Exploring Spiritual Gifts

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If you mention spiritual gifts to the average person, you will likely be met with disbelief, skepticism, or at least that weary response that comes with any mention of mystical topics.  But when you pause the constant whirling of the logical mind and consider life’s possibilities, the miraculous is only the ordinary that is not in your everyday experience.

Not surprisingly, every religious tradition has its own view of spiritual gifts.  In the Christian tradition, spiritual gifts are more formally defined and most of them are a bit more grounded: Administration, apostleship, discernment, evangelism, exhortation, faith, giving, healing, interpretation of tongues, knowledge, leadership, mercy, miracles, shepherd, prophecy, serving, teaching, and wisdom.  The source of spiritual gifts for Christianity is the Holy Spirit.  On the other hand, in Islam the realm of miracles belongs to Allah alone, although it is said the God will grant Sufi masters certain abilities such as healing, seeing the future or events far away, telepathy, and ability to change matter.  As such, when discussing the mystical traditions of the Sufi, Buddhism or Yogic traditions as well as others, we do see a common emergence of spiritual powers irrespective of the particular tradition.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were written around two thousand years ago, and specifically describe yogic powers, or siddhis, and the necessary mechanisms to attain them.  In fact these are described as attainable by anyone who is capable of absolute single-pointedness of the mind; the trouble is that our minds are too distracted and totally absorbed in identifications and attachments.  Buddhist traditions also speak of these powers as quite unimportant and ordinary, attainable by anyone seriously on the spiritual path.  It may seem coincidental to compare this list to that of the Sufis:  telepathy (mind- to- mind communication); clairvoyance (gaining information about distant or hidden objects beyond the reach of the ordinary senses); precognition (clairvoyance through time), and psychokinesis (direct influence of matter by mind).  But mysticism in any culture is the pursuit of being in Oneness with Creation and so it should not be surprising that certain abilities gained along the way would be the same, no matter what one’s cultural background may be.

Yogic lore as well as shamanistic traditions speaks of more advanced siddhis such as invisibility, levitation, invulnerability, super-strength, ability to see spirits, ability to change one’s form, understanding sounds produced by all beings, knowledge of past and future births, knowledge of subatomic as well as cosmic phenomena, ability to influence energies and other people, ability to live without food (on the breath alone), and even the ability to leave one’s body and enter another.  These will sound completely implausible but then in the same breath many will say they believe the miracles that Jesus performed.  When considering spiritual gifts, it’s best to set aside pre-conceived notions and logic, and open up to the boundless possibilities and mysteries of life.

There is a reason why this realm is so alien to most of us.  As a species, we are simply not mature enough to handle this level of empowerment.  Even with the technologies we have developed, we are barely able to balance good stewardship of the planet and human well-being versus materialism, consumerism, and greed for power, control, wealth.  There are those who use siddhis for personal gain, but the prevalent situation is that highly spiritual beings attain these powers along their path to enlightenment.  They downplay the importance of these powers, and will only employ them on the occasional benefit of others.  They are weary of demonstrating their abilities to the masses who have no understanding of the deeply spiritual context.

The pervasive warning of attaining spiritual gifts is rather ironic.  While they are gained along the path of spirituality, they can become a significant obstacle in that path, if one is not careful.  Powers are seductive, and one can become entangled in any identification with such abilities – whether that comes in the form of flagrant pride, or as subtle internal attachment.  It’s alluring to be fascinated by extraordinary powers, and to want to attain them.  But that is precisely the reason why they are not easily gained.  It first takes a certain level of spiritual maturity, followed by arduous practice, to become established – and even then, one must maintain vigilance over intent.  Intention creates karma that binds us, and without awareness, spiritual gifts just become another set of shackles.

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