Welcome to week two. If you’ve already read last week’s lesson, jump ahead four paragraphs to “Consider sight.” If not, please allow me to briefly introduce this series of teachings.
Our bodies are made for contemplation.Every time we feel a breeze blow across our skin, see a cloud in the sky, taste the sweet honey in our tea, smell the clean laundry coming out of the dryer, hear the sound of a train whistle in the distance, or even recognize the sound of our own voice, we’re given an opportunity to engage in contemplative practice.
Many of us think we need to step away from life in order to polish our contemplative practices. Indeed, an occasional retreat can be highly beneficial, but everything we need to engage in contemplative practice— and hence heighten our awareness, we’re already doing all day, every day.If you’d like to learn how to tap into this sublime gift, please read on.
I present six practices for you to experiment with. Each will require about five days of your attention, so you can probably cover each lesson in about a week. If you’d like to develop a new, powerful awareness through these practices, I encourage you to engage with them just a little every day for the next six weeks. You may never be the same!
You may choose to begin with this week’s lesson on the sense of sight, or you may choose to read the full introduction and begin with the first lesson on speech. It’s up to you.
In this series we are considering each sense in turn. This week’s practice, focused on the gift of sight, will help us to develop discernment through which we may begin to differentiate between mere activity and spiritual practice. While activities may be pleasurable, true practice refines our senses and builds our ability to become aware of increasingly subtle levels of existence. This awareness enriches our daily experience, adding layers of meaning and insight to the most common activities of our lives.
Of all of our faculties, sight is most likely to distract us from the practice of cultivating our senses. But the inverse is also true: it is through sight that we may most easily be inspired to practice.
Making wise choices about what we choose to see is of great importance. In the Western monastic tradition, this practice is called, “Guarding one’s eyes,” and in the Upanishads this same discipline is expressed in the phrase “May everyone see only auspicious sights.” Paying attention to what we take in through any of our sense organs is an exercise by which we attain a greater purity of thought and action: greater clarity.
We know the world through our senses. Our bodies are literally permeable: they are permeated by sights, sounds, and tastes that literally enter our bodies. We take them in. In the same way that we take care to eat food that is free of toxins, foods that help us maintain health and vitality, so it is wise to do with the sights we take in with our eyes. They have an effect on our bodies, our thoughts, our being.
Seeing, more than other ways of perception, gives rise to the desire for what is seen. We may not have been thinking of something, but when we see an advertisement or a display of it, a desire for that object arises. Advertising and marketing specialize in creating images to incite our desire for an object.We are enslaved to these images in ways we are hardly aware of. Advertisers prey on the tendency of our minds and bodies to desire things. You see on television, for example, advertisements for food during the traditional hours for meals. Advertisers spend millions of dollars to determine who is watching television and create advertisements that are visually seductive to a specific demographic of viewers, so that our desire for the product will be aroused.
News media analysts realized long ago that when people are agitated by what they see, they buy more of whatever is advertised. When our minds are agitated and restless we grasp at whatever object we think might alleviate some of that irritation or agitation. Thus, there is a deliberate link between news and advertising. The news reports of disasters and iniquities increase the likelihood that viewers will buy whatever is advertised—in an effort to feel better about all of the toxic things we’re being shown.
Images, particularly electronic images, are nearly ubiquitous. Screens now hang in public places as well as semi-public. There is a constant stream of television news or other programming in airports, medical and dental facilities, government bureaucracies, repair shops—anywhere people may have to wait. They flash and flicker and fill the space with both visual and sonic natter.
Our eyes can keep our minds in constant motion, in a constant state of fleeting desire. Cell phones and the Internet are perfect examples of this. We’re addicted to this constant projection of digital images. This state of visual hyperactivity creates unsatisfying mental movement which gives rise to the endless desire to “stay connected” until a kind of exhaustion occurs. The particular vibration of your retina caused by the pixelation of images on a screen stimulates your brain in such a way that it releases a steady flow of stress hormones at low levels. So it’s no wonder that people who are engaged with computers cannot sleep easily afterward, or feel slightly agitated. And all this is happening to you through your eyes.
Seeing is intimately related to possessing. We can hold onto something in different ways with our eyes. We can possess something either by gazing at it or by staring at it—two vastly different acts. Or we can refuse to possess by merely glancing over something, or by turning our eyes away.
When we see, we reach out with our eyes, often far beyond our physical reach. Our eyes can behold and hold something in their grasp at great distances. There is an energy, a Shakti, that goes out from us upon the beams of our gaze to the object of our sight. This beam is very powerful, which is why, in many cultures, one never looks directly into the eyes of another except in intimate circumstances.
The beam of our sight sees and grasps the form of the object we see. It grasps the form of that object, as well as its formless essence. Everything that exists contains the essence of that which created it. It is the “divine spark” which has become all that exists in a multiplicity of forms. That which created the universe, everything that exists, did so from its own Being, its own Essence. Thus, every object that exists—whether rock, tree, rabbit, or you, retains and contains this Divine Essence.
Our seeing is an act by which the Divine Essence within us reaches out to grasp the objects of its perception: it seeks itself. That is, it seeks its own same Essence, present in the objects we perceive. The beam of our eyes, the light of our eyes, goes forth from within us toward the object of our sight. The object of our sight contains that very same Essence that exists within us.
Divine Essence comingles as and with all of the forms it has taken.We behold and take ahold of Divine Essence in the form of the object of our perception. Thus, the act of seeing is the act of Being and Existence going out to meet itself again in all that we see. This is what we begin to understand when our eyes are clear: that wherever we look, we behold Essential Being in all things, and, as we take it in, we recognize its Essence as our own. We come to recognize the whole world as the limitless extension of Being-in-form, outside and inside of us, at play, co-mingled, and inseparable.
Sense perception is a process—one that takes place almost instantaneously, but it is still a process. Our eyes behold something, take it in, absorb the color, shape, form. In this instant it is an act of pure perception. In the next instant, our sense organs carry that pure perception to our minds which create mental responses, based on our memories, experiences, predispositions, and will. These mental concepts in turn create emotional responses or experiences such as pleasure, aversion, or something in between.
Our outlook is formed in the matrix of our mind.Our outlook shapes our perception, shapes our world. When we fall in love, we see the whole world in love: even things we don’t like don’t bother us because we are in love. So it is expressed in the Talmud, “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
When we achieve clarity of sight, we perceive the Love that created all things from itself and which abides in all things. In order for us to achieve this clarity of sight, we must cultivate quiet and stillness of vision. We must give our eyes repose. We must learn to rest our eyes in stillness, on what we see—providing respite from that constant state of hyperactive motion of sight and of mind.
Practice #2: Sight
To begin, at appointed times each day, close your eyes for three minutes. You can choose when, but make it the same time or times each day. Just sit quietly with your eyes closed. After three minutes, open your eyes again and let them softly gaze at whatever is before them, steadily and easily for ten or fifteen seconds. Then you may go back to whatever it was you were doing.
What are you aware of as your eyes are closed? What do you notice when you open them again? What differences, if any, do you experience in the act of seeing from having closed your eyes and then rested them quietly on an object? Be sure to journal or make some brief notes of your observations.
Another practice is to decline to view anything violent or anything meant to excite fear, anger, or anxiety. Turn your sight away from it. For example, decline to view a violent film or television program, or especially the evening news. Do this for one week.
What do you notice in your mind and body when you shield your eyes from things meant to be violent or disturbing? What effect, if any, does the absence of these things for one week have on you when you return to viewing them? What you do notice? Again, record your observations in your journal or notes.
Here’s a more difficult practice for many: for one entire day, probably not a working day, turn off your cell phone, television, and computer screen. Do not look at them. For an entire day. If you feel you must have news, listen to the radio or read a newspaper (in print). You may read a printed book, but not anything online. If you have a land telephone line, you may take phone calls, but if you have only a cell phone, you may only receive phone calls: no texting or internet, or messaging.
What do you notice as you go through your day? What effect, if any, is the absence of visual hyper stimulation, having on you? What differences do you notice in your sight and in your being. After a day of visual quiet?
A more difficult practice still: do the above practice for two entire days.
1. Close your eyes for three minutes a day
2. Record your experience in your journal or notes
3. Avert your eyes from violent images for a week
4. Write about this
5. Go screen-free for a day
6. Go screen-free for two days
After each of these periods of practice, it’s important to journal or make brief notes of what you are aware of so that you can recall and reflect upon what you experience during and after your period of practice.
Cultivate and cherish the gift of sight.