Extraordinary ability is associated with certain shifts in consciousness and the more dramatic the ability the more significant the shift in consciousness required. Unfortunately, as every spiritual tradition tells us, shifting conscious carries certain risks. The Jews have a story from the Talmud about the risk of reaching for enlightenment. As the story goes, four rabbi enter Pardes (the inner orchard - a metaphor for the highest states of consciousness ). One died, one went insane, and one became a heretic. Only, Rabbi Akiva survived the experience of enlightenment. This story tells us that shifts in consciousness can have profound effects on our physical and psychological wellbeing, bringing unexpected risks. While dying or going insane is rare, other symptoms occur much more often.
The Taoists have outlined a variety of physical symptoms that arise along with the transformation of consciousness. The Taoist emphasize the cultivation of subtle energies in the physical body which may make them more prone to or aware of physical symptoms. Symptoms can include feelings of cold, numbness or heat. You may cough, tremble, sweat, have difficulty sleeping, or experience severe headaches and eye pain.
Many similar symptoms have been noted in the Hindu tradition as a part of the cultivation of the kundalini energies**. Gopi Krishna spent years wrestling with the inappropriate movement of this energy up the spine. He wrote that this energy felt like “ jets of molten copper, mounting up the spine attention dashed against my crown and fell in scintillating showers of vast dimensions around me.” When flooding the optic nerves, lights flash. In the ears, sounds roar. Energy flashes through the body in sometimes painful electrical currents. Emotional stability is compromised as the individual is lifted to ecstatic heights and dashed into fits of depression. Energies seem to stress the weakest part of the human system which can cause disease and magnify the desire systems.
To offset or minimize these symptoms, Gopi Krishna emphasizes the need for highly balanced and regulated life to create “ a highly supple and resilient psycho physiological state able to withstand the tremendous pressure and strains consequent on the arousal of the kundalini power to withstand the tremendous pressure.”
Some of the risks may actually be a by product the types of techniques used for transformation. Mark Malachi in his book Depths of Silence notes that meditative disciplines of the past were quite severe, including fasting and long periods of sensory deprivation. Practices of self mortification included denial of all pleasure, the embrace of suffering and, at the extreme, whipping, cutting, burning or piercing the body. It may be the severity of these practices rather than the pursuit of transformation itself that is harmful both to the body and to ego integrity.
Although some symptoms are due to incorrect pursuit of transformation, others are a normal part of the evolution of consciousness. The Taoists outline some of these “normal” symptoms, such as a sense of movement in the abdomen, and a sense of lightness and white scenery (clouds) in an empty room. Your kidneys may feel like they are boiling. There may be sounds of wind or loud screeching in the ears. Beams of light may be emitted from the eyes. Your body may become energized and your nose may tremble. These last six symptoms are called the “Six Variations” and are signs that you are on the correct path.
Psychologically, shifts to higher states seem to affect everything. One moment the individual is wrestling with exaggerated sexual impulses, depression, anger or fear and the next is flooded with intense love, compassion, and heightened cognitive functioning. It is as though the light that floods the system activates the good with the bad. Buddhist and Christians have taken note of the way extraordinary abilities or extraordinary experiences can exaggerate pride, self importance, and generally inflate ego. Any of these is a detriment to spiritual development and a state that can lead to harming others. Both groups, therefore, stress the importance of cultivating love, compassion, humility, and right living to head off these tendencies.
The individual can also be caught up in symbolic reenactments of deep psychological processes that can be misinterpreted especially if taken literally. These are usually the product of unresolved emotional baggage. The individual must be alert to the possibility of old psychological material surfacing and be prepared to identify it and process it as it arises. This may require the assistance of a therapist.
While for most symptoms are transitional and mild (In one survey of 890 persons practicing Transcendental Meditation, 52-64 percent reported no complications), for a few the symptoms can be a harbinger of breakdown. Meditation for the unprepared or emotional fragile individual can result in anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, antisocial behavior, and schizophrenic reactions. For this reason, good retreat centers carefully screen candidates.
All spiritual traditions point to the need of a teacher to help the novice negotiate the risks of moving consciousness. The teacher has been down the path before us and can discriminate the healthy from the dysfunctional. They can also show us how to avoid the pitfalls in moving consciousness altogether by using appropriate technique. A final risk is the temptation toward unethical application of extraordinary ability, a risk the mentor and the community can help us avoid.
**kundalini energy is believed to be the primary engine of spiritual transformation among the Hindu. Kundalini is a feminine bioenergy energy residing at the base of the spine. When kundalni is awakened in meditation it travels up the spine through a central channel (the sushumna). As it moves through this channel, it energizes the chakras (energy centers of the body) awakening latent potential and eliminating karmic seeds. Ultimately its goal is unification with the masculine energy (Lord Shiva) at the crown of the head. The outcome of this process is enlightenment and nondual realization.