58. Introduction to the Powers
I wish to interrupt my narrative about my own practice to finally talk about the powers (iddhis in Pali, siddhis in Sanskrit). For many people, the powers are a strange topic, one that may benefit from a discussion of theory before I get into specifics, particularly my own specifics. The texts list all kinds of special experiences and abilities that may be cultivated using the fourth jhana (and lower and higher jhanas) as a base, and these experiences occur today. The terms iddhis and siddhis have no suitable English equivalent, but mean something like spiritual abilities, attainments, and realizations. We tend to use the term “powers”, for better or for worse. These may include all kinds of strange experiences, including full-blown and extremely realistic experiences of other realms that can seem quite magical and fall in line with what we might think of when we think of various “psychic powers”.
Before I say more about the powers specifically, I should talk about the complexities around the basic act of even discussing them. One of the many reasons you don’t see a lot of good writing about them is that they generally freak people out, and even just talking about them in theoretical terms can make lots of people nervous. Whereas this section used to fall in the middle of the book, I have put it towards the end so that those people who will put this book down in disgust at the powers’ mere mention will at least hopefully have read Parts One through here before doing so, and so I imagine at least part of my basic message will have gotten through.
While on the one hand it is so exciting to think of a world in which the powers might happen, basically everyone also has some measure of the opposite reaction, that a world with magickal aspects is scary. I have those same reactions. Further, there is the general and obvious stigma around acknowledging the existence and functioning of magick and the powers that comes from the influence of frameworks such as scientific materialism and the like. Many view anyone who gives serious thought to the question of magick as being at best naive and at worst seriously delusional, and even barking crazy. Plenty of people from religious backgrounds that are predicated on all manner of magickal assumptions generally still have a bad reaction to talking about the powers.
Many people have told me that by writing about the powers I risk giving people the idea that I am simply an insane quack and thus risk jeopardizing not only my own credibility but the trust they are able to put in the sound and practical information presented in other sections of the book. It is a fair critique, as I know for a fact that these adverse effects have happened many times. Thus, talking about the powers is a calculated risk, a risk I think is worthwhile and morally obligatory, in the spirit of full disclosure of the risks and benefits of these practices.
Experiences that lend themselves to interpretations that something magickal has occurred are relatively common in the world and more common when people start to do meditation practice. By the time people have very strong concentration, either of the moment-to-moment type cultivated by insight practices or of the shamatha type cultivated by more traditional concentration practices, having experiences of what are generally called the powers is par for the course, though there are people who somehow get through their meditative training with few if any experiences like the ones I will discuss here. Those practitioners are the exception, however, and not the rule.
Thus, I firmly believe that not talking about the powers would be irresponsible, as it is generally a terrible idea to send people into experiential territory that can be much harder to process without functional, skillful frameworks and normalization. For example, in the emergency department, we occasionally give ketamine (a powerful dissociative sedative) for procedures. Ketamine has several beneficial properties (such as generally not decreasing respiratory drive, rarely dropping heart rate, possibly opening the lungs for people who are wheezing, etc.) that make it very useful in certain circumstances, and it is widely used worldwide for sedation for these reasons. It is also chemically similar to PCP, and can have some similar properties.
Some people—particularly adults but also occasionally children—who are emerging from sedation with ketamine can experience hallucinations, something called “emergence phenomena”. Some of those hallucinations can be very disturbing and compelling, so it is very hard for them to realize that they are hallucinating. We have some medications we can give to help dispel the hallucinations, but I am always extremely careful to warn patients before they go under that this may occur, and to provide cognitive frameworks and tips for dealing with it, as those who are forewarned that this can happen do a whole lot better in dealing with the hallucinations. Meditation can cause similar effects, so I believe similar disclosures are warranted. Thus, the professional ethic of disclosing the risks and benefits of meditation compel me to put this here.
An even better example: say you went to a party that you thought was a safe, wholesome gathering (this being the analogy of something safe and wholesome, like you probably think meditation is, and it is, most of the time). Sweater-clad hosts serve you cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Enya plays gently in the background. Three varieties of organic hummus are spread out with gluten-free chips. You planned to stay for an hour or two and then to go home and get some sleep before work the next day. However, some conniving prankster secretly slipped some LSD into the punch. Let’s say you have never ingested any hallucinogens and have no theoretical knowledge of how to handle them. You drink the punch, and thirty minutes later are tripping your ass off and have no idea what the hell is going on. Wouldn’t you have wanted to know there was LSD in the punch in the first place? Once you drank it, you might have benefitted from some sense of what to expect and how to handle that sort of trip. Without that practical knowledge, the next twelve hours are likely to go a lot worse than they might have otherwise gone.
In the exact same way, if you are doing meditative practices, you would probably want to know that they can cause some extremely unusual and sometimes extremely disorienting experiences. Again, these may not happen to you, but if they do, it would go a whole lot better if you had some practical tools for handling them. As you move towards the high end of intense dharma practice—for example, the sort of intense practices presented in this book—your chances of running into magickal effects approaches one hundred percent, even if you don’t want them to. I believe that people who are more likely to have experiences that are strange and different from what might very loosely be termed “ordinary reality” should have a heads-up to that possibility, so that they can benefit from the accumulated practical wisdom of their predecessors regarding how to interpret and handle those experiences. This general common-sense wisdom of drawing on the experience of those with personal expertise applies to nearly everything in life, so it is not surprising it would apply here.
Further, some readers will likely have come to this book from traditions that already have some magickal elements and/or will have already had some powers-related experiences in their own lives and practices. Lastly, talking about the powers fascinates people, and, to be quite honest, I hope to use that fascination to convey important dharma points. Still, talking about the powers is a tricky business, in part because it is impossible to entirely understand them. Anyone who claims to get all the inner workings of these experiences and phenomena is making it up. However, some things can be said that have, by trial, error, and experience, been found to have general value.
Thus, despite the problems, risks, and general taboos, I am going to talk here about the powers and add as much practical information as I can so that if you run into them accidentally or decide to actively cultivate them, you will hopefully do better than you might have otherwise.