57. Kasinas, Powers, and Retreats
I had a period where I became more and more interested in the jhanas and powers, so, in 1999 just before medical school began, I went on a work retreat for two months at Gaia House in Devon, England, having gone there to continue study with Christopher Titmuss and meet with Christina Feldman to talk about strong concentration and the powers, this latter goal based on the recommendation of Joseph Goldstein, who felt she would be the right person to talk with about those topics.
As background reading, I had pored over the standard sources, such as the Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga, both basically the high-concentration versions of grimoires (old spellbooks), along with the standard Pali canonical sources, as well as texts like Bhante Gunaratana’s The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation and The Path of Serenity and Insight, and some standard magickal texts from the Western tradition.
Christina Feldman gave me some excellent advice in a few short minutes and with a degree of fervor and energy that I have rarely seen or felt in a dharma teacher. She gave that advice to me very reluctantly and with grave reservations, particularly after I mentioned to her a few things about my own assessment of my practice (anagamihood) and that I was interested in the powers, statements that should reasonably give any meditation teacher cause for concern. Yet, in her blazingly powerful passion for the topic, she couldn’t seem to help but transmit something to me despite her clear wish to do otherwise.
Her advice was to have extremely high standards for the concentration state and give every bit of unbridled attention power to attending to the nimitta, which is the strong, clean, glowing internal image that appears to the meditator when doing certain concentration practices. More than that, the force with which she delivered her advice was itself a teaching, as I got to witness a true living concentration master speak with a stunning amount of personal strength and conviction about a topic I could tell she cared about with immense feeling and knew cold. That intense mode of communication was even more powerful than what she said, as it palpably and unambiguously conveyed a spirit of what totally galvanized effort to attain unremittingly powerful concentration can do. I am extremely grateful that I got to witness Christina Feldman in full-power mode, and equally as grateful for the teachings she gave me that day. My sincere apologies to her for being a presumptuous and disrespectful pain in the ass.
I followed her pithy instruction, spirit, and living example as best I could, visualizing colors without using any kasina object but just amplifying and following the colors on the insides of my eyelids until they began to brighten, grow, and coalesce into something more coherent. On that retreat, I eventually managed to fill the whole space I was sitting in with the color white while my eyes were closed, until that white pervaded everything and my body disappeared. After many failed attempts, I also finally jumped out-of-body from a seated position, something I hadn’t done before, but I was only able to stay out for a few very intense and chaotic seconds before snapping back in. I also began to hear strange things, in particular a conversation between two women in a living room with the TV on—not particularly fascinating as a conversation, but interesting as an experience. Those initial brief successes, the hard-won and remarkable advice I received from Christina, and the emphases on the jhanas by Bhante Gunaratana would form the foundation for part of what happened in the second part of my next major retreat, that being the seventeen-day year-end winter retreat in 2001 at Bhavana Society.