In a sacred landscape, with its complexities and convolutions, surprise is a constant companion: it lies just around the bend or hidden in the next valley, and though it sometimes startles us, it often brings delight. But on the flatlands of a desacralized world, where we grow accustomed to seeing things approaching us long before they arrive, surprise is neither expected nor welcomed. When it suddenly arises, apparently out of nowhere, we are stricken with fear and may even respond with violence. […]
It is possible to respond differently to surprises, to allow one new idea to generate yet another in us — a process sometimes called thinking. But in a flattened, desacralized culture thinking is not what happens when we are taken — or threatened — by surprise. Instead, we reflexively defend ourselves by reaching for a weapon that we know how to use, an old idea whose use we mastered long ago. [...]
This reflex is rooted in a million years of evolution, so it may seem inexorable. Yet there is some physiological evidence that this need not be the case. Normally when we are taken by surprise, there is a sudden narrowing of our visual periphery that exacerbates the fight or flight response — an intense, fearful, self-defensive focusing of the “gimlet eye” that is associated with both physical and intellectual combat. But in the Japanese self-defense art of aikido, this visual narrowing is countered by a practice called “soft eyes”, in which one learns to widen one’s periphery, to take in more of the world.
If you introduce a sudden stimulus to an unprepared person, the eyes narrow and the fight or flight syndrome kicks in. But if you train a person to practice soft eyes, then introduce that same stimulus, the reflex is often transcended. This person will turn toward the stimulus, take it in, and then make a more authentic response — such as thinking a new thought.
Soft eyes, it seems to me, is an evocative image for what happens when we gaze on sacred reality. Now our eyes are open and receptive, able to take in the greatness of the world and the grace of great things. Eyes wide with wonder, we no longer need to resist or run when taken by surprise. Now we can open ourselves to the great mystery.
Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach.
SEED QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: What does having "soft eyes" mean to you? Can you share a personal experience of a time you countered visual narrowing by widening your periphery? What helps you develop soft eyes?
Thank you indeed for this great insight. I teach " soft eyes" as part of an advanced reading course.
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how hard to see the people around us with suffering: then, softening our gaze, we might 'get' what is going on, for them, and then see our own version of pain.....and let it shift away -- shenpa breathing......and come to just this tiny moment....lots, but enough. yes?
I really like this post, thank you! Part of the practice of zazen meditation is "unfocused focus" - you might call it paying relaxed attention to nothing in particular. Couple this with the zen koan, "The great way is not difficult if you just don't pick and choose" and it seems that the wide, focused/unfocused view of zen in which one doesn't label things as good or bad, beautiful or ugly so that one doesn't immediately react to a situation in an unconscious manner...is pretty much soft eyes. Biologically, this is difficult, given that we have amygdalas that react before we think, but meditation practices have shown that people really can override these older inheritances.
Being able to see things differently each day, is sometime I strive to do as I sit in silent mediation. To wonder, imagine or discover are moments I treasure. I enjoy having the eyes of a small child whenI look at the world around me. With the simple mindset I feel refreshed and energized.
This brings to mind a concept from A Course In Miracles which states that nothing we see has any meaning other than what we assign to it. Soft eyes, to me, means to see without judgement.
Soft eyes to me is the love and compassion our heart can hold and that which is reflected in our eyes and revealed through our actions. Compassion in the heart can be seen in the eye..................Compassion towards our fellowmen, nature and all that is in it.........
Soft eyes to me means pausing then looking with love and compassion and kindness. <3 When someone has a different view than mine, I do my best to use this. Or when I see someone is hurting about something underneath their anger. It takes mindful effort, that moment of pause, pulling into love then responding. <3
What surfaced within as I read this beautiful post, is that I need to hold myself with love and compassion when I wish to have soft eyes, but respond with narrow eyes.
For me soft eyes means looking at objects and subjects with love. It is the smae feeling when you hold a baby and your eyes soften
approching a new challenge with the same old way and thought process will nevr help you combat the issue. It will over power you easily. The only way to come out of it is to widen one's perspective, experinces, learnings.
For me, having soft eyes means being open to hopefully see what is, not just see my thinking or prejudices or expectations or preconceived judgments. Having soft eyes means being open and welcoming, not closed and defensive. A personal example is that I went from narrow religous beliefs that I defended as a child to widening my spiritual periphery as I got older. I think I became open to truth wherever it was to be found. I opened my eyes and learned from various traditions and disciplines. What helps me develop soft eyes is openness to learn, having an attitude of searching, openness to my mind changing and evolving rather than being rigidly set, and valuing the truth.
Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.What we see depends on how we see. If we see the world with narrow eyes, the world looks narrow to us. If we see the world with hard eyes, the world looks hard. And if we gaze the world with soft,open and receptive eyes,we can take in the greatness, vastness and the glory and grace of great things.
The Navajo people see the world through the lens of hozho: all the goodness to be found through harmony, balance, beauty and fluidty. They pray: In beauty I walk,with beauty before, behind, above and around me.It has beauty again, and again and again.Looking for beauty and goodness is a contemplative practice. My father taught me this ancient Vedic pryaer: O God! may we hear auspicious words with the ears. May we see auspicious things with the ears.May we enjoy life that is beneficial and auspicious.
Sadly our awareness has been constricted and that makes our life constricted.We need to expand our awreness to hear the songs of birds, the light of the sun and the moon and stars, the touch of wind, the smile of children and wonder of nature. We can make this earth sacred, the kingdom of heaven.
This is what I have learnt from the elderly persons and from my traditions and this has become my everyday sacred practice.
May we relate to natural and human world with soft and loving eyes and make it sacred!
Jagdis P Dave