Did a much-needed solo retreat from Feb 1-17th at Grayton Beach, Florida, on the Gulf Coast, in a nice little cabin in that sleepy little beach town. I mostly focused on the Fire Kasina (candle flame) with some counterbalancing doses of Water Kasina (ocean), Air Kasina (sky), and Earth Kasina (beach sand). I did other practices, loving-kindness, equanimity, multiple magickal practices, other jhanic practices, but mostly it was straight-up kasinas.
I also spent a reasonable amount of time using one of the round inset ceiling lights over the couch as a Light Kasina, staring at it, closing my eyes, dropping a hood over my face, and focusing on the resultant show, which produced a larger nimitta than the candle, obviously, as the light was about 10cm (4 inches) wide. The middle of the nimitta had a lot more room to get very interesting, morph into cartoon images, and glow as a bright white light with internal ripples and shimmers, finally progressing through various odd changes, including spinning splines of green and pink over a black background, to become the White and Gold, and finally the Molten White Gold that moved extremely fast with incredible intricacy in large swaths towards the top of the visual field.
After about a week of kasina practice, typically doing about 10-14 hours per day of meditation of various kinds, I was walking on the beach at night on a somewhat cloudy night and suddenly noticed yellow light dancing across the ridges of sand on the beach, like someone was raking it with a flashlight held low to the ground. I looked around: nobody there, no lights on, nothing but a bit of silver moonlight through the clouds, nothing that would produce yellow flickering light to illuminate the beach. The light would come and go, wax and wane, shimmer, flicker, dance, and finally became a moderately bright steady glow that momentarily convinced me there must be a vehicle pulling up behind me on the beach and this must be its headlights, so I looked around, but nothing was there but the light without a source.
This happened numerous times during three different nighttime walks on the beach, at time being so strong it appeared as if numerous cars had bright headlights pointed on the beach, but no cars were there, no lights came from the houses far away down the beach, nothing like that came from the moon or stars, no helicopters flew overhead at that time (though they routinely did patrol the beach, presumably part of the Coast Guard). When the light would get really bright, it seemed that I could literally see the sand as one would see it in early morning or in the evening before dusk, with remarkably enhanced detail of the features of the beach.
I finally got used to the phenomenon and stopped looking for the source, which appeared to be a side-effect of the Light Kasina, for, as the ancient texts, such as the Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga say, “One who practices the Light Kasina sees light everywhere.”
Shannon Stein has been meditating like her hair is on fire since first encountering Buddha Dharma in 2010. She is a Lama in the Namgyal Lineage of the Karma Kaygu School of Tibetan Buddhism with a particular interest in Theravadin practice. She has a Masters degree in Social Work and has been providing individual, marital and family therapy for thirty years. Ardent practitioners who notice their hair is aflame may contact her at: shannonstein [at] mymts [dot] net.
Here is the audio journal I recorded during a twenty-five day solo Fire Kasina retreat I did in October 2015. The musical interludes are from a song entitled Solitarily Refined by C.S. Fuqua.
Part One includes an introduction and the first twelve days of the retreat.
Soon to be posted will be a write-up describing the on-going discussion I had with Daniel (the friend I refer to in the journal as having spoken with regularly throughout the retreat).
May these recordings benefit the practice of fellow meditators.
Some reflections several months after the retreat:
As predicted, shortly upon my return to daily living, the supremely high states of concentration faded.
One may ask what is the point of jacking up the concentration for such a brief period of time. It is hard to say in exact terms, however, the perceived advantages are significant enough to make it worth attempting to describe them.
In learning the simple-to-follow instructions of the Fire Kasina practice, one gains confidence in attaining high concentration; daily activities undoubtedly benefit from this ability to focus in a pristine way. Combine a heightened concentration skill with wholesome orientation towards personal development in Sila (virtue) and you have a powerful package with respect to solitary refinement.
The natural experience of pervasive luminosity from a wide, receptive perspective near the end of the retreat grew faint upon my return to home, as did the capacity to successfully intend for certain things (such as pre-determined elements of astral travel) to occur. What has not diminished since the retreat is a subtle yet powerful knowledge that at just the right moment, when conditions come together in a harmonious way, there is an opportunity to intend for a potentiality that I previously did not know could exist. Just this knowledge in the background of the mind has me carrying myself differently, more open to what can happen outside the tighter confines of how I previously approached situations, relationships and decision-making. Although not on the same playing field as what can happen in retreat-mode, there continues to be a delicate aura of Magick in approaching day-to-day life from this frame of mind.
And the grey…
Spending so much time with the grey of the visual field and having one’s attitude toward it naturally evolve over the course of a retreat is a solid take-away. After looking at the candle flame and closing one’s eyes, it is the watching of the colourful mental imagery eventually fading to grey and learning how to be with that grey that is one of the key turning points in the unfolding of the Fire Kasina practice. Entering back into daily living involves encountering the greyness of life so to speak, in comparison to the less frequent peaks of pleasant experience. Yet now, in the moments that I remember to do so, I am able to engage with the swaths of greyish neutrality throughout the day, and find captivating interest simply by settling in and paying attention to what is there.
Having such a high number of fruitions as well as seeing some of the entranceways while on retreat has had an impact at an insight level which I am not sure how to articulate clearly at this point. However, since starting over in a new progress-of-insight cycle and gradually making my way to fruitions again a month and a half following the retreat, there is a palpable new baseline of calm and inner-quiet-contentment that is connected to my deepening experiential insights into the way things work as opposed to being reliant upon the presence of certain conditions that one would normally associate with contentment. Of course this now needs to stand the test of time…
After spending much of this retreat in full-on learning mode, including getting familiar with the Shamata, Vipassana and Magickal aspects of this ancient practice, I look forward to taking these new-found skills and applying them again in a retreat setting to see where they can take me. Particularly I am curious to explore the fire element more deeply, as well as take another shot at the Magickal effect of getting a Fruition through the No-self Door after interaction with a Deity, given the inherent potent insight value.
Everyone will have different specific experiences doing the Fire Kasina, based on their meditation background and individual proclivities; yet, even from the handful of people who have shared candle flame notes in the past year, it seems there is a fairly predictable, fascinating arc of development that is likely to unfold.
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,