I had originally brought with me a fresh diary and a nice fountain pen on which to record my experiences on the retreat, but it turned out the paper was so smooth that the ink from the fountain pen would take a very long time to dry on it, making writing in that diary impractical. So, I turned to my iPhone and recorded these entries, which I edited together to the form you see here. Use the audio widgets below, or click the links to download. It is in two parts, one on the first 8 days (MP3 file, 55MB), the other on the remaining days (MP3, 59MB). May it be useful in some way to those who wish to learn more about these practices and the effects they can create.
At the time of me posting this, it has been a bit over two months ago that my fire kasina retreat ended. In that time I have thought a lot about what happened during it and afterwards, and thought it might be helpful to write something about that.
First, regarding the retreat itself, I just finished editing down the audio diaries that I recorded during it, and even for me, who was there, it seems mostly like some strange dream, like I am listening to the reports of someone that I know and whose memories I have but that seems extremely remote from my current life in some ways.
Listening to these audio diary entries, I got a somewhat more positive impression of the retreat than my current memory would have come up with today. I am not sure if this is because we remember pain and frustration better than we remember pleasure and success, or if my reports are in some ways skewed towards the positive for whatever reason, or if possibly both of these plus possibly other factors have come into play.
It is not that I wish to imply that the reports are inaccurate, as I remember everything that is reported and it seems accurate, and yet there is something that from this vantage point that seems somewhat alien, foreign, unreal, and unbelievable about it despite the fact that it was me that reported it.
It is not that I have any memories that contradict any of the particulars reported, nothing like that. However, it is amazing how we re-adapt to various reality-tunnels, re-optimize our brain and paradigms to specific situations, and my current situation of emergency department work and family life is so remarkably different from that retreat that some part of brain seems to rebel against that having actually been a reality.
On that theme, but extrapolating it to other people who might listen to those reports, it seems to me that it would be easy for someone who wasn’t me, wasn’t there, and wasn’t rather familiar with something like doing a kasina and powers retreat (which already means nearly everybody) to come to conclusions that not only mirrored my own strange sense of unreality and divergence from current reality, but extrapolated that out into the logical extremes of deception, exaggeration and possibly even temporary insanity. I say temporary, because I can assure you that my current reality is most sane, with work going well so far as I can tell and family life about the same as it was before. I feel normal at this time.
However, this wasn’t the case when I first returned from my retreat. I was lucky enough to have a few days of readjustment to my typical life of emails, house chores, and ordinary entertainment and activities before returning to work, but, I am sorry to say, those few days were not really enough.
During those two weeks on retreat, it seems that I was able to substantially rewire my brain to a degree of sensitivity that allowed the occurrence of those experiences described in the audio diary. It was a degree of sensitivity, however, that was not particularly pleasant when I returned to work in the emergency department. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy getting back to patient care, as I did, nor was it that I particularly didn’t want to get back to work in general, as that was ok, but there were bodily effects that I simply hadn’t counted upon.
You see, a few hours into every shift for a few weeks after returning from the retreat, I began to feel physically toxic, like my hair was standing up the wrong way, like my skin ached somehow, like I had some sort of viral syndrome but without any other effects beyond that viral feeling, like I had chills but my body wasn’t shaking. It was extremely unnerving, but, so far as I can tell, neither patients nor staff noticed anything strange, as I put on my best happy and professional face and trudged through it as I have trudged through so many other things, such as working when passing kidney stones, something I have done numerous times without anyone being obviously aware that I was in some degree of horrible pain.
Were I prone to hypochondriasis, which I am not, I might have imagined that I had some mysterious illness. Were I prone to paranoia, which I also am not, I could easily imagine thinking that I was being poisoned. However, neither of those was the case, as the feeling would vanish within an hour of getting home and didn’t appear on days that I had off, so it was clearly some strange product of working in a very high-intensity and stressful environment after re-optimizing the brain for a situation that was on the far end of the stimulation spectrum from an emergency department. Thus, my take home point for you, dear reader, is that, if you should do something like the retreat we did in anything like the doses we did it in, and, should you have a job that is anything like mine, give yourself plenty of time to readjust before going back to work or be prepared to pull out your best professional acting skills and happy face to get through it.
Speaking of happy, I am happy to report that the effect only lasted about 3 weeks, fading slowly as that time went on, which is much longer than I would have thought it could have persisted, as that is longer than the retreat was itself, and I have spent years optimizing my brain to be able to handle what happens in an emergency department. Now I feel well, my shifts are normal and produce no strange physical feelings, and all seems ok. That said, it was a very strange and annoying three weeks.
You will notice in the audio that effects and paradigms are described that are likely to diverge pretty widely from most people’s ordinary experience, which was the expressed goal of the retreat, that being to have experiences that differed widely from our own experiences. In that regard, the retreat was very successful. However, should you find yourself with the sort of paradigm that looks on those experiences in some negative light, as fanciful, delusional, hallucinatory, insane, dangerous, unholy, ridiculous, or some other similar light, then perhaps take a step back and consider that the three people who went on that retreat and had very similar experiences were a practicing board certified physician and two successful IT programmers, all of whom are in stable relationships and are contributing members of their respective communities and who, after the retreat, went back to doing good in the world and supporting their families.
Consider also that the techniques we used were ancient and respectable ones from standard texts in one of the oldest and most respected medititive traditions in the world and we were largely following standard instructions and having the expected effects. Such things can seem very strange, as few bother to follow the standard ancient instructions in high-dose and those who do rarely report what happened except in private to close meditator friends, for reasons that are likely clear to you if you have listened to the audio. Still, hopefully you will also be struck by the remarkable nature of what we report happening, the amazing time it was for us, and consider that there may be value in this that you might not have initially imagined, despite its violation of any core paradigmatic principles you hold dear.
For those that had reactions on the opposite end of things, that end that might idolize us or consider us amazing or whatever, also realize that, were you to follow similar practices in similar doses, it is very likely that you would also have many of the same experiences that we did, though it is true that everyone present was a solid meditator before they went on that retreat.
Be well, practice well, and may you learn something useful from this website,