People are always looking for shortcuts in life. We want the cheat codes in which wealth, status, health and love will all magically fall into our laps. Things like Get Rich Quick programs, Speed Seduction programs and 30-Day Body Transformation programs all fall under this rubric.
Recently, I came across an article about a “superhero” school in China that promised to teach children real super powers that they could use to get ahead, like the ability to read a book in 20 seconds. It was supposed to be like a real-life version of the 2005 Disney movie Sky High. It came under fire from the angry parents of enrolled students who felt scammed because they had paid good money to the school but (surprise, surprise) results fell short of expectations
It would be all too easy to laugh at this kind of incident as the primitive antics of a backward culture, but actually the thought processes of many in our Western societies is not too far from it.
I have no intention of offending anyone’s belief system, but I personally believe that the “Create Your Own Reality” new age movement, for instance (as exemplified by the bestselling book The Secret), is a good example of this tendency.
The Secret is, admittedly, a seductive idea (and by no means a new one). Like Green Lantern, all you have to do is imagine something you want vividly enough and it will become yours. If it doesn’t work then surely you’re not doing it correctly or you must have let a negative thought enter your head. Buy more books, take more seminars and then try again.
In my belief, this is a fantasy far more damaging than any you could find within the pages of a comic book. I’m all for self-help and personal development, but if something sounds too good to be true, well, you know how the saying goes. The reality is that there are no short cuts in life. And even if there were would you be so quick to take them? Superman, despite all his fictional powers, wouldn’t. Captain America wouldn’t.
The power of the superhero genre in comic books and movies – and the reason I love them – is not in their literal portrayal of super powers that people could actually have but in the exaggerated symbolism that lends a cathartic potency to mundane truths.
One of these mundane truths is that all the real powers and abilities you need to have a fulfilling life are quite attainable and quite ordinary. They have nothing to do with bending spoons or reading people’s minds: Powers like the ability to think critically without premature judgement, to feel empathy without patronization, to be patient without being taken advantage of, to be disciplined while remaining flexible – on and on the list goes. None of these are by any means easy to master, as anyone who has tried knows, but nevertheless they are at least attainable. Why then waste time and energy (and loads of money, probably) with speculative abilities that, even if you developed, probably won’t even get you a date if you’re already a jerk, loser or sleazeball?
Now let’s just entertain, for a moment, an imaginary world in which literal super powers became not only possible but increasingly common as was portrayed in the fabulous, X-Men-influenced TV series Heroes. That would be wonderful, you might think. We could use those powers for good, to help people and save lives. Yes, perhaps, but by nature anything that is available for good would also be available for evil so what we’d actually have is a world in which our superheroes were too busy fighting off a host of super-villains and alien invasions to do have much time and energy left to enforce world peace, alleviate hunger or rescue cats out of trees and help old ladies cross the street.
As for the objective possibility of certain kinds of phenomena that you might call “paranormal,” I remain open and neutral. The universe is a great, big, mysterious and paradoxical place, and especially as a fan of all things fantasy and sci-fi, I am naturally curious. There are also plenty of documented cases of what you might call the unusual. Some monks and yogis, for instance, can reduce their heart-rate and metabolism to a level so low that medical instruments would pronounce them as clinically dead.
One man, a Frenchman by the name of Michel Lotito, who even had his own superhero-like alias, Mister-Eat-All, was born with an extra thick stomach and thus could eat objects inedible and even deadly to the rest of us (like a Cessna 150 airplane, a meal which took him, as a typical slow-eating Frenchman, two years to finish).
In Elk Grove, California, a blind boy named Ben Underwood, until his death from cancer in 2009, astonished the world as a real-life Daredevil. Though blind, he was able to “see” by making clicking noise which functioned as a kind of biosonar, like the kind bats use. He rode his bike, played basketball and even, amazingly, video games.
Yes, the world abounds in Ripley’s Believe It or Not-type tales. But from a practical standpoint, I choose to leave this Pandora’s box of mysteries be. Though fascinating, it does not demand my attention so much (anymore), mostly because I finally know and understand that studying such mysteries would not further my spiritual goals. They would not even really help my material goals in the long run. Anything too easily attained is easily lost and squandered, after all, and if I used superpowers to get rich and powerful, I would not have developed the hard-earned wisdom to keep them or use them correctly.
One of my favorite stories illustrating how superpowers are kind of besides the point is one in which the Buddha and a group of his followers were sitting in a meadow at the edges of a forest one day. The Awakened One had just finished one of his talks and was taking questions.
“Master,” began a pupil. “There are those who proclaim they possess siddhis [super powers] such as levitation, telekinesis and invulnerability to pain. Are such powers real?”
The Buddha opened his hand and revealed a small handful of leaves in his palm.
“Do you see these leaves in my hand?” he asked.
“Of course,” answered the student.
“There are not many of them, are there? Now look at the forest behind me. There are innumerable leaves there. The world is like the forest and it is as full of mysteries as the forest is full of leaves, and it only gets deeper the farther in you go. You could spend entire lifetimes exploring them. You might even master some of them. But you could just as easily get lost in them just like you could get lost in this forest, and even if you were to master them they would not free you.
He went on: “What is it you really want? Is it to simply have powers to show off or to ease your suffering and be free? If it’s the former, you must explore the forest. If it’s the latter, all you need are the leaves in my hand.”
So let’s go back to the question that serves as this post’s title. How can you have super powers? You already have them.
Here is my word on so-called paranormal abilities: Forget about ‘em. For practical purposes, just take the attitude that they do not exist. Objectively, some of them may very well exist to some degree—for just as Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But I promise you that considering the time, energy and effort it would take to research, learn and cultivate unusual abilities to any significant degree, you would be much better served by using that time and energy to cultivate inner strength, courage, sincerity, honesty, wisdom, compassion. These are the real superpowers: ordinary human abilities that only seem ordinary because we take them for granted. But when honed to perfection they can move mountains. And best of all they are available, with dedication and commitment, to us all—not just lifelong-trained monks or people born with extra-thick stomachs and a taste for large metallic objects.
I leave you with one more parable of the Buddha that involves paranormal powers. The somewhat irreverent embellishments are entirely mine and obviously not canonical.
In a village where the Buddha was once staying, there was a student who himself had also become an arhat [a liberated being]. However, the local populace doubted the veracity of this student’s enlightenment for the reason that he did not have any siddhis [special powers]. This was an age in which the general perception was that siddhis were the mark of spiritual greatness. Shysters, conmen and even well-meaning teachers alike all advertised siddhis as proof of their prowess. As such, the people confronted the Buddha with their doubts.
“So, like, what can he do?” they demanded. “Can he raise the dead? Turn lead to gold? Jedi Mind Tricks?”
“Nope,” said the Buddha. “Not a thing. Zip. Nada.”
“Bah!” mocked one amongst them. “Then he is no enlightened master!”
This man – let us arbitrarily call him Mesmeraja – went on: “I, on the other hand, can manifest, out of thin air, anything that my will and imagination can conceive of! I am a master of the spiritual realm!” (He must have also been an ancestral founder of the Create Your Own Reality movement as well as a Green Lantern prototype).
“I see,” said the Buddha, calmly, nodding. “Then please humor my request. Please demonstrate your great power and spiritual prowess by manifesting the fiercest, most fearsome tiger that you can possibly imagine.”
“Bah,” Mesmeraja laughed again. “Mere child’s play.”
With that, he closed his eyes and concentrated intensely.
With a flash and a bang there suddenly appeared the most terrifying uber-Tiger that anyone could have possibly imagined. It bared its razor-sharp claws. It reared its dagger-like teeth. It yawned its terrible jaws back and roared.
So horrible and real it seemed that even Mesmeraja himself was terrified.
“Great Mother Kali!” he screamed. He jammed his eyes shut, concentrated wildly and made the uber-Tiger disappear just as quickly. When he opened his eyes again the Buddha was smiling gently at him.
“Do you see?” the great teacher said. “Such power you have and yet you were frightened by your own creation which was illusory to begin with. That is not liberation. That is not true spiritual power.”
And suddenly Mesmeraja understood and from that day forth renounced all claim to supernatural powers and took upon studying Truth and only Truth.