Posts Tagged ‘zen’

BACKYARDOne 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.

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800px-Blue_Cliff_Monastery_-_3In its most common usage, the word intimacy hardly suggests a spiritual context. Enter the word in your browser, and you are likely to turn up references to the bedroom, the boudoir, and Britney Spears’ line of designer lingerie. Yet the root of intimate, from which intimacy derives, is the Latin intimus, which means “inmost.” And a desire for true intimacy–for connection with one’s inmost nature–is fundamental to many spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism included. “Intimacy,” writes the Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong, “is at the heart of all of Zen.” (more…)

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Caroline Littell Photo edited

“If you are truly present for an orange,” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh once remarked, “the orange will be present for you.”

I was reminded of that remark when viewing the recent exhibition of sixty black-and-white photographs by the photojournalist Caroline Littell (1939-2015) at Alfred University’s Herrick Memorial Library. Entitled “Camera without Borders: The World of Caroline Littell,” this wide-ranging exhibition was curated by her husband, the travel writer Alan Littell, and their son Harry Littell, Associate Professor of Photography at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

As variegated as it is accomplished, Caroline Littell’s work spans several decades and the multiple continents she visited during her lifetime. Her beautifully rendered photographs, nearly all of them predating the digital era, were taken in countries as diverse in character and terrain as Burma, Botswana, Thailand, Colombia, Scotland, Turkey, Canada, and the United States. Many portray indigenous inhabitants, singly or in groups. Others depict landscapes, public squares, churches, monuments, and wild animals in their natural habitats. Diverse as they are in subject, however, the photos evince two consistent qualities, which together convey a strong sense of presence, whether the subject is a rhino in Tanzania or two young men astride their motorbikes on a street corner in Bangkok. (more…)

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Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well. (more…)

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730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible. (more…)

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Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life. (more…)

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Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: (more…)

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