Meditating with Your Eyes Open

Via Susanna Harwood Rubin
on Jul 6, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

Exchanging Glances in Southern India

In the late morning the stones of the temple courtyard burn the soles of your feet, so you walk very quickly scanning for the light-colored ones while headed for the shade of the main complex.  You say hello to Ganesha at the temple threshold, and then move more deeply into its center, passing by the priests engaged in business and ritual, weaving through streams of other visitors headed for different shrines in the seemingly infinite corners of the temple, which is essentially a walled village the size of multiple football fields.

When you arrive at the heart of the temple, you find Nataraja, intricately adorned in vibrant silks, jewels, and garlanded with flowers. Endless patterns of ritual revolve around him involving fire, liquid, smoke, and substance, immersing you in a complex synesthetic experience. The dusty grooves of the temple stones capture occasional puddles of coconut water, milk, sandal, and ghee that cool your toes as you step through them.  The bats swoop and chatter through the air accompanied by the temple music’s drums, bells, and horns. Smoke from the ghee lamps and the homa drifts through pillars and columns. Your forehead is host to sweet-smelling smears of ash that mingle with the scent of jasmine from your hair. And you listen or join in with the murmurs of mantras that swell like tiny whispering waves. You are permeated in every sensory manner and you release into it. The temple is a body, pulsing with life. When you are in it, you become an element of its chemistry.

Most people who visit Chidambaram come to see Nataraja. This is his temple, the site of the Ananda Tandava, his Dance of Bliss. Shiva presides over the temple in the form of Nataraja, the dancer, the artist, who, with every movement, dances everything that exists into being and non-being. If you love Nataraja, this is the center of the universe. If you love Nataraja, you have come to see him and to be seen by him. The word for this is darshan, which my teacher Douglas Brooks explains as “the exchange of glances.” By entering, you have offered yourself to the temple, and then the temple offers itself back. As you inhabit the temple, the temple takes up residence within you.

If you want to meditate, you can choose to close your eyes and go inside your own body, heart and mind. Or you can do the very same thing with your eyes open, drawing the outside in as an entirely different way of moving into the very same places. Through this invitation, this conversation, the body of the temple becomes your body. You gaze upon the deity and the deity shows you yourself. You exchange glances with Nataraja, This is why you are here.

There are times when you want to be within the quiet of your own inner vision. This is when you close your eyes. There are other times when you want to invite in all of the wild delirious diversity of the world, and this is when you open them.  This receptivity enables you to converse more deeply with your surroundings and consequently, within yourself. Everything outside of you calls upon something within you. You begin to recognize that you are in a state of constant conversation with the world.



About Susanna Harwood Rubin

Susanna is passionately committed to finding beauty in everyday life. She is a yoga teacher-writer-visual artist, which means that she rarely stops moving except to meditate. She is ERYT-500, has been teaching for over 12 years, and travels regularly to South India to delve into the traditions of Rajanaka Yoga that inspire her work. Her spiritual home is the great Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram. She teaches internationally, but is based in New York. Find her weekly classes at Twisted Trunk Yoga and Abhaya Yoga . Susanna's artwork is represented in collections such as the UCLA Hammer Museum, the Berkeley Museum, and the Addison Gallery of American Art. She lectured and wrote for MoMA for years, including co-writing the book "Looking at Matisse and Picasso," and she will still happily talk about Picasso for hours if you ask her. Susanna currently writes on yoga, writing, art, and life for a number of publications, including The Huffington Post , Mantra Yoga+Health , Rebelle Society , and YOGANONYMOUS . She gives talks on yoga, Hindu myth, and philosophy, and created the popular Writing Your Practice workshops and telecourses for yogis, applying yoga philosophy and myth to the practice of writing. Overall, she is amazed at the richness of her life. Find her on Twitter , Facebook , & Instagram


11 Responses to “Meditating with Your Eyes Open”

  1. gina says:

    you are a wonderful writer….thanks for taking me there…

  2. tanya lee markul says:

    Thank you for sharing, Susanna. Very nicely written.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  3. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  4. Thank you so much, Gina. It is the tiniest taste of what I am bursting to convey – I wish I could bring everyone there with me…

  5. Thanks, Tanya! I am slowly regaining internet access as I move back through Paris toward NYC…

  6. lovely Susanna. thank you for taking me there. I can't wait to actually go someday.

  7. I can't wait for you to go, Linda…then you can tell me your stories!

  8. […] have already written that once you have been to Chidambaram, the temple takes up residence within you. And so it has. My friend Harrison Williams told me a couple of days ago that he dreamt of the […]

  9. […] you want is to see and to be seen by the deity. This is called darshan. It can be defined as “the exchange of glances.” The point is the exchange, the visual […]

  10. […] want to do exactly this- join my body to the other bodies in the Cit Sabha at night and at dawn for darshan, which means seeing and being seen. This is what I am doing right […]