A Fire Kasina Retreat: Elemental Magick and the Holy Guardian Angel

A few weeks ago I returned from the toughest meditation retreat ever. Twelve of the roughest, most humiliating days. Rough, because suicidal ideation is never fun. Humiliating, because I was the gibbering nutcase of the group. After thirty-odd years of practising meditation I had supposed I was past getting my arse kicked so badly.

A castle in Europe
A castle in Europe.
It was an independently organised event; nine of us, in a small castle on the edge of a forest somewhere in Europe. Our practice was fire kasina – not a common one these days, although this type of meditation is described extensively in the classical Buddhist manuals.

A kasina is a physical object that acts as a target for concentration. Kasinas come in various forms, sometimes as coloured disks (blue kasina, yellow kasina, etc.), or sometimes with elemental properties, such as a disk made of clay, a bowl of water, or an empty aperture of some kind (respectively, the kasinas of earth, water and air). We chose what is perhaps the most convenient form of fire kasina: a simple candle flame.

Kasina practise involves focusing on your chosen object with eyes open, for a relatively short period, until a retinal after-image develops. At this point the eyes are closed and the after-image is taken as the object of concentration proper. Next, peculiar things begin to happen. The meditator enters a realm where the distinction between perceptions and mental images is less apparent than in daily life. As one’s baseline level of concentration increases, so the boundary between external perception and internal mentation becomes increasingly attenuated.

Kasina meditation is a means of access to the realm of the siddhis (psychic powers). It cultivates a state of mind in which visions, out-of-body travel and contact with discarnate entities become vivid, lived experiences. Veridical telepathic and clairvoyant experiences are less common, but may also make an appearance within this state.

Its connection with siddhis is probably one reason why this practice is not commonly taught. Another is that twenty minutes daily, albeit not without benefit, is simply inadequate to develop the concentration required to experience the dramatic stuff. This demands retreat conditions; at the very least, ten days of concerted effort.

A kasina retreat is an occasion for practising magick in a Buddhist style. In secular terms, I would describe it as a long, slow journey into psychosis, and (hopefully) back again.

Bat-shit crazy

I had some stressful psychological issues before the retreat, and was hoping to use it as an opportunity to confront them. I set an intention to meet my Holy Guardian Angel (HGA) in the ultra-realistic vision-space that kasina practice provides, hoping for powerful healing effects. Things started well enough. After a couple of days focusing on the candle and stoking up my concentration, I closed my eyes on getting into bed and my visual field was scored with a luminous sigil. When I opened my eyes it was gone, but back again each time I closed them. Not quite a perception, yet more than a mental image, it conveyed a sense that something had me marked for attention.

Two days later, 4.45am, I was woken by three loud knocks at the bedroom door. The rhythm was forceful, urgent, and sent my heart pounding in my throat. No one was outside and my roommate had not stirred. Both incidents signalled that my angel was on its way, but during the days that separated them, somehow, my concentration had fallen apart. I could not focus on the candle for even a few seconds. Unhelpful thoughts started to make themselves heard: “If I cannot do even this, then what do I have left?” I was sucked into deep and painful depression. My whole life seemed a failure. I hadn’t enough painkillers in my luggage to do the job, so the only option was to hang myself in the woods. I also kept falling into episodes of panicky derealisation; a line from Dick’s Ubik seemed to encapsulate this: “He felt all at once like an ineffectual moth, fluttering at the windowpane of reality, dimly seeing it from outside.” I was locked out from what was truly real, barred from getting back in, yet terrified that if I succeeded I would only be overwhelmed by what was inside. The meditation was harmful; it would only send me mad. How could I get through the following days without killing myself or going bat-shit crazy with panic?

A sliver of me retained enough sense to talk with the teacher. What helped was his reassurance that I could let myself panic, go nuts, whatever; the group would take care of me. Strengthened, I climbed back onto the saddle, and realised I had been resisting the build-up of concentration, fearful of re-entering states similar to my recent, traumatic dalliance with LSD. But once my concentration really was up, it actually wasn’t so bad. The rest of the group now had three days’ march on me, and were hitting the dramatic stuff. The best I could hope for now was a meeting with the angel just before the retreat was due to end.

Stream flowing through woods.
The magicks of earth and water.
During the preceding dark days I came down with a cold, including wheezing lungs and coughing fits. In the communal practice room I was disturbing others, so I went to the woods to practise. Because I had set an intention to meet my HGA, then at dawn, midday and dusk each day I stood by the same tree stump, surrounded by a rough circle of young trees, and performed “The Bornless Ritual”, an invocation used by Crowley specifically for this purpose. Nearby, a stream meandered through the wood. By its bank were older trees, their base and lower flanks dressed in spongy moss. On dry days, the leaf litter seethed with spiders and vicious-looking ants, so I made my seat upon the cool, damp moss, leaning against a gnarled tree trunk, beside the trickling water.

I learnt much about elemental magick on this retreat. Although there was a part of me never in any doubt my angel would appear, predictably this occurred in a totally unpredictable manner.

Spirits of place

There was no candle flame out in the woods. For a few days, it rained softly. I put on my waterproofs and sank gently into the earth for hours. Psychologically, I was frazzled; fire was probably the least suitable element for me to be working with, but in the woods I could surround myself with water and earth. I learnt that whatever kasina you choose, it penetrates into your mind, revealing strange insights.

You stare at the kasina until a retinal after-image forms, and then you close your eyes. A yellow candle flame would be expected to produce a bluish retinal after-image that fades after a few seconds. But this is not what happens. Instead, concentration on the after-image produces an ovoid shape of vivid, yellowish-green. Within the oval, minute filigree details, resembling golden gears or cogs, can be observed; and sometimes, around its edge at regular intervals, exquisitely tiny blue-green dots. This curious visual object is called the nimitta. As concentration develops, the nimitta undergoes distinct changes. From the ovoid it transforms into an intensely bright red dot; next, a crater-like black dot; then it fades entirely, and the background of the visual field assumes prominence. This is the most challenging phase of the practice, but if the concentration can become wide and expansive, yet without straining or spacing out, then, eventually, out of the murky greyness of the background will emerge intense multi-sensory visions.

Initially, the candle flame was required to produce the nimitta. But, after a few days, everyone was reporting the nimitta showing up spontaneously, or at will, without the need for any physical object to produce an after-image. It is as if kasina practice builds an internal reservoir of concentration that, after a certain point, becomes self-sustaining.

A couple of days into the retreat, when I closed my eyes I could see a circulating mass in the centre of the visual field. Again: it was neither a perception nor a mental image. The more I practised, the stronger it seemed to grow. In the woods, I only had to focus on it and the nimitta would appear from out of it, proceeding through its usual stages. The pulsating mass persisted for a few days after the retreat, but gradually faded. It had a strange sense of agency, as if it were something internal but somehow with its own character. Although others were experiencing spontaneous appearances of the nimitta, none seemed to recognise my description of the circulating mass.

I would visit the practice room when my lungs were better or no one else was there, but increasingly I carried the woods with me indoors. Indoors, the nimitta would arise from the candle flame, shining brightly, but against a mass of living, growing tendrils and roots. These slyly formed an arch, the nimitta at its apex, a lamp lighting a passageway deep inside the earth. In the vision space, sometimes I descended into these spaces, sinking down past roots and swathes of cold, wet moss, from within which a single eye would open for a moment and sluggishly close. Impish, mocking faces with a faery vibe would sometimes form. They took delight in the difficulties I experienced with the practice. Others had encountered similar beings, and one day we performed a banishing in the practice room, in case obstructive elementals were finding their way inside.

The most intense visions of the retreat, such as my concentration could provide, for I didn’t reach the level required for the high-end stuff, were encounters with spirits of place. For instance: out in the woods lay a giant made of flint. He was partially buried, partially disinterred, and endured this state forever: never completely emerging from the earth, never completely concealed. Another time, a board buried in soil was turned and, stuck to the other side, a giant, mottled grub, its flesh soft like a caterpillar’s, and papery, like the fabric of a wasp’s nest. Then something insectoid, green, and with compound eyes came creeping across leaf litter on long, black, filament legs. From its pipe-like mouth it breathed an iridescent blue vapour.

These spirits of the woods were only passingly interested in me, but mostly preoccupied by their own mysterious functions. They seemed personifications of geological processes; amalgamated images of what thrives in subterranean damp, or on the dry forest floor. I learnt that when you give yourself to an environment, focusing on its objects to the exclusion of what might otherwise occupy your mind, then that environment extends inside you to reveal things otherwise unseen. The gift of these spirits was the cooling, grounding, stabilising properties of water and earth. I had not until then properly appreciated the revitalising qualities of these elements.

Abramelin in twelve days

The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage is the standard ritual for attaining contact with the HGA, but ever since an earlier and different translation of the text was found from the one published by S.L. Mathers, there has been disagreement among occultists over whether the Abramelin working should last six months or eighteen. In the heat of this debate, it has been overlooked how Aleister Crowley, having previously attained contact via the orthodox, Abramelin route, very specifically describes in John St. John (Liber 860) a different style of attaining the very same result – but in a mere twelve days.

Knowing that this was possible prevented me from losing hope that my HGA would appear in time. The sigil and the three knocks were signs he was coming. Performing the Bornless Rite three times daily seemed like overkill. One evening, two colleagues expressed an interest in seeing the ritual. “It’s just a middle-aged bloke saying things,” I warned them. Sometimes the atmosphere in the woods seemed altered by the words into expectancy and presence. But often, nothing special happened.

Person on a lawn turning to look at rainbow cloud.
A curious rainbow cloud.
After the three of us had attended the ritual, at dinner we noticed an unusual rainbow cloud near the southern horizon. It is the duty of the magician to interpret everything as a message from God to his or her soul. A rainbow, of course, is the classic symbol of hope, of the covenant between heaven and earth, so I took it as another sure-fire signal of my angel’s arrival.

Yet the problem remained that, because of my meltdown near the start, I hadn’t achieved the level of concentration needed for the immersive, multi-sensory vision that I had been aiming for. Some of the others were already enjoying such experiences but, as the penultimate day of the retreat began, I was still in the “dark night” phase: I was irritable and sick of the whole thing. Part of me expected to end the retreat back where I had started, and wanted only to finish now and go back home.

In the afternoon, I sat in the woods with the sunlight on my face. I noticed that complex sigils were appearing spontaneously against the visual field. They had a yellow or yellow-green colour and seemed composed of alphanumeric characters from unknown alphabets, with woven-in fragments of geometric designs, and little glyphs resembling stylized faces and animals. It looked like a kind of mock “Aztec” writing. Each sigil arose spontaneously out of nothing, endured for a moment, then faded before it was overwritten suddenly by the next. This spectacle produced in me a feeling of endlessness and pointlessness.

I had a headache I could not shake, and kept deciding to take some pills, except the pain seemed a useful object to practise with. My concentration was shot, so I had resorted to vipassana rather than kasina, just for something to do. By then it was evening. Sitting again in the woods, I noticed the headache had gone and my ability to concentrate was back. It seemed I was in the next phase of the practice, “equanimity”. This conclusion held as I tried to “break” the newly-found state by thinking intentionally about all the upsetting things that had previously wrecked my concentration. The new state was spacious enough to allow all thoughts to come and go without being swept along with them.

Just before lunch on the final day, even as my mind filled with thoughts about the journey home and the impending return to daily life, at last the angel came. In the woods, sitting in the sun, I noticed again the “Aztec” writing, only this time I saw how each preceding sigil was not appearing suddenly, but gradually morphing from the one preceding it. Instead of the sense of pointlessness this evoked the day before, it struck me as the communication of a complex message, some intense and lengthy incantation.

Tree stump surrounded by a rough circle of trees.
An altar in the woods.
In the distance a gust of wind gathered and began its approach. The treetops swayed and sighed as it sought me out and swirled the leaf litter with a spiral eddy. At my right hand, like a tall and ancient tree, a magnificent presence: vast, luminous, and sweetly fulfilling. Beautiful beyond all words. And then it dawned on me that the internal nimitta, that “circulating mass”, is the HGA.

I was looking right at it. I had been looking at it, all along. That which I had longed and hoped for, and had been participating in the practice to attain, was already here; it was the practice. There had never been anything to do for union with my angel other than turn attention to it, for there it was, always at hand.

Not in the way I had supposed, nevertheless my intention had been realised. The retreat was a success. (Except, in magick, in a sense there is never any failure, because only an understanding dependent upon causality can produce an experience of something that does not work, and this is not the understanding of a magician.)

I was not anywhere close to the standard of concentration required for a full-blown, high resolution vision, but the angel had found a way to manifest regardless. The experience was not even a “fruition”, the technical term in Buddhist vipassana meditation for the climactic, self-obliterating moment of full insight into reality. It was simply a magickal result, a synchronicity. But this was a new revelation as far as I was concerned: the love of the HGA is so great, it stoops to connect and communicate through whatever sufficient conditions the magician is capable of extending.

Hygienic Everyday Magic

Bureau d'Hygiène
Photo by chantrybee, CC-BY

Recently, I read up on hygienic macros in functional programming languages. (Unless you are into very geeky details of computer science, you do not have to follow that link.) Thought processes diverged and branched out and recombined, and I present you with the resulting definition of Hygienic Magic:

Hygienic Magic is magic whose working is guaranteed not to cause the accidental capture of mental identifications.

To further parody the Wikipedia article I linked: The general problem of accidental capture is well known within the magical community. Magicians will use banishing rituals and dedicated temple spaces to define the location and duration of a ritual, and to remove any residual, unwanted identifications, for example after invoking an entity.

In other words, most formal, ceremonial magical acts are hygienic.

Every intentional act is a Magical Act.

So what about the everyday intentional, magical acts where we do not set up a temple and banish thoroughly before and after? Should we be worried about contracting astral diseases off door handles? Should we expect demons behind every street corner ready to possess us? Will we ourselves become vehicles of contagion?

No. But there is a class of intentional acts which carry a high possibility of capturing mental identifications: reading or otherwise accessing or interacting with information. To a degree, the new identifications are desired and expected: by reading a book on Chaos Magic, I want to identify with being someone who knows more about the subject.

What if the book carries other, less overt information suitable for identification? By reading a text by Julius Evola for example, I will also be exposed to his latent fascism and appreciation of the nazi “order” of the SS. Will this turn me into a reactionary genocidal black brother? Not immediately, I am sure. And maybe not in the long term either, depending on my other identifications and preferences. I already know that the author had ideological affiliations which I reject, so I will be alert and my magical act of intentionally reading Evola will likely be a hygienic one.

How about reading Peter Carroll’s blog, an influential writer who is very competent in magic but whose political leanings were not previously on my mental radar? Are the identitarian overtones which I encounter there worthy of my consideration because I am so used to having my preconceived notions about reality challenged by this magician, or are they just more of the murky banality of the dark enlightenment? Or did Peter Carroll himself neglect hygiene by picking up this stray right-wing identification? And of course, questions like these should arise in me not only when accessing texts by magical writers, but when interacting with any information in general.

Protective Sigil (ineffectual without personal transformation)

Unfortunately, I know of no simple banishing ritual that will wipe away all traces of accidentally captured identifications. It is tempting to believe that wearing a suitable sigil or chanting a certain mantra will give me the magical equivalent of a condom protecting me from the exchange of fluids and energies during intellectual intercourse, but I am convinced that nothing short of a personal transformation into being more watchful and critical – and hygienic – in the everyday magical act of consuming information is necessary.


“The Monkey’s Paw” (1902) is a supernatural tale of suspense written by W.W. Jacobs. And monkeyspawed is a slang-term I’ve heard, used by magickians to describe a particular way in which magick can rebound.

For instance, Boffo and I monkeyspawed ourselves handsomely in a recent working. I had been suffering from recurrent headaches and devised a ritual to balance my ajna chakra. Boffo was assisting, so I broadened the intention to include him. “It is our will,” we declared at the beginning of the ritual, “to balance our ajna chakras”.

It was a couple of weeks, and required the acumen of a third party, before we arrived at an explanation of the puzzling outcome of the working, because, the next day, I had my usual headache (although not quite as bad as usual) and Boffo had one as well. So we had indeed “balanced” our ajna chakras, in the sense that Boffo’s ajna chakra had been rendered as equally fucked-up as mine.

Skeletal figure on the cover of the 7th Pan Book of Horror.
The book in which, as a kid, I first read Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”.

The paw in Jacobs’ tale is a dried-up talisman with the power to grant three wishes, but it has left a trail of unhappiness. Its magick, we are informed, comes from a holy fakir who placed a spell upon it because: “He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow”. The hero of the tale, Mr. White, wishes for some cash to pay off his mortgage, only to receive the sum he requested as compensation for his son’s death in an industrial accident. Distraught with grief, Mrs. White persuades her husband to wish for the return of their son, and later that night knocking is heard at their door. Mr. White identified their son’s body, saw how badly mutilated he was by the accident, and can’t prevent himself from thinking how being buried for the past ten days might not have improved matters. And so White deploys the remaining wish, just as his wife flings open the door and – to Mr. White’s relief – discovers no one is there: “A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery…”

However, the lesson of “The Monkey’s Paw” cannot be simply that magick is evil or inevitably produces harm, because the fakir who made the spell is described as “a very holy man”, and his magick (unlike White’s) is successful in realising its purpose. Yet the demonstration of the fakir’s teaching is made at the expense of others who fail to see in advance that by using the paw and asserting their own desire, they are in fact subjecting themselves to someone else’s will.

Is it not odd that a morality tale highlighting the inadequacy of individual will should hinge so crucially upon language? “Getting monkeyspawed” usually implies a magickal intention that is verbally incomplete or ambiguously worded, as in the example of Boffo and I screwing ourselves over with the word “balance”. Wiccans habitually append the expression “an it harm none” onto their magickal intentions, and it might be supposed that if Mr. White had taken this simple measure it would have protected him from much distress, or at least have posed a greater challenge to the fakir’s intentions. Yet the Wiccans, sweet as they may be, are really only hedging the issue, because identifying what we don’t want to happen (i.e. harm) has always been easier than ascertaining and taking responsibility for our true desire.

And is it not equally odd how the notions of imposing will and of faults in linguistic expression match so closely the two definitions of magick bequeathed to us by Crowley? Namely: (1) ‘the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will’ (1913: 124); but also (2) his less-quoted definition of magick as ‘a disease of language’ (1913: 185). What is this strange link in magick between the vulnerability of will and the inadequacy of language?

“Disease of language” is an expression taken by Crowley from Max Müller’s ideas on the formation of myths. Müller asserted that myths were a linguistic corruption caused when abstract concepts become personified (1866: 12). Crowley describes – for instance – how Thoth was originally just a guy who invented writing (1913: 185), not the terrible ibis-headed deity that sprang into being after writing itself was personified. Yet the advantage of personification is the creation of a linguistic hook to assist further thought. Magick, like myth, Crowley suggests, is a linguistic process for bringing the abstract into manifestation through personification.

Man with the head of an ibis writing in a book.
Thoth. Supernatural being, or just a regular guy who happened to invent writing?

From this perspective, magick as ‘Change in conformity with Will’ is complementary, for when we will this too is a process of personification: we experience an impulse and then we own it and experience it as “ours”. Will is the personification of desire, because each time we say “It is my will…”, this is an identification with experience. Suddenly, a desire belongs to someone; it becomes what that someone wants. The act of willing brings into existence an entity every bit as mythological as Thoth: the I. For if the disease of language is personification, then every “I”, “me” and “mine” is a symptom.

Given that magick consists in personification of or identification with desire, this creates the possibility of intentions that fulfil a desire which turns out not to be “ours”. In the case of Boffo and I, we both experienced headaches when we actually wanted to be free from them. A desire was fulfilled, but the identification with that desire was not. We got what we did not want because we identified a desire rather than identifying with it. We fell victim to language in its literal mode rather than the diseased form in which magick resides. Our language wasn’t diseased enough to prevent what happened from fitting the intention. If our language had been diseased enough there would have been only what we wanted in the intention (because it would have been “ours”), and so what actually happened wouldn’t have appeared to fit, and would have passed without notice.

In “The Monkey’s Paw”, presumably Mr. White is identified with the desires he expresses in his three wishes. However, we have seen already that there is another desire in play, the desire of the fakir, which is namely that others shall realise their wants are ineffectual and that they are subject purely to fate. Anything Mr. White wishes for is therefore foiled from the outset. He cannot use language magically to personify his desire, because he himself is a personification within the diseased language of the fakir, a personification of the typical person who is incapable of realising his desire.

The only wish of Mr. White’s that is fulfilled is the wish to send back his son to the grave. As a personification, Mr. White’s desire to cease desiring is the only one that can be met, which is associated in the tale with wishing dead the one that he loves.

“The Monkey’s Paw” is a morality tale, a genre that relies on personification to transmit its message. At this level, the fakir is presumably a personification also – but of what? A number of possibilities suggest themselves. Maybe he represents the Divine, as the ultimate source of all experience. On a more psychological level, maybe he is the unconscious. Or maybe he is language itself. In any case, he represents a force that alienates us from our desire. What the story seems to demonstrate is not that magick is necessarily evil, but that its efficacy – and ours – is undermined when we are barred from the process of expressing and exploring our own desire. When we cannot use diseased language to personify desire, we are trapped in a nightmarish world where what is said is literally what is, with no space for change.

The horror of “The Monkey’s Paw” is how we cease to be people and become personifications when our capacity to wish is taken away. Magick fails not when we wish for too much, but when we are prevented from engaging with our true desires.


Crowley, A. (1913 [2000]) Magick: Liber ABA Book Four. Weiser: York Beach, ME.

Jacobs, W.W. (1902 [1906]) “The Monkey’s Paw”. In: The Lady of the Barge. Sixth edition. London & New York: Harper & Brothers.

Müller, M. (1866) Lectures on the Science of Language. Fifth edition. London: Longmans & Green.