Can you meditate with your eyes open?

Of course you can meditate with your eyes open. In fact, it’s hardly a radical idea – open-eyed meditation is a practice with a lengthy history. But why did people do it? What do current proponents of meditation with eyes open say about its benefits?

Meditating with your eyes open can help a lot if you’re prone to falling asleep during meditation. Beyond that, you need to experiment a little and see which feels better for you. Some people find visual stimulation disruptive, whereas others find it helps them focus.

Read on and you’ll understand what I mean.

Who is meditating with eyes open useful for?

Firstly – and obviously – meditating with your eyes open allows you to see in front of you. That lets you focus on one point, like something important in your practice, or simply a selected spot on the wall. If your meditation practice involves some kind of symbol or object you’d like to focus on, open eyed meditation could be a great option.

Meditating with your eyes open will also let you grow accustomed to mindfulness while being ‘active’ – walking outside, riding public transit, at work, etc. As some folks have rightly pointed out, if the purpose of meditation is to bring the practice of mindfulness to everyday life, then perhaps we’d be wise to practice in situations that resemble it. Sitting cloistered up with eyes closed and requiring utter silence and complete comfort bears little resemblance to dealing with an abrasive coworker or obnoxious stranger. “Practice how you play”, as they say.

One of the main benefits of meditating with your eyes open is that it’s harder to fall asleep. For many people, especially those who lie down to meditate, it can be difficult to stay awake when you close your eyes for a long time and enter a state of relaxation. Maybe you’re not getting enough sleep, or you’re meditating at the wrong time for you. Maybe it’s just too similar to going to bed! Regardless, keeping your eyes open should help you stay awake while meditating. If you’ve ever fallen victim to the infamous savasana snooze, you might want to consider meditating with your eyes open.

Another benefit some people would report (including myself) is that intrusive thoughts feel less intense when their eyes are open. When I close my eyes for a while I start to have all sorts of vivid ideas about what I ought to eat tomorrow, what I did last week and what projects I should go and work on instead of meditating. Meditating with my eyes open makes these daydreams feel a bit less urgent, and focusing on something visually gives me something to come back to when I realize I’m thinking.

Somewhat related to this point are people who report feeling anxiety when they close their eyes to meditate. If meditating with your eyes closed makes you anxious or nervous, of course you should not force yourself to do so. Maybe after some practice with your eyes open, you can revisit it if you want.

Meditating with your eyes open can be done not only sitting down, but while standing or moving around too. In fact, walking meditation is quite popular among some folks, despite being quite hard to do with your eyes closed! Obviously, you’ll need to see where you are walking 🙂

Last, but certainly not least, I think open eyed meditation (as well as walking meditation, described above) can also be recommended to the many meditators who, like myself, almost always do the standard ‘sit down, close your eyes, follow your breath’ style of meditation. While I think it’s quite alright to have a routine or favorite style of meditation, sometimes it’s good to switch things up. Trying a new way to meditate can make you a bit more conscious of how you think and feel during it, and maybe you’ll learn something you can bring to your normal practice. Maybe you’ll even like it so much that it will become your new go-to! Regardless, I think we should all try to vary our practice from time to time, especially when it has become stale.

Negatives of meditating with your eyes open

Of course, while meditating with your eyes open solves one set of challenges, it can offer new ones too.

Meditating with your eyes open can tempt you to look around and get distracted. It can result in things distracting you if they move around in your field of view. Thus, you should try and limit these distractions as much as possible, at least at first.

One major trade-off with open eyed meditation is that many meditators report having a less ‘deep’ session. Having your eyes open does represent some basic level of sensory input that our brains can hold on to and process and think about.

While your eyes are closed, however, it’s just you and your thoughts, and maybe some passing sounds or physical feelings. It’s possible to get quite deep in the latter state and, in my experience, to finish meditating feeling as if you haven’t been physically present for the last little while.

I’m sure people who regularly meditate with eyes open could also have some wonderful sessions, but I personally think that they feel qualitatively different. I think this is something that would be best explored on your own with a little experimentation.

Meditating with your eyes open can also be difficult in the sense of learning to observe your thoughts and feelings. Since we spend so much time in our daily lives with our eyes open, lost in a train of thought, it can be easy to slip back into this mode. Seeing things can cue your memory, and cause you to suddenly recall that childhood experience or what you were supposed to do 3 days ago, which starts a whole chain of related thoughts.

That’s why, at least in my opinion, if you’re new to meditation it would be better to try meditating with your eyes closed for a few weeks. If, after that time, you feel that meditating with your eyes closed really is difficult, try meditating with your eyes open. It seems to vary a lot between individuals, and some people much prefer one type to the other, so it’s worth checking out.

Of course, if you’re a more experienced meditator, this kind of challenge might be exactly what you’re looking for!

How to meditate with your eyes open

First, if you don’t know how to meditate in general, I’d recommend starting with your eyes closed. This limits distractions, lets you focus on your breath, and makes it easier to notice when you’ve drifted back into thinking.

However, if you really want to start meditating with your eyes open, you can simply find a comfortable place to sit (a meditation cushion or desk chair are good). Sit comfortably – you don’t need to sit cross-legged if you don’t want to. Numbness, pain, or readjusting your position can become distracting.

Next, pick somewhere to look. It is often recommended to pick one spot and keep your eyes there, with a ‘soft gaze’. It’s a bit hard to explain the ‘soft gaze’ thing, but it somewhat resembles what your eyes do when you zone out. You know when you sit there, lost in some vague train of thought, and you suddenly ‘come to’ and realize you’ve been unblinkingly staring at some poor, terrified stranger sitting opposite you? That’s sort of how it feels, at least with your eyes – but you want to retain some basic level of awareness. For example, pay attention to your breath, or focus on a feeling in your body. Keep your mind awake, and with your eyes, try to ‘look through’ your chosen spot or look without thinking about it.

Many people also prefer meditating with their eyes partly closed. To do this, try lowering your eyelids, and look at a spot in the lower half of your normal visual field. This could be on the floor, or maybe a candle or point in front of you. Soften the gaze as described above, and start to focus on the feeling of your breath. You can also count your breaths, use a mantra, or any other meditation practice you prefer. Having the eyes half closed like this is a nice compromise on the wakeful, alert feeling of having your eyes open as usual, and the restful feeling when your eyes are closed.

Avoiding distraction

Make sure when you are choosing a place to meditate, you’re doing it with the level of distractions you can handle in mind. If you’re a newer meditator, you will probably want to pick somewhere relatively quiet, or at least with a consistent level of background noise. For example, traffic is easier to adjust to than people occasionally talking nearby.

When you’re meditating with your eyes open, you also have to consider distractions like this. You will probably have a better session looking at a blank spot on the wall than looking at a screen or out the window. Especially when you’re beginning, it will help to limit the number of visual distractions you’re likely to experience. Each one is an opportunity for our brains to say oooh, INTERESTING! and forget that we were trying to meditate.

You might also want to consider meditating alone somewhere. Other people can not only provide visual or auditory distractions, they can even try to talk to you during your session – especially if your eyes are open! Later, you might be okay with these kind of interruptions, but when you’re first learning to meditate, you don’t want a good session to be interrupted needlessly. Every good experience you have is reinforcing the habit of meditation!

Checklist: Meditate with eyes open or closed?

Here’s a brief checklist to help you decide if you should choose to meditate with your eyes open or closed. It’s not comprehensive, of course. You can certainly choose whichever one you like, and should likely give both a try at least once!

Meditating with eyes open

Meditating with eyes closed

  • Meditators who want to change their practice up a little
  • Trouble with falling asleep while meditating
  • Prefer alert, outward-focused feelings during meditation
  • Interested in trying walking meditation
  • Use of picture, object, candle etc as a focus
  • Interruptive daydreams with eyes closed
  • Find sounds less disruptive with eyes open
  • Feel anxious with eyes closed for long periods of time
  • Meditators with no or little experience
  • No issues staying awake during meditation sessions
  • Prefer deeper, inward-focused feelings during meditation
  • Happy with sitting meditation
  • Focus better with no visual stimulation
  • Thinking doesn’t get ‘louder’ with eyes closed
  • Sounds are not too intrusive without visual input
  • No anxiety or discomfort while eyes are closed, even after 10-20 minutes

Take a look at this comparison chart, and see which one sounds more like you. Of course, being self-aware about some of these points would actually be easier if you tried both anyway! So, if you have no experience with one or the other, try it out!

I hope this article has helped you to decide whether you should meditate with your eyes open or closed – or both! If you have anything to add, or some interesting observations about the difference between open eye and closed eye meditation, be sure to leave them below.

Lewis

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