Eyes • 18 November 2009

Monday I fell asleep watching for meteors, lying in the back yard on the hot tub cover as the waters gurgled beneath. The giant buildings down in Century City hum all night, ventilating themselves. All those confident vibrations put me straight to sleep. Woke again at 3, in time for the last lights of the Leonid, just a few spacerocks aflame streaking sideways in east to west.

Before, I would have done what Vipassana teaches: stare at the sky like a rabbit hole, poised to spring on any peeking phenomenon. But this time I payed as much attention to my eyes as the sky, shifting the gaze little by little, letting the whole space twinkle and change, meteors or not. Different.

Meditation class Sunday. I curled up in the solstice sculpture on the sea cliffs, put on the phone headset, and practiced with thirty quiet others on the line. The sculpture’s center is two soft foot-wide planks, soaked and bent to meet each other in an ellipse, then replicated a dozen times around the axis, with openings directly east and west. Inside is echochamber to the ears, windtunnel to the skin, hammock to the back, and to my imagination the dead center of Sauron’s searching eye.

Summer Solstice

On the line, we were working on restricting the attention to the visual field, then allowing impermanence to happen in that zone. The specific technique was: note the vanishings of experiences, calling that elusive moment gone! This technique is similar, if way more specific and difficult, than the usual vipassana method of labeling subjective activity: planning, anxiety, fantasy, etc. It reminds me of Nintendo Duck Hunt: watch the phenomenon so closely you are paying attention when it goes poof. Except for Nobody is pulling the trigger.

What Shinzen calls sight flow—attending to change through the sense gate of sight—is, his old timer students say, one of the more difficult sensory techniques to master. Especially when you’re just sitting there, gazing at some floor. We did something so subtle it seemed stupid until it clicked for me: let the eyes stay in their drste, but shift the seeing ever so slightly. Let one eye become more dominant, modulate the relationship to light, wobble the eyeball a tiny bit. Recognize this as a kind of sensory experience “a flavor of impermanence.”

This whole exercise brings up all kinds of practical questions about where mind and the world reside, but for once I didn’t let myself care about them. I just gazed up in to the nexus of nested ellipses, shifting the eyes bit by bit, letting something this trivial sharpen my concentration (and maybe understanding) a little bit. The combined difficulty and triviality of the technique might have irritated me enough to shift to the more obvious field of change, tilting my head to watch the waves roll in on the beach. Life on the ocean is always easy philosophy.

However! Not this time. The method worked because of what happened the day before. In dance, after a couple of hours of godknowswhat involving deep trance and high receptivity, some woman—calm and respectful, clearly a yoga practitioner, experienced in the healing professions, a decade or so older—drew me down to the floor and took lotus touching my knees. Next thing I know we’re doing the white tantra thing, where you gaze unblinking in to another’s eyes. I’ve done tiny bits of this, stints of two minutes that felt like five, but only as a kind of dare and accompanied by a special feeling of excruciating uncanniness.

First thought: Wow, I’m glad I didn’t get myself in to this situation with anyone other than this person before me. Seriously, staring someone in the eyes for 15 minutes straight (time went away, but enough passed in the body that my knees were stiff coming out of lotus) could be really stupid for your spirit or whatever it is. Next hundred thoughts (lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes, I don’t remember): God, when will it end? Can I stay with it? Also: Eyes are so freakish! (Remembering my professor, author of How Emotions Work, who says that people the world over are most superstitious about the eyes.) But after that: Ok, all we’re doing is looking. And it keeps changing, depending on which of her eyes I really see, which of her eyes is doing the looking, and which of my eyes is leading. (It didn’t occur to me to try to separate the gaze of each eye, doing a two-pointed drste on each of her pupils, but maybe that happened at times.)

The woman’s eyes changed and changed, even though she barely blinked or moved her face. I noticed everything—her eyes and mine—because this was an insanely high stakes situation. No part of me could stray from it, so I learned very quickly and for the first time to give myself fully to the visual field. How to relate relentlessly with who or what is there.

She was as rich and complex and easy and comfortable in her skin as humans can possibly become. Just looking at me, stabilizing me with steady disappearances of her way of looking, radiating little content but all kinds of electricity (well, I wouldn’t have gotten near her if the love weren’t trilling away, but that can be a background element). I couldn’t hold the experience of her at all still, even though she was going nowhere and doing nothing but being there “for” me. (And “with” me… existential philosophers would go crazy on this most unadorned obvious encounter with the so-called other if they ever had the guts to try it.)

This is something different. In an exact way, involving the activity of the eyes and the behavior of what’s in them, looking at the world can be like sitting with a philosopher-stranger. Intersubjective, interobjective, razor sharp, high stakes but at the same time dead calm.