Zac Anger's Blog

Meditation Log

2021-01-12

Tags: buddhism, meditation, jhana, kasina, vipassana


This started as a daily log and was then edited down into what you see now. This log will continue to grow as notable things happen during my adventures as a Buddhist meditator.

Intro

Some background: I started meditating more over last winter, but didn't make it anywhere until late sprint or early summer 2020. I'd used basic mindfulness practices in therapy in the past but got back into the idea after reading more about Buddhism, including the book Why Buddhism Is True. I also read some of the major Mahayana and Theravada suttas, and also MCTB1, TMI, then MCTB2. Early on I began to notice that I could feel my attention when it wanders, like walking a dog on a leash that keeps trying to dart off, except the leash was made of elastic and the elastic got tighter over time. This was possibly the first thing I noticed that helped keep me going.

I've met with a sangha on and off (some weeks more than one), and have tried techniques from various traditions, including noting, mantras, visualizations, and breath work. Eventually I realized there really is something to all this Buddhism stuff. When they say "if you follow these instructions you will get these results", they mean it. I'm a convert. The map theory as presented in MCTB is attractive to the way I think, and the maps line up with my own experience, including an A&P event when I was a teenager, and the "Dark Night".

I have been hesitant to say I'm a Thien Buddhist or a Theravadin or whatever, because there are teachings and techniques from all the traditions that I've come across that have been useful. I think I do tend to have more success with Theravada techniques based on the Satipatthana Sutta and the Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga than anything else, though.

On the 5th of December I took Bodhisattva vows and committed to daily practice. Around the 10th or 11th, I tried exclusively using a mantra as object rather than combining it with the breath (or the breath only) and had my first truly interesting experience that might be considered jhanic. My perception became pleasantly muffled, like I was in a warm yellow-brown syrupy pillow (not that I was seeing colors, but things felt like how those colors feel). This lasted for a few minutes before I really tuned into the change, and as soon as I did, it instantly vanished and everything became crisp and clear with more of a high-contrast blueish-white and black feel. That change broke my concentration, but it was enough inspiration to keep me practicing.

A few days layer, I started to be able to play with the nimitta (the grey/white smoky stuff in the visual field that arises under heavy concentration, and eventually can solidify into distinct objects and take on colors). I could will it to move in ways, and it would, though not always quickly or as I expected. I could also use my hands (with my eyes closed) to shape and move it, and could also see my hands in the dark through my closed eyelids, larger than they actually are. A few more days after that (around the 17th) the nimitta swirls began to solidify and I could make out distinct objects, such as a black-robed figure.

A notable event from this period was when, after maybe 40 or 50 minutes, an image popped into my mind of swirling lights, maybe Christmas lights, or like a carousel without horses and with lights spinning out from its roof. That mental image became very real and 3D and spun across my room, and at the same time I was struck by a sense of happiness and awe that I felt physically. This whole experience only lasted a few seconds. More visualizations popped up over the next few days, including animals or mythical beings that looked like they popped out of 16th century Chinese paintings.

Kasina Practice

First Days

Around the 21st of December I decided to really give kasina practice a shot. I initially started with candles, and then over the next few weeks also used other sources of light, until eventually (due mostly to frustration with unsteady candle flames) I put some duct-tape over the top of a flashlight and poked a hole in it to use as a "nimitta-generator".

The first few days of working with kasinas I practiced less than an hour each day. After that, things picked up and I was sitting for around 3-4 hours a day broken up into 4-5 sits. At first I was barely able to sustain and examine the after-image, but after the first day I could watch what it did as it slowly disappeared through cycles of flickering/spinning and then rolling off to the right, followed by the real nimitta fading into view. This was usually a deep red dot, sometimes with little spikes around the outside, sometimes filled with yellow-white. Sometimes it would gradually turn into a black dot with a yellow-white haze around it, sometimes it would be surrounded by a pale blue aura. These visual aspects probably depended on the environment (for example, how brightly lit was the jar the candle was sitting in?). Similar to the effects with the cloudy nimitta from the breath, I had some control over this one's movement with my intentions.

Over the following few days I would sometimes bring in a mantra to help keep me steady, and more visuals started to emerge. Looking back on in, the way MCTB describes vipassana-nana aspects in jhanas makes sense, as some of these seemed to indicate bhaya-nana (knowledge of fear): warlike figures, bloody faces, rotting faces, and some strange crab/bug hybrid things. Later on I would read the Fire Kasina book and was amused to find out that the author also saw crab creatures. Maybe we both just dislike shellfish. An interesting thing about these visuals is that I wasn't particularly freaked out by them, even though they were freaky.

Interesting Experiences

The same night that I first noticed these dark images, I went to sleep, but then around 30 or 40 minutes later, I felt a huge shock of energy going straight through my body and bolted out of bed. Everything seemed to be violently shaking; I thought it was an earthquake. Then I looked at the water bottle next to my bed, and some other objects, and nothing was actually shaking. I wasn't physically shaking either, my limbs were steady, my whole body was steady, I just perceived everything as shaking. This was the first truly disconcerting experience I had.

Some days soon after I started to notice that when I used a mantra as the primary object, it would gradually evolve. If I wasn't trying to make it musical, it would eventually acquire a musical tone. If I was holding one steady note, a harmony a 4th or 5th above might be added. Along with this, I noticed the softer visual clouds that come after the initial pointed nimitta would start to pulse, sometimes in time with the breath, sometimes speeding up within one breath until they were faster than my heartbeat, then slowing down again to match the breath. All of this was just interesting phenomena that didn't seem to have any important real-world effects.

On the 24th I had my next notable experience. I went through one light kasina cycle, hit "the murk", then started a second one. This time I hung out there and tried to figure out how to expand my attention to all of it. I started to be able to play with it more (I know this is not recommended, but it is fun), with shapes and movement. I also started to feel truly comfortable, physically: aches and pains and itches all subsided, and everything (bodily) was A-OK. Then flickering started. Rather than a soft swirling murk, I had a white and black flickering murk full of vaguely recognizable shapes in very strange proportions, and also a dancing spinning woman with a demon head which stuck its tongue out at me and then vanished.

One thing that was flickering was a circle, a big white circle with vague spikes around the outside. It expanded larger and larger, then zoomed up and went around my head. I had the sudden insight that what I was seeing wasn't all that was flickering, that I'm part of the flickering, physically and mentally. This came with a physical shock — that night I wrote down that it felt like a cold water balloon popped inside my chest. It was startling but okay, like when you didn't know someone was behind you and they tap on your shoulder, and then you turn around and find out it's someone you love and trust. Around this day I had also started to notice the flickering effect in daily life. MCTB describes this like seeing the frames of a movie, which doesn't exactly line up with how I perceive it, but it is close.

Jhanas

After Christmas I continued playing with the visual field and seeing what I could do with myself physically, for example sending little attention "zaps" to areas with pain to relax those muscles. At this point I was fairly sure I was hitting second and third jhana regularly, but having no luck with the fourth. I started to get bored with the visual stuff and feeling good, since as soon as I got off the cushion all of it vanished anyway. Cycles began to speed up, and visualizations got clearer and more interesting, including fully formed beings and the ability to draw in the air and on surfaces in glowing blue fire, but it didn't really seem meaningful.

I read The Slacker's Guide To Stream-Entry early in January, a short log from someone I assume is a Catholic, that goes into some parallels between Christian mysticism and Buddhism. One big thing I got out of it was the idea of breaking one meditation up into a few periods of 15-30 minutes with 5-10 minute breaks to stretch and do walking meditation, to help with discomfort. I also tried tummo practice to help with the cold, with no significant results.

Around this time I also noticed that I was noticing more than I should be. I didn't think I had developed noting into a habit, but I apparently I had to some extent because it wasn't always easy to turn off.

On the 4th of January I rose into/dropped into what I now think was the fourth jhana. All sense of body disappeared — there wasn't any more need to think about discomforts or using concentration to make the discomforts go away, because I had no sensations coming in related to the body (or such extremely subtle sensations that I couldn't detect them). They say that breathing stops in the fourth jhana, but I can't confirm if mine did or not, because I wasn't feeling anything physical. Because this was kasina practice, visualizations were also extremely intense and wild: 3D animated objects showing up, spinning into view, going away when they felt like it, doing their own thing; trees, geometric shapes, beings, all sorts of things. My emotional state by this point was just fine. Or even more than fine, it was "okay", everything was okay. I assume this was my first taste of equanimity. This only lasted for a minute or two, but when I came out I felt very chilled-out.

These few days were when I started trying to intentionally move up through the jhanas, mentally verbalizing something like "I've seen this before, I've been here before, it's okay, let's move on" depending on the state I was in. It felt odd to have that much control after so many days of floundering around. It was at this point that I considered the kasina experiment to be a success.

Wrapping Up

I did more reading in the following week: Knowing and Seeing, the Sutta Nipatta, and With Each & Evey Breath. I started pushing a little less hard now that I had confirmed things for myself, and did notice that with less hours on the cushion, concentration drops within a few days — though intense visualizations can linger on for a while.

A more notable side-effect is that insights started to show up when I wasn't expecting them. I believe they largely stem from the flickering experiences, which may have been an attainment of the knowledges of arising and perishing (or maybe not, who am I to say?). Bits and pieces of deeper dhamma understanding began to trickle in, sometimes at very unexpected moments.

I slowly began to shift from kasina practice to breathing and noting, while still trying to maintain access to at least the third jhana by using the nimitta from anapanasati as a kasina, since it seems to be a good level of concentration to keep up. I have yet to read the Visuddhimagga, so when I do, I may try another couple weeks of kasina practice to see what happens.