Diary: John Finnell

John Finnell is a 36-year-old student of acupuncture and Chinese medicine living in Southern California. John has been meditating since 2008. He crossed the A&P during a three-month stay at a Goenka center and found himself stuck in the Dark Night thereafter. After discovering Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, John began a two-hour-per-day Noting practice through which he became even more familiar with the Dark Night. Eventually John began practicing with Ron Crouch, who guided him through the Dark Night and to his first fruition in 2014. According to Ron’s system, John completed Second Path two months later and is currently working his way toward the higher path knowledges.

His report is here:

“When I went into this Fire Kasina Retreat I really didn’t have a lot of Kasina practice. I had a few meetings with Shannon and Chad about it and one meeting with Florian. I spent some time a few weeks prior getting used to the practice and trying to get a bit of head start with my concentration. But I didn’t get very far. I didn’t have any expectations going into the retreat which felt good. I had some ideas of what was possible, but wasn’t sure where I’d get with it. Mostly I was interested in relaxation, some bliss states, which was much needed, and to walk away with a stronger concentration practice. After the retreat I came to realize how quickly concentration fades if the same level of intensity isn’t kept up.

The first couple of retreat days my time was spent trying to stay focussed and getting my concentration up. There was a lot of exhaustion so I spent a lot of time taking breaks and resting for short periods. I was quite sleepy and foggy and concentration was generally low. I kept refreshing on the flame and following it as far as I could. Later, as I got deeper into the dissolution like state I started picking up on the backside of extremely brief and numerous periods of surreal visual dream states, along with a strong desire to see them and whatever else in the visual field more clearly and sustained.

I struggled with a mantra in the beginning but found one that worked which had two variations to it. I could use one variation for some time then switch to the other variation when my mind got really sick of one.

Trying to find balance, at times I’d let my mind go deeply into that foggy drifty state and even get lost trying to see the edges of it, and then when it felt unproductive or I noticed too much unconscious mind wondering, I would refresh on the flame, follow it until the image faded out, then immediately refresh on the flame again. It made sense that doing this would sharpen my concentration.

The basic practice was to stare at the flame eyes open long enough to have an image burned into the retina (grasping the sign), then closing the eyes, and following the after image as long as I could. The dot would move around, then stabilize then flicker in and out, then be gone for some time then come back then disappear and not come back. Then the field would turn static gray and the mind would get really bored and want to wander. I understood this to be what Shannon and Daniel call the “Murk”. While always having a mantra repeating in the background. This was tricky cause the mind wanted to go back and forth between the two objects, visual field vs mantra.

At this time I was taking lots of naps in between and trying not to push myself too hard. I was relatively okay with my weak concentration ability and enjoying some needed restful states.

On day 3 and 4 I hit some deep relaxation and bliss states. Feelings of being “at home” in my body arose, something I hadn’t felt since I was a little kid. It was extraordinarily beautiful. Memories of being content and drawing pictures laying on the floor of my room, or out with friends biking around the hillsides. Staring at the flame had such a genuinely soft and pure quality to it, it made my heart swell. It was so beautiful at times I almost cried just staring at it. The soft lush quality of the flame infused into my mind a state of blissful softness and awakened restfulness, and I was able to deeply soak it up. Other times it was just exhaustion and relaxation mixed with mind wandering and trying to keep up concentration.

Eventually my concentration got stronger. The after image red dot was becoming intensely golden, shimmering, deep and rich in its shining quality. I was mesmerized by its details when it was around. Little specks flying off the edges, rainbow ring around it. But after the dot disappeared, the hazy drifty murk stage arose. If I was able to stay with it, and keep the mantra going (for what felt like a painfully long time) a stronger concentrated state would come online, and in the murk subtle colors and luminous edges would start to arise.

Shannon had me try and play with intention on shifting colors. I quickly found out I was able to. It was a subtle shift, and though the colors weren’t super vibrant, it happened. I could shift the wash of color over my visual field (eyes closed), from one hue to the next, just by asking it. I would literally ask it “okay, shift to yellow”, there was about a 3 second delay between my intentional ask and the actual shift, which I found strangely intriguing, “okay, now shift to green”. I later found out that Daniel had discovered the same thing on the delayed response. It was a first taste into this realm that had it’s own persona and will, and at the same time could be subtly influenced and nudged by the meditators intention.

I hit a period of dark night shortly after this, I was irritated by any and all sounds, mental images were far from friendly, I felt awful physically and emotionally. I had visions of being murdered outside the house. I was definitely struggling at this point. I felt very stuck, doubt came up really strong along with all kinds of negative emotions. Feelings that I couldn’t get any further, that I wasn’t going to get out of this “Murk”. It was torturing me. I talked with Shannon and she helped me stay on track. I paid very close attention to the details. The murk seemed to go on and on, sit after sit with nothing new for my mind to grab onto.

Eventually the Dark Night passed into an Equanimity. I was able to work more closely with the very subtle shifts in visual content without freaking out. I just kept sticking closely to the instructions. Sharpening the mind in order to see what otherwise would be insignificant. This process was becoming clearer. The insignificant was becoming significant and the invisible, visible.

At one point I remember a kind of fruition happen while in our group sit. The fan was on and it clearly went out, and I believe everything else did, but it happened so fast I wasn’t sure if it was complete. Fruitions at this point are like this for me. I didn’t get a bliss wave, and anyway it had nothing to do with the goal of the Kasina practice. It was worth noting though, this linear insight progress happening while doing the Kasina work. One of the meditators who was highly skeptical of the maps, and we know is clearly passed Arising & Passing but Pre-Stream Entry, was cycling very clearly through the DN and eventually into EQ.

The last few days I felt like I was making more progress, albeit painfully slow, a minutia increment at a time. I had to really put in a lot of effort to see new details and allow the thing to reveal itself. Subtle edges and washes of light, color shifts, textures of luminosity which would arise and pass in the visual field. Luminous edges and glimmers at varying degrees of intensity, dull to bright, electric blue to muted gray, whatever it was I tried my best to follow it closely. If I tried to look too tightly it would fail me, if I relaxed too much I’d slip off into unconscious thought and get sleepy. There was a very specific state I had to work my way into and sustain in order for this thing to progress. It was a kind of letting go and watching closely without needing it to be anything. Just see what’s actually there, stay interested, even if it’s mundane.

My mind was getting a lot more interested in subtleties, which seemed to lead to more visual elements revealing themselves. Because things felt like they were progressing I really became hooked on wanting to see what was going to come next. When frustration came up I would do my best to stay as focussed as I could on the state of balance, which wasn’t perfect, but I felt I was onto this thing. The balanced mind became such an intensely finicky thing! I noticed I needed more and more silence around me, and less distractions. Anything that came up in my mind or outside would put a wrench in my progress, or so it felt.

During the last day and a half, I remember a moment where one of the guys asked to keep it totally silent until the dinner break (we had been pretty talkative during breaks up to that point), we all agreed. And then he, of all people, broke that request! It really threw me off my rails and I lost it inside. I gave up for a bit because I couldn’t get it together. I eventually confided in one of the other guys there. He shared a story that happened earlier in the day, one of real fascinating magick which involved real life objects. It was surreal and real. It blew my mind open to possibilities. I understood magick on a level I never hadn’t before. I went back to the cushion with a different attitude, one of curiosity, and I think more importantly a total lack of desire for anything particular to happen.

We were almost done with the retreat and this was the last night. I sat a bit longer and noticed a particular visual element I had been honing in on over the last day or two. It kept arising at a certain point in the sit, and I knew there was something to it. I fixated on it and watched it shift for a while. Then I went to lay down on my bed. Staring behind my closed eyes I saw this visual element which I could only describe as a phase disturbance in the visual field… and suddenly that element, like a key, opened a door to a surreal visual experience. The visual field behind my eyes turned into a psychedelic 3-Dimensional morphing shifting field of faces carved out of the gray. The gray murk came to life like amorphous clay being molded into a crisp defined yet moving form. The quality of the trip was similar in nature to previous acid trips I’d had over a decade ago. The 3 Characteristics were wildly apparent. I opened my eyes and the visuals were on the ceiling. I put my had up and could see them overlaid on my hand, which told me it wasn’t outside of my mind, that it was being projected from my mind. After that disappeared, I closed my eyes and rolled over in bed. Triggered by intentionally staring at the luminous phased distortion, a new pattern emerged. Completely 3-Dimensional organic geometric shapes but with the same qualities. Because they morphed out of the gray murk, the objects themselves were also created in shades of gray, no color. They were forming and morphing out of the gray and then disappearing back into it, arising and passing. They looked almost alien like but totally organic and natural. This wasn’t something I was making up or intending, nor had I seen anything quite like it before, even though it resembled the qualities of LSD trips. It was all clearly happening of it’s own accord, visibly impermanent, and clearly brining no lasting satisfaction. Though the visuals themselves were mostly neutral (neither pleasant nor unpleasant). I had no intention of seeing the 3 C’s, but this made me realize how helpful and important concentration is for seeing clear insight. And I hadn’t seen clarity on this level since my Goenka retreats.

Along with the visuals there was a tinge of darkness and fear coloring the whole experience. It was a realm I was afraid to go deeper into. Although I was relatively okay with what was happening, I had bad trips on acid in the past, and I realized this realm was not a realm that was going to bring me closer to Enlightenment or real happiness. (This was a pretty significant insight into my overarching goals and practice with Vipassana). The fear that arose around this had to do with the thought that this particular realm would show me things I didn’t want to see, against my will, and because I had opened the door, I knew I was vulnerable to it. There was also a real sense of ownership over having gone into this territory willingly and naively thinking it would only be good and fun, and neglecting the fact that it could come with dark twisted lessons. It brought on a huge sense of humility for these meditative practices. A certain kind reality about it came up, a thought to the extent of: “You asked for this. You went and tinkered with reality, and now you have to accept what it’s giving you. You unlocked something, and you have to see what it’s offering regardless of whether you like it.” Fortunately, it didn’t go further, and I was able to fall asleep and wake up with no resonating bad side effects. (Except for the post retreat confusion and depression that emerged for weeks after.)

In the end, I was satisfied with what I saw without the use of drugs. The work had paid off on many levels as the week went on. The end result seemed like a certain land mark, a kind of goal that I was working toward the whole retreat. It felt complete even though I knew it could go much further given enough time and the right mind to preserver.

I’m extremely grateful to Daniel, Florian, Duncan and Shannon for their work prior and helping to reignite the fire, exploring the fringes of meditative practices. I’m especially grateful to my close friends I spent those 8 days with and how well the whole self guided retreat came together, what each man offered. Everyone played a key role, and it wouldn’t have been the same without one of them there.

I’m looking forward to more retreats like this, and perhaps exploring the depths of the Fire Kasina after I finish 4th path. Or whenever I’m ready for a psychedelic experience to teach me something in a surreal form. Until then, I wish everyone well on their journey, to strive for a real Enlightenment that benefits us all. May all beings be happy, peaceful, and well.”

With Metta,

John Finnell

A little background: Since 2008 I’ve been on 4 Goenka 10 day Vipassana retreats, spent 3 months at a Goenka center in NZ. Followed his style of meditation diligently for several months after each retreat, then sporadically on and off. Passed Arising & Passing on one of my retreats and got stuck in the Dark Night there after. A close friend turned me onto Daniel Ingram’s book. I started noting practice 2 hours a day diligently and consistently, cycled heavily through the DN, got up to Equanimity several times but eventually ended up residing in the DN. Eventually met with Ron Crouch and under his guidance systematically worked through it over 1.5 years. Finally hit Stream Entry in 2014, and then Second Path a month or two later. Currently working toward attaining 3rd path.