Essay #11: Working with Signs and Omens

I will always be grateful for the good fortune of growing up next to several square miles of woodland, with no fence between my back yard and the woods, as well as the further good fortune of having parents who let me to roam these woods by myself starting at the age of five.  Many years of befriending the woods as a young child nurtured a spiritual connection with nature and allowed me to experience the kind of synchronicity called signs and omens.

One example of this synchronicity occurred when I was just eight years old and was visiting my grandparents’ farm, as my family did on a regular basis.  As I played on the shore of a pond behind the farmhouse, I suddenly became transfixed by the sight of a dead bullfrog.  My body tingled and shivered slightly, and I “knew” that my grandfather had just died.  A few seconds later I heard anguished crying from the nearby farmhouse.  My grandfather had in fact died at the precise moment of the dead-frog omen.

Signs and omens have probably been a natural part of the human experience for millennia.  It’s likely that many indigenous cultures worked with signs and omens on a regular basis and passed this knowledge on to their children just as we pass on reading and writing.  This is surely a lost art in contemporary Western society that tends to sanction only those encounters with reality that are explainable in rational, scientific terms.  Many perceptive writers have described the disenchanted worldview that accompanied the Scientific Revolution and that still largely defines the acceptable parameters of our interaction with reality (for three exemplary works, see Morris Berman’s The Reenchantment of the World, Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point, and Richard Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind).  However, pursuing wisdom includes exploring a more participatory relationship with reality such as that made possible by working with signs and omens.  All that’s required is to suspend the societally conditioned doubts of our rational mind, become more childlike, spend time in nature, and try out the techniques described below.

Signs and omens are actually the same phenomenon, called a sign when we’ve asked a question and called an omen when we haven’t.  Many years ago I was about to enter a relationship and was having mixed feelings.  My prospective partner was coming over for dinner that evening, so I asked for a sign that would help me know if this relationship would be right.  After dinner we walked out onto the deck to look at stars and talk.  Just as we stepped outside, we both had our breath taken away by a stunning meteor that turned blue and lasted for several seconds.  Again I felt the tingling sensation that told me this was a sign, and I “knew” the relationship was right.  Had I not asked the question, it would have been an omen instead of a sign.

The technique for working with signs is quite simple: have a need, ask a specific question, be watchful, and receive the sign with its intuitive message.  Having a need means that something important in your life is unclear to you.  You’re not sure whether to enter or end a relationship, whether to change jobs, whether to do something new with your life.  Your need should not be trivial; a sign is not required to help you decide what to have for dinner.

When asking for a sign your question should be as specific as possible.  You may or may not have much luck with a question like, “What sign do I need today?”  Perhaps you don’t need any sign today, or perhaps your intuition would not be up to the challenge of deciphering the sign resulting from such a vague question.  But you will receive a clear sign with a question like, “Will it be beneficial for me to take this new job?”

After asking a specific question you need to remain expectantly watchful, which creates a heightened state of awareness.  While simple, this part is seldom easy.  It can seem like an heroic effort to remain watchful for, say, twelve hours straight.  Yet I have never in 45 years failed to receive a clear sign if I remain watchful.  I’ve had signs take less than one minute, and I’ve had signs take most of the day but never longer than that.

The final component is the sign itself, an event that captures your attention and evokes a clear intuitive knowing. This knowing is instantaneous and certain; you don’t have to process it—it’s already there. For me, the intuitive knowing is bodily and usually includes a tingling sensation.  And it helps to spend time in nature in order to receive the sign, although I’ve found that nature is often resourceful enough to find a way to communicate with us wherever we are.

The technique for working with omens is even simpler: be alert to an unusual occurrence and receive the intuitive message of the omen.  Whereas signs require a greater effort of watchfulness, omens only require the mild alertness to notice something out of the ordinary.  Omens come when we need a warning or some other message that’s not in conscious awareness.  When I was in my late twenties, I lived on a ranch in southeastern Arizona.  One morning as I was digging an irrigation trench, I looked up to see a bark scorpion (the very poisonous kind) racing down a hill toward me.  I had not disturbed its resting place; it came from about 20 feet in front of me where I was not yet digging.  The scorpion sprinted directly toward my feet; I actually had to jump out of the way.

This was juicy omen material for a variety of reasons: 1) Scorpions are shy nocturnal creatures that stay well hidden during the day, 2) It’s very unusual for them to run so fast over such a long distance, and 3) They do not chase human beings.  But I didn’t need to process these out-of-the-ordinary factors and wonder if it was an omen.  Instantly, when I first saw the scorpion running toward me, I felt my customary bodily tingling and knew this was a warning of an imminent scorpion sting.

Shaken by this experience, I hurriedly left my tools and went indoors.  After a while, though, my rational mind convinced me that I didn’t need to give up an entire day’s work—I just needed to work where that scorpion was not.  So I cautiously walked to the other end of the trench, a good 100 feet away from the scorpion, and began digging.  Not five minutes later I felt something crawling up my leg inside my jeans.  In an instant reflex my foot stomped down, and out fell a bark scorpion.  That’s it, I thought, I’m staying inside for the rest of the day.  Which I did until bedtime when I stepped outside the front door for a quick look at the stars, as was my habit…and stepped barefoot directly onto a bark scorpion.  I then had many long hours of intense pain to help me learn greater respect for omens.

At other times omens come not to warn but to make us aware of something that we’re unable or unwilling to see.  My relationship that began with the meteor-sign lasted seven years, when things got very difficult.  Neither one of us was talking about the possibility of ending our relationship; we were just toughing it out and being miserable.  One afternoon as we were unhappily hiking together in the nearby forest, a great horned owl suddenly swooped to the ground only 30 feet in front of us.  Stunned, we just stood there staring at this magnificent creature, who just stood there staring back.  After a few minutes I tried to make the owl fly by walking toward it, but the owl would not fly.  Finally my partner and I walked carefully around the owl, whose intense eyes continued to follow us until we were out of sight.  Obviously this was an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence, and the intuitive knowing I received was that my relationship with this person had died and needed appropriate closure.

Notice in these examples that the message of a sign or omen comes through our own inner knowing.  It’s not sufficient to read books on animal symbolism or to rely on someone else’s interpretation of what our experiences are supposed to mean.  Signs and omens are individually valid.  The same omen may carry different meanings for different people and even different meanings for the same person at different times.  Without the intuitive component, signs and omens degenerate into superstition.

But how do signs and omens actually work?  The short answer is that I don’t know; it’s probably beyond the scope of intellect to understand how synchronicities work.  A longer answer would dance around certain implications of quantum physics that may point toward an interconnected reality that is deeper than the ordinary physical reality of our daily experience.  For example, Bell’s Theorem, proven many times experimentally, shows that when subatomic particles become paired they experience quantum entanglement, which means that in some sense of the word each “knows” what the other is doing even when separated by many miles or theoretically by many lightyears across the universe.  Changing a quantum attribute, like direction of spin, of one particle causes the other separated particle to instantaneously change its attribute to the opposite condition as if they were still paired up next to each other.  Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance,” and it may suggest a deeper wholeness existing beyond both mind and physical reality, a realm that in some way may connect mind and the material world.  The transpersonal psychologist Carl Jung also hypothesized such a realm, dubbed the psychoid unconscious, to explain synchronicities.

While it’s certainly not the case that meteors and owls know when someone’s relationship needs to begin or end, signs and omens may work because we live in a universe where everything is connected at a fundamental level.  It isn’t that an owl speaks to us, at least not as we rationally understand an owl; it’s that the universe may be one interconnected system that’s constantly exchanging information at a level that unifies our deeper being with a deeper reality of the world we live in.  The gift of consciousness may allow us to partially participate in the exchange of this information.  Signs and omens offer a powerful and fun way to do this.

© 2015 Gary Stogsdill