Superpowers Must Be Earned

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:

Traditional illustration of g’tummo – note the short A above the practitioner’s head

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?

This guy isn’t exactly in it for the fame

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).

In Defense of Good Vibes

‘Good vibes, man.’

When you read those three words, what do you think of? Is it some surfer on a beach, freshly stoned, getting ready for a day of beach bumming? Or is it a fundamental description of the universe, entrenched in both the teachings of Gautama Buddha and the smashing of protons beneath the Swiss countryside?

Is it possible that one of the simplest, most basic concepts in New Age thought — that of a universe where everything is energy, is vibrations — is actually backed by both the most rigorous spiritual paths and the most rigorous scientific experiments?

Is this guy onto something? Probably.

One of the ironies of modern society is that we needed to build giant particle accelerators and derive incredibly complex theories to discover things that the average mystic/Yogi/Buddhist monk has known for thousands of years. While the parallels between quantum mechanics and spirituality have been trumpeted since the 70’s, most people have never bothered to critically examine the technical aspects of them, and, as a result, have dismissed the comparisons, or used them to make vague and unscientific arguments. This is a shame, as one needn’t be a particle physicist to see concrete, describable similarities.

An example:

Electrons behaving as waves over time. All elementary particles exhibit wave-particle duality.

Everybody knows that people — and the universe — are made up of atoms. Atoms, in turn, are made up of electrons orbiting a nucleus. The nucleus, which represents 99.95% of the mass in an atom, are comprised of protons and neutrons, held together by the strong nuclear force. These particles — called nucleons — are, in turn, comprised of three quarks each, which are held together by the transmission of gluons (this is analogous to the transmission of photons between charged particles).

Within a neutron or proton, the quarks themselves represent maybe 1% of the mass. The gluons — like photons — are massless.

Where is all the mass, then? It’s actually in a field of a certain type of energy, called quantum chromodynamics binding energy. As mass and energy are equivalent, the energy here — specifically, the kinetic energy of these particles, moving at near the speed of light — is responsible for 99% of the nucleon’s mass.

So, to put it simply, you (and everything you’ve ever known) is literally comprised almost entirely of energy, of waves, of — if you will forgive a slight linguistic liberty — vibrations.

This is a notion intimately familiar to Eastern religions, from the Chinese belief in qi to the Vedic notion of Prana. There’s even an entire lineage of Tibetan Buddhism that uses the notion that we are made of light to achieve remarkable meditative practices, like generating immense heat in the midst of the Himalayan snows.

Yet, in most conversations in the West, people dismiss this idea out of hand.

Tell the average American that there are Buddhist monks who can dry sheets dipped in ice water with their body heat, and they might express mild interest. Tell them that a comprehensive study has been done by Harvard scientists into the same phenomenon, and they’ll accept that it’s true. Tell them that the monks achieve feats like this by visualizing their entire body as being made of clear white light, and they’ll go ‘huh’ and forget about it.

Much of this dismissal has to do with the superficiality of New Age spirituality, which substitutes the tremendously arduous dissolution of the self that undergirds all true mystical paths for platitudes about ‘consciousness’ and deriving happiness from purchasing overpriced crystals. The ignorance of true mysticism — and the scientific method at the heart of it — is so strong in our ‘spiritual’ cultures that mainstream particle physicists have gone from being open-minded spiritualists to materialistic skeptics over the past forty years.

Still, the extent of close-mindedness in mainstream Western society is breathtaking. The average person is so entrenched in (hedonistic) materialism that, even when confronted with dramatic evidence, they actively ignore it. Tell someone about these heat-generating monks, or how observation of a quantum system irrevocably reduces it (a physical phenomenon that, because your brain is very possibly a quantum system, poses serious questions for the notion of the objective, detached self), and, 99 times out of 100, you’ll get a disinterested ‘that’s deep,’ or ‘that’s trippy,’ as a response.

This phrase is probably not going to remake someone’s life.

No contemplative silence, no openness, no attempt to understand it or examine how such notions can radically remake the self and our society. This doesn’t just go for monks and particles, either — people, by and large, brush off just about anything that doesn’t help them get their next dopamine hit.

This is no one’s fault, per se. The effect of centuries of rationality, materialist worldviews, and ever-intensifying sensory pleasures on seven billion people cannot be laid at the foot of any person, or group of people. And yet…

And yet it’s destroying our planet, our culture, our mental health. We have both empirical evidence of a worldview that teaches us we are more than material bodies and dozens of millennia-old, tried and tested techniques to access this deeper level, and yet we remain asleep, engrossed in our smartphones and bank account balances.

As we rush headlong into 2018, each of us is confronted with a choice. We can stay in our loops, our mindstreams, repeating the same patterns that have caused one in five Americans to suffer from a mental health disorder on a yearly basis and 200 species to vanish from the earth every day. Or, we can change.

The good vibes are here, all around us, inside us. We just need to wake up and see them.