the eyes have it: Meditating on form (sense of sight)

the eyes have it: Meditating on form (sense of sight)

by August 27, 2012

Our journey into meditation with the five senses continues with sight, or what Buddhist tradition refers to formally as “meditating on form.”

We’re highly visual creatures, and our daily activities are overwhelmingly sight-oriented (just try cleaning the house, buying groceries, or putting together your kid’s bike, while blindfolded!). Considering all the potential for distraction our sense of sight holds, it’s no surprise that many people choose to meditate with their eyes shut (I usually do!).

Although there’s nothing “wrong” about meditating with closed eyes (depending on the technique you practice, it  might even be necessary), there are ways to work with sight that teach us to filter out the distracting aspects of visual stimulation, thereby allowing the mind to settle into a deeply relaxed and open state.

Buddhist meditation master Mingyur Rinpoche notes that we practice a form of visual meditation every day—unconsciously—through activities such as watching a computer screen or waiting for a traffic light to turn green. It’s when we bring conscious awareness to such acts that the “true” practice of meditation kicks in. And just as we saw with the techniques involving touch and hearing, the instructions for meditating with sight are surprisingly simple.

The Technique

Begin by taking your usual meditation posture. Then, pick something relatively close by to direct your gaze at: a pattern on the floor, a picture frame on the wall, or choose a specific object to place in front of you. Next, decide which characteristic of that object you’ll focus on—either its color or its shape—and settle into an easy, relaxed gaze on that particular quality.

Don’t stare or strain; keep your gaze soft. Blink when you need to, and allow yourself to act naturally. Let awareness rest on color… color… color… or shape… shape…shape.

If the mind wanders away from the object and into other thoughts, or you find yourself scrutinizing the object too intensely, bring yourself back to the soft gaze, without any judgment about your “lapse.”

Just as when practicing with the senses of hearing and touch, it’s helpful to alternate periods of meditation on objects with periods of open awareness, or awareness on the breath. In this way, your energy and intention stays fresh and the mind is less quickly fatigued. (If you’ve read the previous articles on meditating with the senses, you’re probably picking up on a pattern common to all the techniques.) Continue alternating between meditation on form and open awareness meditation for whatever length of time you typically meditate, and that’s the process.

Keep in mind that if you’ve chosen an object that has such strong significance for you that you can’t keep yourself from creating “stories” about it, or is in some other way a persistent distraction, then you’ll want to select a more neutral object. However, as long as it doesn’t cause you unnecessary distraction, it’s perfectly fine to practice with an object of religious, spiritual, or other personal significance.

With time and regular practice, meditation on form is said to dissolve the sense of separation between the world around us and the mind that perceives that world. And because we rely so heavily on sight during our daily routines in the material world, it is a sense that holds especially strong potential to move us past the dualistic concept that the world is made up of a “self” and “everything else.”

Do you meditate with eyes open or closed? What’s been your experience with the sense of sight in your practice?

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