The main problem most people have in meditation is that their thoughts are much more vivid than their direct experience of the body. This leads to an internal battle where their attention constantly moves between the breathing and distracted thinking. Yes, it makes it easier when we learn not to freak out about getting distracted. After all, freaking out is just another form of distractedness.
The main meditation instruction we’re given — just keep coming back to the breathing — just isn’t very effective at calming the mind. We can do this for years and still have only limited success in becoming absorbed in our direct sensory experience.
There are better ways. And, it turns out, calming the mind isn’t as hard as we initially think. There are really just two things we need to do:
- Keep the eyes soft.
- Pay attention to many sensations at the same time.
I’ll say a little about each of these in turn.
Keep the Eyes Soft
What we do here is to allow the muscles around the eyes to relax, and to let our focus be gentle. This is what the eyes naturally do when we’re in a relaxed state and are staring into space. Of course when we’re staring into space we usually aren’t very mindful, but here we’re doing this quite consciously, and in doing so we’re bringing about a state of relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
When the eyes are soft like this we can be aware of the whole of our visual field, rather than doing what we normally do, which is to focus intently on one thing or another. We’re no longer focusing on one thing in particular, but are open and receptive. We can now be aware of many things. Our visual experience is softer, but also fuller, richer, and more restful. This is true even when the eyes are closed, as they usually are in meditation.
As it happens, softening the eyes not only makes it possible for us to be aware of many things in the outside world, but also makes it possible for us to be aware of many things internally as well. There seems to be some kind of correlation between the openness and receptivity in our visual sense and the openness and receptivity in our interoception — our ability to sense our inner states.
Before, with the eyes narrowly focused, when we tried paying attention to our breathing, we did the same internally as we would do externally — we focused on one small thing.
Now, with the eyes soft, we can be aware of many sensations of the breathing.
Pay Attention to Many Sensations
When we’re paying attention to many sensations, our experience is much richer. No longer are we trying to observe one small area of our breathing. Potentially we can be aware of the breathing throughout the entire body. We can notice how various parts of the breathing process all work together. The breathing becomes an aesthetic process that we can appreciate, enjoy, and find fascinating.
And the mind is now fed. Before, it was underemployed, and in order to keep itself fed it created distracting thoughts. Now it’s fully occupied, and it has no need to generating fantasies. Our field of attention is spacious and open rather than narrow. So when thoughts do arise, they’re just one small part of our experience, and they’re less likely to catch our attention
In the Community Newsletter accompanying this article, I show how we can pay attention to three different areas of the breathing: the belly, the upper back, and the nostrils forming a triangle of sensation. But there are other approaches to paying attention to many sensations.
For example we can observe the breathing as a kind of soft wave of sensation that sweeps up and down the body as we breathe out and in. Or we can be aware of the breathing as a three-dimensional experience. We can be aware of the skin (which also has this 3D quality). We can be aware of everything that’s entering the senses and the mind — sounds, space, light, inner sensations, thoughts, feelings.
As long as we’re paying attention to many sensations, the mind will tend to calm down. The important thing is to keep the eyes soft.
When we do get distracted — which will probably happen less often, but will still happen — we can regard our thoughts as a kind of mindfulness bell, reminding us to soften the eyes. Because it’s almost inevitable that as we’ve become distracted, the eyes have become tight again.
Now our direct sensory experience is more vivid, interesting, and compelling than our thinking. And so it’s easier to have a calm mind.
Softening the eyes, in fact, has the potential to radically transform our meditation practice. It opens the way to complete, joyful absorption in our direct sensory experience.
And it’s something we can do outside of meditation as well. You can try it right now. Try it while you’re walking. Try it while you’re eating. Try it while you’re having a conversation with someone. I can pretty much guarantee that it will help bring an unprecedented level of calmness and presence into your life.
I really, really love how there is emerging a different way of going about practice, such as this. Coming back to the breath has always felt like an instruction or command; something separate to me? I have been really, really struggling with those aspects of practice which separate me from my actual, lived, BROAD experience, so thank you!
I find the softening the eyes exercise very powerful. I often found myself feeling tense when staring at the tv/computer screen or looking ahead when driving -I now notice the feeling and soften my eyes expanding my field of vision which immediately dissipates the feeling. Recently I have tried it during the night when I wake to what feels like a fizzing brain – my eyes are closed but I ‘see’ jagged flashes and streaks of light. Consciously softening my eyes seems to calm this light show and I often fall back to sleep again. Thank you
I am re-starting my meditation journey after a “distracted” 3 year gap. I meditated regularly for 2 years or so and found that the soft eyes enabled me to “see” vivid images as if I was actually there. Suddenly I would remember where I was and the image would fade. Due to the break, I’m effectively a beginner again but hopefully I’ll regain some of the wonderful experiences of that period
Thank you Bodhipaksa. I have benefitted from the dance of the breath since first finding it on your app. My mind wants to use meditation as a time for ‘sorting and filing’ and this technique enables it to fill with sensation instead. As someone with CFS induced diplopia and nystagmus, the de focused gaze is invaluable for resting my weary eyes.
It’s all about the breath! I started my meditation journey with a couple of Bodhi’s older meditation CD’s that really focused on breath awareness. Always my go-to practice if I start to struggle.
I, too, am starting over after a break of several years. This has already been effective for me while reading this article!! So softening the eyes can bring one back to “center” in a way, no matter what is being done. Thank you for this. I am happy to be back on the path with Wildmind and all it offers.
I’m glad you’ve found your way back to practicing, Rhonda.