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Serendipity Doodah

Using Happy Accidents in Process Work

Sara Halprin

You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously.
John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

In ancient times there existed in the country of Serendippo, in the Far East, a great and powerful king by the name of Giaffer. He had three sons who were very dear to him, and being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need. (Remer, 1965: 57)

As it turned out in this Italian fairy tale from the sixteenth century, the princes were indeed educated as their father desired and even beyond his expectation, so that they were not only wise and discerning, but also happy in their ability to follow their paths in life with generous hearts, and without need or expectation of reward. Their chance observations and dreaming imaginations led them into troubles which their detachment and ability to accept change helped them to surmount and transform into blessings. And that is at the heart of serendipity, as I understand it.

The word “serendipity” was coined by Horace Walpole in a 1754 letter to his friend Horace Mann, announcing the safe arrival of a portrait of a duchess Mann had sent to him from Italy. In describing a discovery he had made about the duchess’ family coat of arms,1 he wrote:

This discovery indeed is almost of that kind which I call serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right— now do you understand serendipity? (Remer, 1965: 6)

It is not easy to understand serendipity from Walpole’s description, but the original story and subsequent usage of the word shows that he invented a delightful name for a useful concept. To clarify the example of the three princes: having observed various signs that a beast of burden of a certain specific nature (it was a camel in the story) had passed by, the brothers were able to describe the animal in detail to its distraught owner, claiming as a joke that they actually saw it. This joke landed the brothers in prison, as they were accused of having stolen the camel, but their wisdom and detachment, coupled with the good fortune that the camel was eventually found, led to their becoming honored guests of the Emperor, who then gave them further opportunities to be of service.

In this article I propose to explore the idea of serendipity, “making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which [one is] not in quest of,” as a structuring principle of Process Work, especially of process-oriented research.


Serendip was a name, probably derived from Sanskrit, for the island later called Ceylon and now Sri Lanka.2 The story Walpole calls “The Three Princes of Serendip” was published in Venice in 1557 as the Peregrinaggio by Michele Tramezzino, who claimed that one Christoforo Armeno translated it into Italian from Persian. The high probability that Christoforo Armeno was a character produced, like the framework tale that introduces the three wise princes to us, by Tramezzino’s fertile imagination adds to the aura of shimmering illusion surrounding the word “serendipity.” The story of the princes is charming and evocative, and endless wise and foolish remarks have been made about it, its connection with other stories and its relevance to present-day usage of the word “serendipity.”3

Walpole emphasized the element of the story that shows a sideways kind of thinking, following chance and unfolding new, unexpected developments, an idea that is central to Process Work. His original definition combined chance and sagacity, the two elements on which most writing about serendipity in research has focused. The Oxford English Dictionary defines serendipity as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” While the OED probably used “happy” in the sense of “happenstance” or “fortunate,” a more contemporary sense of happiness is already embedded in the word “serendipity,” which, like many Sanskrit words, evokes a strong physiological response when spoken. I think that happiness in both senses of joy and good fortune; along with chance and sagacity, are the three crucial ingredients of serendipity. These are also crucial elements of Process Work and research about Process Work.

Chance and the Dreaming Imagination

The storied adventures of the princes of Serendip illustrate two aspects of creative discovery, both related to serendipity, the roles of the dreaming imagination and of chance. Chance discovery abounds in the tales, for example, in the instance cited by Walpole in which the princes deduce the nature of the beast from signs seen along the road. There are also many examples in the Peregrinaggio of the use of the dreaming imagination, as in an episode where the eldest brother realizes that wine he has been given to drink must have been grown in a graveyard. He tells the Emperor, when asked how he knew this, “as soon as I drank the first glass of it, instead of feeling a sense of gaiety and joy, as it always happens, I felt the oppression of a profound melancholy and sadness, so that immediately I thought that only from a cemetery could the wine have had its source” (Remer, 1964: 6768).4

While chance discovery and the dreaming imagination are both important aspects of original research, neither alone is sufficient to be called serendipity. Rather it is the sagacious use of unanticipated discovery, whether due to chance or dreaming, that defines serendipity.

In his great work, The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler validates the roles of both the dreaming imagination and chance in original research, also showing that there is no hard and fast boundary between the realms of science and art.

One of Koestler’s stories about the use of visual imagination describes the work of Michael Faraday,

…one of the greatest physicists of all time, who also was a “visionary” not only in the metaphorical but in the literal sense. Faraday saw the stresses surrounding magnets and electric currents as curves in space, for which he coined the name “lines of forces,” and which, in his imagination, were as real as if they consisted of solid matter. He visualized the universe patterned by these lines—or rather by narrow tubes through which all forms of “rayvibrations” or energy radiations are propagated. This vision…gave birth to the dynamo and the electric motor…it led Faraday…to postulate that light was electro-magnetic radiation. (1964: 170)5

Koestler gives many examples of the sagacious use of chance in scientific discovery, citing, for instance, Pasteur, who said “Chance favors the prepared mind.” As a young student of crystallography, Pasteur was

…studying his favorite mineral, Para-Tartrate, derived from the red tartar deposit in the vats of fermented wine. One day one of his tartrate solutions became affected by a mould, and spoiled. This kind of thing frequently happens in warm weather; the normal reaction of chemists is to pour, with a gentle oath, the turbid liquid down the drain. Pasteur reversed the logic of the situation: he shifted his attention to the accidental and irrelevant mould, and turned “accident” into “experiment” by studying the mould’s action on the tartrate. The result was “the first link in the chain of arguments which led him into the study of fermentation, to the recognition that microorganisms play an essential role in the economy of nature, and eventually to his epoch-making discoveries in the field of infectious diseases. (Koestler, 1964: 193)

Serendipity, then, is not a matter of blind luck, but rather a gift accorded to people with multiple talents and interests, who are able to make use of new and unexpected information by fitting it into a relevant context. While serendipity is not the same as chance, there is always an element of chance in serendipity.

One of my favorite examples of serendipitous discovery is given by a professor of veterinary medicine, Charles Schwabe, who realized, while performing an autopsy on a bull in Kenya, that the second thoracic vertebra of the bull had the same shape as the Egyptian symbol for life, the ankh. One of Schwabe’s many interests was Egyptology, and so he was aware that the origin of the ankh symbol was unknown to scholars. After fifteen years of collecting data as he came across it on “the ancient religious roles of cattle, early Egyptian veterinary and medical beliefs and practices, and specifically on the ankh and related symbols,” he concluded that he had persuasive enough evidence to study Egyptian hieroglyphs and to begin collaboration with an Egyptologist to shed light on “many previously translatable but inexplicable Egyptian religious texts” (Schwabe, 1984).

Schwabe’s work in parasitology leading to his dissection of the bull set the stage for him to notice the unexpected connection between the bull’s vertebrae and the symbol of the ankh; his interest in Egyptology and his ability to think in several different paradigms equipped him well to follow through on his serendipitous discovery.

The concept of serendipity has become a well-established principle of scientific research in the fields of physics and biology, and it has been described as a crucial element of ethnographic research.6 As I proposed at the beginning of this article, it can also be understood as a structuring principle of Process Work and process-oriented research.

Serendipity and Process Work

Serendipity, like the mysterious processes we follow in ourselves and others, like research itself, takes as many shapes as there are topics to explore in this wide world of many levels, following the flirtatious images of fantasy or making the most of unexpected encounters.

Process workers develop skills and metaskills for unfolding unknown and mysterious signals, understanding that the material we work with is inherently unpredictable. Our work is characterized by an attitude of curiosity and wonder in the face of the unknown, as well as by careful attention to sensory-grounded information and the structure of experience.

Curiosity and wonder are especially helpful when entering the preverbal realm of experience variously called the sentient realm, the realm of essence, or in mystical language, the ground of being, a realm which, as Koestler shows in detail, is the source of most scientific discovery. In discussing “peripheral awareness” Koestler refers to “hazy, half-formed notions which accompany thinking on the fringes of consciousness” (Koestler, 1964: 159). One of his examples is the story of how Benjamin Franklin got the idea that he could use a kite to prove that lightning was electric.

Since Franklin was unable to carry through his original idea of attaching an iron rod to a tall spire in Philadelphia, thus conducting electricity from a lightning strike into a Leyden jar, he conceived a new plan based on his childhood experience of drifting on a lake, “floating on his back and towed by the string of a kite…. It is easy to imagine,” says Koestler, “how, in a moment of weariness and ‘thinking aside’ from that wretched spire in Philadelphia, a pleasant childhood memory rose like a bubble to the surface of his consciousness, drifting on the lake attached to the kite in the sky. Eureka!”

“What matters,” said Koestler, “is the distinction between the single event (the percept, or concept, or word, or muscle-action) which for a fleeting moment occupies the focus of attention—and the processes on the periphery which define the context, the purpose and meaning of the former.” Then he asks how these “assist mental creativity” (Koestler, 1964: 203).

I am struck by the similarity between Koestler’s sense of peripheral awareness and Amy Mindell’s discussion of “pre-signals” in her recent article “On the Evolution of Process Work.” She refers to Arny Mindell’s studies of the quantum wave function, and how this led him to “wonder what type of signals we might experience before they became ‘material’ or clearly defined; that is, before they persist and can be spoken about in words. His intuition led him to discover subtle signals and pre-signals” (Mindell, Amy, 2003: 2).

In my own practice, discovering and unfolding subtle signals and pre-signals is at the heart of my exploration of the mysterious and rich processes that arise from problems, blocks and physical symptoms. If we can find our way into the sentient realm where all problems are rooted, then following the process back into consensus reality has unpredictable and often wonderful results. I find that the most reliable ways of finding entrance to the sentient realm are flash flirts, auditory tones and overtones and micro-tendencies in movement.7 The practice of following flirts, thereby developing an attention to experience on the margins of consciousness, reinforces the likelihood of serendipitous discovery. This makes perfect sense, in light of the interconnection of all apparently unrelated phenomena in the sentient realm.

Often someone comes to a Process Work session or uses Process Work methods to seek an answer to a question connected with mainstream identity and consensus reality, and often in the course of the work, an answer emerges to a deeper background question that has not yet been asked.

While working with my mentor in Process Work, Dr. Arnold Mindell, on a question about how to focus my work, I had a profound experience leading to an unexpected resolution. This answered a question that I had not formulated, about my spiritual development, sug-gesting that I need not focus on work at all, but acknowledge my deep ecstatic experience, a tendency to happiness which I tend to overlook and marginalize.

At the end of the session Arny remarked that he had recently seen a photo of me and several colleagues, taken when I was unaware of being included in the frame. He was struck by the huge smile he saw on my face, unlike anything he had ever seen in me, although he had by then known me for many years. When he said that, I remembered a photo I had come across some years before, after my mother died, a small old snapshot of me taken soon after I learned to walk, striding across a field, looking ecstatic. I had remembered my childhood as mainly unhappy until I saw that photo and realized there was another side which I had forgotten. And now I had again forgotten and remembered happiness, the aspect of serendipity I find so appealing.

My session that afternoon was followed immediately by my husband’s session with Arny. We had asked if we could sit in on each others’ sessions, and Arny agreed. After my time was up, Arny turned to my husband, Herb, who had been watching with fascinated attention. Remarking that it would be hard for Herb to let go of the altered state my process had produced in him, Arny encouraged him to focus instead on himself. Herb decided to work on a persistent cough and a sensation of congestion in his lungs that had been a chronic symptom for years. His intention was to discover the meaning and process enfolded in his symptom.

As Arny and Herb worked together on the experience in Herb’s lungs, they discovered an unexpected tendency for Herb to hold his breath. Arny commented that this was a yoga practice called pranayama, in which the breath is held to induce an altered state. Herb was familiar with pranayama, but he had not previously associated it with his symptom, nor had he connected it with another symptom, diagnosed by his doctor as sleep apnea, holding the breath while sleeping, which deprives the brain of oxygen. Arny recommended that Herb try holding his breath with awareness, instead of letting it happen unconsciously. The altered state which resulted was very similar to the state of ecstasy I had experienced in my session.

Arny’s work with Herb was similar in structure to many Process Work sessions I have observed. These begin with a problem, here a physical symptom, explore and amplify the experience of the symptom, and then unfold the dreaming process that emerges. In helping Herb to unfold his experience, Arny was able to draw on his own extensive experience of bodywork and meditation to recognize a yogic practice which had receded in Herb’s memory. Was this serendipity? Or was it simply the application of previous experience to a situation which presented itself in the normal course of a Process Work session? And what about the parallels between Herb’s work and mine? Were these simply the parallels one might expect when two people in a close relationship work one after the other?

I cite these examples of highly subjective experience to indicate that research addressing the roles of chance and serendipity in Process Work will raise as many questions as it addresses. Because following process often leads us to explore the deep roots of experience, the answers that emerge often go much deeper than the initial question, shedding light but not directly addressing that question in its own terms. The work of integration may then include reformulating the initial question.

Chance provides opportunities for serendipity which require awareness and the ability to seize upon and develop synchronous openings. A classic example of the therapeutic use of a chance event is found in Jung’s description of a client who dreamed of a golden scarab, and whose session was then interrupted by an insect tapping at the window of Jung’s study. Jung caught the insect, a scarabeid beetle, the nearest relative to the tropical scarab found in northern latitutudes. He presented it to his client as the scarab of her dream. He later commented that this nonlinear event shifted his client’s awareness, effecting a dramatic change in her (Jung, 1970: 845).

Following the Workings of Chance

It takes courage to follow the workings of chance, especially in the context of a therapy session. Fear of being considered irrelevant inhibited me from following my own more unusual observations during the first few years of my practice as a Process Worker, and I still have to overcome a tendency to marginalize my irrational impulses.

The trouble with allowing fear to govern awareness is that repressed or marginalized information bubbles and churns under the surface of awareness and eventually creates disturbances such as depression, manic outbursts, physical symptoms or problems in relationship or in the world. How many times have I refrained from speaking about something that has disturbed me, for fear of creating conflict, only to discover that the conflict emerges of its own accord, exaggerated by my ambivalent signals?

On the other hand, working through fear of the unknown sufficiently to note and follow unusual signals can lead to creative breakthroughs. I have learned to pay scrupulous attention to the bizarre thoughts and images I have at the outset of a session, when greeting a client in my waiting room or even when coming downstairs to begin my practice. Once, walking downstairs, I had a strange and fleeting image of filaments connecting me with the client I was about to meet. That image and the intervention I based upon it turned out to be the unexpected resolution to a complex process about shyness and relationship.

Another time I came into my waiting room and saw a client sitting with legs folded, in a position that reminded me of a yogi. When I mentioned this to the client, the response was negative—no, that wasn’t what was going on at all. Later in the session, the process took a turn which called for the deep focus of meditation, recalling my initial impression in the waiting room.

Serendipity, Research and Writing

Serendipity in Process Work terms is a metaskill, the metaskill of happy willingness coupled with the skilled ability to follow and unfold the flow of nature. It is crucial to find a topic that makes you happy, and then you may construct a research framework that is permeable to chance. Recently when I realized that the activity I was happiest in following was strength training, I made it the subject of a new book. I had many serendipitous experiences in writing this book, but I’ll limit myself here to describing three.

The first discovery was the initial format of the book, which I found in a writing workshop led by the Irish poet, Annie Callan, who has often inspired me to write beyond my selfdefined limits. I took the workshop, on writing spiritual memoir, with no specific project in mind. In fact, I was sunk in the chronic state of depression which I enter regularly before finding inspiration for a new project.

Annie likes to use work by other writers to stimulate the writing imagination, and that day she brought a few pages taken from Milosz’s ABC, an alphabet book by the famous poet Czeslaw Milosz. She asked us to write an entry for a letter or two in our own alphabet book. My entry magically expanded into an alphabetic reverie on fitness, based on my personal experience of beginning weight training at the age of fifty-eight. I called my piece, “All Beings Can Dance.” In this way I discovered the timehonored Polish tradition of the alphabet book and also the suitability of this format for writing about fitness, which eventually resulted in the first draft of my manuscript Fit for What?Although I was eventually to drop the alphabet format in favor of a more straightforward memoir form, I could not have written the book at all without the help of the alphabet.

The second serendipitous event was so large and life-changing that I hesitate to include it here. While I was writing my first draft of Fit for What? I spent a lot of time with my dear friend Leza Washington, who died of cancer at the age of thirty-six. Preparing for her death was sad and painful, but her death itself was a happy event in a paradoxical way, an experience of release from suffering.

My experience with Leza changed me and deeply affected the writing of my book, which I dedicated to her memory. While her death was an event I certainly did not wish for, and I did not expect it to influence my writing about fitness, it turned out to be key to a central understanding of the book. I realized that in training for strength and fitness I am moving into my body as a way of preparing eventually to leave it behind. This encounter with the death of a beloved friend awakened me to the importance of living with the awareness of death as a context for everything I do, asking the crucial question as I worked on fitness, “fit for what?”

The third event was sheer silly delight. Having finished my fitness manuscript, I embarked on an adventure for which I had been preparing all summer, to ride a strenuous uphill and downhill twenty-two mile route on my bicycle. On Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend I printed the manuscript so it was ready to send to my agent, then set off with a friend, our bicycles mounted on top of her van, for Yachats on the Oregon coast, where we would ride the Cape Perpetua loop the next morning. We were soon inching our way out of Portland in heavy traffic, and we were so engrossed in talking that we passed our turnoff to Corvallis, the shortest way to Yachats, and were well on the way to Eugene before I noticed.

“It’s okay,” I told Dana, “On Fridays they serve dinner at the Alphabet Cafe in Mapleton. We can stop there and maybe they’ll have some of their great walnut pie.”

Well, we did, and they did, and it was a terrific meal. We arrived in Yachats after dark, well-fed and ready to turn in for a good night’s sleep before our bike ride. It wasn’t until the next morning, thinking about our unexpected dinner, that I realized, of course we had to miss the turnoff and go to the Alphabet Cafe! My realization triggered a reverie on the role the alphabet had played in writing my book, how it provided structure and openness at the same time. I had not consciously been seeking more material about the alphabet, but now it came flowing from my pen, a perfect ending to my summer’s adventures.

The Joy of Research

I remember offering a class called “The Joy of Research” a few years ago and attracting very few students, while many more signed up for classes I offered on creative writing. Joy and research seem to be opposing terms to students who agonize over the need to complete a research project in order to graduate, and consider themselves unable to do research for a variety of reasons.

In my experience, while research does involve a lot of hard work and the courage to notice and work around or through my many edges—working with fear to overcome depression and inspire creativity—it also begins and ends in happiness, very like strength training and bicycling. The happiness of the researcher depends on several factors, and the first is itself a matter of serendipity—finding a topic that feels inspiring and important to your own quality of life. It is helpful to have a good working relationship with your inner critic; it is also helpful to have a friend or friends who can provide support, feedback and encouragement. Or you may be happy just following your topic, battling or collaborating with your critic, and finding friends wherever your research takes you. With a backdrop of happiness, the stage is set for further serendipitous discoveries, leading to unexpected outcomes.


  1. “I have bespoke a frame for her, with the grand ducal coronet at top, her story on a label at bottom…the Medici arms on one side, and the Capello’s on the other. I must tell you a critical discovery of mine a propos: in an old book of Venetian arms, there are two coats of Capello, who from their name bear a hat, on one of them is added a flower-de-luce on a blue ball, which I am persuaded was given to the family by the Great Duke, in consideration of their alliance; the Medicis you know bore such a badge at the top of their own arms; this discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr. Chute calls the sortes Walpolianae, by which I find everything I want à point nomméwherever I dip for it. This discovery indeed is almost of that kind which I call serendipity…” (Remer 1965: 3, 6)
  2. There is some debate over the precise derivation of the name Serendip, which is summarized by Remer, who concludes, “that the great Sanskrit scholar Childers is correct: i.e., ‘Serendip’ is a combination of the Sanskrit ‘Simhala’ and the Pali ‘Dipa’” (Remer 1965: 30).
  3. Remer is the best source for information about the genesis of “serendipity,” but see also Boyle and others in the annoted list of references.
  4. This is a tale known in several cultures. The Peregrinaggio, like other framework narratives, weaves a number of folktales into its central frame of the brothers’ wanderings.
  5. I was reminded of this description of Faraday’s work while listening to a recent lecture by Arny Mindell on the application of creativity to the conceptualization of magnetism and other ideas of physics, and how this can be applied to the study of human psychology.
  6. Gary Fine and James Deegan propose a definition of the workings of serendipity in qualitative research, specifically, in ethnography, based on the original derivation of the word and on the uses of insight and chance by ethnographers.Frank Pieke describes several trips to China to do field research in a difficult political climate, which made his dependency on serendipity especially important.

    James Austin examines the role of chance in scientific discovery and also discusses the creative process.

    For more on this topic, see the annotated list of references, especially Austin (1978), Kohn (1989), Pieke (2000), Schwabe (1984), and Woodward (1970).

  7. I have discussed the role of flirts in developing writing practice in a previous JPOP article (Halprin, 2002); my discussion is based on Arnold Mindell’s extensive discussions of flirts in lectures and in his written work (Mindell, 2000).



Annotated list of references:


Sara Halprin, Ph.D., is the author of Look at My Ugly Face! Myths and Musings on Beauty and Other Perilous Obsessions with Women’s Appearance (Penguin 1996). She is a certified Process Work therapist and teacher at the Process Work Center of Portland. Sara also leads workshops that explore the interface between Process Work and writing.