Eyes Open: What do I Do With My Eyes During Zazen?

Eyes looking down meditating with eyes open eyes open meditation
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Eyes open meditation or eyes closed? Various schools of Buddhism, take different approaches on what to do with your eyes during meditation. Here are some things that helped me do zazen with my eyes open. It’s something that stymied me at first, and occasionally still does.

Like many people, I first approached meditating as a self-improvement project (and sometimes still do). Sitting was a tool to help me relax, get over the “mememe,” get out of my head, and get “grounded.” It seemed evident (to me) that meditation “should” be done with your eyes closed.

Closing your eyes, I thought, was a way to improve focus on your breath and relax. Shut out the visual world, it seemed to me, and I might also shut out intrusive thoughts along with it.

So when I first encountered zazen (Zen sitting meditation) and was instructed to keep my eyes partially open, it stymied me for a while.

The way I was first taught was this:

  • look down
  • pick a place on the floor a few feet in front of you
  • put your eyes there.

Sounds easy enough.

What I found, though, was that I was really focusing on that spot on the floor. Intensely, like I had laser beam eyes and was trying to blast a hole in the damned spot. So much that I was sometimes giving myself a slight frontal headache doing so.

Finally, I went on a retreat and asked the teacher, “Why do we keep our eyes open during zazen?”

Initially, he chucked a bit and said, “Because it’s the best way.”

He that this was a non-response along the lines of telling your kid, “because I said so.”

But, fortunately, he went on. Our eyes are our masters, he explained. Most people are exceptionally visually dominant, and we think we need to shut everything out to sit. But zazen isn’t about shutting things out.

Letting our eyes be open, we can include everything but in a way that doesn’t allow our usual visual dominance to distract us.

Or something like that. My cat constantly wants to test me on this.

Another teacher, along the same lines, spoke of how we tend to peer. Precisely what I was doing to that spot on the floor and the source of my distress.

He gave me one of the, perhaps, most apparent but most helpful pieces of advice I’ve received about this problem: use your peripheral vision.

Rest your eyes on that spot 3-4′ ahead of you1 instead of shooting laser canons out of them. Soften and expand your vision, then, to include everything in your periphery.

Approaching zazen this way, I’ve found, usually keeps me from the headache-inducing laser vision to which I’m susceptible.2

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  1. Or however far it takes to be able to look down without straining your eyes and keeping your neck straight. []
  2. But if my eyes actually had lasers, oh think what I could do! []
Perplexity

Perplexity

Perplexity likes to write, tries to get herself to sit daily, and is working on changing the dukkha she can and accepting the dukkha she cannot change.

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