Keeping the mind on track


If you’re familiar with the way I teach meditation you’ll know that for many years one of the key things I’ve emphasized is having soft eyes.

“Soft eyes” means three things: letting the muscles around the eyes be relaxed; letting the focus within the eyes be soft; and being effortlessly receptive to whatever is arising in the entire visual field.

If we do those three things then the mind tends to become much quieter than usual, the body starts to relax, and the breathing starts to slow and deepen, so that it moves more into the belly.

And when we then turn our attention inward, to what’s arising in the body, then we’ll find that we can be aware of sensations arising from all over the body. The movements and ever-changing sensations of the breathing can be experienced all over the body. And the breathing then becomes a rich experience, so that the mind becomes calmer and remains that way for much longer than usual.

So this is a very easy way for us to take our meditation practice deeper. Rather than struggling, day after day, trying to fight through our distractedness in order to find a few moments of calm and concentration, we find that we can become calmer anytime, almost instantly.

And this usually works for me.

But sometimes it doesn’t! This is especially the case when I’m chronically tired, which has been happening over the last month or two. (Short version of the story: a new puppy we’ve adopted needs to go out to pee more than once during the night, and this is eating into the time I’d normally be asleep.)

So what to do?

What I’ve found helpful is to use a few phrases to help keep my mind on track.

  • “Soft eyes.” This is my reminder to let the eyes be soft. I say it just before I exhale.
  • “Body alive.” At the start of the next out-breath I’ll say this to myself, and as I breathe out I’ll notice the movements and sensations of the breathing, and particularly the warm, tingling sensations of my muscles as they relax. After saying the phrase I might simply observe the body for two to three breaths. Then I’ll say:
  • “Kind eyes.” This is my reminder to keep a sense of kindness and tenderness in the eyes. I say it just before I breathe out again. (If this practice of loving eyes isn’t something you’ve come across before, you might want to practice recalling what it’s like to look — at a beloved child, a pet, a lover, a friend, and so on — with love. Just notice the qualities of warmth and tenderness that arise in and around the eyes.)
  • “Meeting everything with tenderness.” As I exhale, I follow the sensations and movements of the breathing through the whole body, regarding everything that arises with kindness. Again I might continue to observe the body with kindness for two or three breaths, before once more starting the cycle of the phrases once again.

Distracted thinking directs our attention away from our immediate experience of the body, and into the world of imagination. The kind of thinking I’ve described in the list above instead directs our attention away from the would of the imagination and toward our immediate experience.

The timing of the phrases is crucial, and it’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself. If you repeat a phrase before every breath you’ll probably feel stifled, and your mind will feel too busy. You need to allow time for actually connecting with your experience, which means simply observing the sensations of the breathing rippling though the body — without you saying anything to yourself. So after saying the phrases “body alive” and “meeting everything with tenderness” you’ll find it helps to just stay with your experience of the breathing for something like two to three breaths, and maybe more.

How long is a matter of practicality. If you start to get distracted again, you need to tighten up the spacing of the phrases, leaving fewer breaths between them. If you feel things are going well, and you aren’t getting distracted, you might want to space the phrases out a bit more.

If things seem to be going really well, and you’re staying with the body without getting distracted, you might want to experiment with dropping the phrases “body alive” and “meeting everything with tenderness.” Just say “eyes soft” and “eyes kind” with a few “silent” breaths in between. How many is a practical matter—what works for you?

If you fall into a pattern of just repeating the phrases regularly in a mechanical way, you’ll find that it doesn’t work for long. Anything you do mechanically, you do unmindfully, and you’ll become distracted. So changing the frequency of the phrases and seeing what effect they have will help keep you alert, focused, and calm.

As part of this process of shaking things up, you can even change the order of the phrases. Sometimes I’ll say:

  • Soft eyes
  • Kind eyes
  • Body alive
  • Meeting everything with kindness

Again, I’ll play around with the number of “silent” breaths between these phrases to see what works best in keeping the mind quiet.

This practice is something I’ve integrating into my jhana teaching and practice. (See the “Letting Go Into Joy” course if you’re not familiar with what jhana is. But briefly, it’s the experience of meditative absorption.) In the first level of jhana there can be thinking present, and this seems to be one of the forms of thinking that is compatible with first jhana — thinking that directs us toward a deeper experience of the body.

Please do play around with these tools and let me know how it works for you.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you for this.

  • Roderick Cheyne
    November 17, 2021 7:46 pm

    Dear Bodhipaksa. During my first course of Vipassana with Mother Sayama experienced immense feelings of joy, bliss and untold contentment. Subsequent courses with Goenka assistant teachers – nothing ! My practice seems hollow and mechanical. I need more warmth and feeling. Can you recommend a Jhana teacher in eastern Australia (not Ajahn Brahm). With all my meditation experience and practice I feel confident of success. Thank you so much. With metta, Roderick

    • Hi, Roderick.

      Unfortunately I’m not aware of any jhana teachers in eastern Australia.

      It’s quite possible that your initial experience of jhana, and the later shift to a “hollow and mechanical” experience of meditation has little or nothing to do with the teachers you’ve had. I’m not saying this is definitely the case — you’ve had experience of these teachers and I haven’t. It’s possible you can point to things Mother Sayama said and say, “That helped me get into jhana.” But it’s possible that the teachers aren’t particularly relevant to what’s happened in your meditation.

      To me it seems more likely that there’s been a shift in your attitudes during meditation. If jhana spontaneously arose for you in the first place, then it’s possible that you may be grasping after it now, and such grasping is a jhana-killer. I’ve seen this happen many times.

      I’ll make just a few suggestions:

      1. Don’t look to teachers. Some part of your mind knows what to do (and what not to do) in order to relax into jhana. trust yourself.
      2. Think of jhana as something that you let happen, not that you do.
      3. Soften your eyes. Let the muscles around the eyes be relaxed, and let your eyes be softly focused.
      4. Understand that awareness is not something you do. It’s there all the time.
      5. Let your awareness naturally fill the whole body, so that you can be aware of the breathing as a whole-body experience, and so that you can observe the connections between different parts of the breathing.
      6. Relax your attitude. Don’t strive or grasp. Start with wonder, playfulness, and curiosity.
      7. Smile. As best you can, observe your experience with a sense of benevolence.

      I hope this helps bring some life into your practice. Actually, the life is already there, waiting to be seen. In all likelihood what’s going on right now is that something in your attitude is suppressing a sense of delight, aliveness, and well-being. So do less, notice more, be playful.

  • Roderick Cheyne
    November 25, 2021 1:23 am

    Hello again Bodhipaksa. Thank you so much for your reply of Nov 18 and your helpful comments. De-mystifying jhanas and trusting oneself sounds like good advice. But the idea that others know more can be a hard one to shake off! I’ll try putting more time on ‘the cushion’ to deepen concentration and as you say relax , soften up and smile more. Maybe do another retreat to get the time in but do my own thing to deepen samadhi. With metta, Roderick


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