There's an unusual teaching called the Kevatta Sutta wherein the Buddha discusses what could be called 'psychic powers.' He claims to his followers that an individual with a fully developed, spiritual practice can transform into different beings, appear and vanish at will, move unimpeded through mountains like moving through space; dive in and out of the earth as if it were water; even walk on water as if dry land. Further still, while sitting, an advanced practitioner is said to be able to fly through the air like a winged bird, touching the sun or moon.
When we hear these kinds of claims, it's easy to interpret the in two possible ways.
• We could be very fundamentalist about it all and take it literally; the Buddha is describing actual miracles; actually moving through mountains like butter and so forth. I am not a fundamentalist to say the least.
• Or, as a secular buddhist, I could simply write off the stories of psychi powers as entirely metaphoric, poetic, figurative descriptions of how powerful the mind can be.
Yet there's another possibility: Perhaps the Buddha here is simply and accurately describing what he has perceived in his meditation practice; the playful, imaginative, unlimited times of flowing consciousness that can, over time, produce amazing, immaterial perceptions. I'd like to suggest this the experience of the fantastic, the creative, the playful and imaginative are not only extraordinary, but profound and necessary.
In the sutta where the Buddha talks about these wondrous powers of the mind he explains that it's developed by Viññanam anidassanam, which refers to a special kind of consciousness that is limitless, without any boundaries or separation, a perception of complete connectedness. Now, where we heard of this before, the state of boundaryless, unlimited, nondual, completely connected state of being?
I'd suggest we all experience this special consciousness at one time of life: in our earliest months after birth wherein, during our connection with a mother or caretaker, we exist in a kind of symbiotic connectedness (note Mahler's famous book The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant) the period when we lived in a state where we were held and fed and swathed and experienced no separation between ourselves and the other. The child at this phase has little if any sense of individuality; it experiences itself to be one with the mother, without any barrier between their union and the rest of the universe. It's a state of being that, as adults, we can only guess at because we are so removed from it, so separate, so individual. During this merger there wasn't even any sense of inside (what's mine) and outside (what's not mine). Perhaps, as Freud claimed in Civilization and its Discontents (1929) spiritual endeavor is an attempt to recreate some of our earliest states, during which we felt little vulnerability, limitation, or separation: ""I can imagine that the oceanic feeling [the child's experience of being joined with the mother] could become connected with religion later on. That feeling of oneness with the universe...sounds very like a first attempt at the consolations of religion..." (For more on this the reader is encouraged to review the work of the psychologist D.W. Winnicott in Playing & Reality.)
Naturally, over time, we grow, separate and individuate; we begin to discern what's inside our heads and bodies, where our thoughts and feelings reside, the personal experience that other people can't witness. From connectedness we evolve towards isolation, stuck with raging feelings of loneliness, sadness, vulnerability; we have little if any control over these internal energies. But that's not all; we also become aware of a world of other objects and people who are completely indifferent or hostel, who act as they want, without attending to our needs. Unlike a caretaker, they don't come we beckon. So we move from this experience of profound union that seems invulnerable, to a place where we live with difficult feelings inside and strange, threatening events occurring outside. I have feelings that nobody else will ever know or see completely; I live in a world of people who are doing things that can be frightening.
After such a disappointing maturation and transformation, we soothe ourselves by playing--disporting ourselves in realms of fantasies and imagination, where our unconscious needs and desires can be expressed without impediment. If you've ever watched small children play, you'll know that this endeavor is not always adorable. When infants play with toys, they can be violent, they can smash, rip, toss; they can make dolls attack then kiss without rhyme or reason; play is a realm wherein sensual and it's aggressive needs can be projected onto any object. There's no clean, logical narrative to playing.
It's interestingto think that in our earliest experience, after the lost symbiotic connection with a caretaker, we don't find safety internally, in the sensations of our bodies, nor outside of ourselves, in the world of other people, but in a magical realm that's neither inside or outside, but a realm that's somewhere in between.
Of course, we continue to maturate; we go to schools, we encounter other children who make fun of us, ridicule and shame our fantasies, reject and punish us for acting out our imaginations. Slowly, over time, our innate playfulness is replaced with a dependence on mass produced culture. To escape from our feelings and the demands of the world we turn now to televisions, iPads. Essentially grow from spontaneous playfulness to a mediated experience devoid of deep emotional resonance. Television and video games are diverting, but they provide the imagination for us, it no longer flows from us onto the world; there's no longer a sense of creative connection with the world.
As adults, with the demands of being self-supporting, and to appear sane and upstanding, to meet all the demands of socializing, we fetishize what we believe to be the objective world, what we refer to asreality. We really believe there's an objective, external world out there that, if we could simply remove our feelings and imagination, we could see cleanly; the mind free of distortions, we believe, could function really well. And so we're averse towards our own emotions, afraid of our fantasies.
It's a fallacy. Did you read the recent research of the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, who demonstrates that our perceptions of an independent reality are invariably illusory? (https://www.quantamagazine.org/20160421-the-evolutionary-argument-against-reality/) The mind is incapable of representing the world with any degree of accuracy. We're all living in simulacrums, hopefully close enough to the real thing that we walk in front of buses and get crushed. We're living in virtual realities that our minds create. There is no reality here, there, anywhere. We're all having different experiences.
The belief that we have to be completely compliant, abandon our imaginative, fantastical, dreamlike abilities is not only needless, but cruel. If we were capable of visualizing the surreal, let's do it; without imagination life is desiccated, meaningless. We have imagination and creativity to provide our lives with meaning and resonance. The obsession with trying to just be in the objective world is a neurotic fear that if we let our emotions and feelings flow that we'll be rejected by others; as far as I'm concerned, let them laugh; meanwhile I can travel the universe in my mind. Some of the best meditations I've had involved a dream-like, transitional state wherein the magical co-exists with the mundane.
So this is what I believe Buddha meant by psychic powers, a mind that's free to envision and create in meditation. If you'd like to experience it yourself, there is no better practice than what the Buddha describes in the Cula-suññata Sutta (a translation can be found online at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.121.than.html). It's a meditation wherein the Buddha encourages us to let go off perceiving what's real, to visualizing limitless space, then limitless consciousness, then absolute freedom of perception. It's a trip, believe me.