanta Fe, a sand dune in Oregon, and a mountain wilderness in Colorado six miles from the nearest trailhead. It made the Twilight Zone seem like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Furthermore, every time I found another queen card, the sheer unbelievability of it took another giant step forward, and eventually it all went so far beyond the laws of probability that I only barely hesitate to say it’s impossible that there was nothing more going on here than a statistical aberration. Such an adroit arrangement of events and timing----such stagecraft----seemed orchestrated by something with wits.

Still, the phenomenon became more inscrutable with every find, though it also made more and more sense. A pattern----more, a passageway----began to emerge; the scraps of a treasure map slowly began fitting together. "To ascribe intention to chance is either the height of absurdity or the depth of profundity, according to the way in which we understand it," the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote in an essay entitled, "On the Apparent Design in the Fate of the Individual," which gives away how he understood it.

I myself eventually came to understand that this rather profound administering of chance was directing me toward something that both my writing and my life needed at that time: more heart, less head. Specifically, I felt that the decision about whether to quit my job to become a freelance writer needed to be made, ultimately, from my heart and not my head.

This was a terrifying prospect, given that most of my life’s major decisions have been adjudicated by the rule of reason, not emotion, and I was clearly someone who relied on reason the way children rely on fuzzy blankets. I also knew instinctively that relying on my heart to make such a momentus decision would have roughly the same effect in my logical life as standing up in a canoe.

The queens, however, were casting their vote for the heart’s hegemony, in the hope, it seemed, that I would be guided by what Carl Jung referred to as the anima, the force of the feminine in a man’s life. The queen is one of the preeminent archetypes of powerful feminine energy, and I felt myself being compelled toward this energy by the kind of meaningful coincidences that Jung called synchronicities.

What the queens initially bestowed upon me, though, was not clarity, but what I’ve come to believe is perhaps the greatest teaching of synchronicity: the gift of astonishment.

How often in the course of a day or a week or a month, that is, do I find myself thunderstruck, flabbergasted at life, amazed by its finesse? Sychronicities are like glimpses of a wild animal seldom seen, the discovery of an arrowhead or a geode, the return of my wallet by some Good Samaritan. Far removed from the mundaneness that seems to characterize such a vast portion of day-to-day living-on-Mulberry-Street life, synchronicities help reconnect me to awe, and given the tyranny of the commonplace, what a service!

They also remind me that life is full of incredible possibilities, and that in order to live out some of the incredible possibilities in my own life----that I could succeed as a freelance writer, for instance----I might have to let go of a few of my cherished beliefs about how the universe operates, what is and is not possible. Starting with the belief that life is presided over solely by mechanical cause-and-effect----a kneebone-connected-to-the-thighbone principle----rather than by what in classical times were known as sympathies, some wink-and-a-nod affinity between subjective reality and objective reality, some crosstalk between the conscious and unconscious, mind and matter, humanity and nature, all of which is governed by a certain species of gravity. "A really first-class universe," says mathematician Rudy Rucker, "must include a mixture of both sorts of patterning."

Cause-and-effect simply does not explain so many human experiences----all forms of divination and psychic phenomena, spontaneous remissions, miracles, luck, synchronicities----which are beyond not only the bounds of normal probability, but in many cases beyond belief. But even scientists, largely through quantum physics, are coming to the empirical understanding of something that mystics and medicine-men, poets and priestesses, and even a handful of mathematicians have known for millenia: the world is dynamic and its parts inseparable. Seemingly random events in nature can correspond to events in human lives and be related to psychological processes. A coincidence can have an analog in the psyche and thus take on great meaning.

I have only to look at my own body to appreciate that a rapport exists between the personal and the transpersonal. Seven-tenths of my body and the body of planet Earth are composed of water. The whorls of my fingerprints are remarkably similar to those found in wood, shell and bone. The bronchial tubes that fan out into my lungs look like river deltas seen from above, or like tree limbs as they divide into branches and twigs.

It is a small leap of faith, then, to imagine that events in the world can mirror deep internal processes in striking ways, perhaps even be drawn to us by those processes, and that synchronicities can carry messages the way dreams do and inform us, primarily through intuition, how near or far we are from what Carlos Castaneda called "the path with heart." In fact, among shamanic cultures, synchronicities are considered one of the signs of a certain fidelity to psycho-physical fitness, a kind of homing beacon that is analogous to a radio directional signal indicating that the right procedures are being employed.

Synchronicities can therefore help us follow the right paths and procedures, and following them can in turn bring on synchronicities. As the chemist Louis Pasteur once said, "Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors the prepared mind."

In the movie Grand Canyon, a woman finds a baby, which she believes is a reply to an unspoken yearning inside her. However, when she tells her husband that she wants to keep the baby, he is immediately overcome with a migraine. In frustration, she grabs him by the shirt, shakes him, and says, "A headache is an inappropriate response to a miracle."

This was easy for her to say, since it was her miracle, not his. But she had a point. Synchronicities are minor miracles, little mysteries that point to a bigger one, perhaps a central one, of which we are each a part. One of the prominent images in twentieth-century literature is that of the wasteland, which speaks of the absence of mystery. "The wind crosses the brown land unheard," wrote T.S. Eliot in his poem The Wasteland, "and the nymphs are departed."

In contemplating the stunning aggregate of synchronicities, for instance, that came my way during those years in which I was searching for a sense of direction, I was struck with the need to not merely marvel at the laws of probability or try to interpret their meaning, but to simply wonder at the mystery of life, and pay closer attention to my own. The primary reality of synchronicities, I think, is emotional, not intellectual, and some things can’t be grasped with the mind, but only held as one would cup a palmful of water.

Perhaps synchronicities appear for no other purpose than to jostle our skepticism and open our minds to the existence of the inexplicable and the numinous in our lives, whether we believe in these dimensions or not. Perhaps synchronicities help us reflect on the beauty and harmony in life, says the author Milan Kundera, and if we’re blind to them, we deprive our lives of a dimension of beauty, because synchronicities are composed like music.

They certainly reminded me that the world is shot through with mystery and beauty and extravagant gestures, and that I ought to be amazed that any of it happens. I need only look out into space to remember that life itself is utterly improbable. In the entire known universe, which covers considerable acreage by now, there isn’t a single scrap of life anywhere else but here.

Given, then, that improbability is so basic to the universe, synchronicities are really no more than reminders, emanations, sparks thrown up by a great fire. And at a critical juncture in my own life, they reminded me that with an eye for improbable clues, and the willingness to be astonished, I could more clearly see the path with heart, could more confidently submit myself to my own fate for resolution, and could even, once again, catch sight of the nymphs.


** Excerpted from Callings: Finding and Following An Authentic Life (Random House) by Gregg Levoy.

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copyright 2005 Gregg Michael Levoy, Inc.

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