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Extra Grace Required - Our Blog

God's Eye: Contemplative Gazing

But one day the wind will show its kindness
And remove the tiny patches that
Cover your eyes,
And you will see God more clearly
Than you have ever seen

Meister Eckhart

From the people of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico comes the Ojo de Dios, a God’s Eye. Although plenty of children have made God’s Eyes as a summer camp craft, it was originally (and still is) a contemplative practice. The creator follows the yarn around and around two crossed sticks, the four ends representing the energies of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. The God’s Eye symbolizes the mystery of the known and unknown, and the finished Ojo de Dios is often put in a home: God’s watchful gaze blessing the household. Half way around the globe, the creation of a mandala similarly offers a geometric pattern, a creative space on which to direct the eye's gaze.

It is not surprising that humans in disparate parts of the planet have developed contemplative gazing as a spiritual practice. After all, sight is how we humans understand much about the world and so it’s easy to see (forgive the pun) why this important sense came to be associated with deeper meaning. Our poetry and sacred texts are full of these allusions:

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”,
“Eyes are the windows to the soul”,
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. “ Matthew 6:22

In yoga, sight is also equated with insight and understanding. The seat of spiritual intuition is known as the “third eye”. While in commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Rev. Jaganath Carrera interprets sutra 2.6 as meaning that ego is responsible for the ignorance that obscures the truth from our "seeing", and that it is our own “mind stuff” that keeps us from experiencing the "Seer"—the divinity within.

Less prosaically, eye gaze or drishti is valued in yoga practice for it’s ability to both steady us in balance poses and help hold our attention in an asana. In Bhakti (devotional) yoga, the drishti is always turned toward God, while the Ashtanga yoga lineage assigns one of nine gazes to each asana:

1. Tip of the nose
2. Naval
3. Third eye (between eye brows)
4. Hand
5. Foot
6. Far right
7. Far left
8. Thumbs
9. Up to the sky

Contemplative gazing may be found in other spiritual practices as well. The renowned yogini Nishela Joy Devi, recommends the practice of trataka, as an introductory technique for beginning meditators. This is the practice of gazing into a candle flame or other object, such as an icon or the horizon, until the gaze waivers or eyes blink. One then closes the eyes and sees the image on the back of one’s eyelids—the mind’s eye. When that image fades one reopens the eyes and gazes again at the object of concentration, repeating this process until the meditation session is completed. The idea is to gaze until one sees the essence of the object, the eternal truth that all of creation is God's gift.

James Finley, formerly a student of Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and author of the seminal meditation book, The Contemplative Heart, suggests that the preferred eye position for Christian meditation is with eyes half open, rather than shut. He writes,

“ the limited field of vision created by lowering our eyes toward the ground embodies the limited field of vision in which we acknowledge ourselves to be living.”

He adds further, that the meditation posture of eyes lowered, gaze steady, helps the meditator

“…move along the path to Christ in dying to the egocentric modes of seeing that blind us to the divinity of the life we are living.”

Full disclosure: I have been meditating for decades, but I still find it difficult to meditate as Finley encourages, with eyes half-open. My vision is so easily distracted! But I am so intrigued by his idea of purposefully limiting our field of vision, in acknowledgment of our very human limitations, that a couple times per year, I give it a try, in hopes that I may some day “get it.” I find the contemplative technique of trataka much easier and especially love to practice it whenever I am lucky enough to be at the seaside and may gaze at the pounding surf.

In the Practice of Clear Vision this week, we suggest that you add as embodied prayer an eye asana to both strengthen and rest your weary eyes. Consider also exploring the practice of contemplative gazing. Choose whatever form appeals to you: make a God’s Eye or mandala, gaze into a candle or at the horizon, intentionally set your drishti in each asana during practice, or keep your eyes half open, gaze lowered and steady while in a seated meditation posture. Whatever contemplative gazing practice you choose, remember to keep your gaze soft, and rest your eyes when you need to. Honor the body's wisdom, as you open your eyes to the light of God’s presence.

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