Learning to see: Yoga and the eyes

buddha's eyes
buddha's eyes
I am learning to see. I don’t know why it is, but everything enters me more deeply and doesn’t stop where it once used to. I have an interior that I never knew of…
— Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Yoga is the process of moving beyond our habitual view, clouded with distractions and doubts, to gain insight into our true nature which is open and present; connected to all beings. Bringing awareness to the senses supports this process. In Hatha yoga, (asana,pranayama and meditation) we practice with a focused drishti  or gaze to release the eyes from external distraction and clearly experience the state of our being: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual . The word tapas in Sanskrit means heat- the heat or brilliance that arises when we set limits for the senses, corralling the tendency to move towards what we want and push away what we don’t want. When we steady our gaze in a yoga posture we still the tendency of the eyes to hook onto things in our environment, flitting from one to the next. Suddenly the breath becomes palpable and the internal experience of asana is available

The eyes are equated with the element of fire (or tejas in Sanskrit) due to their flickering, consuming nature. 70% of our neurological input flows in through the eyes so we are constantly flooded with sensory stimulation, translating to a busy mind. By stilling the gaze we gain the ability to look inward instead of continual outward projection.

The process of meditation is described in terms of clear seeing: vipassana or insight.  Vipassana meditation trains in observingthe mind, seeing thoughts as they come into being and pass along, bringing a range of emotion from joy to sorrow to fear.  This is valuable because we cultivate the ability to let go of thoughts and habitual patterns noting that no matter their strength they do eventually pass away.  Through vipassana we experience the clarity of mind beneath the thought patterns, inherently empty and brilliant.

Samyag-drishti or total view is the first step on the Buddhist eight fold path which leads from suffering or delusion to freedom. This lens illuminates the nature of reality: all experiences are transitory or impermanent and conditioned and all beings are not separate but part of the vast universe. Avidya means to ignore or overlook the truth of this total view. The Buddha describes the path from suffering to insight or wisdom prajna  “like a blind man learning to see.”

In many teachings including the Bhagavad Gita and Tibetan Buddhist texts the mind is described as a wild horse best trained when placed in an spacious corral because the nature of a horse is to roam, just as the mind’s nature is to think. To release this habitual thinking tendency, limits are set. The eyes are a window or reflection into the mind so the gaze should not be rigid or glaring. Rather, the eyes can be focused yet soft and wide; peripheral, expressing a spacious and relaxed mind. This in turn brings ease to the entire posture, whether sitting in meditation or in any asana.

As you practice yoga postures or meditation note the effects of a soft focused gaze or dristhti. Let your eyelids relax, the creases in the corners unfold, the space between your eyebrows dilate. Feel your body release when your eyes cease their flickering and your mind naturally settles. Your thoughts or emotional state hidden beneath the distraction clarifies and insight is possible.