Any attempt to reconcile the more advanced and esoteric – some might say supernatural – aspects of the spiritual path with hard scientific data is faced with a conundrum.
On the one hand, what few studies exist of highly advanced practitioners (like Tibetan Yogis) reveal seemingly extraordinary mental and physical abilities. For example, highly realized Vajrayana monks are able to do things like raise their bodily temperatures by 15 degrees Fahrenheit via visualizing a ball of energy in their navel or experience a constant state of mental hyperawareness that is inaccessible to the average person. These talents are just a small subset of mystical powers described in ancient texts.
Given the unprecedented results of these studies, either claiming that you can’t rewire your brain to have what can be credibly called superpowers or categorically ruling out the possibility of further abilities seems foolhardy. This is without examining a literal mountain of anecdotal evidence, which points towards even more magical powers, like clairvoyance, levitation, bilocation, and the ability to take eight hits of acid and have nothing happen.
On the other hand, these studies are far and few between, very difficult to replicate, do not offer any clear causal mechanism for these abilities, and are vastly outnumbered by volumes of literature debunking all sorts of pseudoscientific nonsense. This makes it very difficult to assert that the abilities demonstrated are accessible to the average person.
For example, there is credible evidence (from the study linked above) that senior monks and nuns at Nepalese monasteries can actually work with their ‘energy’ or ‘subtle’ bodies – via a practice called g’tummo – to both produce physical heat and create genuine health benefits:
However, the results of Studies 1 and 2 also suggest that the neurocognitive component (“internalized attention” on visual images) of the..practice may facilitate elevation in [core body temperature] beyond the range of normal body temperature (into the fever zone), whereas the [core body temperature] increases during [the practice without visualization] were limited, and did not exceed the range of normal body temperature.
This would appear to offer convincing proof that the ‘subtle body’ is real and has tangible health benefits, an idea that would revolutionize much of modern medicine. However, drawing this conclusion is not so easy.
Before we explore why, there are few things to note here:
- The ‘internalized attention’ described here refers to literally imagining your body as a completely clear deity with various channels, chakras, and seed syllables. This sort of notion is the textbook definition of the subtle body in Tibetan Buddhism (and many other esoteric schools).
- All monks and nuns being studied had at least 6 years experience with this practice, including a three-year retreat that would likely include ~10,000 hours of practice.
- The study offers no concrete causal mechanism for why such a visualization would create profound changes in temperature.
- Voluntarily being able to place the body into a fever state would offer a wide array of health benefits and would serve as effective treatment to a variety of ailments that currently require allopathic medicine.
Given all of this, why is the notion of a subtle body (containing things like chakras) considered fringe or pseudoscience (especially in light of these stark and, arguably, revolutionary findings)? If the nuns tell you they’re concentrating on the short A syllable in their navel chakra and the scientists have nothing better to go on than ‘something something biofeedback brainwaves’, why do we completely disregard the nuns explanation?
You can blame the New Age pseudo-gurus for this: the vast majority of people running around making claims about their subtle bodies can demonstrate next to nothing beyond the standard placebo effect (which, as an aside, is actually very powerful). More specifically, it is only in studies of people who have dedicated decades to meditation and practice that we find much evidence of things far beyond ‘the power of wishful thinking.’ These people are very few in number, usually don’t care to be studied, and often actively eschew any kind of publicity (they tend to see it as an obstacle to their practice). Their remarkability makes an intuitive sense; if you think of the brain as a trainable muscle, these folks have spent a long time in the mental gym.
It’s a little like if you were conducting a study about whether a human being is capable of a 55″ vertical (answer: yes), and your entire population sample was made of aging 9-to-5ers who hit the gym once a week. You can perform your study rigorously, repeatedly, and objectively, but unless you go add some NBA players into the mix, you’re always going to get the wrong results.
On a more personal level, throughout my own journey I’ve met a handful of people (Hindu saints, nomadic Qi gong healers, etc) who appear to have abilities that the average person does not. The one thing these people have in common? A profound and life-encompassing dedication to their practice. They devote hours every day to it, and, equally importantly, weave it into every moment of their life. It defines how they get up, how they go to bed, how they eat, how they work, how they date. In many ways, their practice is their entire life.
In short: Gaining superpowers takes a ton of work.
(But that doesn’t mean they’re not real).