A choice that meditators sometimes encounter is whether to practice sitting with our eyes open or closed. Many teachers and lineages emphatically recommend one, while others advocate the other. And some teachers recommend changing it up – sometimes meditating with eyes open and at other times closed – depending on what is best for the situation. I endorse such adaptiveness.
Perhaps the main reason for meditating with our eyes closed is that doing so can provide a more intimate, internal, and concentrated experience. This is similar to closing our eyes to deeply savor great music, a delicious bite of food, or an intimate kiss – closing our eyes can help release distractions and have our attention become deeply and richly focused on one thing at a time.
Meanwhile, some wise folks assert that the point of our meditation practice is not just to sit in concentrated isolated silence, but instead to have our open, spacious, and warm-hearted meditative awareness translate and integrate back into the rest of our life off of the cushion. They say that meditating with our eyes open is what best helps us to liberate all of our life, not just our times of formal practice, and that sitting with our eyes closed creates a danger of drifting off into a sluggish, dreamlike reverie of unreality.
Generally, from what I’ve experienced, I have come to believe that:
• Meditating with the eyes closed works better when we are feeling overwhelmed and want to simplify the pulls on our awareness. Conversely, meditating with the eyes open works better when we are feeling calm and focused.
• Closed eyes work best for beginners who are still getting comfortable with the practice, may feel overwhelmed easily, and want to simplify. Open eyes are more possible for people who have been meditating for years and are familiar with how it works. In fact, long time meditators may at times welcome and want the attentional challenge that comes from having open eyes evokes, the way an athlete may intentionally challenge themselves with a harder workout.
• Closed eyes are more possible when rested. Open eyes may be needed if we want to stay awake when sleepy.
• Closed eyes is recommended when practicing techniques that involve concentrating the mind on a limited, tightly controlled object – for example, when trying to absorb awareness into the sensations of breathing found in the pit of the belly. Meanwhile, open eyes works better for insight practice that aims for a wider object – for example, letting awareness wander wherever it naturally does, with no limits, while trying to simply notice the impermanence and change of objects of consciousness over time. (open eyes also, of course, works best when concentrating awareness narrowly on real time external seeing).
• Closed eyes are better for deep inner deconstruction, for example examining and mindfully re-experiencing the residue of past inner trauma. Open eyes works better for translating new openings back into our daily lives.
• Speaking of trauma – open eyes may be needed by people with a history of severe trauma, where closed eyes while awake has them feel unsafe.
• Speaking of safe – closed eyes are more possible when we are more physically safe – for example, at home with the doors locked. Open eyes are suggested when less physically safe, for example while riding public transit late at night.
• Closed eyes are more possible when we are sitting still. Open eyes are usually best when doing meditation in motion – for example, walking meditation or mindful Tai Chi practice.
• And, finally, not sure exactly how to explain this, but, to give it a try: closed eyes are more attractive to those of us whose religious/metaphysical feeling is that this realm of existence is degenerate and dirty, and want to leave this meaningless illusion and get ourselves as quickly as possible to the blissful True World where Divinity, Reality, and The Good – Allah, God, Brahma, and Nirvana – await (I call this motion of soul “ascending spirituality” is this post). Open eyes, however, are more attractive if we feel that there is a perfection, purity, and Divine Holiness to this world as it is, either instead of a transcendent Divinity, or – as I endorse, non-duality style – in balance with and as an expression of transcendent Divinity (these motions of soul are also discussed more in the same post).
So, when deciding whether to meditate with eyes open or closed, I recommend having some sort of informal “equation” that considers those various factors and determines what seems best. One simple guideline that I seem to have grown into is, I meditate with my eyes open as a default, but I also feel free to close them whenever I have a reason or desire.
When meditating with the eyes open, the classic instruction is to not let our eyes wander, but instead to try to keep the gaze focused downward about forty five degree angle on a spot out in front on the floor or wall.
I have personally found that my eyes wander more when my mind is wandering, and that my gaze is more still when my mind is more still.
Another common instruction is to soften and unfixate the gaze. My teacher Shinzen Young describes this as “looking not at the world, but through it”. He also says that there is a lineage of martial arts that calls this way of looking “Far Mountain Gaze” and a Native American tradition that calls it “Spirit Eyes”.
When meditating with the eyes open, it helps to open them wider when drowsy, and to lower the lids more when anxious, agitated, or spinning. And it’s generally good to take off glasses before meditating.
I read a book that claimed that meditators’ gazes dart around even when our eyes are closed, and so the author recommended holding our gaze “looking down and into the body” when the eyes are closed. I personally have not practiced with that.