Eyes Open

For the last year and half, I’ve been part an online meditation group called the Open Heart Project. The project, created and run by Susan Piver, consists of a twice-a-week newsletter that brings thousands of people to sit together in a ten-minute meditation. I’ve learned a lot through participating: it’s helped me feel calmer, detach from past- and future-oriented obsessions, and, when I’m lucky, connect with something outside of myself.

When I first began meditating, I struggled with the usual challenges: a perpetually sleeping foot, an inability to sit still… But the hardest part was learning to practice with my eyes open.

In the opening moments of every session, Susan asks everyone to look down, to place their attention on their breath, and to fix their gaze on a spot about six in front of them… Practicing with open eyes, she says, is a way of training ourselves to carry the meditative experience – to be mindful – in our day-to-day lives.

Before I joined the project, I’d associated spiritual practice with a bowed head and closed eyes, so keeping them open felt counter-intuitive, unnecesary even. Whenever I tried to follow Susan’s instruction, my eyes would betray me and jump all over the room, taking inventory of papers to sort and corners to sweep. They would pull me out of the moment and into the busyness of the rest of my life.

So I tried to cheat. I waited until late at night, turned off the lights, and pulled the blinds down, immersing myself in a sightless black that promised to eliminate environmental distractions. For a while, it worked. Sometimes, I felt the edge of something: a tingle on my skin, a phasing, a dissolution of my surroundings. Whenever the tingle came, I felt an appreciation for and acceptance of that moment.

Still, even in the darkness, the world found its way in: light from a streetlamp backlit my bamboo blinds, tracing the outline of the desk with its files, the shadowed corner collecting dust bunnies… I could have hung heavier blinds, but I knew my eyes would adjust no matter how deep a darkness I created. So I stopped trying to cheat, left the lights on, and forced myself to practice with my eyes open.

My gaze roamed the room with renewed curiosity, gloating in having overcome my attempt to stifle it. My mind went with it, too, scanning, searching, planning, seeking. That tingle I’d sometimes edged up against seemed out of reach, lost. I felt like I was just sitting there, wasting time, making no progress, while an infinite to-do list weighed down on me.

But after a while, I noticed a change. Not when I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, but when I was outside, immersed in the frenetic whirr of the machine city. I noticed it on a packed subway, with its bright lights, glitchy station announcments, and simmering hostility. I noticed it in a long line at the grocery store, surrounded by pre-made meals and gnarled, tattered lists. I noticed it between emails, meeting requests, friend requests, mentions, and faves. The tingle had come back.

The most incredible thing wasn’t that it had found me again, but that it was there when I needed it most. When the sensory and psychic overload of day-to-day life felt like too much. When the present moment seemed dull or frustrating. When my mind would ordinarily dwell on the past or worry about the future.

Susan was right: keeping my eyes open had brought meditation into my daily life in a way that my shrouded approach never had. So I learned not to blank out the world, to immerse myself in it, and to let my heart open along with my eyes.

The Open Heart Project is a fantastic investment of time and energy for anyone looking to get a start with meditation. You can sign up here.