Monday, December 29, 2008

Miracles Explained

I've offered to give a couple workshops on meditation for my local Unitarian congregation, which gives me a bit of an incentive to write something about the subject.

As I see it, there are two sides to trying to explain an issue: what it is, and, what it is not. I'm going to start this discussion by describing what meditation isn't, because by doing so I hope to make it a little easier to understand just exactly what it is. And the first part of understanding what meditation isn't is to drop the some of the wild claims that are associated with it.

A significant, although minor,  fraction of the people who talk about meditation (especially Daoist) believe that if one masters it they gain the ability to have weird, supernatural powers. I suppose most of this comes from popular literature being filled with "mystic" teachers who have psychic powers. The character "Yoda" from the "Star Wars" trilogy comes to mind, but ancient literature is also filled with enlightened masters who were about do amazing things because of powers they gained from meditation. Take for example the Indian epic poem, Mahabharata. It has several examples of heroes that seek out religious holy men, or "sadhus", in order to gain magical powers or weapons that they can then use in their great war. It isn't surprising that the popular literature adopted this trope, because if you study most of the great mystical traditions you will find reference to miraculous powers that can be gained from intensive practices. The Yogic tradition of India calls theses "siddhis".

Personally, I don't really have a strong opinion about these things. I have had some very weird experiences while meditating that are pretty hard to explain away as just "hallucinations". But having said that, I think that the vast majority of references to miraculous powers are very easy to explain as manifestations of ordinary physics, human psychology or human society.

First of all, it is really important to understand the role that trickery has played in traditional spirituality. Any society that values holy men is bound to create a reason why people would want to mascarade as them. People want to believe, and if they do, they are quite willing to give wealth, power, and other forms of gratification to anyone that they believe has some sort of pipeline to God. And the quickest way to get people to believe that you are the "real deal" is to manifest some sort of super power. And the easiest way to do this is through some form of trickery. For example, take a look at this Christian evangelist who has already been exposed. I suspect that a great many of the miracles that have been presented in religious literature really boil down to this sort of thing---even if was not much more than a shaman figuring out how to confuse his followers with false teeth that he whittled out of basswood (complete with fangs and designed to show that he had transformed into a half-man/half-animal) and a bullroarer that he swung around his head to make an unearthly sound.

There is also a half-way sort of trickery that may actually have not been conscious. This involves learning how to do things that are perfectly explainable without recourse to miracles, but which most people would consider impossible. One example that everyone knows about is fire-walking.
This used to be a major mystery to people and was seen as evidence that someone had a magical power. But now it is a simple parlor trick that is routinely done by people at business retreats as a trust building exercise. The issue comes down to simple physics: even though a hot coal is very warm, it is a very poor conductor of heat. In contrast, the human foot has a lot of sweat pores on it, which give off moisture, which is very good at cooling the foot in such situations. The interior of the foot is also very good at cooling itself because of the flow of blood through it. So as long as the person fire walking doesn't stand still, have a coal stick to her foot, or steps on a foreign object with different conductivity (such as a nail or other piece of iron in amongst the coals), she can usually walk over the coals with no problems.

This sort of thing can be taught without the apprentice shaman or sadhu knowing how it works. This means that they may very well actually believe that what they are doing is miraculous. In this case, they are not consciously deceiving the public, but none-the-less a deception is going on.

The deception can also be based on a confusion between different cultural assumptions. To cite an example that surprised me, in Arthur Koestler's book The Lotus and the Robot he gives the example of a sadhu who was widely reported to be able to walk on water.  Koestler made the effort to go out to the countryside and find the man. It turns out that in this part of India the only water that the peasants would ever see was that in the local village reservoirs, or "tanks". In this context, no one had ever learned how to swim and it was universally known that no one could survive if he fell into water over his head. Along comes this sadhu who had learned how to control his fear and relax, which allowed him to float and dog paddle around in the tank---which seemed like a bonifide miracle to the local peasants.

When this story spread beyond this very limited milieu, it was sustained by a conflation of cultural assumptions. Because these rural, landlocked peasants didn't know about swimming, their definition of "walking on water" was slightly, but significantly different from those in the outside world. The villagers defined "walking on water" as "being able to consciously move around in the water without drowning", whereas the outside world defined it as "being able to stand upright on water and walk exactly the same way we do on land".   The issue is one of different expectations based on different types of experience, which leads to using language in a different way.  Once one gets one or two steps removed from the actual event being reported, then people make assumptions that dramatically change the information being transmitted. 

Having said all of the above, I think it is important to make a significant point about the interaction between meditation and what people call "miraculous".  The original sadhu who learned that he could walk on hot coals (or float in a village water reservoir) was manifesting something quite amazing in that he learned to control his very strong fears of being burnt or drowned.  Moreover, he probably did some observation about the world around him and did some experiments to find out what would and would not work.   The ability to control one's fear, look at the world in a new way and manifest creativity are all qualities that one can develop through a regular meditation practice.  And if one makes the effort to be able to develop these qualities all through one's life, you can start to do things on a regular basis that will look pretty amazing to people who don't understand this fact.  

At risk of appearing to be bragging, let me illustrate with a couple examples from my life.

I have learned through observation and reading that monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed.  I had a friend in my back yard one summer day and saw a monarch floating around, I told him that it would land on this particular plant (a milkweed), which it did.  He was absolutely dumbfounded that I could predict this.

Another time I was sitting at a table with a couple friends and one of them had the hiccups, which were really bothering her.  I told her that I was going to cure her, then started to could out loud backwards for long enough and with a threatening voice that got her beyond thinking I was joking to the point where she began to think I was getting "creepy" (which meant that she was taking me seriously).  All at once I yelled at her "your hiccups are gone"---which startled her. And indeed, they were gone.  The point was that I put her into a state of fear arousal and induced a startle response---both of which blanketted-out the feedback loop the neres in her diaphram were stuck in.   I could tell that both of my friends were very surprised and a little bit scared that I was able to do this.

If someone lived a long life in a community of people and chose to do things like this on a regular basis, you could see how they would begin to think of her as a "miracle worker".  But I would argue that these are nothing more than the fruits of being able to see the world more clearly and interact with it more completely as a result of meditation.  I believe that this is the root of most of the stories about the "siddhis".  I will admit that there are also very odd things that happen when you meditate.  But I would suggest that their oddity is more a question of our lack of current understanding about the world around us than evidence of some sort of supernatural.  If telephathy, for example, really does exist, I suspect that it will eventually be understood in a prosaic fashion---just like electricity and the periodic table---rather than be some sort of proof of an old man in the sky.   


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Twisted Branch said...

What a waste of time trying to teach westerners about meditation. Of course they cling to movie like impressions of everything they see.The Tao that can be talked about is not the real Tao. Yet if nothing at all is said,Then those ready to learn will never hear.

The Rambling Taoist said...

That was a very interesting read. I thank you for putting so much thought into it!

For me, if I was ever to believe that there were such things as "faith healers" or "miracle workers", the way I would tell the real from the fake was what the person got out of the practice. If they were doing their whatever it is to get rich or famous, then I would immediately suspect their motives and genuineness.

If, on the other hand, they refused all attempts at notoriety and monetary reward, then I might be more apt to believe them.

Haven't run into any of the latter, so I remain highly skeptical.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Twisted Branch:

It is true that it is harder to find a good student than a good teacher. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue to try to teach though. I have an obligation to the people who taught me to try and continue the tradition. It may be that I will go my whole life without finding a good student (I'm almost 50 and have yet to meet one), but that doesn't mean I stop trying.

As for the issue of "Westerners" vs "Easterners", I'm reminded of years ago when I took a group of new immigrants from Hong Kong on a tour of the Daoist retreat centre I was staying at. One of the women turned to me and said "You Westerners are all so calm and peaceful----."

Rambling Taoist:

I think people sometimes forget that we live in an age of miracles and wonders. Our science and technology is based on a specific type of spiritual practice, which has allowed us to create wonders like the internet. Think about what a medieval monk would say if he were transported to our time. He would probably be as flabbergasted at people's attitudes toward technology as the technology itself!

The Rambling Taoist said...

Good point. I guess I never really looked at it in that way.