It may seem surprising, but the biggest barrier to achieving a state of meditation are the eyes. The power of sight is the major portal through which we interact with the world, so it is reasonable to think that by closing them we can enter meditation. Unwittingly we have turned these small and delicate structures into a de facto boundary between the world within and without. Light falling on our eyes and creating images in the mind offers a convenient distraction that keeps our awareness locked onto the phenomenal world which is constantly changing. Thoughts are ever present, and this thought stream goes into overdrive the moment we close our eyes even for a few seconds. The sensory experiences that the eyes provide are invaluable to our mental wellbeing. Just imagine how restless we would be if we were made to sit in a dark room for even an hour or two with nothing to do. Although it is said that the eyes provide a window to the soul, what is more immediately apparent from the eyes is the state of mind. When the mind is tired, the natural response is to close the eyes; In a state of boredom, they are kept open for business hoping for a change in the inner scenery. Sometimes the thought of meditating comes when the mind is troubled, especially so when we are under a constant barrage of stressful situations. When the mind is joyful, we don’t usually think of meditation. However, it would be highly advantageous to meditate when we are joyful rather than making it an escape from a mind fatigued from stress of daily life. Meditation isn’t an escape from the world. It is a transition to who we are, being one with the world. As a gatekeeper to the mind, the act of closing our eyes has become a metaphor for meditation. However, achieving and maintaining a state of meditation is not dependent on whether the eyes are open or closed.
What is meditation?
The word meditation has become a catch all term, having lost its specificity about what it really is. Everyone’s mind is a uniquely different place. Through years of conditioning, we have turned the mind from what should be a window through which our awareness has easy access to the world, into giant mountains of thoughts and experiences heaped one on top another. For most people, meditation isn’t about casting aside their habits, conditioning, memories, desires etc but sitting atop them while trying to experience freedom. The security of having all the stored memories and experiences in the mind is subtly more desirable than the uncertainty of putting them aside. In true meditation, the “I”, the mind and awareness are not separate. Mountains of thoughts (mind) and the lone figure sitting on top of them (I) disappear leaving only awareness behind. Awareness does not have form. It is in a fluid like state just like water. Like a river that has a hidden current driving water from a mountain top to the sea, an unknown energy drives awareness. There is no “my or your” awareness. When we qualify it in that manner, we again bring in the “I” and the mind.
Choiceless awareness is unchanged whether it is static or in movement, just as constituent molecules of water are the same whether water is part of a still lake or a gushing river. Life as we know it is perceived when there are oscillations in the infinite field of complete and free awareness. These vibrations come about when there is movement of thought. Assuming this movement is in the form of a sinusoidal wave just like the electromagnetic spectrum, there may be areas where these waves collide and create disharmony. Any place where there is loss of uniformity in choiceless awareness becomes “walled off”. This “walled off” portion of awareness is the genesis of the “I” or the individual. Within this field of “I”, the physical body is a small component and the remainder is pervaded by the mind. Therefore, the mind appears to extend beyond the boundaries of the physical body, although we cannot really define what those boundaries are. The rough limits of our awareness are where our sense of feeling stops.
Within this walled off area of awareness that comprises our individuality, there are 3 concentric circles in which all our feelings are contained. The centerpoint of these concentric circles is the “I”. The smallest circle is the physical body. The next outer circle is the conscious mind, and the outermost circle which contains the other two is the subconscious mind. In the body, the sense of feeling is a gross quantity; we cannot really hide our feelings from the world. For example, if we are happy the world will know it, if we are sad it also shows on the body. In the conscious mind, feeling is a little subtler. We can cover up our feelings by hiding behind other thoughts. Only we know our deep-seated feelings. The subconscious mind holds everything else. Latent thoughts and associated feelings lurk within its realm. We neither know nor do we have any control over when they might surface, if at all. Since all three circles (physical body, conscious and subconscious minds) have one center, the “I”, when we remove the “I”, the mind unravels. It is a lot more efficient to focus on removing the “I” than individually exploring the boundaries of the body, the conscious and subconscious minds and trying to dismantle those boundaries.
In meditation, these imaginary walls around individual awareness are broken down by working on the “I”. This happens in stages, the first of which is de-identification from the “I”. However, the “I” is not a single entity that can be quickly and easily discarded. Thoughts hidden deep within surface and repeatedly flood our conscious perception. Here we are not dealing with a single “I” that pervades all of them, but thousands of its clones hidden in each thought. We don’t really have the power to simultaneously battle all these thoughts. A good strategy to employ is to take refuge in the process of witnessing. Through this, we get the first glimpses of the presence of awareness. The proof of this is the stillness we feel in relation to thoughts that are moving around in our sphere of influence. This stillness is just a seed when we first encounter it. If it can sprout and grow, the boundary of our awareness will expand. When we perceive the mind and all its contents contained as a tiny dot surrounded by vast emptiness, at that stage our awareness is about to blossom. Slowly even the dot that represents the mind disappears, and there is no separation between the witnesser and the perception of emptiness. The blurring of those boundaries between the seer and the seen is the dawn of meditation.
The next question that may be asked is, “Why is there a need to meditate?” This question needs to be answered even before we get to the types of meditation, of which there are several. Some would perhaps answer that meditation helps bring out more clarity in our thoughts and therefore our lives would be enriched. The basic premise is that the source of this greater clarity comes from within. After this comes the assumption that “the within” lies behind closed eyes. It may seem logical to think so, but the location of the mind within the confines of the physical body is also an assumption. It is hard to prove or disprove this as the mind cannot be metered and measured by any presently known instrument. When we look at a computer screen, at least in these days, we cannot always assume that the data it contains is stored locally on that machine. Although there may be temporary storage onboard, the real source of the data presented on its screen may be stored in the cloud. Similarly, the conscious mind may be thought of as a local computer and the subconscious mind as the cloud storage.
Everyone has access to his or own “cloud” or the “back of the mind”. It’s existence could be anywhere. Thoughts are not subject to physical laws and the distance they have to travel between the conscious and subconscious minds is unknown. We assume it is very short, as thoughts seem to get to their destination instantaneously. Whether there is interconnectability with others at the level of the subconscious mind is best left open for debate. Unless there is proof to the contrary, it is best to use a scientific approach to explore the notion of interconnectability of individual minds. If we believe it is not possible, this question will always remain unanswered. Scientists follow the dictum, explore, and prove. Why can’t this approach be followed for discovering our true reality? Meditation is one such method of exploration of the unknown aspect of our being. Undeniably it is in our nature to seek and discover.
How to meditate?
Thoughts come at us from all directions. We are constantly “running” towards or away from them. The senses become tools for either seeking pleasure or conduits for accumulating experiences that may be enjoyed later through recall and reminiscence. The mind is a well-oiled machine that functions for years without breaking down. It is the author of our habits and it is through one such habit that our awareness is pointed outwards through the senses. One day, without warning, if we abruptly decide to shut off the senses by closing our eyes and sit in a quiet room, the mind will naturally rebel. As we forcibly march inwards, we risk a head-on collision with hundreds and thousands of thoughts that are making their way outwards. This becomes a very unpleasant confrontation. Majority of the people are turned off from the path of meditation at this stage. Once scarred by that experience, they may never return again. Those who persist, further practice may come in fits and spurts. To crank this sputtering engine to life requires some structure and technique.
Commencing a meditation practice, at least in the very beginning must be a structured activity. With meditation, a goal cannot be set as it is the process of letting go. Through setting a goal, our desires creep into a practice that involves flushing all desires. When we seek a “state” or a “feeling” or an “endpoint” in meditation, it becomes just another desire. We may call it meditation but it becomes the work of the clever mind. Instead of a goal, a reference point could be set prior to commencing a meditation practice. Our awareness can be yoked to this reference point if we find our attention drifting back into thoughts. This could be a plain and simple affirmation such as “for the next several minutes, no matter what happens, attention will be x, y or z”. The focus of attention could be on the breath, an external object, a mental picture, a concept etc. This could be alternated with periods of detached witnessing. Although witnessing appears like a passive exercise, it requires active attention. In witnessing, detached awareness ought to be maintained on everything that comes to our mind- our thoughts, feelings, emotions, bodily discomfort etc., without reacting or drawing conclusions. This witnessing phase is the core of any meditational practice. If done consistently and properly it can take us all the way to merger of the witnesser and the witnessed. When that happens we (or the “I”) disappear and meditation starts. The process of closing the gap (between the seer and the seen) isn’t meditation. Meditation happens when the gap is fully bridged. There is no defined end to meditation. A spurious end appears when we again separate into the witnesser perceiving the “fruits” of a meditational practice.
Open or closed eye meditation?
When meditation happens, it does not matter if the eyes are closed or open, since only the experience remains and not the experiencer. Ordinarily by closing our eyes in relation to a meditational practice, we hope to turn such a practice into a ladder which will take us from the lower restless mind to a higher peaceful mind. In the state of meditation, there is no ladder to climb or descend. There is no high and low, as all comparison will have stopped. True meditation cannot be a part time activity confined to a certain time, place and posture, such as sitting with eyes closed. Our underlying awareness does not change whether eyes are open or closed. What changes are our reactions to the different experiences that come about when eyes are either open or closed. In meditation, a new state or experience is not created. That is the purview of the mind. Through meditation, we reclaim access to awareness beyond the limitations of the mind. This can only happen when we stop identifying thoughts that come across the mind, leading to attachment with those we consider “desirable”, and fights with those we consider “undesirable”.
When we close our eyes, the battle with identification, a process so ingrained within ourselves, intensifies. Thoughts can only be pushed back so far. They will certainly return with equal or greater force. In this situation, it is best to practice detached witnessing and observe thoughts, seeing how they appear, intensify and fade. Our focus must be forward looking, right past any thoughts that may come upon us. Attention and focus must function like blinders that are placed over a horse’s eyes to prevent it from seeing behind or sideways. It is important to keep our focus whether thoughts are numerous or sparse. When they are numerous, we may get distracted by them and the experiences that ensue from our interaction with them is stored in the memory. If we start to lose focus as thoughts thin out, we may create or invent new experiences through our imagination. Or we may just fall asleep.
Thoughts may be compared to fireflies that glow in the dark. Like fireflies, lifespan of most thoughts is brief. In darkness, the light that a firefly emanates is visible but not the distinct features of its body. If a firefly gives out no light, it becomes invisible to us. Similarly, thoughts light up if we are identified with them and have desires that seek matching thoughts. When we stop identifying with them, thoughts may be just as numerous but we cannot “see” them. This is also like the scenario of driving down a highway. By keeping our attention on the road, trees, and buildings on either side of the road don’t register in our thoughts and we cannot recall any of them later. As we drive past trees, although the physical eyes may see them moment to moment, those images are left behind in those moments when the eye of identification is closed.
When we start to gain the upper hand with the inner battle with thoughts, maintaining our awareness may then be attempted with open eyes. In this, it is best not to focus on an internal or an external object. This again would create conflict and interference with the competing sensory impulses coming in through the eyes. Here again, identification is source of the problem. We gravitate towards certain sights and ignore others based on our likes and dislikes. If we don’t identify with our likes and dislikes, we will see and experience a lot more. Any experience is momentary, and without imposing our likes and dislikes they are not stored in memory. Our memory bank is agnostic to our preferences, just because we dislike something it is not pushed out of our memory. In fact, it has greater chance of being stored in our memory for later recall. More extreme our likes or dislikes, more it sticks to memory. Awareness has positive polarity and the mind has a negative one. Through the lens of awareness, everything is perceived in a positive light. Negativity is perceived only through the mind. Trapped awareness can be freed from the mind by first ceasing to identify, and secondly through a neutral witnessing stance. It may not happen overnight, but in time our likes and dislikes will have less of a hold over our awareness. Awareness can then be uncoupled from the mind.
When awareness is freed, that is true open eye meditation. From here there is no defined structure or method to go forward. Awareness will find its way back “home” on its own accord when the “I” disappears. The “I” is like a seed. For a plant to grow, the seed must break apart. Once a plant starts growing, it does so without any external prompting. It’s branches and leaves turn towards the sun and nobody need tell the plant how to grow or which way to grow. At best, we can offer it water and fertilizer. Similarly, once awareness is freed and the “I” is no longer relevant, neither us nor anyone else can direct further progress. All that is left for us to do is enjoy the fruits of inner transformation, which is bliss. This bliss remains whether we keep our eyes open or closed. In a state of choiceless awareness, eyes which were leased by the mind are “returned” back to the body. They are no more a hindrance to maintaining full awareness, the state of meditation.