Tuesday, August 29, 2006

eyes wide shut

I used to sit according to the teaching of a Theravada school of Buddhist practicioners. The practice was similar to the Zen tradition of sitting, with a major difference being eyes were closed.

After reading about Zen for the past few years, I've recently begun sitting with my eyes open. The eyes-open thing is a bit distracting, though, and I'm not sure what the best technique/attitude is for the distraction.

At some point while sitting with my eyes open, my vision begins to swim, blur, or cloud over. What should my attitude be when this happens? Should I re-focus, or allow the blur to occur? If I let the blur continue, it usually obliterates my vision at some point, to the extent that I'm not sure if my eyes are even open anymore. It seems that at that point, I might as well close my eyes.

Is maintaining focus with the eyes the right thing to do, according to the Zen concept of maintaining the mind's focus?

Any insight from experienced Zen practitioners?


At August 29, 2006, Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...

I have heard different takes on this, and would love a more definitive answer. I find that when my eyes go compleatly out of focus that my monky mind starts working overtime so I would say that dosent work. When my eyes are focused it is usualy on a paint chip or anomoly in the wood and then I am realy concentrating on the anomoly and not on the moment. Therefore I tend to leave my eyes slightly out of focus.
best bet would most likely be to do what works best for you.
Anyone else?

At August 29, 2006, Blogger grisom said...

Sounds like you're not blinking; are you? I'd say if your eyes start to hurt and/or cloud over, you should probably blink them.

As to focussing, I was taught to keep a sort of "soft focus": that is, keeping your eyes on the same spot but not staring hard at it.

At August 30, 2006, Blogger Grim said...

Best bet is probably just to keep the eyes open and not worry too much bout what you think is happening with them.

When the thought of what you should do with your eyes occur treat it like any other thought and not so special.

At August 30, 2006, Blogger aumeye said...

I do as grisom does: keep a sort of soft focus. I focus on one spot or another; I see it, but I do not stare at it. It used to remind me of the way you had to look at those Magic Eye (I think that's what they're called) pictures in order to "see" the image emerge from the cacophony of colors. The way this works for me is to keep my eyes closer to halfway open than fully open. I also tend to choose a spot that is lower than eye level. This alleviates any feeling of eye strain.

At August 31, 2006, Blogger Kalsang Dorje said...


I think this is fabulous advice:

"When the thought of what you should do with your eyes occur treat it like any other thought and not so special."

For me, eyes open or closed happens when it happens. Being the odd Vajrayana practicioner, I find that during visualization my eyes are usually more prone to close, but not always.

I guess its another thing to use to trigger mindfulness.

At August 31, 2006, Blogger nai wakara said...


At August 31, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Thanks for all the feedback. I have been trying different combinations of eyes focused/unfocused, open/closed, and different types of breathing, and noticing the effect on thoughts and concentration.

I also received the following input from a trusted advisor on matters of Dharma:

"Some people prefer to meditate with eyes open and some with them closed. Bottom line is what works best for you. As far as the 'official' zen position though... You are supposed to let them stay open or half-open. Your gaze should be 'un-focused'. If your eyes blur and you can't tell what's in front of you, this is what is supposed to happen. It isn't the same as having them closed because the darkness of closed eyes (as opposed to the diffuse light of blurred vision) tends to make most people fall asleep or become drowsy."

"In seated zazen, the main focus of attention is inward, so the lack of focused vision is irrelevant. In active forms of zazen, obviously the focus is both inward and outward... which is what makes it so difficult. Hope all is well with you."

At September 01, 2006, Blogger PA said...

I always just assumed the keeping your eyes open thing in Zazen was to avoid falling asleep and day dreaming. So I do that "soft focus" kinda thing too. I can't keep my eyes focused on one point for long anyway - my eyes just seem to retreat naturally somewhere just in front.

At September 02, 2006, Blogger nai wakara said...

aah. half-closed or half open?

At September 02, 2006, Blogger PA said...

Mine are half-closed :-)

At September 04, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

i was curious about this post so i emailed mike luetchford (one of gudo nishijima's dharma heirs) with the question. this is what he said about the whole eyes thing:

" My view is a little different from the "official" zen position. It is better to sit with eyes open naturally, but it is not wrong to close the eyes from time to time. However closing the eyes causes us to focus only on our internal state, and so we cannot find the balance that is the essence of

If we look at the different aspects of zazen we can usually find two opposite states. But the essential state of zazen is always the middle between these two opposite states.

For example, we don't sit with our body leaning to the left or to the right,but balanced in the centre, where the whole weight of the body and head acts down through the sacrum onto the pelvis.

We don't sit with our backs relaxed and slightly rounded, and we don't sit with our backs held super straight, which causes tension in the spinal muscles. We sit with the back held naturally straight, so that we are neither slouching nor over straightening the back.

In the same way, we don't sit with our eyes focused in detail on what is in front of us, and we don't sit with our eyes glazed over and focusing inwards. We allow our gaze to fall on whatever is in front of us. We don't "look at" what is in front of us, but we do "see" what is in front of us.
And everything in front of us looks clear and natural.

All these are postures in the middle of two extremes. We are finding balance. We are finding the middle way between all extremes.

So in summary, neither focusing intently on what is in front of us, nor letting our focus of attention go inwards. Simply with eyes open, we let our gaze take in the outside world. It is not difficult to do this when we let
go of distractions. It is called "just sitting" or shikan taza" in Japanese. When we are just sitting, we are just breathing, just seeing, just hearing, and so on. All is natural.

At September 05, 2006, Blogger Drunken Monkey said...

I found that in the beginning days of zazen, that my vision blurred or clouded over when I practiced zazen.
However after a week or so of zazen, vision became clear and vivid.
Maybe the same will happen to you, maybe not.

Just remember not to focus too much, but also remember that you must be aware of what you are doing and what is in front of your eyes. momentary awareness is important.

At September 09, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

i also asked gudo nishijima about the eyes in zazen. this is what he said about it:

"When our vision begins to swim, blur, or cloud over, we should stretch the spine straight vertically to have our sight refocused, and we should not allow the blur to occur. We should maintain focus with the eyes, according to the Zen concept of maintaining mind and body focused."

"The eyes should be open during Zazen. The back of the neck should be kept straight as far as possible, and so the chin should be replaced a little downward and backward. It is wrong for us to keep the eyes half-open. Your gaze should be focused to avoid becoming sleepy or sleeping."

"In Zazen the focused situations do not have any difference between inward and outward, therefore the lack of the focus can be seen clearly. In Zazen it is necessary for us to look at something concretely, and it is impossible for human beings to distinguish inward and outward at all.

At February 14, 2007, Blogger Blue Heron Zen Buddhist Centre said...

Bring your awareness back to your breathing. When your mind becomes attached to what is going on with your eyes, it is the mind doing what it wants to do, so go back to your breathing. Many people who have difficulty with the eyes blurring or clouding over are holding the eye area too tense. Try beginning your sitting by looking straight ahead and then look down at a 45 deg. angle, as if you were looking at something there. There is no trying, simply doing. I hope that helps.

At August 28, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Bodhidharma, as legend would have it, cut off his eyelids to keep from blinking; and the spot where they fell grew a tea plant. The Tea Ceremony, to a large extent, pays tribute to the practicality of Bodhidharma's exaggerated effort.

I will agree with others here that the clouding of the vision is a result of the attention drawing itself inward to a point that's imbalanced with impermanence. However, with unblinking eyes, invariably there will be an altogether different clouding of the vision. It will be the eyes cleansing itself by watering (Bodhidharma watered the tea plant). After the eyes are cleansed, balance of permanence to impermanence having been established, and no internal or external stimuli aroused due to an absolute stillness of muscles, thought and involuntary blinking, kensho manifests, in time, 24/7. Eko-henso after that.

The non-blinking of the eyes is what excludes zennists from having to compliment zazen with astral or lucid dream work, where eko-hensho is utilized.

If you blink, kensho is impossible.

With the eyes closed, and astral or lucid dream work isn't implemented, an incomplete integration through the void is assured.

Any esteemed Abbot will agree, FWIW.

At October 12, 2008, Blogger georgemasters said...

I am experiencing something similar, but I am also seeing colored patterns swirling around in my vision. along with the soft focused vision. I'm also noticing that my mind is almost or completely free of thought when this happens. If I begin to analyze or "look" for it to happen it doesn't come. It varys in intensity. I don't know what the heck is going on. It feels nice, but it is beginning to interfer with my meditation.


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