Gifts of the Spirit
Should we try to develop the “gifts of the spirit” or not? This has been debated for millennia in cultures all over the world. One of the most famous treatises on this subject is the book by Patanjali on “siddhis” – an Indian term for gifts of the Spirit.
In late 2006, a colleague at NSF entered my room and said: “Paul, I want you to give me three good reasons why we should develop or cultivate these powers of the spirit, and three good reasons why we should not. And then we can compare our views.”
Reasons in Favor
My first reason: it is part of the course of nature. It is natural that we develop, exercise and use all of our talents, senses and muscles. They are there for a reason. The words of Jesus himself clearly call for us to develop our talents, and open our eyes – our inner eyes. The first phase of Islam, based on a more mundane rule-based way of life created by the Abbasid Empire, ended very quickly in corruption (as have many later imitators); Islam reached its greatest flowering only after Rumi, a kind of “second messenger,” led a Sufi movement to encourage all people to actively cultivate their inner spiritual powers. Taoism and Buddhism certainly call for us to be true to our inner nature, and to cultivate it very actively.
Please forgive a relevant joke. Sometimes, to Fundamentalists, I say: “If God meant man to think for himself, he would have given him a brain. To some he did…” Failure to use the brain and failure to use the full, inner capabilities of the mind is a grotesque and unnatural act, as bad as the time when upper class Chinese would hobble the feet of young girls to ensure they would never be able to walk. Doing such things in the name of religion is as close to pure evil as the human species ever reaches.
second reason: humanity, today, cannot afford to have “one hand tied
behind our back.” In order to survive the very concrete, mundane threats
to our survival as a species, we need to
A third reason: the most important power of the spirit, for us here and now, is the power of “inner dialogue.” Inner dialogue is essential to healing the inner fractures of humanity, which are tending towards war and other forms of self-destruction. It is also essential to the kind of creativity which results when we learn to look at problems with “more than one pair of eyes” at the same time. (The high Upanishads stress the importance of learning to look at life through the “eyes of the Greater Self,” through a thousand eyes at once.)
Quakers as a group have many limitations, like all other human groups – but true, unprogrammed Quaker Meetings are perhaps the purest effort to strengthen inner dialogue – and the power of inner dialogue – in the world today. Yet even Quakers have learned that many exercises developed by other communities – such as Yogins, Sufis, Taoists, Freemasons and people like the Rosicrucian Quaker H. Spencer Lewis – can be of great value as a kind of “elementary school” to develop the power of inner dialogue, and prepare people to be of greater service to humanity.
I have to confess that my own first attempt at systematic personal
self-discipline came from a more mundane Western scientific approach. Back when
I was twelve to fourteen years old, I was truly excited by the books by
Estabrooks on hypnosis. Along with another friend from
But in fact – when autohypnosis does violence to human emotions, it is rejected violently by the subconscious mind. It is a classic pathway to the kind of nervous breakdown that Freud describes in “Civilization and Its Discontents.” Many religious people avoid nervous breakdown simply by engaging in hypocrisy – but hypocrisy deeply weakens the power of self-discipline, and turns us back into something more like monkeys or sheep. The most effective autohypnosis comes from channeling the full power of the emotions – and that only works if the conscious mind itself becomes a more responsive channel for the emotions which give it strength. Thus the most effective way to achieve the power of self-discipline is to strive towards a higher level of self-consciousness or “sanity,” as explained in my page on the human mind. When I did this myself years ago, I never intended to develop any siddhis at all – but things simply happened.
Some religious authorities believe it is better to encourage people to quietly fall into a normal level of hypocrisy, rather than unleash their inner powers. Jesus, for one, was very clear about opposing that approach.
Reasons “Against” – Pitfalls
The reasons in favor of developing spiritual powers are absolute and unavoidable, in my view. But there are also very serious pitfalls or risks, which we should keep in mind whenever we work on this area.
Even when we exercise our physical body, we can literally kill ourselves if we push too hard in the wrong way, and do not listen to all the signals from our body. If we listen too much to minor discomfort, we will fail to exercise, and we will grow weak. That is a risky way of life, which leads to obesity, low productivity and heart attack. But if we do not listen enough, we can get a heart attack while exercising. There is no substitute for learning to understand and discriminate the different signals we get from our body. Likewise, in developing “siddhis,” we need to try to cultivate some degree of listening, sensitivity and understanding of what we are hearing. Ultimately, to do our best, we need to develop this understanding all the way to the scientific and mathematical level. This is especially important for those who aspire to any kind of spiritual leadership, inner or outer.
The previous paragraph really says everything that needs to be said, theoretically. But we also need to translate theory into practical examples, to make it real. Here are three examples.
First, consider the example of
ancient peoples who ended up engaging in weird practices like human sacrifice.
(I have seen myself where this happened in
Second, consider the ancient problems of “ego,” of animal greed, of narcissism, of “black magic” and of a beahviorist manipulative approach to the development of siddhis. This cluster of syndromes is the most popular technique today for spiritual self-destruction, either personal or collective. I do not have time today to discuss all the important subtleties here. Certainly a sane person – spiritual or not – will respect even the lowest of signals of pain from the body, to some degree. The greatest hazard comes when, in inner dialogue, people effectively try to manipulate other people like mindless objects or encourage others to do likewise; within the noosphere, this can generate an immediate backlash at times, or – even worse – a lethal, slow and overpowering backlash. There is a rational basis for expecting such effects. The Falun Gong people rightly say that a cultivation of inner benevolence (especially when working with the most intense energy) is also essential for safety here. (Perhaps this was related to many of the strange events associated with the demise of the DOD program as described in the book by James Schnabel, and to the “Cup of Tantalus” effect some people spoke about. I am not mainly speaking about the termination of funding of that program, after many many years – but even though that termination was not strange, it does fit the overall pattern.) But even so – flows of mental energy in the noosphere of the earth depend not on objective benevolence, but on the understanding and feelings of people. With inner dialogue, as with psychotherapy, one must be prepared for moments of shock even with the most careful of treatment.
I am reminded of a
“cartoon” I once saw about a psychically powerful mullah in a small
A third example of a pitfall:
fatalism. The most benevolent and spiritually serious people of all tend to
respect higher intelligence or “God” so much that they can paralyze
themselves. When the British first became seriously aware of
Sometimes bad things are “for the best” when a person needs to learn a lesson. But people can learn lessons better and faster than they usually do. Some Buddhists believe that inner human development is the only outcome of true long-term importance on earth; however, if you believe that, you still have reason to ask what you can do to improve that outcome.
I agree that the noosphere, the collective intelligence which we all share, does tend to move things in a positive direction… subject to the available constraints. Many of the key constraints are the constraints of what we offer it, as channels for its impulse towards positive evolution. Furthermore, as parts of the noosphere ourselves, this is our own Self that we are relying on, not some distant stranger; we share the burden of enhancing the large but limited intelligence of that Self, as well as the burden of being a more positive channel for the Spirit.
But again, this calls for a cultivation of our mind – our fullest and deepest understanding and intelligence, including emotional and mathematical intelligence, and ability to engage in inner dialogue. Our ability to assist in “God’s plan” depends on our degree of understanding.
I use the word “God” in quotes here because the popular understanding of that word today is not entirely accurate, in my view. It is like the understanding which a baby has of the universe and of his/her parents. Such a simple understanding and respect is essential for a baby – but to grow up, and survive adolescence, we need to develop a better understanding, with serious respect but not blindness. Blind, servile types of worship block the kind of respect and understanding necessary for empathy and inner dialogue, and reality.
Those who attempt to develop or cultivate “siddhis” without channeling emotional forces at all need not fear major bad outcomes – or any outcomes at all – other than a waste of time and the consequences of the emotion of frustration. If nothing comes from your own inside, nothing comes. Whatever exercises or rules you may read about, if you do not treat them as suggestions for exploring what comes from the inside, there are many possibilities for endless frustration or for dry irrelevance, and for dying like dry wood or sheep.
Assorted Stories to Illustrate Some of This
In many writings, I have stressed the importance of first person, subjective experience as a source of empirical data in understanding the mind. But I have not told any of the relevant stories. So here are a few.
Unfortunately, you can’t really understand my experience without at least some background on what
I was thinking and assuming at the time. So I will start with a story which may seem a bit boring.
the summer of 1962, when I was still 14, I took the Advanced Course on Computer
Science for High School Students at the
I learned many things during that internship. For example, like many young males, I was proud that I was not so silly or squeamish as many weak-minded children of the same age; I would not turn irrational or be grossed out at the sight of blood. However, when I witnessed a couple of the experiments on dogs, I learned that the sense of smell really does bypass the usual entryways to the brain. My stomach did not allow me to observe or participate any further in those experiments – but I did not try to keep at it, and learn the required discipline, because my duties were more in other areas.
One day in that summer, Dr. Karreman suggested that I read a newly famous book by D.O. Hebb, the Organization of Behavior. This book had a major influence on my life. (I talk about some of what I learned in my tutorial slides and papers on neural networks.)
One small part of that book talks about psychic or spiritual phenomena. Roughly speaking, Hebb argued as follows:
“Whenever we try to evaluate the probability that a theory is true, we should remember the mathematical theorem called Bayes’ Law. To calculate the probability that a theory is true, we should first multiply two key terms together: (1) the “likelihood term,” the probability that we would have seen what we have seen in the empirical data, if the theory were true; and (2) the “prior” term, the probability we would assign to that theory based on logical considerations like Occam’s Razor, in the absence of any empirical data.” (Occam’s Razor is basically the principle that simpler theories are more likely to be true, if they fit experience just as well as more complicated theories.)
“In the case of psychic phenomena – the parapsychologists have proven statistical significance in their work to standards far beyond what we consider acceptable in other fields of psychology. The likelihood term by itself says that they are right. But the prior term is overwhelmingly against them. Based on all that we know about physics, it is extremely improbable that such things are true. Therefore a rational scientist would conclude that there is very, very little chance that there could be any truth in what they claim.” We may call this argument “Hebb’s equation.”
Hebb intended this as an explanation of Bayes’ Law, not as an attack on parapsychology.
When I read this, my views were almost identical to Hebb’s on this subject. I already gave up on Catholicism and on all religion at age 8, based on Occam’s Razor and based on the obvious irrationality of the adults trying to push Catholicism on me. Some adults said “Oh, I too went through a period of doubt.” But I was not going through a period of doubt. I was going through a period of clear, logical conviction that what they were telling me was nonsense.
Later, of course, Carl Sagan tried to explain this Hebb’s equation in simple words by saying: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.” That’s true.
I continued to agree strongly with Hebb’s equation until 1967, when first person experience forced me to become truly open-minded about the issue.
1963-64 MidYear Break – and
From 1962 to 1963, I went to a boarding school, the
Late in the fall of 1963, I called home to make arrangements for my trip home for winter break. At the end of the call, my mother said: “… and, Paul, there is something I have to warn you about.”
“It’s about Aunt Mary. She has been making a real commotion around the house.”
“But, Mom! Didn’t you just have a funeral for Aunt Mary a couple of weeks ago?”
“Yes, we did, but she still hasn’t left…”
“Mom, you know I don’t believe in that kind of stuff.”
“Yes, Paul, I know that, and that’s why it’s so hard for me to say all this. But if I don’t warn you now, you might be very upset and confused when you come home. You may remember that she was a very strict Catholic…”
indeed she was. She was both strict in her own way, and very energetic, at the
same time. Aunt Mary McFadden had acted as my mother’s guardian, after my
mother’s parents had both died in the Great Depression and left five
children behind. She was also Executive Director for a long time of the
Pennsylvania Economy League, a public interest group which an eye on corruption
and waste at all levels of the government. She and her husband also worked
closely with James Farley, the campaign manager of Franklin Roosevelt, to get
My mother went on: “Every time anyone does anything that violates her ideas about proper behavior, she bangs and bangs on the walls until they stop. And she keeps turning on radios and televisions, when they broadcast commercials about going to church and things like that. I just wanted to warn you…”
“OK, Mom. You warned me. See you in on ….. day…”
Of course, I did not believe it for a second.
at home, after a day or two, I went to make a Long Distance call to a friend in
After I heard the line ring about five times on the other end, I suddenly could not hear it the ringing very well, because the television had suddenly gone up to maximum volume. It was too far away for me to reach to turn it down again. And it was indeed blaring out a commercial… “Go to the church of your choice… any choice.. but DO go to church….” After hanging up the call, I double-checked to make sure that the door to this room was still locked, that no one was hiding anywhere, and so on.
And that’s all. If you are a rational person, I would not expect this story to affect your beliefs about reality by one iota. There are hundreds of better documented “ghost stories” out there already. This experience was not even enough to change my own “beliefs” by one iota at the time. I continued to believe that Hebb’s equation is the final word here. At least, that is what I told myself firmly in words, in the conscious part of my mind.
But – there is a big difference between reading a story and experiencing it.
That night, as I lay in bed in the dark, my mind was in enormous turmoil. After all… my mother said that Aunt Mary was all over the house for a few weeks now. I did not feel her presence in my own bedroom there in the dark – but I couldn’t escape the idea. I remember saying things to myself (not out loud, but not quietly) like:
“I really do not believe in ghosts, this is silly…
But no, Aunt Mary, I don’t mean to insult you or your religion… At
least, not if you are there… But no, please don’t try to prove you
are there… I don’t mean to cut you off or hide from reality…
but really, Aunt Mary, please, I am just not ready yet for this kind of thing… No… this is
silly… but no, I don’t mean you
are silly…” A few days later, when I went to visit my friends in
Compared to Greeley’s Story
My memory of this article (30 years later) is as follows.
This result was debated very intensely by the project team, and studied from many angles. They found that people said “yes” more often when they were better educated – all the way up to Ph.D. They said “yes” more often when they were at the prime of their career and actively involved in the world, and so on. As they discussed this, one project member said: “I don’t care what the numbers say; this is preposterous. According to these statistics, 70% of the people around this table right now, here at this university, would say “yes” to that question. I just don’t believe it.” And then one person raised his hand and said sheepishly: “I really didn’t want to say this… and I hope you will treat this with the deepest confidence.. but scientific integrity demands that I admit that I would have answered yes.” The first speaker was incredulous to hear this from a colleague he thought he had known for so many years… but then a second raised his hand… and it ended up fitting the statistics exactly, 70%.
(I forget what others were in that sample.).
did not have an experience that would fit in that category myself until 1972.
If I had had an experience good enough to make me say “yes” to
the Aunt Mary event, I – like
After the Aunt Mary event, I reacted by saying “I am not ready yet.” Psychoanalysts would describe this as a “postponement” defense mechanism – which is far healthier than denial and hiding in the box. But, yes, I engaged in some degree of denial, or rational skepticism, as well.
Is it possible to live completely “out of the box”? Of course not. We all need a firm place to plant our feet – along with freedom of movement for our hands and mind. The challenge to all large organizations is to better take care of both aspects – human security, interaction and adequate productivity, along with freedom, creativity and autonomy.
The spring of 1967 was very eventful for many of us. For me, this was a time of focusing very very intensely on the question of what actually goes on in the human brain. (For example, this was when I really wrote my first journal paper on intelligence, for Cybernetica.) I also recall some stimulating conversations with Warren McCulloch and Dan Levine on neural networks and the brain. And that was the year when I graduated from Harvard.
This was also the time when I changed my mind about Hebb’s equation, based on an experience in March of that year.
I don’t want to make a big deal about that experience, because my experience does not constitute evidence for you. I do not intend to push it that way. But if I say nothing at all, that has problems as well. Therefore, I will give just a partial picture.
In those days, I would read the New York Times news section from cover to cover every morning, generally in bed. I was acutely interested in some political news, and could remember parts of many important speeches word for word, when the exact words really mattered.
day, at lunch, there was an intense debate about US-China relations. One
student argued that
At dinner, the other students – both those who agreed with my conclusion and those who disagreed – reported back on what they had found. There was no such article. They had checked every edition of the New York Times, and many other sources. It just wasn’t there. I was totally weirded out.
But it was there, where anyone could see it, the next morning. I had not quoted the date line, but the rest was precise. As I held that newspaper in my hand… and made sure that yes, I was fully awake this time…I felt relieved.. but not totally off the hook. I had two choices, logically. I could reject almost everything in my experience as hallucination – as in some forms of Buddhism – or admit that the “empirical likelihood term” in Hebb’s equation was a lot more compelling than I had admitted so far. I was still unwilling to conclude that I believed in “the paranormal” – but I was willing to be open-minded. I told myself: “Hebb’s equation has changed for me. Both terms are a problem now, and I have to say… I don’t really know. I can’t be sure that it is all hogwash. From now on, I will treat this with a skeptical but truly open mind, and assign it all a 50-50 probability. I will keep reassessing the likelihood term – but I will also try to understand how this stuff works, and what could explain it; I will reassess the prior term as well.”
By 1975, I felt that the likelihood term was more overwhelming than I had thought in 1967, based on a continued flow of events. I also felt that the prior term was not nearly so overwhelming as I had thought before. (See “What Is Life?” for example.) I do not remember exactly when my change in views was complete, between 1972 and 1975.
From 1968 to 1972, I asked myself: “If weird things really are going on, how can I ever understand why and how, and how it works, and what it says about the mind?” I immediately concluded: “This all hinges on some very odd parts of our database of experience. Of course, I cannot simply trust what any religion says about this, since there are so many of them, since they really do contradict each other, and since they are obviously so heavily biased by uncountable neuroses and vested interests. To find the truth, I need to focus very systematically on trying to enhance the empirical database available to me here.”
In the late part of 1972, I lived in a rough neighborhood of Boston called Roxbury, because of a member of the Harvard Faculty who was opposed to neural network research, who felt the US had an oversupply of engineers, and who literally wanted to starve me out of graduate school. But my room was also just a one mile walk (albeit through very dense dog droppings) from the Harvard Medical School Library, where I spent most of my days in that period. On one or two days, I did plow through all of what I could find in the Journal of the American Parapsychology Association, for all the years then available. It was stimulating to my thought… but it did not have a rich enough texture to explain a lot of things.
that time, there was another poor PhD student who had the “good room”
in our apartment. He had been brought up as a Seventh Day Adventist, and spent
a few years in the jungles in
And so, in this time, I read one of his books, which included a simple but clear description of a classical Yoga exercise, attributed to Kundalini Yoga, for “stimulating the seven charkas in sequence” and “getting in touch with your inner self.” (There were also a couple of preliminary exercises.) For me, it worked very clearly the first time, though not exactly as I might have expected. And I regarded it as one more piece of veridical data. I do not buy the traditional, simplistic theories about why this kind of thing works sometimes, but it did work. (It reminds me a bit of some of the current empirical data on particle masses by Malcolm MacGregor; one must have some respect for empirical data, even before one can fully explain it.) I later read a book by Gopi Krishna on Kundalini Yoga, which recounted a variety of experiences that generally matched what I saw as well.
At that point, I decided to study more systematically what I could learn either from yoga or from all other world cultural traditions that might help me better understand the objective reality behind all of this. I am still doing so today.
A Couple of Important Stories From Others
Among the two most important stories, in my view, are two which are very popular among the Sufis.
Sufi Story One: Head Under Water
(My adapted version.) An aspiring student of Sufism once complained to his teacher, as they sat next to a creek: “Teacher, why have new students already surpassed me, when I have spent so many, many years studying diligently? Why does it seem I will never attain to enlightenment?”
Teacher: “Because you do not have the same desire for enlightenment as they have.”
Student: “Not the same desire? How can that be?! My commitment to the goal of enlightenment is absolute. I am a total believer, with total commitment and total obedience. I have given away everything I had in life, decades ago. There is nothing I want more in life. I spend every minute of my life pursuing enlightenment, and following your instructions. How can you possibly say that I do not have enough desire?”
Teacher, in frustration: “Words have not explained it. Maybe they cannot explain it. Let me show you.” The teacher then grabbed the student around the neck, plunged the student’s head under water for two minutes, and then yanked him out. The student was in shock, spluttering up water, and incredulous that his teacher would so such a thing. “Why did you do that?”
Teacher: “Because I want you to feel, and to remember. Do you remember the feeling of desire that you had for air when you were under water? If you fill yourself with that same feeling, towards the goal of real and tangible enlightenment, then you will make progress. Until then, you will accumulate nothing but age and deterioration.”
Of course, no sincere teacher would want to cause pain for a student. The good teachers would use this story, in order to allow the student to achieve the benefit without having to experience the pain himself or herself. But some students – especially those trained to be pig-headed followers of words and dogmas – can only learn from their own pain, and not from the pain of others. To train without pain… or with the minimum of pain… without limiting the student… that is what a good teacher should feel desire for. But teachers, like students, can be limited by lack of appropriate inner desire. (Their “inner J function” or “chi” may be blocked by lack of development.)
Sufi Story Two: Blind Men and The Elephant
Has anyone not heard the story of the blind men and the elephant? (If you haven’t, just goggle on “blind men and” elephant; for example, here is one version.)
Sufis tell this story as one of their own, but it has been told in
Humanity contains many important and authentic streams of first-person inner experience, important to improving our understanding of the one, true objective reality here. As in ordinary science, our conclusions will be much more secure if we can find a way to unite what can be learned from all these streams. Any person who limits himself or herself to one stream of data only is like a dog or cat, whose eyes can see only one color – and who cannot really see the stars at all.
Of course, the same may be said about scientific and engineering disciplines as well. I remember when Warren McCulloch discussed his experiences with training people to work across disciplines, in Dan Levine’s living room: “They must of course start with a firm grasp of at least one discipline, and of the mathematics which makes it possible to develop a unified understanding. And when that is firm, to move to another, and to learn some of the basic realities of life across disciplines. After that, it gets to be like languages, easily generalized.” Self-discipline is essential, but it need not be a matter of slavish devotion to one particular exclusionary tradition; indeed, slavishness itself gets in the way.