In meditation and Tai Chi, we often talk about using a soft gaze. This means that rather than intently staring at something, we open our gaze to include the full visual field. It’s a way of looking which comes naturally to us at times, for example when we’re standing at a beach watching a sunset and taking in the whole scene at once. In our everyday life, as we move from one task to the next, we’re usually trying to stay focused, and without being aware of it, we may be spending a lot of time with a ‘hard’ gaze, which is narrow and more fixed. There are times, of course, when a focused gaze is required – when we’re threading a needle, perhaps, or similar precise work.
Yet a lot of the time, a softer gaze may work much better for us. Interestingly, mammals usually interpret a hard stare as a threat, and our dogs and cats much prefer it if we gaze at them with soft eyes. A soft gaze is more receptive, more open to possibilities. There’s a sense of being within the environment, of being part of our surroundings instead of simply being an agent acting on it.
Wanting to be more mindful, we may feel that we need to really focus on something in particular. Whenever we stare at something, however, it can come with a sense of possessiveness. A soft gaze is more holistic and embracing, instead of narrow and judgemental.
We can bring to mind someone who is very kind, and imagine them looking at us. Their eyes are naturally soft and warm, but they also seem to see a lot. They’re not staring, but on the other hand, their gaze is very present with us. It’s clear they’re not thinking of emails they need to write or hoping someone more interesting might come along to talk to. It’s likely they have known their fair share of sadness, but it hasn’t turned them bitter or hard. What would it feel like to look with the same soft kindness on a flower, a pile of laundry, a cup of coffee, a traffic jam?
Set aside ten to twenty minutes for a mindfulness meditation with your eyes open. Look around, and experiment switching from a hard, focused gaze to a soft, open gaze. Notice how this feels in your eyes, the rest of your body, and in your mind. After some time, half close your eyes and drop your eyes to a metre or so in front of you, not looking at anything in particular. In many traditions we meditate with our eyes half-open and a soft gaze downwards. If you are used to meditating with your eyes closed, you may like to also explore meditating with your eyes half-open to experience what this feels like.