One afternoon a few summers ago, I decided to practice the guitar on our backyard deck. It was a sunny day, the temperature in the mid-seventies. At the time, I was revisiting the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro (BWV 998), a piece I had played for years and knew by heart. Normally, I practice indoors, my eyes fixed on the score. If I’ve memorized the piece, I tend to stare at the fingerboard, as classical guitarists are prone to do. That afternoon, however, I looked out at our spacious and secluded backyard, where the natural world was vividly in motion. Blue jays were foraging in the grass. Leaves quivered in a light wind. High in a tall pine, a dark bird flew in, perched for a moment, and flew out. As I played the first few bars of the Prelude–a lyrical but technically challenging piece–my eyes came to rest on our Curly Willow tree in the middle distance. At the same time, I remained keenly aware of all the peripheral movement. And as I proceeded into the Prelude, I gradually realized that my playing had become more fluent and relaxed. To my surprise, it had also become more accurate, expressive, and rhythmically precise.
That experience was new to me, but it was hardly my invention. Without knowledge or systematic training, I had stumbled upon a technique known to equestrians, martial artists, and other highly skilled performers as “soft eyes.” “Do you know what you need at a crime scene?” asks Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire. “Rubber gloves?” ventures Detective Kima Greggs. “Soft eyes,” Moreland replies. “You got soft eyes, you see the whole thing.” In essence an integration of peripheral and foeval (central, line-of-sight) vision, the technique of soft eyes is used in fields as diverse as tracking, performance driving, interior decorating, teaching, yoga, and Akido. The personal and social benefits of this technique can be significant, if not transformative. It can permit us at any moment to see “the whole thing.” Yet in obvious ways, the practice of soft eyes runs counter to the prevalence of “hard eyes”–the type of vision we habitually employ when chopping a carrot or threading a needle or working at a computer. To learn to look with soft eyes may require conscious effort.
If you would like to explore this technique, I would recommend that you choose an outdoor setting, preferably a wide-open area. Select an object in the middle distance, and focus your powers of concentration solely on that object, as though you were trying to grasp it with your eyes. When you have done this for a minute or more, relax your eyes, allowing your vision to soften. Letting your attention rest on the object, imagine that you are inviting and receiving it, just as it is, into your consciousness. At the same time, allow your perspective to widen, noticing how other objects and movements, sensed or actually seen, emerge in your peripheral vision. Open your hearing as well as your sight, and note the changes occurring in your body, your state of mind, and your general awareness.
Those changes may be pronounced, especially if you cultivate the practice over time. In The Breathing Book, the yoga teacher Donna Farhi directs us to observe how the practice of soft eyes opens and broadens the diaphragm, relaxing and deepening our breathing. And in Centered Riding, the equestrian teacher Sally Swift provides a detailed discussion of the soft-eyes technique, which she defines as “a method of becoming distinctly aware of what is going on around you, beneath you, inside of you.” Practicing with soft eyes, young riders learn to relax themselves and their horses and to remain aware of everyone else in the arena. Professional riders also employ the technique to competitive advantage. As Swift notes, the celebrated American equestrian Denny Emerson developed the skill of switching back and forth between hard and soft eyes, as needed, during competitive events.
The term soft eyes is rarely heard in Zen circles, and the concept of softness may seem at odds with the austerities of Zen discipline. As it happens, however, classical instructions for zazen (seated meditation) advise us to keep our eyes half-open and our gaze trained on a point three feet in front of us. Easing and slightly blurring our visual perception, we then expand our peripheral vision as widely as possible, as we become quietly aware of whatever is occurring within and around us. According to an old Zen story, one accomplished Rinzai master, practicing in this way, could sense a fly landing behind him–or two, if they happened to mating. That story may be apocryphal, but it well illustrates the principle and the virtue of soft eyes.
Donna Farhi, The Breathing Book (Henry Holt, 1996), 103-104.
Sally Swift, Centered Riding (St. Martin’s, 1985), 11.
See also “Horizontal ,” an Akido demonstration.