Meditation on the breath is not supposed to be relaxing. It is supposed to be intense.
The aim is to cultivate concentration, achieved by hurling every morsel of awareness at the sensory experience of the breath. Notice every wiggling blip in each fluxing microsecond. Ramp up awareness to a pitch that borders on the unbearable. Do not fry yourself, of course, but consider that the possibility of overdoing it is maybe what is needed to maximise the practice.
Abandon the risible notion that “mindfulness” is only beneficial to mental health. If avoiding hurt is the aim, it is inadvisable to embark on such practice. Care for yourself by balancing intensity of practice with wholesome activities and relationships, and with supplementary practices to generate compassion and a grounding in the mundane.
Mantra meditation is amenable to the same approach. Reject the mantra as a background murmur, as a somnolent drone, but with the white heat of attention forge your mantra into an ear-shattering tsunami of a rock opera, or a heart-melting symphony of orchestras and choirs. Make it into what you will not possibly ignore, what you cannot resist losing yourself inside.
After a few days, the drone of the fan heater than warmed the venue of our retreat had become a cathedral organ, intoning an intricate, melancholy sonata. When the retreat ended each of us could recall its tune and we hummed it together. This is the most meagre example of the magickal potential of concentration. Focus the mind beyond the level that daily life affords, and strange and wondrous realms fall open.
Fire kasina practice involves staring at a candle flame until a retinal after-image forms. Then, closing the eyes, instead of the flame itself the after-image is taken as the object of concentration. The after-image passes through a sequence of transformations: at first it is oval, then it condenses down into a bright red dot. After this it dims slowly, eventually becoming a black dot, and then the entire visual field resolves into bustling grey static, signalling that it is time to open the eyes and stare at the actual candle flame. Repeat this sequence, throwing your entire attention into all its details. Repeat over and over, for twelve to fifteen hours per day. Keep it up, take care of yourself, and after three or four days things become interesting. After seven to ten days your concentration may have reached full power, but will drain away within twenty-four hours unless you maintain the practice for a minimum of about five hours daily.
In fire kasina practice, the object of concentration floats right before your face in a way most people will find harder to be distracted from than a mantra or the breath. I know of no better method for incubating concentration, and for experiencing how, with concentration, magick arises.
By taking the after-image of the flame as the object of concentration (the so-called nimitta or “sign”) we enter a realm oddly positioned between perception and imagination because the retinal after-image is neither wholly mental nor wholly physical. In daily life we tend to maintain a sense of a boundary between “out there” and “in here”. Transgressing this, the result is magick.
On retreat I noticed a vivid mental image: the face of a bearded god. Each time I closed my eyes I saw him clearly. The odd thing was that if I turned my head the visual perspective on him changed. Something in my mind was acting as if it belonged in the external world! This occurred only a few days into the retreat. Later came transportations into other realities, sometimes inhabited by sentient beings that – in one instance – took the form of a spider-like creature with the head of a buddha. Its legs were covered all over with asynchronously blinking eyes.
As the distinction between imagination and perception progressively fell away, there were experiences that might be described as telepathy. Once, I was able to “see” the colour and shape of a figure another retreatant was visualising. Another time, a vision showed me that someone had run into difficulties, even though he was in a distant room. Daniel Ingram reports a beam of light that surged from his body and flew across the room, into the flame of a candle, causing it to burn sideways (as he had consciously willed) for a few seconds. He raises the question whether a witness (had there been one) would have seen the same (Ingram 2018: 555-6). As every magician knows, magick is tricksy. Its results do not necessarily manifest in straightforward, literal ways.
I am only half joking when I describe a fire kasina retreat as a long, slow journey into psychosis and (hopefully) out again. The practice chips away until there is no boundary between mental imagery and perception. Reality then assumes a curiously molten quality: vivid, and filled as usual with inexhaustible detail, but strangely malleable and to some extent shapable by conscious intentions.
Professor Hans Gerding, alongside his research in the field of parapsychology, offers counselling sessions to people troubled by anomalous experiences. In a podcast interview, Gerding described how Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1819) can be useful for conceptualising paranormal experiences.
Schopenhauer asserts that among all the objects in the universe, there is only one object, relative to each of us – namely, our physical body – that is given in two entirely different ways. It is given as representation (i.e., objectively; externally) and as Will (i.e., subjectively; internally). One of his notable conclusions is that when we move our hand, this is not to be comprehended as a motivational act that first happens, and then causes the movement of our hand as an effect. He maintains that the movement of our hand is but a single act – again, like the two sides of a coin – that has a subjective feeling of willing as one of its aspects, and the movement of the hand as the other. More generally, he adds that the action of the body is nothing but the act of Will objectified, that is, translated into perception. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2017)
“Will” in Schopenhauer refers to the inner, subjective aspect of things. Individual consciousness is what we experience as the inner, subjective aspect of our body, and Schopenhauer suggests that all things possess this aspect in some way. Consequently, he situates Will in the place of Kant’s thing-in-itself: the universe is the expression of Will presented through the Kantian categories of space, time, and causality. This approach leads in interesting directions. The most relevant to us here is the idea that perception is not a window onto reality but a means by which Will manifests. Perception is an “outward” presentation of the “interior”. Of course, the two are not separate: the “outward” is the interior’s means of viewing itself. It then becomes comprehensible how concentration upon an object (that is, inward focusing upon an outward manifestation), reinstates the primacy of Will over presentation by bringing them together. This manoeuvre is the act of magick.
Professor Gerding remarks how Schopenhauer’s philosophy provides a space in which paranormal phenomena can occur:
Here lies the world of the paranormal, because it is possible to go – as it were – in the world of the Will, and go back into the world of phenomena at another place, another time, and when this happens people report precognitive dreams. […] These paranormal phenomena can only be explained if you take his philosophy seriously. (Ellis 2020: 20’37”)
For Kant the thing-in-itself is inaccessible, unknowable. But for Schopenhauer, if the universe is the objectification of Will as perception, and if we participate in Will through our own consciousness, then (as Gerding describes) would it not be possible to enter into Will in a way that might then influence how Will presents itself in perception?
Distraction, everyday consciousness, is a preoccupation with the representations by which Will manifests. But we can also use concentration to move in the opposite direction and enter more deeply into Will. The everyday use of concentration, of course, is simply for focusing on the presentations of Will. Magick, however, is when concentration is used instead to melt down perception into new shapes malleable by Will.
Those practices that select objects situated on the boundary between body and mind (e.g. sensations of the breath, or retinal after-images) seem particularly effective at quickly breaking down perception, as Schopenhauer’s philosophy might have led us to expect. But magick, of course, is not limited to these: any act with an intention of changing how reality manifests is likely to meet the criteria of magick. It will probably also employ concentration to an extraordinary degree in order to bring about its desired effect.
Ellis, James (2020). Hermitix: Schopenhauer and philosophical counselling with Hans Gerding. https://tinyurl.com/ya8vmy6a (podiant.co). Accessed December 2020.
Ingram, Daniel M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Revised and expanded edition. London: Aeon.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2017). Arthur Schopenhauer. https://tinyurl.com/y8sc6eg4 (stanford.edu). Accessed December 2020.