The short answer is no you do not. You can absolutely keep your eyes open for meditation.
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There are many, many traditions of meditation that involve keeping the eyes either partially or completely open.
You are in good company if you don’t feel comfortable closing your eyes for meditation.
You are NOT going to get a sub-par or diluted or weaker version of meditation.
The stereotypical idea of meditation is that if we close our eyes, all of our thoughts and problems will disappear and we won’t have to think of them. We’ll end up in a state of magnificent bliss.
That might happen. I’m not saying it’s NOT going to happen. I don’t want to limit your meditation experience.
However, usually with meditation and thinking it’s a bit more like a game of peek-a-boo with babies. It’s like, oh, here I am. Oh, now I’m gone. Oh, I’m back again.
The eyes being closed don’t actually make anything disappear. Thoughts are going to pop up again. But it might work for you for a short time.
The main reason to close our eyes for meditation is that closing the eyes is a signal to the body that it’s time to go into relaxation mode and focus on internal body sensations.
When the eyes are open, some people get distracted by their surroundings. Whereas if we close our eyes, we can turn our attention away from the outside to the inside.
We can shift our focus to things like our breath, our heartbeat, the tension in our muscles. And as we increase awareness of these, we can have some control of them. Not complete control, but a modicum of control. Enough control to be able to let things slow down and settle down a little bit.
In earlier episodes of meditation questions, we saw that with regular practice meditators were able to reduce their heart rate and within weeks, they were able to learn to relax themselves and decrease blood pressure.
Another thing that we can do more easily with our eyes closed is can release the tension in the muscles. This is probably the number one thing people look for when they’re doing meditation or doing a really long extended yoga relaxation. Normally the tension in our muscles is like a constant background buzzing we don’t even notice. But with our eyes closed, we can focus on it, we can note it, and we can even consciously tell ourselves, relax, just let that tension go and be at ease.
We can do this with our eyes open, but it’s much, much easier to do it with our eyes closed.
Another thing that’s much easier to do with our eyes closed is to watch and observe stressful thoughts. We can’t really control our thoughts and we definitely can’t stop them. But we can observe them. And by observing and witnessing and noting whether the thoughts are helping us or not, we can reduce them. This too is easier to do with our eyes closed.
In terms of the external distractions we talked about, if our eyes are open, depending on where we’re meditating, if we’re using a bedroom space or a common space, we might be looking directly at all of the things in our life that need attention. Things such as our tasks lists, our laundry, all the books that we’ve bought and are piled up on counters and tables, and maybe even on the floor.
It’s just is kind of a reminder, a visual reminder, “Oh, I bought those books. I want to read those books and I have to read those books. Maybe I should start reading those books right now?”
But we don’t want those thoughts coming up during meditation. Meditation time is for meditation.
If our eyes are open when sitting down to meditate we might notice that our space is dirty and we need to clean it. The point is that when something is in front of our eyes, it’s going to trigger thoughts of things that we have to do.
So those are all the reasons why we might want to close our eyes.
But there are also lots of good reasons why we might not want to close our eyes.
The number one reason we gave for eyes closed is that we go into relaxation mode faster. Well, that might not be a positive thing because we might fall asleep!
Closed eyes are one of those cues for the body telling it it’s time to sleep. Just like lying in bed is a cue for the body telling it it’s time to sleep. We might not want to go into relaxation mode if it’s going to mean falling asleep.
Another reason we might not want to close our eyes is that it might not feel safe. We might not feel comfortable. This is a really good reason to not close our eyes during meditation.
There’s many, many opportunities and ways in which you can meditate with your eyes open and we’re going to talk about them a little bit further into this discussion.
What do I do with my eyes when I’m meditating? Seventy percent of my formal meditation is with eyes closed and thirty percent of my formal meditation is with my eyes open. Way back decades ago when I started meditating, it was more of a fifty-fifty ratio.
I was lighting candles and burning incense during meditation and I would keep my eyes open while I meditated on the candle flame. I would watch the pattern of the flame flickering or the pattern of the smoke floating up from the burning incense. It was delightful and it was engaging and it was relaxing and it was meditative.
I don’t burn candles or incense anymore but that meditation habit has stuck with me. Whenever there is a flame present, whether I’m at a campfire or a backyard fire pit or an indoor fireplace or even a gas stove, I’m still drawn to just watch the flame as it shifts and moves. As it changes color: the blues, the yellows, the oranges, the reds of the flame as it sputters and crackles. If it’s a wood-fire, in those situations, I’m usually the last one at a campfire or fireplace. I like to let the fire go out on its own before I leave. It gives me an opportunity to meditate on the light.
When I’m making a cup of tea, I’ll just stare at the water as it’s starting to boil, just as those tiny, tiny bubbles, start on the bottom of the pot and eventually float up and become more and more vigorous. I’ll just look at that for a few minutes. And then I add the tea and cover it and let it steep.
It’s springtime where I live and the birds are out. I have a window in front of me where I work and the birds will often come and perch on the wire outside my window. And whenever a bird comes and just sits there and looks around, I’ll take a moment and look at the bird as the bird is looking everywhere else. I’ll watch it, silently, and try to experience the life of that bird, wondering what happening with it in this moment.
Watching this bird becomes a wonderful nature meditation. I feel connected with all the life that’s around me and near me.
Speaking of nature meditation, another really popular open eyes meditation is to stare at a flower. I’ve tried to do this one indoors with flowers but I haven’t really had success. I’m more successful with flower-gazing meditation outdoors.
I know lots of people who meditate on a flower at the meditation alter indoors and find it effective.
I have this beautiful tree in front of my window where I work and when it’s windy the branches sway and the leaves flutter. I’ll just look at it. Just watch it doing that for a few minutes at a time. It’s a delightful little meditation.
Another other way we can meditate with our eyes open is to go for a walk without conversation. Whether we’re alone or with someone else we can walk without talking. It doesn’t have to be in nature. If you want to do it in nature, that’s great. But even if we’re in the middle of a city, we can walk around and listen to the sounds, just look at the buildings or the pattern or the people without labeling them. Without judging them. Without trying to comment on them. Just look at them with a gentle and inquisitive gaze, remaining silent outwardly and inwardly.
While walking we can focus on the movement of our feet as they lift off the ground, and then touch back onto the ground. We can try to focus on each part of that movement, where the heel of the foot touches the ground then the middle of the foot, and then the front of the foot. And then in reverse as it lifts off the ground and comes back down.
Walking meditation is a great eyes open meditation.
Another popular way to meditate with eyes open is to meditate on a photo or a diagram. I also used to do this a lot. I had so many photos of deities of all religions and yantras, which are geometric shapes, that I used to meditate on. I’ve given up the gods and the supernatural so I’m not drawn to this type of meditation anymore, but if meditating on some sort of shape or symbol or deity or icon comes naturally to you, then you should definitely go for it. It can be a very effective open eyes meditation. I highly recommend it.
And now I have my ultimate recommendation for eyes open meditation. It’s one of the hardest but it’s also one of the most rewarding. When you get up in the morning after you brush your teeth and you have this nice, fresh, minty taste in your mouth, look in the mirror.
Normally when we look in the mirror, we’re looking at like our face as a whole. We’re not really focusing on anything particular. And we don’t spend very much time looking in the mirror.
Try it as a meditation.
Look into your own eyes in the mirror with the same energy you would for someone you love. With the same energy as you would, for someone you care for very, very deeply.
Smile, relax, ease your breathing.
See if you can follow your breath in and out, in and out.
And then if you’re into it, if you feel courageous, say to yourself out loud, “You deserve to be loved and cared for. You deserve to feel good about yourself.”
Silently continue to look in the mirror for a few more breaths.
And then move on with your day in whichever way is necessary. But now you’ve done that one or two minute open eyes meditation looking into your own eyes.
So this is actually a quadruple eye meditation. People talk about third eye meditation. This meditation involves four eyes. This one goes to four.
To summarize you do not have to have your eyes closed to meditate. Eyes closed meditation is NOT superior to eyes open meditation. They’re just different meditations for different times for different purposes. I highly recommend trying both.
One major benefit of the eyes open meditation is that you can do it while you’re other things. I wouldn’t recommend doing a eyes closed meditation when you’re cooking with a beautifully sharp, effective chef’s knife. That might not go too well. But if your eyes are open, you can do it.
When your eyes are open, your entire life provides opportunities for meditation. So why not take those opportunities and enjoy meditating whenever you want, however you want.