“The eyes are the windows of the soul.”
This is a proverb usually credited to the Gospel of Matthew, however, variants of this proverb appear in the writings of Cicero, a Roman statesman, as well.
Yogic literature contributes its own versions of this principle, and in practice offers us numerous techniques to maintain the eye-soul relationship.
What do we mean by soul?
First, we mean mind. Not so much the thought-stuff resulting from brain activity, but something broader. The symbolic place where states of mind, moods, world views emerge from, the creative sensibility that guides our world as it works. For instance, the sensibility that guides cells to split and repair themselves and one another.
We also mean the symbolic crypt where things collect inside us. The place where our deepest experiences are stored and processed.
Modern physiology has uncovered it’s own set of correlations between the eyes and mind.
Of our five senses, sight dominates and is the one we utilize most often.
Furthermore, our brain tends to trust visual information over that of the other five senses.
The largest portion of brain capacity is occupied by vision.
The body cannot enter a deep sleep state with eyes open, while closing them is a major trigger of relaxation response. Conversely, it cannot fully wake from sleep without opening the eyes.
So, caring for our eyes = caring for our physical and psychological vision.
Healthy eyes are like a clean window that we look through to see whatever we choose to see.
Sitting at our desks looking into our computer screens for 40+ hours a week, we overuse our most valuable tools. When our eyes aren’t well, we aren’t well.
Burning eyes = burning mood.
Tired eyes = tired mood = tired ideas.
I’m suggesting the acronym SLATS—Stop Looking At The Screen. May it fully integrate into our urban language.
A 5 letter reminder written on a sticky note attached to our monitor.
Or posted to the Facebook profile of a co-worker friend: “Yo, SLATS!” Code for, “uh, delete your last comment and stop looking at the screen!”
When we see something disgusting or horrific, we avert our eyes immediately before we even consciously make the choice to do so. Yet, we’re often unable to heed the alarm-signal our overworked eyes send us through pain, blurred vision and crappy moods caused by marathon screen-staring.
Rubbing our eyes with our fists is certainly not the answer. This is where the yogic practice of eye postures can save our soul.
Here are two techniques and why they work:
1. Rub your palms together briskly, feeling the heat the action generates. Once the hands feel warm, pause the rubbing and hold your palms about an inch apart for a moment.
Feel the warm waves of electromagnetic energy moving between your palms.
Then rub the palms together again to replenish the warmth you just used. Place your cupped palms over your eyes.
Feel the warm waves bathing your eyes.
Keep your eyes closed as long as you like, even after you rest your hands in your lap.
Slowly open your eyes when you’re ready.
2. Leaving your palms in your lap, close your eyes and wait a few moments. Look at the blackish grayness of your mind-screen as if it were a real screen a few inches in front of your forehead.
There may be some movements of light, color and/or shape that appear.
What you see or don’t see is irrelevant. What matters is actually looking at the imaginary screen as if it’s in front of you.
When you find yourself looking for something, go back to looking at the mind-screen.
Emerging thoughts about work or the exercise itself might distract your observation. That’s okay, just keep renewing your detached curiosity in watching that dark space.
The second exercise employs a technique from Yoga Nidra (usually translated as Yogic Sleep), a meditative practice of very deep relaxation where practitioners eventually reach a state that neuroscience calls theta.
Practicing the technique while sitting at your desk isn’t likely to take you into profound relaxation, but it is effective enough to clear the windows of the soul.
Both of the exercises above are everyday uses of Pratyahara—usually translated from Sanskrit as sensory withdrawal—one of the basic components of Yogic experience.
The senses withdraw from the outside environment to some degree, while perception of the inner landscape increases.
The first moments of sensory withdrawal are significant as the mind goes into waiting mode, which eases the information deluge, sensory overload and triggers relaxation response in our parasympathetic nervous system.
Don’t worry if closing your eyes doesn’t feel right. Maybe stress causes the eyelids to flutter or the closed eyes make the stress more apparent.
In this case, keep your eyes open and look at your lap.
Allow your eyes to soften focus and the mind to take in the colors, shapes, textures—whatever is there—the entire surface of the lap.
Your eyes might want to move a little, scanning the vision of your lap. Be open to the possibility that at some point they might want to become still, looking at one portion of or a wider view of your lap.
Remember, you’re not looking for anything in your lap—physically or symbolically.
Your eyes will gradually readjust from flat computer screen to the three-dimensionality of your lap. Your mind will readjust as well. Your experience will feel less flat, less compressed.
Though we’re not looking inward with our eyes closed, our eyes are more or less steady, employing the meditative technique commonly called single-point focus. The concentration of eyes into one spot helps concentrate the mind.
Among the many words the yogic tradition has for concentration is dharana—often translated as focus on a single object.
The act of gazing at our own physical self draws our energy back into our personal boundary where it is easiest for us to access.
The bowing of the head calms the nervous system and stretches the tight muscles in the back of our neck.
Practice of these very simple exercises puts our minds and eyes in sleep mode without actually going to sleep.
Afterwards, we return to work feeling like our operating system has been re-booted. In a sense, it has been.
Tina Foster is a yoga instructor, mentor, Thai massagist and writer who lives in San Francisco. She works privately out of her own studio in the heart of the Mission District as well as in other studios in SF and around the world. Find Tina on her website, Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin.
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Assist Ed: Olivia Gray/Kate Bartolotta