Fate unfolds in infinite ways; chance meetings, serendipity, sliding doors, chain-of-events arranged in meaningful order, as if an intelligent design operates behind life’s exterior. People you were destined to meet. Places and times planned to perfection. An intelligent whole able to, against all probability, provide meaning to each individual part.
If the universe conspires, do atoms, too? Does quantum probability make fate possible?
“The meaning of freedom can never be grasped by the divided mind. If I feel separate from my experience, and from the world, freedom will seem to be the extent to which I can push the world around, and fate the extent to which the world pushes me around. But to the whole mind there is no contrast of ‘I’ and the world. There is just one process acting, and it does everything that happens. It raises my little finger and it creates earthquakes. Or, if you want to put it that way, I raise my little finger and also make earthquakes. No one fates and no one is being fated.”Alan watts
Within an intelligent system a whole can’t move meaningfully without smaller parts dedicated to the movement. Little fingers creating earthquakes. A dance, thousands of micromovements by the dancer. For someone meaningful to appear in your life at the right time, they had to move their body through space and time. The microscopic saturated with macroscopic intention.
How else can you describe synchronistic phenomena, symbols from another realm appearing as apparitions in physical reality? How can you explain, on the morning of my departure to Bristol, a Buddha ornament knocked off its pedestal, in just the right way, for it to land, in just the right way, for its head to come clean off?
How do you explain waking up that morning with the thought: I’ll read Alan Watts on my travels? And in reaching for the Wisdom of Insecurity, the precise movement of my arm triggering these events? Or the events that led to that book being on the top shelf? That arm moving as it has thousands of times, this time microscopically distinct enough for something macroscopically significant to come from it, a bridge to unfolding meaning?
Why is it that, despite all probabilities, some probable or improbable things seem to happen at improbable or probable times?
A Cosmic Wink
Have you ever experienced a random event that made you think of someone? Like a piece of toast falling on the floor, or a leaf blowing into your face during a forest walk? Moments that connect instantly to a memory, or a thought, or a feeling, with no obvious conscious explanation?
Such experiences are common in moments of profound grief. In the midst of heartache, people often experience synchronicity in a way that reminds and reassures them of a lost loved one, a meaningful coincidence that, somehow, contains the energy of that person.
Could it be that when we pass on, our lives forge pathways through intricate tunnels of information, our aura or essence, a dust-trail of presence? Or that, somehow, networks of dormant synchronistic events await, pre-packaged beginning and end, their conclusion, the punchline, the message we wish to portray, delivered at the right time for that particular person, in the way movies exist in catalogues online, ready to play at your leisure.
Maybe synchronicities scale up, scale down, and each person is a mini-universe of meaning. The meaning of the Headless Buddha wasn’t immediately clear, setting me in search of meaning, like a dog chasing its tail, with consistent winks and nudges and “gotchas” along the way.
But I started to realise, as if travelling the tunnels of information of a life once lived, it carries the energy of the person these events gravitate around — Alan Watts, the self-labelled philosophical entertainer.
The Investigation Begins
Synchronicity can be investigated to uncover more information, as if it’s a living organism, or a library of information waiting to be explored. Carl Jung promoted a practice called Active Imagination to call upon dream images, or visualisations, to bring to life a previously experienced dream, to engage with it further in imagination. What if all of life operates this way? What if material which seems to reside “inside the head,” extends “outside of the head,” into the collective mind?
My initial response to the Buddha falling was a pause of disbelief, followed by a pang of anxiety, followed by a smile, followed by a laugh. It was on the nose, direct. I’d not long finished writing The Four Horsemen of Spiritual Ego, a deconstruction which included spiritual narcissism and the guru complex. In the section on spiritual narcissism, I reference a Zen koan, reportedly told by the well-known Linji Yixuan: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
This was an invitation. Happy to play the game, I started reading Watts’ book on my journey. Watts’ wisdom was largely influenced by Eastern philosophy, synthesised and reinterpreted alongside Western thought. He was inspired by Zen Buddhism, and the philosophy of Lao-tzu. It didn’t take long for the morning’s incident to find an event linked by meaning in impossible ways, contained in the introduction by Deepak Chopra:
“Without importing any Eastern notions that might scare readers off, Watts has already introduced the most basic Buddhist stance: sober examination of what lies before you, leaving aside all assumptions. By holding onto this sense of openness, we can find all truth in ourselves. The promise, as held out here, echoes what saints and sages have taught in every wisdom tradition. Where Buddha refused to answer questions about the existence of God, Watts is more inclined to smash idols.”
In the preface, Watts introduces the law of reversed effort, or the backwards law, the paradox that, when trying to force something, you’re less likely to get it. “When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink,” Watts writes, “but when you try to sink, you float.” The Wisdom of Insecurity applies this approach to “man’s quest for psychological security, and his efforts to find spiritual and intellectual certainty in religion and philosophy.”
“No theme could be more appropriate in a time when human life seems to be so peculiarly insecure and uncertain,” he continues. “It maintains that this insecurity is the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition we have no way of saving ourselves.” Watts explains that his intention in the past was to “vindicate principles of religion, philosophy, and metaphysics by reinterpreting them.” Going on to add:
“This book, however, is in the spirit of the Chinese sage Lao-tzu, the master of the law of reversed effort, who declared that those who justify themselves do not convince, that to know the truth one must get rid of knowledge, and nothing is more powerful and creative than emptiness — from which men shrink. Here, then, my aim is to show — backwards-fashion — that those essential realities of religion and metaphysics are vindicated in doing without them, and manifested in being destroyed.”
Watts acknowledges the book is a philosophical equivalent of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The literal smashing of the Buddha ornament, followed by this introduction, crystallised a theme: iconoclasm. In this instance fate embodied itself in a real-life metaphor, one I placed back on the top shelf, proudly, not broken, but broken free, its divided mind a reminder of life’s inherent playful purpose.
The Headless Way
I started to research the relevancy of a Headless Buddha, discovering a Zen practice, the headless way, as well as symbolism of the Buddha’s head. But nothing gave me a solid affirmation of the hidden meaning. I wasn’t compelled to move in any direction, and I knew the theme hadn’t yet fully revealed itself. The more I consciously ruminate on what synchronicity means, the less likely it is there’s a deeper meaning — synchronicity’s law of reversed effort.
When something is meaningful, and presenting itself, the meaning is clear, or at least the trajectory of meaning. No “I” the synchronicity happens to, no confirmation bias to force into existence. The bridge between events is led by instinct, intuition, the unexpected. As I started writing this article I searched for any link between Alan Watts and the headless Buddha, and smiled as I saw he named a talk Swimming Headless.
I want to start with a quote which is so uncanny in its specificity, I suspect the majority of people won’t believe me:
“What is this, then; weightlessness? It means, partly, that you’re not moving around in constant opposition to yourself. Most people move in constant opposition to themselves because they are afraid that, if they don’t oppose themselves all the time, something awful will happen. See, it’s so easy to bend your arm. No problem at all.
“But supposing you make a fight about it and you take these antagonistic muscles, as they’re called, and fight them against each other so that you have to bend your arm like that, you see? Well, how ridiculous! But if you somehow felt that, in bending your arm, you might make a mistake—you know, instead of bending it you might hit yourself—then these two muscles get nervous and they fight each other to be sure that everything happens alright. That’s anxiety, you see?”
Cosmic winks tend to reveal something so uncanny, so far-fetched, that no one will ever believe you. It’s just you, yourself, and God. So you have a choice — forever hold your peace, and question whether it really happened. Or, if you’re mildly deluded, post about it publicly on your blog, unattached to being believed, because you’ll be flattered if people think you’re that creatively gifted through conscious effort.
Getting Out of the Way
As I investigated this synchronicity, I was starting to comprehend its message. A few deep breaths and some patience was required to find coherence amongst my excitability and all the overlapping themes. Watts talks about the mental state of Mushin, practised by Zen and Daoist meditators. Translated, it means “no-mind.” Watts explains the distinct difference between the Western view of being “mindless” or “heartless,” compared to the Zen approach of mushin:
“A person who has mushin, or no mind or no heart in Chinese, is a very high order of person. It means that his psychic centre doesn’t get in its own way. It operates as if it wasn’t there. Zhuang Zhou says that the highest form of man uses his xīn like a mirror: it grasps nothing, it refuses nothing, it receives but does not keep. And the poem says when the geese fly over the water and they are reflected in the water, that the geese do not intend to cast their reflection and the water has no mind to retain their image. So the whole thing is, you see, to operate in the world as if you were absent.”
Te (from Tao Te Ching) is a state of effortless effort, it’s getting out of your own way, or, as Watts describes, joining the flow of the river of life. I was fascinated that Watts linked this to art and knowledge, two areas I’ve intuited follow a Zen-like metaphysics. You can’t force yourself to be creative. You have to set the environment that gives you the best chance of being carried.
Watts talks of self-consciousness as a curse. Write with the sense of someone looking over your shoulder, cater to an imagined audience whilst typing words on screen, and you’ll take the edge off the spontaneous flow of the process. You have to allow the backwards law to carry the words as untainted as possible.
Writing is a conscious play of absence. Right now, I’m walking you through these events. You get a sense that I’m by your side, narrating. Should I disappear, I’ll still be the conscious agent behind these words, the one putting them on the screen. But you’ll forget that I’m there, and I’ll slowly fade into the background, and somehow, you’ll cut out the middleman, connect to the words as if they’re surfacing within your mind, as if they’re your thoughts.
Is fate written in the same way?
The Teaching, Not the Teacher
A teacher’s role is like a writer’s: you have to be transparent for meaning to shine through. The complexity of psychological projection means that many conflate the spiritual teachers with the teaching, forgetting that a skilled teacher is a vessel for wisdom. Some teachers enjoy owning the teaching, and are happy to oblige with projections. But a skilled teacher teaches from mushin, knowing the ego can hijack the process and form an identity around whatever has been shared in an instant.
A wise teacher teaches how to become transparent, in order for the student to become their own vessel.
“Because we think about knowledge in terms of certain metaphors: the metaphor of the stylus on the writing sheet, the reflection on the mirror. All those sorts of images come into our idea of knowledge. But in the Taoist theory of knowledge it’s quite different. There isn’t a knower facing the known. It would be more like saying that, if there is any knower at all, it contains the known. Western thought concentrates very much on knowledge as an encounter, and it is thus that we talk about ‘facing facts,’ ‘facing reality,’ as if somehow or other the knower and the known came from two completely different worlds and met each other like that.
“Whereas actually, the phenomenon of knowledge is almost the precise opposite of that: instead of being a collision between two wandering bodies in space, knowledge is much more like the expansion of a flower from the stem in the bud, where the opposite points of the flower are the knower and the known. They are the terms of something which, as it were, lies between them.”
Watts points to gnosis, true knowledge attainable within. To know truth, you must get rid of knowledge — the Zen concept of beginner’s mind. Which leads us back to iconoclasm. We live in an age that pedestals knowledge. Spiritual knowledge is mistaken for true wisdom. The Biblical use of “vessel” describes a ship and a container because those in service must be vessels for God. That’s no coincidence. It links to both Watt’s description of emptiness — a vessel is hollow — and a ship, which we could say carries from one world to another.
Just a Coincidence
The conventional model of reality dismisses all synchronistic events as a coincidence, random luck. Psychology has a name for this — confirmation bias. That when you look for something, you see it. Sometimes, highly unlikely or improbable coincidences do appear without a clear meaning. Sometimes, the divided mind does conspire to see what it wants to see, and calls it fate.
But within the flow of life, synchronicity is the carrier of meaning, a function of the transcendent. To decipher the nature of reality you have to pay close attention to fine lines, close borders, false friends. There’s a reason Carl Jung originally coined synchronicity as meaningful coincidence. Not every coincidence qualifies, although their appearance in your reality may be the result of the same underlying principle. You can’t force revelation.
When such mysterious events appear, obsessively asking “what does this mean,” comes from a desire to know, a way of swimming against the flow. You have to observe the current. I was seeking personal meaning with the Headless Buddha, but this series of events was a theoretical flowering, and synchronicity was the vessel in which Watt’s wisdom landed, not as superficial knowledge, but a convergence of the knower and the known, learning something new as if remembering something forgotten.