29. Kasina Practice

28. The Formless Realms   |  Part IV: Insight

For those who want standard kasina practice instructions right now without having to read the original or commentarial sources (which I highly recommend you do at some point, particularly the Vimuttimagga’s information, as it is shorter and more to the point than the Visuddhimagga, which you should also read if possible), here is my take on basic kasina practice. I am going to revisit kasina practice in a few sections, adding bits of data, case reports, and theory to the initial presentation you find here as new concepts are explained and then related back to this practice. Still, these basic instructions, done in high enough doses, should allow you to realize all that for yourself if done well.

Pick a kasina such as a blue disk, a computer-generated blue circle on a black background, or (my favorite) a candle flame. You can find YouTube videos of a candle burning for just this purpose, saving you the cost of actual candles and the fire-risk. Any lightbulb will do. You could use the LED on your phone. You could use a plate. You could use a brick, for that matter, but brighter objects and objects having greater color contrast with their background make it easier, so a brick would do better against, say, a blue or green surface. If you are choosing a colored disk, it should be a few inches in diameter for most people. Even a saucer, a can top, jar lid, or piece of construction paper will work for this, but candle flames produce a nice retinal burn that helps make the initial stages more rewarding. For those who see colors, even subtle ones, when they close their eyes or are in the dark, you can even bootstrap a kasina off those with enough careful attention to the colors and to cultivating and organizing them, a skill that takes merely practice to learn.

For those using something like a candle or plate, place the chosen kasina object about four to five feet (about 1 to 1.6 meters) in front of you and slightly below eye level such that your gaze rests on it easily. Make sure the background setting of your image is something boring, plain, and neutral so that distracting images are not introduced. Sit comfortably and at ease with a posture that is upright and aligned, but not tense or rigid. Comfort is moderately important, as pain can be very distracting initially. I personally also like lying on a couch or on a bed and staring at an overhead light. If you try a strong light source, like a lightbulb, then having something that you can flop down over your eyes once you have stared at the kasina object will help block the light coming through your eyelids and allow a greater appreciation of the fine details of internally generated images. Fine details happen to be important in this practice.

Stare at the kasina with relaxed eyes and facial muscles until you feel a shift in which the color starts to bleed around the edges of the kasina if you shift your eyes, or when you notice some visual distortion. This might take from thirty seconds to a minute or two. Then close your eyes and fix on the visual purple after-image (a general term, which doesn’t imply the image will necessarily be purple, but that it will be the complementary color of the object which, if the object is yellow, will be purple), and pay attention to this to the exclusion of everything else, if possible. So, if the external kasina object is bright, the initial visual purple after-image will be dark, and if the kasina is dark, the after-image will be light. The visual purple image may wander, spin off to the side, morph, flicker, or fade, but don’t worry about that initially, just keep your attention on it, tracking exactly what it does with a high degree of interest in the fine specifics of every little movement, change, and wiggle.

Early on, people will often notice tension in their eye muscles, eyelids, and forehead when their eyes are closed until they realize that the sort of looking they are now doing doesn’t have much to do with their eyes. Eventually, this tension will go away, but initially it can be annoying. That tension is stage- and state-dependent. Try relaxing your eyes while still paying gentle attention to the visuals. This just takes practice, so don’t get frustrated.

When whatever organized images fade totally away and there is nothing but the visual static on the inside of your eyelids, open your eyes, stare at the image again as before, wait for the burn into your retinas again, and close your eyes and focus on the image again until it is gone again. Repeating this again and again will eventually build up something powerful. At some point, you will start to notice something beyond just the visual purple after-image, and instead something clean, bright, and more defined will begin to glow.

If you are using a candle flame, this should be a red dot [If you are color-blind, I do not know how you might perceive or describe this: do the experiment, find out, and tell me!]; stay with that red dot, regardless of what it does, until it is finally gone, and then open your eyes and go back to the flame or disk or whatever again. If you are using some other object, then the image should relate in some way to the color but seem more purified and clean. Continue to repeat the cycle over and over. Consistency in a short period of time with few breaks really helps make this happen and maintains the concentration muscles, which tend to fade very rapidly if we stop practicing. Give all attention to the colors, and really commit to making that happen moment after moment.

At some point the created image will begin to get clearer, brighter, more refined, and more stable. If you are using a candle flame and its subsequent red dot as image, it will tend to gain green, blue, and purple rings around it with intricate yellow rapidly moving fine complex lines in the middle that shift and spin at high speed. Paying attention to that high-speed spinning and movement will develop good attention-tuning skills that translate extremely well to other meditation styles.

The more refined dot (it might be some other shape, depending on what object you start with) is called the nimitta in the Pali commentaries. The nimitta will eventually start to do strange things, such as oscillate between a black dot and some greenish-yellow dot, or other variants on this theme. It may acquire all sorts of fine details, change color many times, develop into other images, and even begin to seem alive, like you are watching an animation. The larger the nimitta, the more remarkable the show that it can produce, particularly in terms of exquisite little nuances, images, colors, and shimmering variability. As practice grows stronger, you will notice that your internal intentions and inclinations have more and more control of what shapes and colors the nimitta becomes, as well as where it is in the visual field and how it moves.

Eventually, the nimitta may fade entirely despite progress in concentration, only to return a bit altered, then fade, then return a bit altered, then fade, and finally will just be gone. On repeated cycles through this, you will notice that, after looking at the flame (or other object) and closing your eyes, more of the background of the candle flame will also generate after-images around the central image. Some of those more peripheral images may begin to stabilize into sheets of blue, purple, or some other color, even as the red dot itself is fading to black. Up to this point, basically everyone I know experiences nearly the same sequence when they do this practice. That cannot be said for what happens next.

That blackness or visual static in the background can then become what I call “the murk”. The murk is frustrating until your concentration gets stronger, because while you may be practicing more and more, after you go through your sequence of images in the center of attention, the center of attention becomes more and more vague and dark and strange. The first point about navigating in the murk is that dark colors, such as black and grey, are totally valid kasina objects you can play with and pay attention to. This a concentration practice, so if you stop concentrating when the colors become colors you don’t like or weren’t expecting, then your concentration will flag and you will fall back.

The murk is unlikely to initially have anything like the clean, clear, interesting organization and brilliance you can obtain from the nimitta. If you continue to pay attention to the visuals, even if they stop producing much in the way of nice red dots or the like, then you will eventually get to understand what the murk is about. Eventually, subtly organized images and colors will begin to emerge quietly from the darkness if you just pay very careful attention to the darkness and strangeness as it is.

When the murk arises, initially it is very helpful to just open your eyes and go back to the flame or other object and cycle again. The more times we cycle up from the kasina object through the initial organized images to the murk, the more the murk will begin to organize. However, past a certain point, focusing on the central nimitta itself won’t get you as far as things can go, as it is too narrow. However, cycling begins to develop slowly and organize the area outside and around the nimitta such that, when we begin to transition to something that is much more broad and inclusive, there is more to pay attention to that is interesting enough to hold our attention.

For many people, getting to the better side of the murk requires some significant number of hours, such as eight to twelve per day for a few days, but a few will have natural talent and be able to get into this territory on lower doses. For those who think that this is a long time, realize that it is relatively short in the grand scheme of things, and the rewards for this sort of effort applied to kasina practice are nothing short of remarkable, as we will see below. That kasina practices are so neglected in modern times is astounding to me, as they are extremely powerful and efficacious. If you do these practices at high dose for a week or two in retreat conditions with few distractions, you are likely to be very deep into some pretty wild territory by the time you are done, and advice and appropriate warnings for that end of practice will be given in later sections.

One of the initial qualities of the murk is that it causes us to space out, get lost in thought, and have a hard time concentrating. Until we build that wiring, our brains tend to fatigue and head off down more familiar sidetracks. We just practice to build the wiring through repetition of the cycle of looking at the object, seeing the nimitta, tracking it through all its changes until it vanishes finally, getting to the murk, tracking it until we space out, opening our eyes, staring at the object, and repeating the cycle again and again and again. With repetition, we get good at the changes. They become familiar, and the concentration power grows. We space out less. We recover more rapidly when we do. We pick up immediately after subtle state-shifts that used to throw us off our game. Images grow more defined and predictable, and we get used to the now familiar sequence of images and perceptual changes. Then comes the question of how far to go out into the murk and when to bail and open our eyes and look at the external kasina object again. Most people, after practicing awhile, start going longer and longer into the murk, as they begin to uncover its secrets. Still, there is nothing wrong with recharging on the external object and diving back into the colors and mysteries.

Once we begin to attain more organized colors beyond just black and grey emerging from the gloom of the murk, we come to a fork in the path, and I leave it to you to determine which fork you wish to take. Both forks are rewarding, but they produce different effects. The summary of these forks is that in one, we pick a color or, in the other, we allow the images to do whatever they do across a range of colors and pay more attention to the shapes that the colors organize into. Most will end up doing some fusion of both, so really this is a spectrum of options and practice styles more than a dichotomy. Again, either style may also be used to bootstrap a kasina off the subtle colors we can see naturally on the inside of our eyelids with our eyes closed or in a dark room. So, if you find yourself lying awake in bed trying to sleep but can’t, you can always just use those colors to build a kasina practice, realizing that some are better at this than others.

The first option takes moving swaths of a specific shade of the colors that arise as object, focusing, say, on red, blue, green, purple, yellow, or some other color, as you prefer. Most people will have a color that they see more easily: initially you should pick that one. I personally can see dark purple very easily. I have a friend whose easiest color is a light blue. Another friend is good at red. Why do we each have a specific color that is initially easier for us than others? I have no idea. You will have to experiment to see what your easiest color is. Look to the edges around the candle flame as you cycle through watching the flame (or other kasina object), close your eyes, and go through the cycle, as the colors that you get around the periphery are often your easiest color.

Everywhere you see a bit of that color, even if it just seems to be part of some vague shift or swatch of moving vagueness, focus on that, attempting to cultivate a sense of rapture regarding that color. If the visual field is more like disorganized static, then just start to notice the little bits of that static that are of the chosen color. Eventually, you will start to notice that your attention reinforces the chosen color, makes it stronger, and can begin not only to move the chosen color, but to amplify it, to increase it, and finally begin to fill in the visual field with it. When you have gotten good at this, you will be able to fill in the whole of the visual field with that specific color. As the visual field will likely be pixelated at this point, fine-grained awareness of minute details across the field will help. Learning to have a wide yet fine-grained awareness is what this part of the practice is about. It just comes with repetition.

When cultivating a color has been done very well for long enough, you will see the chosen color everywhere even when opening your eyes, as if you were wearing glasses of that specific color. This is one of those effects mentioned in the old texts that is still surprising, at least for me, when it actually happens. When you get even better, you will gain what I call “color control”, in which you can turn the color into another color just by inclining the mind towards that other color and waiting a few seconds for it to shift to that new color. Initially you may see an irregular mix of the two colors, as the new color begins to seep in. Eventually, inclinations to change colors result in uniform, clean color transitions. This takes practice, and initially it is easier to change the color to colors that are close to it, such as blue into green, rather than trying to change green into red, for example. Eventually, we get so that we can change the whole visual field to any color and make them bright, stable, and vibrant, refining the color to the exact hue that we prefer—basically the ultimate in “interior design”.

By this point, you should also be able to do other things, such as draw in the air with that color with your finger and see what you drew hanging in the air. Going slowly at first and starting in a darker room or doing this outside at night makes learning how to see these drawn colors easier. Eventually, this can be done just fine in a bright room or outdoors in daylight. By this point, you should also be able to shape that color into any object you wish just by gently inclining your mind to have that happen. They may be vague and shifty at first but, with practice, they get clearer, more detailed, and more stable. It is often completely surprising that something that was initially so hard should be so natural, like you have always known how to do this. If you try for this and it doesn’t happen, just practice more, as that is the key to concentration practices. High doses in short periods of time produce vastly better results than little practice periods spread across many days, as there is a momentum to these practices that fades rapidly after we cut the practice power.

If we take the second fork, we pay attention not to a specific color, but to how the subtle colors in the murk are organizing, because if you pay attention to them for long enough, they will begin to form objects that become more and more recognizable. Initially, it is a lot easier just to let this go where it will. We may start simply, noticing subtle washes and patches of color moving around. These may begin to become more coherent, more defined, and brighter. As these begin to form into more definite and complex objects, we may get out of the way to let them form further. Subtle details and fine-grained nuances may begin to appear.

There is a different sort of looking that is half-daydream and half-eyelid colors that we must adopt to make this work, a partial pivot to inner dreamworld visuals. It is not easy to explain exactly how this is done, and you will have to experiment. The initial strongly focused concentration that worked for the red dot or other initial object won’t work as well here. Attention must be broader, more open, and accepting. It must rely more on curiosity, fascination, and the effect of repeated practice than on effort and control. It must also notice fine and subtle details and give them permission to start to organize in their own way, which, given time and repetition, they will begin to do.

Objects that arise in this phase of practice tend to have repetitious elements to them. They also tend to have some depth and complexity. They can also be disturbing, with reasons for this explained later, but the short answer is that the insight practice equivalent of this territory involves some stages that can be frightening. In this territory, I have seen rows of narrow lines, spirals, vortices, doors, tunnels, canyons, fields of skulls, fingers and mushrooms, insects, snakes, and other strange creatures, as well as campfires, complex patterns that resembled fractals or Spirograph patterns crossed with Aztec writing, vast abstract landscapes, and many other strange images. These may spread out across the whole visual field. Recent conditioning and your own tendencies will likely determine some of this, but other aspects of the reasons for the specific forms this takes may be hard to sort out. Luckily, from one point of view, none of the reasons nor the specifics of the images really matter so long as you use them to build strong concentration.

The key here is just to watch the images do what they do and follow along concentrating on the images as objects. From another practice perspective, the images do matter, particularly if you are doing something such as cultivating the image of a specific deity, dakini, symbol, Tarot card, etc. Eventually, even if the images start out doing their own thing, you will start to learn that you can modify the images, incline to images you prefer, and morph the images to suit your tastes. In this, you must learn to live with a few seconds delay between intentions and the images changing. If you try to force this you will not succeed but, if you use finesse and have patience and give the mind time to process your suggestions and nudges, you can learn to craft remarkable inner art.

As we get better at this, we will notice that the murk (now well-defined and, really, no longer earning that name) and the nimitta become much more interactive with each other. You can start right off taking the images around the nimitta as object and the nimitta will progress through its cycles as you cultivate the background around it. You can learn to have the nimitta and background move together, interface with each other, with the background seeming to radiate out from around the nimitta, moving over it, moving behind it, rotating with it, merging into it, and having all sorts of other complex interactions with it. We learn to control these interactions through repetition of the cycle.

At some point, the level of mastery that we generate by going down either fork (color or form) can give us the abilities of the other fork, since with strong enough concentration, our whole inner landscape becomes subject to our control and we can make the images however we wish and the colors exactly as we prefer. I remember on retreat one time when I managed to craft dragons (geek much?) of the exact shape and colors that I wished, with scales of just the proper iridescence, eyes of just the right glint, and breathing golden fire just like a good dragon should. They would smile and nod knowingly exactly as you would imagine happy dragons doing. When you get to that level of control, whatever you wish to see, you will see it.

At some point past the color swaths and patterns of the images of either fork, we may enter realms of liquid fluency and mastery that are open, vast, hyper-real, and seemingly alive. We may seemingly find ourselves entirely into those worlds, as if we are fully lucid dreaming and yet totally awake at the same time. Attempts at control in that territory will often cause some regression of the image if done without finesse. More practice again makes this easier.

One trick that can help is pre-scripting the experience by making resolutions about what you want to see before you start a new cycle, then letting the intention go and allowing the cycle to run on its own (which it should be doing easily by this point). As you get good at this, when the hyper-real territory shows up, it will be as you asked it to be and often much more, as if a master CGI specialist suddenly custom-crafted the images with a level of detail and perfection far beyond what you may have ever imagined your mind could generate and then fully immersed you in that world. At this point, the elaborate visualizations you find in some of the traditions of the Vajrayana suddenly seem and then become vastly more attainable. Ask and ye shall receive. Seek and ye shall find. Just be careful what you seek, as you may notice that images and other effects in that realm of the hyper-real can also cause proportionally strong reactions in us.

Take a kasina practice far enough following the simple advice above, and whole realms of remarkable capabilities will open to you. I will later call this phase with the hyper-real CGI effects the “malleable phase”, and if you get there, you will understand why. Reality can be altered to a surprising degree in this phase, and not just when on the cushion. These are some of the possible endpoints of color-based or elemental kasina practices, but certainly not the only ones. There is some difference between the traditions, with some holding the view that a stable wash of bright white permeating awareness is a good endpoint. Other traditions hold that hyper-real images and other well-developed effects of very strong concentration are their endpoints. Basically, those are all good endpoints, and the ability to get into one generally comes with the ability to rapidly get into the others, so try for one and then have fun getting into the others.

In that same spirit, take your now highly-concentrated mind and direct it to various skillful tasks and explorations, such as the various qualities of the jhanas, and see what happens. In fact, more bodily jhanic elements such as bliss and stillness will likely show long before hyper-defined images. Many of us find that the hardest part of navigating the later stages of kasina visuals is avoiding turning attention to the understandably captivating bodily bliss and peaceful components and thus ignoring the visuals to some degree. Others of us will notice that the bodily bliss and peace components help chill out the mind, reduce agitation, enhance rapture, and thus improve the ability to stabilize attention on the visuals and their finer yet broader components.

Some of us will notice that, after some period, the blissful components become less interesting, as if some healing has taken place, and we can then go back to the visuals less distracted by the bodily elements. Others among us will notice a natural oscillation between bodily jhanic components and the visuals as part of their standard sequence of rising through the changing objects. For some of us, using kasina images to get to the bliss and equanimity is the motivation, so at that point we will then just tune in to these qualities for their own sake.

Still others of us will notice that a wide range of very specific feelings and qualities deemed worthy of cultivation can be generated and nurtured to remarkable degrees along with images that are designed to enhance those images. Those of us with a more recreational bent will likely find these capabilities fascinating. Those of us with a more spiritual bent will likely find them extremely empowering and practice-enhancing. Those with both aspects, such as myself, will likely find the whole process to be the remarkable set of opportunities it is. May we use those opportunities and abilities well and skillfully for the benefit of all beings! This is a resolution I find helpful for keeping things on track, and I repeat it often between practice periods when doing these practices.

If you do kasina practice long enough, you will find that many strange and surprising experiences can happen along the way, with defined images being the tip of the iceberg. Realize that concentration practices can cause very interesting or unusual side effects, so be sure to read the rest of this book before entering too deep into kasina practices, as that level of perceptual alteration can be a mixed blessing. Practices like these can create not only jhanas, but also insight stages, particularly as we get good at noticing fine details and how the images and jhanic qualities move and shimmer, as well as how to tune the pulse and synchronize the phase of attention to really concentrate on what is going on. Those of us who learn to phase-tune the whole of our attention to the whole of the changing visual field may be richly rewarded on both the concentration and insight fronts.

However, as mentioned, this phase-tuning to the pulse of flickering attention creates insight stages. Insight stages have their ups and downs, to put it gently, and more about them will be discussed in the next chapter. They tend to have less complexity while on the cushion if our concentration is strong, but that doesn’t guarantee that there can’t be some challenging effects when we get up off the cushion in some difficult insight stage. That said, the fusion of concentration and insight is a remarkable path to follow for those who can do it, which is probably more people than the number that think they can do this. Try it! See what happens. You just might be amazed at your capabilities.

In fact, if you wonder where I got some of the data on the frequencies and phases of attention I discuss later in the Progress of Insight, the answer can be partially found for yourself in remarkably graphic detail if you do kasina practices well. Those with electrical engineering or electronics backgrounds who practice these well will likely come to appreciate that kasina objects are like a three-dimensional oscilloscope of attention and perception. It is also very likely that one day EEG researchers will find remarkable parallels between the frequency and phase of flickering kasina images and some of the signals seen on an EEG, providing measurable insights into the workings and physiological correlates of attention itself.

Further, as you may have already noticed, kasina practices and other concentration practices in general can create what might be termed magickal effects. Dealing with those goes well for some and not as well for others, but for all it will likely go better with better frameworks and understanding. Helpful advice on relating skillfully to those effects will be given towards the end of this book. If you are of a more scientific materialist persuasion, just keep an open mind at this point, read along, do some practices, and draw your own conclusions using empirical evidence after having reproduced the experiments for yourself in sufficient doses.

Speaking of getting lost in our heads, visualization practices can get heady sometimes. We can recognize this headiness by a sense of buzzing in our heads that is irritating, by a sense of unusual restlessness that starts to develop despite stronger concentration, and by a sense of mental flightiness. I recommend adding intermittent walking practices to help add an element that is more “footy” and helps keep a balance of energy. Those who are good at tai chi or similar body-related energy practices will find those skills valuable here. If you find the energy going too much towards the head and face, breathing practices that involve noticing the breath in the abdomen and pelvis can also be helpful. By moving attention, we can move energy, though sometimes energy held in one area for a while can be a bit slow to move. Be patient and gently persistent, and it can rebalance.

Speaking of elements, those who do one element, such as the fire element, for a long time (say, 150 hours at eight to fifteen hours per day as a rough guide for a competent practitioner) may start to notice that this practice can have other surprising elemental effects, such as generating heat in the body if doing a fire element practice, such as candle flame. While earlier I said that the object didn’t matter so much, each kasina object, such as one based on an element or image, can generate surprising effects if practice is taken far enough, effects it takes a pretty magickal worldview to explain. If the elemental effect of, say, fire kasina, gets to be too much, add in other elements, such as water, air, and earth, or even space, spending some time focusing on those also. Literally going to a lake, stream, or ocean may help. Focusing on a glass of water would do in a pinch. Walking barefoot on the earth may help. Spending time staring at the sky or some other open space may help.

Similarly, those focusing on one chakral area, such as the sixth chakra, also known as the third eye, may find they feel that, while those chakras may become strong and activated, the energy channels and other chakras may begin to feel out of balance. Those who add a mantra may notice fifth chakra effects in the throat region. If you find these to be too imbalanced, add in attention to the other chakral areas and consider balancing the kasina practice with intermittent attention to those other areas and their corresponding emotional aspects in a skillful way.

For those who don’t believe in such things as the traditional elements, chakras, or energy channels, you might change your mind if you do a lot of strong concentration practices, particularly element or color-based kasinas. At that point, you may find this advice helpful, as well as other advice given on those topics by resources that go into more depth than this book does. You can find more information about kasinas as well as some firsthand reports of practicing the fire kasina at www.firekasina.org.

28. The Formless Realms   |  Part IV: Insight