67. Benefits of the Powers
Despite all the well-known downsides, as mentioned already, the powers can be used skillfully as well. There are whole traditions that use the powers as their primary path. The powers can significantly broaden our horizons and are so interesting that great depths of profoundly steady concentration can easily be developed through them. They can increase the intensity of our “mental” processes to such a high degree that our mental processes become very easy to see as they are, should we choose to do so. The powers can also begin to blur the line between the “mental” and the “physical” in ways that can be both disorienting and profound, highlighting the extremely useful insight that what we generally think of as “mental” processes are experienced purely in terms of the ordinary physical sense doors. This insight could lead a person to conclude that there are actually only five sense doors. Further exploration of the powers and the interconnectedness of experience can lead to the insight that there is ultimately only one sense field, out of which we extrapolate five and then six sense doors by similar qualities of pattern recognition, as well as the illusion of a continuous, stable “self”.
When we start experimenting with intentions, extended sensate realities, and energetic phenomena, it can seem as if there are two worlds or fields of experience that interpenetrate. There is the ordinary one (“the real world”), and the magickal one (“the realm of imagination”, “the dream world”, “our second attention”, “the etheric or astral plane”, “spirit world”, “divine ear”, “divine eye”, etc.). Integrating these two perspectives into one causal field without dualities or boundaries is quite a project, one with the potential to lead to very high levels of realization or to madness. It is the high-stakes way to play the game, and is the basis of most tantric visualization practices and even some aspects of Dzogchen; integrating the sense that there are two different worlds into something more fundamental about the nature of experience seems to be largely unavoidable past a certain point. This integration has already been mentioned in a roundabout way as a marker of strongly established wisdom and awakening.
The experiences of the siddhis can help people live in the world in a way so that they appreciate its richness and yet are not grasping at it. At their best, the siddhis can serve as a basis for a very deep exploration of aspects of ourselves that we rarely see with such clarity, particularly the territory detailed by the likes of Jung and the shamanic traditions. Occasionally, such experiences can bring profound epiphanies, moments when we see our issues and shadow sides so clearly that our lives are transformed for the better, though it is true that some of these experiences are just weird and not easily interpreted.
There are also many ordinary and what might be termed “recreational” uses for the powers. Since this is a book on Buddhist practice, I would strongly recommend applying basic Buddhist concepts of morality to these uses as well. Common, relatively easy powers are:
• dissolving headaches and neck tension
• enhancing lucid dreams (where all manner of fun and adventure is possible)
• grounding our energy to identify and modify our emotions
• exploring the standard emphases of each of the chakras (such as tuning in to the energy of the heart chakra or unknotting tensions in the throat chakra)
• doing ordinary psychological work just by turning our intention to our issues with a power-like intent and willingness to allow the images to grow strong so as to gain clarity regarding challenges that we need to resolve or positively transform.
This is a very short list of possible things we can do with this sort of paradigm, but if you start looking around at additional sources, you will find many more.
While this next point might sound a bit radical, there are good reasons to assume that we are all acting at what might be considered a magickal level all the time and just doing it with little if any awareness of that fact. The best argument I know of for learning how to work at the level of the siddhis is to bring consciousness and compassion to a process that is happening already. Said another way, as we are already casting spells all the time, whenever there is awareness and intent, we might as well learn to do it well.
The movie Frozen makes this basic point by having a main character that can’t help but do magick, and until she learns to control it, chaos ensues. It is an excellent point. However, consider that the mental states of every other character in the movie similarly lead to tons of real-world effects, so this is a lesson to us all that our subjective states and how they manifest in the world do matter.
Few of us have a good understanding or control of our minds. It is a rare skill set. Plenty of dark emotions swirl around in us: petty grudges, bits of stuck anger, forbidden lust, greed, jealousy, neurotic fears, and perhaps much worse. These dark aspects of ourselves can cause magickal effects and experiences just as more neutral and skillful intentions can cause them. The problem is that, unlike moving our arm, which we have spent a long time learning how to control so as not to do things like hitting people when they anger us, we generally have not had enough experience with magickal effects to have developed in the same way the skill set that controls what might best be termed magickal intent. Thus, the potential is great for sending out bursts or, worse, even greater quantities of unskillful energy into the world before we even realize what we have done.
There is nothing like getting into this territory to show just how uncontrolled and undisciplined our minds are and how much unskillful energy might be spinning out into our causal reality. When I say “causal reality”, I mean the world of causes and effects that we live in. Even if we take a very conservative and skeptical view of the powers, the view that these are just purely “internal” experiences and nothing more, those who employ strong concentration to cultivate dark and unsavory intentions in their mind streams (and maybe even genetics, as the science of epigenetics is revealing) write those aspects deeply into their way of being. As we are a part of the world, we write those intentions into our world. Even if you don’t believe in the unusual external effects, the unsavory consequences experienced in the mind and body because of doing dark magick are very real.
Our inner life shapes our outer life. “All actions are led by the mind. Mind is their master. Mind is their maker,” explain the first lines of the Dhammapada, one of the most widely read collections of the Buddha’s sayings. Strong concentration and the experiences of the powers can really show us how emotional energies coupled with things like deep archetypal symbols can really alter how we relate to our ordinary reality. Be sure to alter your inner landscape and mental wiring in ways that are as skillful and beneficial as you can possibly manage, for that way you ensure positive outcomes regardless of whether you believe in reincarnation. Those of us who fail to appreciate that what we do in powers territory is altering our wiring for better or for worse are likely to run into trouble.
Thus, training in magick can be a radical extension of training in morality, an ethos that recognizes that every single intention and feeling is a magickal act. This is one of the most important lessons that we can learn from the powers, as getting up into the meditative levels through which we can experience them can give us a profound demonstration of the implications of even the subtlest inclination. This essential insight can inspire us to train to have all thoughts, all feelings, and all intentions, even those not obviously externally acted upon, reflect our highest aspirations, lest those be unskillful resonances permeating this totally interconnected field of causality.
Furthermore, interest in experiencing the powers can fascinate people, and that can be a great motivator for people to train to much higher degrees of concentration than they otherwise would, and training in concentration is generally skillful, though it is common to concentrate on unskillful things if we are not careful, such as ruminating on past events and people who made us angry. Further, the practices of the powers themselves, such as more stable experiences like traveling out-of-body, creating luminous images in the air, and seeing and manipulating energy channels and auras, require high levels of concentration to sustain, and are thus actually strong shamatha practices.
It is also possible to use the experiences of the powers, particularly the visions and traveling out-of-body, as a basis for insight practice by the standard method of bare sensate investigation with a focus on the three characteristics of those sensations, as they arise out of extremely high levels of clarity and concentration. The experiences of the powers can also be so otherworldly in content that our normal fixations and preoccupations may be left behind, leaving those who incline to insight freer to delve deeply into the practices that lead to wisdom.
Experiences of insight in these realms can be staggering and awesome. They are not soon forgotten. Tantric visualization practices at their best make powerful use of this fact. By definition, if you have visualized a three-dimensional intelligent entity who is doing their own thing, you are in strong concentration in the fourth jhana, and it is just a question of seeing the three characteristics of that to get some serious insight, specifically seeing that the intelligence and awareness of any being is the same as your own awareness, or seeing the whole field of experience rotate in three quick shifting twists to have the whole thing vanish and take you out, creating an entrance to Fruition through one of the three doors.
My ability to understand and then write about the three doors (see chapter thirty-one if you skipped ahead to here and haven’t read it yet) was greatly enhanced by taking practice to the level of strong concentration and the powers. I think that many practitioners have a hard time understanding the doors because they never stepped up to that level. I also found that the realms of strong concentration and of the powers profoundly enhanced my understanding of jhana, and particularly the third jhana, which is so odd in some ways in comparison to the others. There was nothing like seeing the third jhana drawn out at the level of precise luminous geometry to create a great deal of insight into exactly what the phase issues were and where the attention was and was not clear. Seeing this helped me to navigate every Dark Night thereafter much more easily, as now I knew exactly what the fundamental problem was as well as what the hidden strengths of those stages were. These are more reasons to consider cultivating the powers or at least the level of concentration that would allow you to access them to benefit and deepen your own understanding of the dharma.
Further, any wholesome qualities, such as loving-kindness, that are cultivated at the level of the powers are written into the brain, and more importantly the mind, with a level of intensity that ordinary practice simply can’t achieve, and this transitions us nicely into the next section.