Can you meditate with your eyes open? [benefits explained]

Published by Olivier Devroede


Most people associate meditation with a monk sitting with a straight back and with his eyes closed. In the most popular form of meditation in the west, MBSR, they ask you to close your eyes. Even I, meditate most of the time with my eyes closed.

Meditation with eyes open is the default in both the Tibetan tradition and in Zen. It has the benefit that it is easier to keep drowsiness at bay and to make the transition to mindfulness during daily activities easier. The main drawbacks are watery eyes and heavy eyelids that can be very distracting.

As you can see, it is not only possible to meditate with open eyes, it is even the default way of doing in some highly respected meditation traditions.

Let’s dive in a little deeper.

Pros and cons of meditating with open eyes

Why meditate with closed eyes?

Mostly, when people get introduced to meditation, they are asked to close their eyes.

Why is that?

On the one hand, it is the most dominant form of meditation, and it is probably the way the teacher or trainer performs his own practice.

But it goes deeper than that.

If you look at what distracts us the most, I’d say that for 90% of the people, it is whatever we happen to see. We are so accustomed to following everything that looks interesting to us with our eyes that it has become a habit that is difficult to stop.

Even when nothing changes, we still scan the environment. I remember when I was in school. I would take notes, notes, but also look at the other students. Just scanning whatever is there.

When meditating, we need some degree of collectedness, and the more distractions there are, the more difficult it becomes.

So the teacher tells us to shut our eyes. One thing less to worry about.

The other thing I dislike about opening my eyes during meditation is that my eyes either become dry or my eyelids become very heavy. For me, it is often uncomfortable to keep my eyes open.

Obviously, this is a personal thing. As with everything in meditation, experimentation within the confines of the instructions is a bonus

People have different temperaments and are at different stages of development so there is no single instruction that can be given to everyone.

Ramana Maharshi

The last contra for opening the eyes is that some meditation styles are far easier to perform when you close them.

Going inward, like a body scan, doing mindfulness of thoughts and emotions meditation, or an elaborate visualization is far easier to perform with your eyes closed.

Zazen
Hands in traditional meditation position. Photo courtesy of Eduardo

Why meditate with open eyes

When you follow an MBSR course, the instructor will probably give you the option to keep your eyes open if you do not feel comfortable. This is an important instruction since some people can become panicky when closing their eyes in the midst of a group of people. If you are like that, you better keep them open.

But that is not why meditation traditions recommend that you meditate this way.

One of the misconceptions that exist about meditation, is that you can reach deeper states when you close your eyes. I have long thought this myself.

But, as we’ll see in the next paragraph, shamatha meditation is done with eyes open.

The relevance of this is that as far as deep states of absorption go, shamatha is the top. For us who are not monks, it doesn’t go much further than that.

So this is a non-argument.

In these types of meditation, the open eyes have two main objectives.

First, one of the hindrances to attaining deeper states of meditation is the dullness of the mind that sets in once one is advanced enough. Keeping the eyes shut can aggravate the problem. So here, the reverse antidote is given than what we as beginners get.

Second, by keeping the eyes open, you can see the space likeness of the mind. If you do it long enough, you will experience the outside world as inside. Better said, you will see that the space from outside extends inwards.

This makes you realise that our mind have this vast, spacelike quality. Once you have realized this, you can also notice it in other forms of meditation, so it is a form of insight.

Traditions using open eye meditation

Zazen

Zazen
Zazen class in action. Photo courtesy of John Gillespie

Zen is a spartan philosophy. It can also be said that zen is minimalist.

If you combine these two, you get zazen, or as it is sometimes called, just sitting.

Beginners typically engage in breathing meditation and later on move on to koans. Zazen’s just sitting practice is exactly what it says: you do nothing but sitting and being aware of the present moment.

All of these practices are done with open eyes. Since it is zen, they often face a wall or a black curtain to curb the tendency of the eyes to wander of in search of something more interesting to do than meditation.

Tibetan shamatha meditation

Shamatha is a form of breathing meditation but for simplicity, it has been split into 9 distinct stages.

Each stage has its own methods and challenges. But the end goal is to reach shamatha, which is where the mind completely unifies. It is said that the body and mind are so pliant that meditating for 3 hours or more becomes very easy and pleasant.

Shamatha, like zen, advocates meditating with eyes open. First to ward of dullness and second to realize the space nature of the mind. Something that is heavily emphasized in the Tibetan tradition.

Side note: my all-time favorite meditation handbook covers exactly this method. It’s ‘The Mind Illuminated‘ by Culadasa.

Trataka or gazing meditation

Tratata is a special form of gazing meditation where you put a candle in front of you and just gaze at the flame. The idea is to keep you eyes open. After some time, the eyes will tend to produce tears. Just keep them open as long as you can. Next, close the eyes and visualize the candle in your mind’s eye.

It is said that this method strengthens and purifies the mind (no idea if this is true). The method derives its benefits from trying to not blink and from the visualization of the candle that follows after gazing.

But what is most certainly does, is to strengthen your power of concentration.

Guided Trataka meditation

How to meditate with your eyes open

Although all three methods above differ quite a bit in their aim and philosophy, they strangely agree on how the meditation with eyes open should be performed.

You should look down, roughly at an angle of 45 degrees, and gaze at a point 1 to 2 m in front of you. You should keep your gaze relaxed and preferably unfocused.

These instructions are there to prevent eye strain and mind wandering. The angle of 45 degrees downwards protects the eyes from getting too tired. Although in the beginning, they will get tired.

Except for the trataka case, the important part of the meditation is not what you see, but what you concentrate on. So the instruction is to not focus and to keep a light gaze.

In order to further minimize the risk of eye wandering, it is best to keep what you look upon simple and uncluttered. I would not go as far as the zen monks and stare at a black wall. Just some open floor with a minimum of items in the field of view will suffice.

I notice that when I open my eyes and I see a table that has not been cleaned or is full of unordered items, it gets to me. Again, you are a better judge for yourself, so see what effect it has on you.

If you want, you can follow along in the video below.

Featured courtesy of Neil Moralee

Categories: General

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.