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Meditating on Visual Objects

September 10, 2012

Shamatha/Vipashyana meditation has two aspects: taming and training.  When we tame our mind, we allow it to calm down and to rest peacefully.  When we train our mind, we develop (or uncover) our natural wisdom.  This wisdom allows us to undo those misunderstandings that cause the mind to freak out in the first place. We can use an object as a focus of meditation as an aid in taming or training. An object can act like ballast and help bring a wild mind down to earth. An object can also be a focus for investigation and training.

Let your mind rest on the object like a seal resting on a rock.

Visible objects can be used for both taming and training.  They are very helpful in taming the mind because they are often quite stable relative to a wild mind.  A wild mind zooms in and out of the room, into the past and out to the future.  A rock just sits there.   So if we let our mind rest on a visible object like a rock, the mind is encouraged to become a little more stable.

 Choosing a visual object as your object of meditation.

For the purpose of taming the mind, it is best to pick a neutral object – one that you don’t have strong opinions about and one that does not arouse strong emotion. (We’ll talk below on different kinds of visible objects.) A rock, a flower or a candle would be fine – not a picture of a loved one or an enemy. Take your meditation posture with the object in front of you.  It will be most comfortable for you if the object is slight below the horizontal plane of your eyes. (If the object is above the horizontal plane, you may find yourself tipping your head back to see the object, and developing a neck tension as a result.) Gently place your visual awareness on that object. It’s helpful to place your awareness where the object meets the ground – this naturally brings the eyes down. Allow your eyes to relax and rest. You may allow your eyelids to be half-closed if that feels natural. Keep the focus of your eyes soft, without much attention to detail. You’re not looking at anything in particular; you’re just looking. Relax and let go of any tension in your eyes.

Don’t seize the object with your eyes.

Many of us tighten focus in order to seize details. We grasp objects with our eyes. Try experimenting with this.  First, really try to grasp every tiny detail of your visual object with your eyes.  As you do this, notice the amount of tension that you experience in your eyes, your face, the rest of your body and your mind.  Then let go of the need to see any details.  Just let the visual object be the center of your visual field.  Let your eyes rest with no need to gain any particular information about the object.  Now notice the amount of tension that you experience.

Keep your gaze centered on one point, but allow yourself to see everything within your field of vision (this includes your peripheral vision.) You can make the focus of your attention smaller and smaller, but still don’t limit your peripheral vision. One of the main purposes of meditation is the cultivation of open awareness.  Our goal is to be open to all phenomena. We rest right on this object here and now, but we don’t exclude anything else; we allow ourselves to experience everything that goes on without being pulled away from our resting.

In an earlier post, we discussed Distinguishing Concepts From Physical Sensations . In the same way, you  can distinguish your visual perception from your concepts about the object.  Just rest your eyes on the object. Don’t try to determine anything about the object.  You don’t need to know its history, whether it’s good or bad, toxic or medicinal, where it came from or who owns it. Drop any conceptual mental chatter. Just rest your eyes on the object and be with it.  Don’t try to figure it out. Merely see the object.

Your eyes may do funny things. You may see colors differently than usually and you may experience the movement of objects through your visual field differently than usual. Don’t become fascinated by this.  It’s neither good nor bad – in fact, it’s irrelevant. Don’t try to make it happen or make it not happen.  Just rest and experience whatever goes on in your visual field.

Types of Visual Objects

In our everyday life, we receive a lot of information visually. We often judge whether things are dangerous or safe, good for us or harmful to us by way of visual information. Therefore, we may experience strong emotions when we perceive certain visual objects. For that reason, some people like to meditate in a dark room with their eyes closed.  But in shamatha/vipashyana meditation, we learn to rest comfortably with any object, so we are encouraged to meditate with our eyes open. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, if you’re using a visual object for the purpose of taming your mind, it’s best to use a neutral object. If the object has strong emotional associations, it will invite your mind to play.

A sacred image represents qualities of enlightenment.

However, if you are using the visual object for the purpose of training, then you might begin to use objects that have some emotional associations with them. In the Kagyu tradition, for instance, it’s traditional during retreat to begin meditating on a neutral object, and then to progress to an object of attachment, and then to an object of aversion. In the Theravadan tradition, it is traditional to use corpses as an object of meditation. Most religious traditions include sacred art, which can be understood as visual objects that represent sacred or enlightened qualities. When a practitioner meditates on sacred art, she may become more familiar with these qualities and begin to uncover them in herself.

After Meditation

You can bring some of this technique into your everyday life.  For instance, when you are looking at a computer, tablet or phone, keep the screen as the focus of your attention, but include your whole visual field in your awareness. When you’re reading, you can drop all your mental preconceptions and commentary.  Just see the letters, the edges of the book (or tablet or screen) and then the whole room. Notice that you can still understand the text even without the over-tight focus. Notice whenever your eyes grasp an object like an eagle seizing its prey.  When you notice that, see if you can loosen your focus and relax your eyes.  This will encourage the mind (which is also grasping that object) to relax, too.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 14, 2012 12:02 pm

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