Deep levels of concentration and jhana can also become a gateway to a wide range of psychic abilities. Buddhist psychology outlines how systematic training in concentration can bring the ability to read minds, to see or hear at a remote distance, to know the past of any individual, to manipulate the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Based on highly developed concentration, these practices and powers are detailed in such texts as Buddhaghosa’s thousand page Path of Purification, and the Yogas of Naropa. These psychic abilities were trained and practiced by a number of my teachers, but they are misunderstood in the west. Western scientific studies of psychic abilities have failed because these abilities are usually not stable at ordinary levels of consciousness. You can’t invite ordinary graduate students into a lab and expect to study psychic abilities. While there are exceptions with certain gifted individuals, most people need some form of concentration training for psychic abilities to strongly arise.
Some of the most skilled Buddhist meditators still practice the powers outlined in the Buddhist texts. During her intensive practice period in the 1960’s in Burma, Dipama was trained in all these capacities. According to her and her teachers, she could visit people at a distance (she once went psychically to the United Nations to hear a speech by the Burmese secretary General U Thant), she could see into past lives and she could transport herself through time and space and appear spontaneously for her interviews. By the time I studied with her, it had been years since these trainings and she was not interested in psychic powers anymore. Of course, I wished that I had seen her demonstrate these powers. But I have seen and heard from colleagues of so many other psychic phenomena – from the spontaneous appearance of rainbows in a clear sky to the sure knowledge of someone’s death or difficulty at a distance – that I am open to all possibilities. Even with moderate levels of training, some of my western colleagues have found the ability to read minds or to project specific teachings into the dreams of their students.
Because psychic powers are considered a distraction from freedom and compassion, they are left as optional trainings for advanced students. To use jhana or psychic powers wisely we have to take into account the dangers that accompany the territory of these refined states. There are dangers of inflation and grandiosity, taking pride in “our” attainments. There are also dangers of ambition. Even if we discount the domain of psychic powers, spiritual practitioners can hear about samadhi and jhana and then struggle after them unsuccessfully for years, not realizing that the grasping itself prevents their opening. And when we do find access to states of bliss and jhana, we can also lose them. We can peak, then crash, experiencing the kind of loss and frustration described by St. John of the Cross as “the dark night of the soul.”
The point of these trainings in concentration is not to increase grasping, but to use concentration states in the service of inner liberation. Through the power of concentration, the solidity of the world shows itself to be dream-like and insubstantial. In meditation we may first experience fear when we open to the groundlessness of experience. But the stability and well being created by the concentration allows for steadiness while the whole sense of self and other dissolves. With the power of concentration we can let go easily and return to balance, even as all things dissolve. One student, Rosina, initially worried as her meditation showed the world as empty and insubstantial. “What about my family, my children, my career?” she asked. She feared she was deserting them for a realm of emptiness. But emptiness always gives birth to new forms. “Is it o.k. to dissolve, to let go this much?” Her Zen Master smiled and told her not to worry, “Death o.k. Resurrection o.k., too.” After the retreat Rosina returned to her family, emptier and more openhearted than she had ever experienced. Concentration and insight show us how to be with all things as the play of consciousness. We become free in their midst. We become wise.
A wise psychology must incorporate the transcendent dimensions of the concentrated mind. But in the end, even the most luminous states of concentration pass away, as do the insights that can arise from them. Ajahn Chah reminds us, “When blissful and extraordinary states arise from your meditation, use them but do not cling to them.” Concentration is a powerful step on the journey, one important way to quiet the mind, open the heart and discover freedom. The real blessing appears when we can bring the experiences of the transcendental to illuminate the miracle of the ordinary. Seeing with the eyes of wisdom allows us to reawaken to the secret beauty all around us.
This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Wise Heart”
via Jack Kornfield