More Unusual Occurrences

What’s an unusual occurrence? Here’s a sample.

I’d spent much of the day working on a previously posted essay called "Flim-Flam Flummery." The essay found fault with some claims made by skeptical debunker James Randi in his book Flim-Flam. Randi had written a response, which I’d posted, and one thing led to another, and the subject occupied my mind for hours. The focus of my essay was Randi’s critique of a series of experiments involving the Israeli psychic (or alleged psychic) Uri Geller.

So these were the thoughts in my head: Flim-Flam, and Uri Geller.

To relax and take my mind off things, I did three crossword puzzles that night. All were short puzzles that could be done in ten minutes or less.

In one of them, there was a four-letter word with the clue "hoax." The answer was "flam," as in flim-flam. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen "flam" used as a standalone word before.

In a second crossword puzzle, there was a three-letter word with the clue "the mysterious Mr. Geller." The answer, of course, was "Uri."

I wish I could cap my story by saying that the third crossword also contained a relevant term, but it didn’t. Sometimes, as Freud might have said, a puzzle is just a puzzle.

Now, I’m not sure what the odds are of encountering two seldom-used words, "flam" and "Uri," in two of three puzzles, on the same day when my mind was consumed with thoughts of Uri Geller and Flim-Flam. But it struck me as – well, as an unusual occurrence.

If you read my first essay on this subject, "Unusual Occurrences," you may recall a couple of odd coincidences involving tennis balls on the beach and boardwalk. Well, it happened again.

I had been away from the shore for the winter. In May, I was back on the East Coast and taking a stroll on the boardwalk. I passed the gazebo where I’d spotted a tennis ball once before. Somewhat whimsically, I took a look inside the gazebo, as if to ask, "Any tennis balls in here?" There were none. But when I went down onto the beach, I noticed a seagull pecking at a greenish thing in the surf. Actually, I couldn’t miss it. The seagull was flapping its wings and making quite a commotion. I walked closer to see what it was working on. You guessed it – an old, punctured tennis ball.

There was at least one other such instance that I bothered to write down. That makes four in all. Now, you might think there must be tennis balls all over the beach, or that I'm constantly on the lookout for them. Not so. I seem to find them only on those rare occasions when they're on my mind.

It appears that such impressions are most likely to occur to us when our minds are relaxed. Many of my premonitions took place while I was walking outdoors, just strolling along.

Taking a walk one afternoon, I found myself thinking of the lyrics to the Simon and Garfunkel song "I Am a Rock." This was odd, because I’m not a Simon and Garfunkel fan, and I don't particularly like that song. Two hours later, I was in a grocery store when "I Am a Rock" came over the public address system – not an instrumental Muzak version, but the original recording, complete with lyrics.

Again while walking, I was thinking of - and humming - a song from the musical Hair called "Where Do I Go?" That night I did (what else?) a crossword puzzle. One of the clues was "song from Hair," and the answer was "Where Do I Go?"

Shaving is another time when my mind wanders and offbeat thoughts can creep in. While shaving before going out to dinner, I happened to think of an episode of The Simpsons in which the clueless Homer, reading the comics, says, "Oh, Andy Capp, you lovable wife-beating drunk." The following evening, I watched a syndicated episode of The Simpsons. It had to be that episode, right? Nope. But it was an episode in which Homer arranges himself in the distinctive Andy Capp position on the couch and says, "Hey, that Andy Capp was on to something." I'm pretty sure these are the only two Andy Capp references in the entire Simpsons oeuvre (more than three hundred shows).

Watching TV is another way to let your mind shift into neutral. I was vegging out in front of a TV sitcom one evening. On the show a character got a phone call. Instantly I had a very strong expectation that a friend of mine would call me. Within thirty seconds, my phone rang. Guess who?

In all these instances, my mind was not sharply focused. It was free to wander and pick up whatever stray impressions might come to it. I don't think it's a coincidence that many of my premonitions involve The Simpsons or other TV shows. When my mind wanders, it often goes in a TV direction. One day a line from an episode of The Simpsons kept running through my mind. It was Lisa asking, "Is this the end of our series ... of events?" That evening, the syndicated Simpsons episode was the one containing that line. I’ve gotten so used to this sort of thing, I have to remind myself to write it down when it happens.

The state of mind that seems most receptive to these impressions is one of free association, in which one idea is linked to another in a way that seems random but may not be. A small example involves two items I got in the mail one afternoon. One was a bill from the phone company, and the other was TV Guide. Included with the phone bill was an ad featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones, the company's spokeswoman. I looked at this, then opened TV Guide to the first page, where I found a prominent reference to an upcoming TV special about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Nothing so strange about, is there? But the odd thing is that my train of thought seemed to anticipate the TV Guide listing.

Here’s a recap of my stream of consciousness, which I wrote down right after the fact: Catherine Zeta-Jones is married to Michael Douglas ... Douglas played opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in a movie a few years ago ... Paltrow won an Oscar for her role in Shakespeare in Love, and gave a very emotional speech ... Another actress who gave an emotional speech at the Oscars was Halle Berry ... The theme of Berry's speech was that winning the Oscar was a victory for civil rights. At this point, I said aloud (cynically, I'm afraid), "She wins an Oscar and all of a sudden she thinks she's Martin Luther King." I pictured King delivering his speech to the crowd assembled on the Mall.

Having uttered my snide comment, I opened TV Guide and saw the first page write-up on Peter Jennings Reporting: I Have a Dream - a retrospective on the historic address.

Skeptics have an answer for this. They say that while daydreaming, we have hundreds, even thousands, of fleeting thoughts and impressions. Later, if something in the real world reminds us of one of these thoughts, we ascribe significance to it, without recalling all the other thoughts that went through our mind and weren’t reflected in external events. Of course, it’s possible to turn this argument around and say that if we were able to recall more of our stray thoughts, we would experience even more synchronicities. My main objection to this argument, however, is that it doesn’t seem to fit the facts as I’ve observed them. Usually the impression in question is strong, clear, and vivid – not one stray thought among hundreds, but a real standout that sticks in the memory. That’s precisely why the real-world analog of this thought is so startling.

I would suggest that you test this hypothesis personally. Little do-it-yourself experiments testing your own intuitive talents can be done all the time. I tried one not long ago, at a Barnes & Noble store. And I’m sorry, but I have to talk about crosswords again.

You see, I was in the Games section of the bookstore, where hundreds of crossword-puzzle books occupied one long shelf, all jumbled together in no apparent order. What I wanted to find was a particular kind of puzzle book featuring British-style crosswords, otherwise known as cryptics. These are not popular in the United States, and there are very few books of that sort available here. I didn't feel like searching through all the titles on the slim chance that I would find the one that I wanted, so I decided to try an impromptu experiment.

Without looking, I intentionally relaxed my mind ... then placed my left hand at random on the shelf. My fingers touched three books. When I looked at the three, I found - surprise! - that one of them was indeed a cryptics collection.

Now intrigued, I went to the trouble of checking out all the other titles on the shelf. As best I could tell, there were no other collections of cryptics anywhere among the two hundred or more crossword books on display.

Note that I used my left hand. Possibly the right hemisphere of the brain, which controls the left side of the body, is responsible for picking up these impressions. When the left cerebral hemisphere is fully activated, we may find it harder to have premonitions or notice synchronicities. If this is true, we would not expect to have such experiences while reading or engaged in logical tasks that require linear thinking. We would be more likely to have these experiences when the left hemisphere is disengaged, and the right hemisphere is more easily accessed. This would be true when taking a walk, or when performing routine tasks like shaving, doing the dishes, taking a shower, and driving.

My guess is that in nontechnological, nonliterate societies, where the left cerebral hemisphere is not dominant, people may be more attuned to synchronistic and premonitory experiences, and more accepting of them.

In our own society, we tend to be dismissive of such things. I imagine that we actually pick up many more impressions than we consciously notice or remember. They are, I admit, frequently trivial or even downright silly.

Here’s a trivial one. One day, for no apparent reason, I was thinking of the words, "Attention must be paid!" - a line from Death of a Salesman. I repeated this line to myself several times. No, I’m not a big Arthur Miller fan. I haven’t read that play since I was in high school. But that night a friend of mine phoned, and out of the blue he used the phrase "on a smile and a shoeshine" – another line from the same play.

And here’s a silly one. One Sunday, I wrote an e-mail in which I related a very bad joke about a Quasimodo-like hunchbacked bell ringer, who has no arms and must set the bells in the tower tolling by running into them face-first. The punch line is, "I don't know his name, but his face sure rings a bell." On Monday, I received an advance manuscript of another author's book. Reading it that day, I came across a joking reference to a hunchback whose name "didn't ring a bell."

Some premonitory feelings can actually affect your behavior, at least in small ways. One day at 6:00 PM, I suddenly had a very strong urge to turn on the TV and watch the nightly newscast. I hadn't watched the evening news in quite a while and normally would not watch anything at that hour. The urge got stronger and finally felt very intense, so I turned on the TV - and learned that Saddam Hussein's two sons, Uday and Qusay, had been killed a short time earlier. This was big news to me. I had read a lot about the two psychopathic brothers, and I'd been extremely interested in seeing their much-deserved downfall.

It’s hard to draw a clear distinction between premonitions and synchronicities. Synchronicities have been described as "God winks" – sly acknowledgements from the universe. But sometimes synchronicity is not so much a wink as a nudge – a constellation of events seemingly designed to tell you that you’ve gone off-course. You may even be off-course in a literal sense – you’ve moved (or are about to move) in the wrong geographical direction. This has happened to me, not once, not twice, but three times.

1997: I moved to Phoenix. Within ten days of my arrival, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I developed an infected cyst, for which I had to get emergency treatment. My car broke down in heavy traffic. The apartment I had moved into - supposedly a luxury unit - presented an astonishing array of problems. The toilet did not work, the air-conditioning did not work, the washing machine did not work, the dishwasher at first did not work and then, when it was "fixed," flooded the kitchen. The microwave oven caused a power overload whenever it was turned on. The key to my mailbox had been lost by the management, leaving me unable to obtain my mail. My neighbors on both sides were incredibly noisy, even at three o'clock in the morning. In retrospect, I feel that I simply was not meant to make that move - and in fact Phoenix was not a good place for me, and I didn't stay long.

1996: I was planning a trip to Wilmington, North Carolina, which I was seriously considering as a place to relocate. I’d booked my flight weeks in advance and was ready to go. On the day of my flight, torrential rains hit my neighborhood, causing flash floods. At the same time, a continent away, Hurricane Fran moved rapidly up the eastern seaboard. The confluence of two storms, one near my home and the other near my intended destination, threw a monkey wrench into my travel plans. I had to cancel my trip. That night, Fran made landfall at Cape Fear, a few miles from Wilmington, and proceeded inland through the heart of the city, passing directly over the hotel in which I'd reserved a room. Damage to Wilmington was extensive, water and electricity were in short supply, and fallen trees and power lines blocked roads for days. A local newspaper called Fran "the most catastrophic storm since Hurricane Hazel leveled beachfront areas in 1954." The upshot was that I had a definite feeling that I was not meant to move to Wilmington. I never looked into it again.

1994: After living in Los Angeles for more than ten years, I’d relocated to Tucson. I had a tough time adjusting to the desert, and after four months, I was ready to throw in the towel. I went to bed determined to call a moving company and begin making arrangements to return to LA. Early the next morning, a phone call from a friend woke me with the news that a major earthquake had hit Los Angeles. It was the Northridge quake, which caused widespread destruction. Needless to say, I put any plans to return to Southern California on hold. I’m glad I did. Tucson turned out to be the right place for me at the time. It would have been a serious mistake to move back to LA.

Now, someone might say, isn't it ridiculous to imagine that huge natural disasters like a hurricane and an earthquake occurred just change my mind or to affect my life? Yes, it is. But that's not what I'm suggesting. I have no doubt that these disasters would have occurred whether or not I'd been thinking about moving to these particular destinations. What is significant to me is the concurrence of these events with my thoughts and plans. It was not inevitable that I would book a flight to Wilmington for the particular day when the worst local hurricane in forty-two years would make landfall, or that I would book a room in a hotel that was directly in the hurricane's path. It was not inevitable that I would make the conscious decision to contact moving companies on the night before the most destructive earthquake to hit Los Angeles since 1971. These natural disasters occurred on their own timetable. What I find interesting is that my timetable so eerily coincided with theirs.

But how could our timetables possibly coincide? Is there any way of looking at these events that might make them a little less inexplicable? I'd like to suggest one possibility.

Let's suppose that there is such a thing as Mind. For the purpose of discussion, it doesn't matter whether this Mind is equivalent to our Higher Self, or to the Mind of a spirit guide or angel, or to the Mind of God, or to some other Mind. All that matters is that this Mind is separate and distinct from brain -- the brain of any given person. I will put brain in lowercase and Mind in uppercase to emphasize the fact that Mind is, in some sense, superior to brain.

Now, imagine that Mind knows a great deal more than does brain. Mind sees further ahead and makes many more connections. Mind surveys reality from a higher vantage point and can see patterns and emerging developments that brain, mired in everyday distractions, cannot.

Moreover, imagine that Mind can pass hints or suggestions to brain -- perhaps in the form of dreams, or fleeting thoughts that seem to come from nowhere, or strangely urgent impulses with no rational foundation, or perhaps even by directly controlling a person's actions.

Isn't it possible to conceive of situations in which Mind could influence brain in such a way as to bring about a synchronicity?

For instance, Mind knows that relocating to Wilmington will be a bad move for me. Mind also knows that there will be torrential rains in my hometown on a certain date, and that a hurricane will be sweeping toward Wilmington on the same date. Mind influences brain (that is, my brain) to purchase a plane ticket for that very date -- thus insuring that my trip will be canceled.

Or: Mind knows that there is a tennis ball on the beach. Mind sends a hint to brain that I should walk on the beach at that spot and that I should think about tennis.

Or: Mind knows that the words "flam" and "Uri" are found in two crossword puzzles among dozens that are available to me. Mind influencesbrain to choose those particular puzzles to work on at the time when I am already preoccupied with Uri Geller and Flim-Flam.

Such influences need not be particularly significant in every case. Suppose Mind is simply aware, from its higher vantage point, that the song "I Am a Rock" will figure in my life later that day. The song lyrics may be transferred to brain through a kind of information leakage, rather than an intentional suggestion.

Sometimes the relationship may be more complicated than a simple transfer of information, whether intentional or not. For example, suppose Mind knows that moving to Phoenix is a bad idea. One way of looking at this, as in the previous examples, is that Mind knows that a certain apartment in Phoenix is going to have a huge number of problems, so Mind influences brain to put down a deposit on that particular apartment, thereby spoiling the move. But it's also conceivable that Mind, instead of influencing brain, instead influences the events themselves, acting on physical reality directly -- in this case, working things out so that the apartment develops a rash of mysterious problems.

More thoughts on the possible interaction of Mind and brain can be found in Casey Blood's well-written and provocative book, Science, Sense, and Soul (2001).

These ideas are obviously speculative, but if there's any truth in them, we ought to be able to encourage more synchronicities in our lives by becoming better attuned to these hints and nudges on the part of Mind -- "the still small voice" of intuition that we all too often ignore. Hearing this voice requires a rather tricky balancing act. On one hand, we need to be relaxed, allowing our thoughts to associate freely and spontaneously, without any pressure to "get results." On the other hand, we need to be sufficiently alert to pick up on the impression when it occurs.

What seems to be necessary is a state of relaxed attentiveness. Some people appear to have a natural talent in this direction, but others have to learn how to do it, perhaps through meditation or yoga. Probably anyone can learn, given the willingness to try. And if there is anything to the Mind/brain dichotomy I've sketched out, then I would imagine that there are considerable benefits to enhancing our relationship with Mind -- benefits that may extend far beyond an occasional "unusual occurrence."

Why not jot down any particularly vivid oddball thoughts that pop into your mind, and see if they correlate with anything that happens within the next day or so? You may be surprised at the results. Like the man who’d been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, you may discover you have a talent you’d never imagined.

Oh, one more thing about Flim-Flam, Uri Geller, and the crossword puzzles. I was working on my Randi essay only because a reader, James Plaskett, had brought the piece to Randi’s attention. Mr. Plaskett had previously written a book documenting the strange, synchronistic things that happen to him every day. One section of his book involves things that took place while he was reading The Geller Effect, a book about you-know-who.

And the title of Mr. Plaskett’s own book? Coincidences.

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