Gabe Hill is 32 years old and has been practicing magick and various contemplative techniques since his teenage years. Gabe has enriched his meditation practice through his work with Kenneth Folk, Ron Crouch, and other pragmatic dharma community members. Gabe was an active participant in the “early days” of the DhO. He was, by far, the most experienced practitioner of the group.
His report is here:
This document will briefly outline my own experience with Fire Kasina meditation during a nine day retreat that took place last July. I’ve chosen not to simply transcribe my own notes from that time, as they were generally repetitive, and instead, I will relate the course of events, as I experienced them, in broader strokes. Hopefully this document will be of some use in supplying data to anyone interested.
Firstly, I am a fairly experienced meditator, having practiced steadily over eight years. I was taught Vipassana and Samatha technique initially from Kenneth Folk directly and from Daniel Ingram, via his book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Ron Crouch was my guide thru Stream Entry, and subsequent Paths.
I have always enjoyed and valued Samatha/Concentration practice, sometimes making it a goal to abide for long periods of time in jhana. Aside from a few random exercises with other methods, I have always employed Anapanasati as my main approach to bliss states. Never before had I tried any of the Kasinas until this retreat.
The first few days were much like other retreats I’ve been on, which felt mainly concerned with establishing the best atmosphere for prolonged practice and adjusting to the shift between Retreat Life and so-called Normal Life. During those first days, concentration came easily enough to me, and I felt a habitual inclination towards Anapanasati. Before the retreat, I intentionally decided to limit my research of the Fire Kasina to what instruction exists (this would be mainly the Vissudhimagga). This felt useful in that it helped to avoid too much “scripting” of the experience beyond the fundamental level.
Establishing the after-image of the flame was difficult at first. It took a good day and a half of solid practice (roughly fifteen hours?) and some conversation with my fellow retreatants to understand that staring at the flame must be neither too hard or soft, but rather, a steady, receptive gaze. Also, what exactly is the object to concentrate on? The very center of the flame’s after image, or can the proverbial eye wander towards the vaguely rainbow-like halo surrounding the after-image? How vivid should it be to be effective? How often should one refresh the after-image? Essentially, by experimenting, we found that it was generally helpful to have an open, inquisitive attitude towards these questions, and that the flame “sign”, soon enough, would situate itself without much manipulation or fuss from the individual.
With the after-image fairly well stabilized, the familiar progress thru the Nanas became noticeable during our sits. We established a regular sitting schedule, roughly divided into mornings, afternoons, and evenings. For me personally, each phase of the day was distinct in its characteristics: The mornings tended to be when sitting was the easiest, and the progress thru the levels of Insight most obvious. Afternoons were when the Joshua Tree heat was inescapable, and everyone in the house tended to drag quite a bit. (I think it’s fair to say that we all discovered that somewhere around 2pm it was siesta time in Southern California.) Evenings were extremely productive for me, however- the time when the rubber hit the road most often in terms of deep jhanic bliss states and when extraordinary visionary territory was explored.
After the first two or three days, most of the confusion about how the Fire Kasina practice works was cleared up thanks to constant practice and the further instructions relayed from established teachers that one of our retreat participants was in contact with. This is where things began to get interesting. Again, the typical movement through the nanas was evident, with Dissolution being a vast gulf in the practice that usually resulted in prolonged boredom, doubt, and sedation. Visually and otherwise, the field of perception was cloudy and indistinct. I found that it required a delicate balance between alertness and relaxation to begin to enjoy the subtle drift of this stage.
Behind the “clouds” of this stage was a pearlescent light, and a delicate jhanic pleasure throughout the body. When these subtle sensations began to be apparent, I turned my attention more toward them (as I was taught with traditional Anapanasati), and the after-image, the “sign”, would also alter. I would frequently find that, when dwelling in this more subtle, pleasureable phase, the sign would change from being a flat after-image, to being a much more vivid and entrancing image, seemingly animated apart from the actual physical flame that was burning in the room. I took this as a signal that I was in Fourth Jhana territory, as it felt so familiar from my previous experiences with other Concentration exercises.
It was from this (presumably) Fourth Jhana territory that the potential for exploration began to open wide. Something about the “ambiance” of this state felt very familiar to me, similar not only in terms of sitting meditation, but also to psychedelic and Magickal experiments from the past. I found it was easy to direct the general route of exploration by simply stating my intent as I entered this powerful state.
I was successful in willing myself into what felt very strongly like true Fruitions, vivid and easy to come by. Self-Inquiry methods were also deeply satisfying, in that the exploration of questions such as “Who Am I?” resulted in an acute, resounding awareness of the kind of “ground state” of being that I’ve only known through prolonged and intense non-dual practice. Asking ridiculously open ended questions in this space, such as “What is the true nature of the Universe?” resulted in a very blatant, immediate response in the form of a vast and colorful mandala. Within the mandala was every form of life imaginable, all interlinked in activity and form, all intimately interconnected throughout. When I followed the question with another, equally grandiose “What lies beyond this Universe?” the mandala in my mind’s eye dropped into the distance, and I could see it was being upheld by some sort of unimaginably large deity or demon, a wrathful, laughing being with skin as black as coal. A truly striking image, and one that left me to wonder how it could be the product of my own mind, or if it was the influence of an outer agency.
It was around the fifth day of our retreat that I found some kind of consistency with the quality of my concentration and the clarity of the visual field subsequent to “locking in” to the fire sign. Reliably, to make progress into the deeper realms, I found the flame would have to move from it’s 2D, mental object phase, into the ultra-real phase, where it appeared independent of the actual burning candle. Venturing into visionary realms of a profound and tantalizing nature seems to me the natural outcome of this practice, and in the final days of the retreat, I was growing more comfortable with “calling up” specific experiences: Profoundly blissful and comforting Arcadian gardens. The sensation of swift flight through an endless space. When I sought out the “spirits of the desert”, I witnessed a great figure, not quite human, step through the wall of the house from the warm night outside, into our little space, and stand there, regarding us all in meditation with approval.
Visionary experiences like this became somewhat normalized by the end of the retreat, for me at least. However, during our discussion periods, it became apparent that all of us in the retreat were noticing results that were both unusual and very interesting on a daily basis. Without an overriding goal (beyond simply familiarizing myself with the Fire Kasina technique), we were left to explore the territory at hand. Knowing what I know now, it seems that it would be very useful for a future retreat to have some specific goal. Perhaps a test of psychic powers? Manifestation of a physical object or specific event? Healing an illness or disorder?
From a technically oriented Dharma perspective, displays like this are plainly not in the service of Awakening, at least not directly. It is easy to see the temptation towards power over oneself and others due to the accessibility and relative ease of this technique. As stated before, I found this technique to be somewhat similar in tone and content to psychedelic and magickal routes that are probably more well known here in the West. And yet, the frequency and vividness of independent entities, who appear to be autonomous, and possibly powerful, leads me to believe that this realm of experience deserves its own categorization. It would certainly not be a kind of training that I would recommend to, or perhaps even discuss in depth with a beginning meditator. However, that being said, I have gained quite a lot of valuable experience and information as a result of this practice, and would recommend it to anyone with the skill and the will, especially if it could include the addition of a compassion-oriented goal.
I am deeply thankful for the good guidance we had on the retreat from Daniel and Shannon, and to my fellow retreatants who were absolutely vital to success on every level, from the practical to the sublime.”