Back from the Fire Kasina Retreat

Just got back last weekend from a two week fire kasina meditation retreat hosted by Daniel Ingram. The retreat started the day after I landed back in the UK from a ten day whirlwind trip to the states with Stef, first to Las Vegas for her sister’s wedding, then to the alligator filled swamps and haunted houses of New Orleans, and finally to soak up the sun with my brothers in Atlanta. So its been a while since things were normal, and I’ve had a lot of time to think. 

I’ve mentioned Daniel’s book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha in previous blogs. It had a huge impact on western Buddhism, owing partly to Daniel’s enthusiasm for dishing out specific details on taboo meditation topics, and having first read it in 2009, it was the text that originally inspired me to begin a daily meditation practice. So it was more than a nice surprise when I not only got to meet Daniel for the first time in London back in June, but he then called me up two weeks later to invite me to one of his fabled fire kasina retreats.

The fire kasina is a traditional practice that’s discussed in core Buddhist texts such as the Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga, but one that’s rarely practiced in today’s vipassana-focused meditation scene. Daniel is one of the few to have dusted off this traditional tech and popularised it with his excited reports of learning to generate ‘better than CGI’ open-eyed visuals after two weeks or so on retreat. Which sounded rather appealing to an artistically and magically minded meditator like myself, so I was more than happy to rearrange my schedule when I got the call to in two weeks off grid in an old mansion in Hereford.

Fire kasina practice consists of staring at a candle flame for a minute or so, just long enough to make an after-image of the flame appear on the backs of your closed eyelids, which you then study closely with the expectation of seeing something. it helps to imagine you’ve just dropped two tabs of acid, and with a good deal of effort and some decent concentration skills, lo and behold, you can achieve similar results. Gradually, as you become more familiar with the practice, it becomes clear that the afterglow of the candle is really just an introductory training tool, a kind of in-game tutorial. Candle or no candle, the instructions could be simply stated: close your eyes, imagine you’re tripping, and pay attention to the visuals. 

I was even more excited by the potential of the fire kasina practice after returning from my previous one-week Chan retreat in June. I was supposed to be doing zen-style meditation, which is a technique that pays little to no attention to any visuals that might arise, but by around day four I found that I couldn’t help but experience extremely vivid, luminous, intricately detailed closed-eye visuals, even as I tried to ignore them and stick to the practice. Looking back I can see that their onset was largely aided by my decision to do a water fast for a full three days of that retreat; it turns out that not eating accelerates your concentration in a way that is difficult to recreate in the same time period with a belly full of food. Having said that, I also lost twenty pounds of body mass that week that I didn’t have spare, and had a banging head ache for pretty much its entire duration, so I decided to follow Daniel’s advice and take it steady this time. This meant that I never actually reached the same blazing heights of pineal-piercing visuals, but this retreat soon revealed itself to be about much more than tripping balls the all-natural way.

The other significant difference distinguishing this retreat from others is that we agreed that we would talk during meal times. Daniel insisted that while we would be expending some of our precious concentration powers in conversation, it acted as an important safety valve to insure that no one secretly slipped off into the dark recesses of their own imagination. More than that, it was hugely valuable for me and the others to be able to talk to not only Daniel for hours each day, but also get to pick the brains of some of the other experienced meditators in attendance. Compared to the standard one-hour formal lecture from the teacher offered in the evenings on most retreats, and the daily ten-minute interviews, being able to discuss anything and everything related to magic and meditation for hours with someone with Daniel’s experience on a daily basis made for quite the hefty dharma download. 

Learning to navigate the potential social potholes involved in co-habiting with ten others while undertaking a spiritual practice that is designed to temporarily destabilise and unbalance you also made for an interesting insightful challenge. Its easy on other retreats to convince yourself that you’ve transcended some particular limitations, right until you have to re-enter the world and talk to people again the day after it ends, so having your current mental state mirrored back at you in every interaction on this retreat provided a valuable feedback loop. It also meant I had time to make some interesting friends that I would otherwise have only shuffled past in silence. 

So, this is going to be one of another blog series, because you can learn a lot in two weeks. But if you’re interested in learning more in the meantime, check out this free pdf of the Fire Kasina Book that Daniel co-authored with another experienced meditator, Shannon Stein, or listen to this podcast with Daniel being interviewed by Michael Taft about the fire kasina practice. Enjoy!

The Process Behind Moon Angel

After about six weeks of trying to squeeze in an hour or two here and there on this piece in between designing tattoos, I finally finished it! This here Moon Angel is the first of many angels that I’ll be painting for a new strategy card game that I’ve spent the last year developing and playtesting, which, I dare say, is pretty awesome. I become fully aware of its awesomeness at Christmas time a few months ago, when we set off to Colorado for two weeks and spent the days we were snowed in playing the game with my brothers, sometimes for 5 or 6 hours at time, and when I saw how obsessed they became with it, I knew I was on to something. 

Anyway, I thought I’d share some process shots of each piece as I complete them, if for no other reason than to encourage aspiring artists who might stumble upon this to realise that what seem like mediocre or downright terrible sketches may be the beginnings of a nice piece, if they just keep working on it. They say great stories aren’t written, but rewritten, and that’s true of art as well. 

For example, look at this sketch at the top! Nothing special, that’s where this one started. But once I’ve got a rough pencil sketch worth developing, I scan it into Photoshop and start trying out different ideas for it. So here I decided I wanted her face to be more bug-like, or more like a mask than an actual woman’s face, and also decided she needed some extra limbs to make her less human.

The idea for this card was that she’s a kind of shapeshifter, that can take on multiple animal forms at once, so I wanted her to look like she was in the process of transformation. 

Once I was happy with her general shape in Photoshop, I printed her out, lightboxed the sketch, and began a more detailed drawing. That’s when I added a lot of her more specific features, her tendril hair, her beetle feet, and played with another idea for her face. 

Then I scanned that in, and started shading it in black and grey on Photoshop again. The main changed I made then were to her horns, I just felt that the larger, wider, more antler-like horns fit the shape of the composition better, and I also decided that I’d swung too far and her face wasn’t human enough anymore, so I gave her more soft, feminine features. Once I was happy with the black and grey layer, I started adding some colour washes.

Finally  I started adding in more subtle colour effects, and giving more consideration to light sources and the reflections they would cast. Her face was still bothering me, and I realised that I could keep her feminine features but give her big bug eyes at the same time, and once I did that she had the look I wanted, alien, insectoid, dangerous, but also seductive, playful and wise.  

So there you have it. Next up, the Angel of Mercury!

Spiritual Maps and Personal Narratives

This is part three of a series of posts about my recent meditation retreat.

I’ve always been hesitant to seek out spiritual teachers. This is likely due to the fact that I read as many academic studies of religion as I do religious texts themselves, and when you examine these various traditions and communities from a distance it naturally makes you more hesitant to dive in and hand over control of your personal narrative to a guru or guide. That is the contract, after all, you’re relinquishing some measure of control over your sense of who and what you are, in the hopes that your teacher can help you transform those ideas into something better, or even cause them to vanish completely. This can be of huge benefit.

Perhaps you had a profound experience of great clarity, joy and insight, and then promptly slipped into depression and your life started falling apart. You were about to go get a prescription to help you survive this unexpected plunge into existential despair, but then someone convinces you to go on a weekend meditation retreat. You may meet someone there who listens to your story and explains that its a classic pattern they’ve seen hundreds of times, that you have gained insight into a fundamental quality of experience that Buddhists sometimes call dukkha or Knowledge of Suffering and that it’s a positive sign of spiritual maturation, and here is a technique that will help you find your way back to happiness.

If true, that narrative is obviously preferable and more powerful than being diagnosed with depression and becoming reliant on pharmaceuticals. On the other hand…you could end up like one of my tattoo clients who booked a session with some ‘healer’ to help her deal with her anxiety around giving birth, and after her consultation was informed via text message that a malevolent astral entity was attached to her womb which he could remove for her if she booked another session. Thankfully she had the sense not to go back, but there are lots of people walking around with exactly those kinds of ideas planted in their brains by various leaders within the spiritual scene. It must just be the long form conversations I get to have while tattooing people, but I seem to meet them all.

My first one-on-one interview with our teacher Carl was on day three of the retreat. I described my recent meditations to him and his eyes lit up, but then seemed disappointed as I tried to interpret the experiences for him. We had no shared conceptual language, and the little bit of Theravada theory I thought I understood wasn’t serving me well. Based on his reaction I seemed to be describing experiences that only usually arise after the attainment of some relatively deep level of insight, and yet I wasn’t able to express them in a way that proved I understood their significance, at least from a Theravada point of view. Our fifteen minutes ended with him basically saying ‘Okay, forget all that! Just do this simple technique…and you will see magic things’.

That evening he asked me to stay behind for a chat when everyone went to bed. He kindly wanted to make sure he hadn’t left me discouraged or confused. We got into a long conversation which went all the way back to my earliest peak experiences and meditation breakthroughs. I had diagnosed myself as having crossed a fairly early stage of insight on the Progress of Insight map used in this Burmese Theravada tradition, but after describing those experiences to him he again looked impressed and asked I was sure they didn’t represent something much more profound than I’d realised, mentioning certain later stages I thought I’d been striving towards. But then as he questioned me further I was again unable to put it into terms that he could confirm or deny the validity of, because I hadn’t gotten there following the Theravada path. So we left it as an open question that we’d have to talk more about later, and went to bed.

A few days later I had a breakthrough during meditation and saw something Carl had been pointing us towards. I diagnosed my own experience to him during our next interview, and we both agreed that it was the very first stage on the Progress of Insight map. I had been meditating for years within the linear model, trying to crawl my way towards the pot of illuminating gold at the end of the map, and now within the space of three days it had been suggested that I was already at the end of a whole chapter of that particular journey, and that I hadn’t even gotten started yet. This paradox proved to be the koan that sparked my own personal revelation. 

It finally occurred to me that both interpretations were dependent on the kind of language used to express them. When I described the vivid emotional impact of my experiences and their lasting effects, Carl recognised them as mirroring his own major breakthroughs. Yet when I tried to translate them into a technical, philosophical framework we could both understand, it seemed I understood very little of relevance yet to the Theravada path. I also realised that while I had been practicing some form of Buddhist meditation, however poorly, all these years, I had been doing so within a philosophical framework that I had drawn largely from my readings of western mystics and idealist philosophers. Consequently, my most profound experiences had largely involved experiencing matter as an aspect of mind, as if in a lucid dream, but never of seeing mind as an aspect of matter, as Carl was teaching me to do. As a result, I came to understand my breakthrough on retreat not as the first step towards experiencing ultimate reality, as it is often sold, but as the first step towards seeing the world from one possible perspective among many, the Theravada perspective, while I was apparently several steps further down the rabbit hold of my own, seemingly more western, tradition.

This was a major paradigm shift for me, and completely changed how I practice and how I think of ‘the spiritual path’ in general. It brought home to me how central the role of narrative is in spiritual practice, even within traditions that train you to ‘drop the stories’ or to experience ‘unfiltered reality’. We can likely peel away many unnecessary layers of mental baggage by following any one of these paths, but there will also be an underlying story or philosophical position that you are taking on board in the process. Which isn’t a problem so long as that narrative is recognised and freely chosen, otherwise we are likely to become fundamentalists or unthinking disciples of one sort or another. And it seems to me that the more we can become aware of the unexamined narratives that we’ve all imbibed, the more freedom we gain to wield our own thoughts as we choose.

And now for some fun, here’s a teacher I met on an ayahuasca retreat who I later found out trains people in the deadly art of repelling attackers using mental forcefields…This is a fine example of a narrative that no one should ever take one board, as you’ll learn for yourself if you watch the video. (By the way, this is in no way a comparison to Carl, who is totally awesome and as legit as they come). 

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