Closing one’s eyes to meditate is a simple enough action and yet it can be more important than any other technique. With eyes closed we gain opportunities to feel where in our bodies we are slightly or significantly unbalanced, where we might be leaning into discomfort and how to release from automatic or learnt habits. Unlike in many workplaces, supermarket checkouts and social situations, in a group meditation class we don’t need to answer questions, ask the right questions or even interact in moments when we don’t feel like it. And yet participants in a class often feel the combined energy and group intentions of kindness, rest and inquiry. Support is given and shared. Meditation teacher Tara Brach reminds us that ‘present-ness’ does not necessarily mean ‘pleasant-ness’ but it does mean feeling our ‘aliveness’.
Comparisons with and judgements of others can easily take hold of us while we operate in contexts where superficially looking good is increasingly taking precedence over depth and genuinely being good. In large sectors of society, whether corporations, politics or kindergartens, performing certain roles and making the right moves lead to external but merely temporary ‘rewards’. When we close our eyes we can stop making moves or engaging in external noise long enough to feel more of our inner edges. In moments of stillness we gain a deeper understanding of what we really need. Somewhere amongst the maze of our actions is a pattern of intention, conscious or not.
When seekers first join my classes, I am often asked whether it is better to sit up rather than lie down for meditation. Whatever you need, I reply. If you lie down, you might fall asleep but maybe that is just what you need. If you sit up, you might feel some discomfort but that is a great opportunity to observe more and react less. The space offered from behind our eyelids provides a relief in not caring whether we are ‘doing it right’ or are ‘good enough’ and in the first few minutes of meditating with our eyes closed we can adjust and choose our final position in order to remain as still as possible for longer. Stillness in the body can help create conditions for more stillness in the mind and we can feel this quite strongly through first letting our eyes rest.
Volumes of information enter us through the eyes but when they are closed we focus more kinaesthetically and in doing so our bodies will provide us with information. When sitting upright, we can ground down through our sitting bones and through the physical posture we can lock in a mental sense of resolve, stamina and grounding from a base. ‘Strong back, soft front’ is a lovely Buddhist mantra and we can literally feel this in the spine from behind and the chest from the front. When we lie on our back the weight can spread evenly through all the limbs, the shoulder blades, both buttock and the back of the head. In this way we can be fully supported by the floor and the earth holding us. When it is painful to lie on the back in supine position, placing a bolster, blankets or rolled up yoga mat under the knees can help. Or lying on one’s side, in what is often known as the resting pregnant position, can be more ideal. Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says that lying down for meditation is like ‘poor man’s nirvana’ but I say ‘whatever works’ (no doubt he says that as well). Meditate like no one’s watching because it is unlikely that anyone else is watching. When we close the eyes we can reduce noise in much the same way as we need to close our eyes on our inner critic in order to do anything creative, whether that is writing or kicking a winning goal after the final siren. If we are expecting rewards or failure during the task then we are only being limited by expectations. However cliché it may sound, when it comes to creativity or the work of the soul it is best to trust the process and dive in.
The benefits of a meditation practice are out there loud and proud these days. On collecting his Brownlow medal last year, Australian rules footballer Dusty Martin thanked his family and his football club. He also thanked his meditation practice! While this instantly resonated for me I still replayed the video a number of times to check and hear that Dusty had actually said this. Thank you Dusty for promoting a profession or practice that is sometimes seen as flaky or indulgent (yes, you know the mantra, ‘I’ll do this self-care business when I’m not so busy…’). Just like what happens to musicians and other artists, some organisations ask meditation teachers to run sessions for free as this will no doubt ‘be a good opportunity for promotion’. Never mind the petrol or insurance, I grump, and then go pack my mats and blankets and do it anyway.
Earlier this year while wondering how to get the next gig or cover further study plans, I received a cold call to run meditation sessions for groups of accountants. So I took some deep breaths, Iooked into the space of the closed eyelids, remembered not to pack any incense, bells and whistles and drove into the hills to meet mostly men in dark suits who already suspected there was something behind all this meditation stuff. And beyond the labels of the eyes, both mine and theirs, we found space to sit with our stuff, let go a bit and take the necessary time out. Yes, we really do and should know better these days – of course it is better to do this self-care business before our bodies or lives force it upon us. And there is certainly nothing fluffy or flaky about calling on or keeping up a meditation practice. A group of terrified young Thai boys and their football coach were recently trapped in a dark cave and took to meditation in order to conserve their breath and the limited oxygen available as their lives were at risk. Those of us who are ageing (well, we all are) know that our bodies are not working for us as efficiently as they once did and that we need to rest more. And all of us know we have mental patterns and behaviours that don’t work so well for us and we benefit from exploring ways to see more clearly ahead.
There are people who don’t feel safe closing their eyes. I have delivered meditation sessions inside the prison system. Look down at the carpet or floor, I suggest. Lower the eyes. Cast the gaze inwards – not to check if you have a navel. You do. But emanating from it, you have a body that has stored memories. There is now an abundance of scientific research into the ways our experiences are stored in our bodies and we all know how our thoughts can become fossilised or repetitive if we are not aware of when we are repeating the same old stories. We can unlock much of this pain slowly and safely by closing our eyes and looking inwards to the breath. And looking inwards is what we owe ourselves since everything can and sometimes does change in an instant.
Our bodies and our hearts benefit from looking away from screens, temptations, flashing buttons and shiny new things and more towards our deepest intentions. We might as well inquire into our intentions or life purposes because they are waiting just behind the screen of the mind and sometimes the more we look away the more they then beg our attention in more mischievous and disturbing ways. That childhood dream, that great skill, creative vision or deep sense of purpose is there somewhere within and meditation helps us connect to ourselves.
To meditate, you really don’t need to do anything major except close your eyes and observe your experience. In fact, don’t do anything except close your eyes for a while. Watch one breath in and then one breath out. If you’ve done that, then you’ve meditated. No bells or whistles, although they can be fun too. There are a range of techniques for developing and sustaining a meditation practice and some methods will suit an individual better than other styles depending on each individual’s personality and learning styles. Closing the eyes as an initial practice helps because at other times we spend so much open-eyed energy assessing dangers and activating flight or flight responses. In meditation we want to do the opposite, that is, slow our adrenalin system down in order to listen or see more deeply. There are meditation practices done with eyes open, such as gazing at a candle flame, forest walking, painting and many other pursuits. These meditative activities all create flow states through a type of focus that also encourages witnessing and different types of seeing. Being still with eyes closed before engaging in these activities can allow even greater focus, and in the case of meditating on a candle flame or visual focus, some prior time with eyes closed is part of the approach.
If only closing the eyes and catching one’s breath and focus were encouraged in many other situations. Depression and anxiety rates, particularly amongst young people in the west, have never been higher. School children engaged in various resilience and happiness building programs are now being offered more time to lie down, close their eyes, move around, get away from screens and chill out. While some progressive workplaces have an assigned room for meditation and quiet, more workers are now operating in open-plan style offices with less space for both personal and professional needs to be met. Self-care and spaces to practise self care are not priorities to be put in brackets for when we have more time, bigger budgets or innovative leaders. The time is now, or at least, tomorrow. As the saying goes, if you can’t find twenty minutes to meditate per day, then do it for an hour.
We owe it to ourselves to create conditions where we can safely sit and rest with our eyes closed and our inner light shining. Sometimes we are reminded of this urgency only when we lose our mojo. I always keep on with my meditation practice because I know what my life would be like without it. However, there are times when I lose the anchor or sweet spot. Due to multiple life events, this has been the case for me over the past few months. More than ever, I have needed to close the eyes, listen to the pull of intuition and make decisions.
Recently I enrolled in a two-year mindfulness training course with the great Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. Both these teachers are stunning writers and long-time meditators. This course of action seems to makes no sense to the current bank balance, my limited available time and the fact that the more qualifications I get the less employable I seem to become. And yet my heart is already singing at the thought. I can’t quite see where I am going with my eyes open so I might as well trust in them closed. Let me know when and how you do that too? See you in meditation soon.
Artwork: Puzzle by Suzanne Frydman
© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications