As you’re reading these words, begin to notice your breathing. Don’t change anything, just letting your body breathe naturally.
- Notice where the breathing is taking place. How much of the movement is in the chest, and how much is in the abdomen?
- Notice the rate of your breathing.
- Notice how deep or shallow your breathing is.
- Notice how you feel.
Now continue to notice these things, but with one change:
For a minute or two, stop focusing on the individual words, but relax your gaze and allow yourself to take in the whole screen, and then everything around the screen, right up to the periphery of your visual field.
Now that you’re back …
You probably noticed that when you were focusing on reading your breathing was shallower, mostly confined to the chest, and relatively fast, and that by contrast, when you were taking in the whole scene your breathing was deeper, involved the abdomen much more, and slowed down. You probably felt more relaxed, calmer, and happier compared to when your eyes were narrowly focused.
When we’re focusing our gaze narrowly, the sympathetic nervous system is active. The sympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system that’s responsible for fight or flight. It looks for threats and prepares us for responding to them. Unfortunately we tend to have our sympathetic nervous systems active too much, flooding the body with stress hormones and finding ourselves in a chronic state of overstimulation. No sooner have we finished paying attention to one thing, we actively seek out something else to focus on. We get stuck in a hyper-vigilant and anxious cycle of sympathetic activity.
Relax our gaze prompts the parasympathetic nervous system to become more active instead. The parasympathetic is the branch of the autonomic nervous system that brings us back to calm, rest, and balance. This exercise helps us to consciously trigger a parasympathetic response so that we can break the cycle of permanent vigilance, and allow ourselves to relax.
This exercise brings about quite a rapid change. And it’s not difficult to do. It just requires changing the way we’re relating to our eyes — relaxing our gaze and letting the eyes be less tightly focused.
Now you probably can’t read or surf the internet with this mode of vision, but you can take breaks, hold conversations, attend meetings, walk down the street, or drive a vehicle.
And one other thing you can do with this relaxed gaze is to meditate. In fact, this is one way I often encourage people to go into meditation, in order to help their practice be more effective. Here’s one example, and here’s another.
One interesting thing is that the way we focus with the eyes affects how we focus with the mind. When our eyes are in sympathetic mode — narrowly focused — we’ll tend to focus on one thing with the mind. So when we’re being mindful of our breathing, then we’ll tend only to focus on one small part of the experience of breathing. This usually isn’t enough to keep the mind interested and in fact it leads to a form of sensory deprivation. And so the mind creates thoughts to fill the information vacuum.
Our narrow focus of attention, which is like a flashlight, tends to switch over to noticing thoughts, which are generally far more emotionally compelling than the physical sensations of our breathing. And so we end up in the all-too-familiar cycle of paying attention to the breathing, getting distracted repeatedly, and having to bring the flashlight of our attention back to the breathing over and over again.
When the eyes are more relaxed in meditation, we’re able to take in the whole “scene” of our breathing. This is a far richer experience, not just because there are more sensations to pay attention to, but because we can see the connections between various sensations. For example we can see how sensations in the abdomen relate to sensations in the nostrils, and how those relate to the sensations in the back. Our experience is revealed as dynamic, interconnected, and even sensual.
Thoughts will still arise, but since our attention is less like a flashlight, throwing out a narrow beam, and more like an oil lamp, casting light in all directions, we can be aware of our breathing and our thoughts at the same time. Thus, we can simply allow thoughts to pass through our awareness, without getting caught up in them. Suddenly, meditation becomes much easier.
So this is a simple change, but one that allows us to radically change our experience in meditation, and in life.