Eyes open

Much has changed since I began my meditation practice several years ago. I’ve experimented with multiple ways of sitting and found that the Japanese seiza position (legs folded under) and the Burmese position (legs crossed in front) work best for me. I’ve tried different things with my hands, too. Resting them together in a gable grip, resting the back of one in the palm of the other, interlocking the fingers and letting the tips of my thumbs hold each other up, keeping the hands separate and placing each palm-down upon my knee or thigh, keeping the hands separate but palm-up and with the thumbs touching the index fingers ever so lightly.

I’ve tried meditating to music, meditating to silence (via earbuds) and meditating with only the sounds of the space around me. I’ve tried to breathe solely through the nose and solely through the mouth. I’ve tried to practice with a wry grin on my face and with a face devoid of expression. I’ve tried modulating the velocity of my breathing, deliberately slowing it and deliberately speeding it up, and I’ve tried letting it come and go as it pleases.

I’ve tried many approaches with the mind as well. I’ve tried focusing solely on breathing in and breathing out. I’ve tried breathing ladders of varying lengths—inhale for one, exhale for one, inhale for two, exhale for two… I’ve tried repeating phrases and mantras to myself and I’ve done a tiny bit of exploration with ommm-like chants. I’ve utilised body scans and I’ve began sessions with the hunt for and dismissal of muscular tension. I’ve tried to concentrate on loving-kindness and on compassion, for myself and for others. I’ve tried not concentrating or focusing on anything, zazen-style, and just observed the paths that my mind was determined to walk. Most recently, I’ve gone back to noticing only the out-breath and trying my best to remain with it. But throughout all this, one thing has not changed—what I do with my eyes.

I close them.


Eyes shut is what my first contact with meditation texts advised. So I did it. And as I made my way through more texts—books by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Bhante Gunaratana, Pema Chodron, Alan Watts, and several others—this instruction was affirmed. And if it was contradicted I chose not to notice it, or to notice it and disregard it. Why, though?

For most of my meditation journey, I’ve associated the shutting of my eyes with enclosure in a panic room. It is like closing my eyes has been a way to nope out of my current situation and trade it for one in which I can be motionless, light, and composed. With my eyes shut the small details in my immediate environment have more trouble distracting me. With my eyes shut, stress and anxiety can be more easily shed. With my eyes shut, I can fool myself into inhabiting a different time and space from the one I truly occupy. With my eyes shut, it is easier, wherever I am. In a hotel room, at a friend’s house, on holiday, at work—wherever I happen to be, when I shut my eyes I see the same comforting nothingness that is the back of my eyelids.

Until recently, I’ve had no reason to question this component of my meditation practice. But then I started to fall asleep. As part of my oxygen-instead-of-coffee experiment, I’ve found it increasingly hard to remain alert in the mornings. Especially when I rise at my usual pre-dawn time of between 0430 and 0600. Shortly after waking I sit down to meditate. But without caffeine—or, at least, without the promise of consuming it shortly—I find it hard to muster any energy or momentum. Enter Thomas Cleary.


Cleary is a renowned scholar of Eastern thought and a prodigious translator of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and Muslim classics. The only one of his works that I possessed was his translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—the same translation of Sun Tzu’s text that military strategist and fighter pilot John Boyd thought best. Recently, I regained my interest in mindfulness and the religions and traditions that underpin it, so I turned to Cleary.

Looking through his works on Amazon, I was excited to find a book called Minding Mind: A Course In Basic Meditation. It is a collection of seven talks and texts, from various ages, about “pure, clear meditation”. I bought it, it arrived, and after I’d cleared my commons-backlog, I began it. The first text is by Chan Master Hongren and it is called the Treatise on the Supreme Vehicle. Amongst other things, it says this:

“If there are beginners learning to sit and meditate, follow the directions in The Scripture on Visualisation of Infinite Life: sit straight, accurately aware, with eyes closed and mouth shut. Mentally gaze evenly before you, as near or as far as you wish: visualise the sun, preserving the true mind, keeping your attention on it uninterruptedly. Then tune your breathing, not letting it fluctuate between coarseness and fineness, for that causes illness and pain.”

Next up is Chan Master Cijiao of Changlu with Models for Sitting Meditation. Amongst other things, he says this:

“The eyes should be slightly open, to avoid bringing on oblivion and drowsiness. If you are going to attain meditation concentration, that power is supreme. In ancient times there were eminent monks specialising in concentration practice who always kept their eyes open when they sat. Chan Master Fayun Yuantong also scolded people for sitting in meditation with their eyes closed, calling it a ghost cave in a mountain of darkness. Evidently there is deep meaning in this, of which adepts are aware.”

Not twenty pages into Minding Mind two of its texts are talking about meditation but advising different things. Eyes shut versus Eyes open. This time, for the first time, I listened. And when I dropped caffeine and experienced problems remaining awake during meditation, I took that message to heart and opened my eyes.


So far, Eyes open has been profoundly better. The internal chatter that I always find so distracting is still there, but it is both less alluring and easier to pull myself out of. I also find it easier to maintain my posture. With my eyes closed, I end up swaying and eventually slouching—that happens less when my eyes are open.

The only issue is that when my eyes are open I don’t see the same thing as everyone else. Or, I do, but in less detail. See, I’m long-sighted. I wear glasses and when I meditate I take them off. Which means what I see is my surroundings, but strongly blurred.

three stages of sight

I’ve always seen my faulty vision as a tiny handicap. But when it comes to meditation I think it is actually a blessing. It permits me a transitional stage between Eyes shut and Eyes open. I can have my eyes wide and still not see with perfect clarity—I get the increased alertness from having my eyes open, but I don’t have to deal with the consequences of sharp and constant visual stimuli.

Speaking more abstractly, this shift to Eyes open seems like a new semantic version of myself. I no longer need to shut my eyes, to closet myself in my attachments and aversions, to seek endless comfort in my hopes and fears. But at the same time, I do not yet see with an unobstructed lens. I am out of the darkness but I still linger in the shade, not yet ready to expose myself fully to the rays of the sun.