Should you try meditating with your eyes open? It doesn’t fit the popular image we have of meditation. So much so, when I searched for pictures for this post, I struggled to find a single one with a wide-eyed meditator. Nearly every picture I found depicted our idealized notion of what meditation should look like – sitting prim and proper, eyes closed, serene smile on the face. But the reality for many people is, when the eyes close, a flood of anxious thoughts come rushing in. It’s anything but serene and can even feel quite uncomfortable. If this is you, keeping your eyes open offers a powerful solution. In fact, it can produce an incredibly grounding meditation for anxiety and busy minds.
In today’s post, I’m sharing what makes meditating with your eyes open so helpful for those times when you’re feeling anxious, or your mind just doesn’t want to quiet down. We’ll also take a look at this technique from a traditional context. Did you know some schools of thought encourage meditating with your eyes open, instead of closed? Finally, I’ll offer some guidance on how to do it, including a guided meditation you can use to support your practice.
Let’s get started…
How Meditating With Your Eyes Open Helps Anxiety & A Busy Mind
I’ve been meditating for many years, almost exclusively with my eyes closed. Usually, this technique works just fine for me. But every once in a while – when I’m having anxiety or I’ve got a lot on my mind – I find it difficult to keep my mind focused during meditation. My practice feels like a tug of war. Or, if my anxiety’s producing a stream of disturbing thoughts, I feel edgy and ungrounded. Sitting still with my own mind isn’t pleasant at all. It can feel barely tolerable.
When this happens, I know I can trudge through. I can redirect my mind to my breath or remind myself to observe all this from a distance – over and over again. And in fact, I’ve taken this approach many times. Even if I don’t find a place of calm stillness, I know I’ve practiced meditation. Which means there’s a benefit, though that benefit may just be stretching my capacity to be patient and tolerate unease.
However, over the course of my meditation journey, I’ve discovered there’s another, more skillful way to approach my practice when I notice these tendencies are present – keeping my eyes open.
A Grounding Meditation Technique For Anxiety
What I’ve learned is, when I meditate with my eyes open, I’m less immersed in the contents of my mind. I’m more aware of my present moment surroundings. And I can use this awareness to better focus my mind, as well as to anchor myself when I’m feeling ungrounded or anxious.
Have you ever heard of the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique for anxiety? It calms your mind when it’s offering up a bunch of anxious thoughts, by connecting you – via your five senses – to the present moment. You stop and take notice of:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can touch
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
This immediate connection to what’s happening in the here and now has a surprisingly grounding effect. Meditating with your eyes open offers a similar benefit. Especially when you use the technique I’m sharing in this post.
Meditating With Eyes Open Gives You Something External To Focus On
Over the years, I’ve had many people tell me they struggle with meditation, because as soon as they close their eyes, they become hyper-aware of all the noise in their mind. Some have even complained of disturbing images popping up unexpectedly. Sadly, most of them have chosen not to meditate because of this. It’s just too uncomfortable, and for some, even too scary.
Meditating with eyes open can ease – if not eliminate – this obstacle. Much like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, it allows you to connect to the present moment through a sensory awareness of your surroundings. While your mind may persist in offering up a stream of thoughts – pleasant or unpleasant – you’re never fully immersed in that content. (We’ll explore how this works in more detail when we get to the how-to section of this post.) It’s like you’ve got one foot in, and one foot out. Your external environment anchors or grounds you, so you don’t get swallowed up by your internal one.
Does Meditating With Eyes Open Impede Your Progress?
Now, one might say the point of meditation is to train your mind to come under your control. To learn how to be less attached to your thoughts and emotions. And what about meditation’s highest aim – transcending the ego? Shouldn’t we just push through, so we can move beyond these obstacles of the mind? How can you learn to tame your mind and let go of uncomfortable thoughts if you can’t tolerate sitting for a while with your eyes closed?
My answer is, you don’t get brownie points for forcing yourself to push through. When it comes to meditation practice, what matters most is:
- whether you can stick with your practice long enough to progress
- and whether you can learn how to relate to your mind’s activity in a more skillful way over time.
If meditating with eyes open feels more comfortable to you, you’re more likely to keep doing it. And if you can sit in quiet stillness – using this grounding meditation for anxiety + busy mind I’m sharing – you will indeed be learning to relate to your mind more skillfully. Maybe well enough to find your way to feeling good about meditating with your eyes closed. Then again, maybe not. Either way, it doesn’t matter.
Because despite the pictures depicting serene-faced, closed-eyed meditators we’ve all grown accustomed to, being able to emulate this image isn’t the marker of a successful meditation practice. Learning to master your mind is. And for some of us, that mastery looks like meditating with eyes open. It means, finding a way to meditate that addresses the mental tendencies we have – whatever they may be. How we get there doesn’t matter as much as that we do eventually get there.
Traditional Teachings On Meditating With Your Eyes Open
Meditating with your eyes open is actively encouraged in some meditation teachings. Both the Tibetan and Zen lines of Buddhist tradition prefer open-eyed meditation. And both the Buddhist and yogic meditation traditions support using the focal point of an external object to train the mind. Then we have the moving meditations – walking, yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong – all of which require open eyes, since we’re moving.
Nevertheless, if we’ve come to think of meditation as shutting out the outside world, so we can enter the temple of our inner one, it can feel foreign to practice seated meditation with our eyes open.
My First Encounter With Open-Eyed Meditation
I’ll never forget the first time I encountered this teaching. I was taking a course at my local Shambhala center. It included quite a lot of group meditation, alternating between walking and seated practices. I found it pleasant and also strange to meditate with a downward gaze that left my eyes open. It seemed to contradict what I’d learned about pratyahara (sensory withdrawal) through my yoga practices. I was used to withdrawing into a little silent cocoon within myself, disconnecting from my external environment completely. With my eyes open, I didn’t feel like I was really meditating.
At the end of the course, I talked with the instructor about this. I also mentioned that because I wear contacts, keeping my eyes open in meditation made them feel fatigued and dry. She encouraged me to stick with it and perhaps try removing my contacts before practice. But I persisted, telling her that meditating with my eyes closed helped me get into a deeper meditative state. In true Buddhist fashion, she simply nodded her head and repeated her recommendation.
As I left and reflected on our exchange, I could see what she had seen. I wasn’t asking for guidance, but rather permission. I wasn’t open to receiving her instruction, and she wasn’t going to force it on me. At the time, I was so attached to my own meditation experience, I didn’t see the point in following her advice. But I did put this open-eyed technique in my back pocket, saving it to explore more deeply later. It’s what I do with anything that intrigues me, when I’m not yet ready to dive into it.
Benefits Of Meditating With Your Eyes Open
Eventually, I did explore meditating with my eyes open. The inclination to do so arose naturally when I started focusing more and more on mindfulness. The more I connected with my objective observer, the more skillful I became at noticing what my senses registered in my environment without feeling distracted. I found I didn’t need to withdraw my senses so completely to feel like I was meditating. I could sit in the inner stillness of meditation while observing what I felt, saw, smelled, etc. And while it wasn’t necessarily better, it offered a different experience.
Gradually, as the benefits of this technique opened up to me, I came to realize why the Shambhala teacher had encouraged me to stick with the practice. I saw how:
- I felt more alert, which meant I didn’t struggle with the tendency to fall asleep during meditation.
- I could translate my meditative state of mind into my everyday life with greater ease.
- I could use my external environment as a focal point when my mind drifted toward daydreams or tried to jump down rabbit holes of thought.
- I felt more connected to my present moment experience.
- It encouraged me to use meditation not as a form of escape, but rather as a path for learning how to be in this world more skillfully, peacefully, and acceptingly.
Grounding For Anxiety
I welcomed and celebrated all of these benefits. But my biggest aha moment came when I realized how grounding meditating with my eyes open could be. In fact, it’s the most grounding meditation for anxiety I’ve come across. I don’t struggle with anxiety frequently. But when I do, it’s not just a matter of what’s happening in my head. Anxiety shows up in my body too. In fact, sometimes it feels like that’s where it’s coming from.
I can feel jittery. My heart races, and my body temperature rises. There’s just a general uneasiness that takes over my body. Meditation can do wonders for anxiety, especially over time. But in the midst of it, sometimes closing my eyes and trying to meditate can fuel the fire. It can make me more acutely aware of all the discomfort in my body, as well as any troubling thoughts floating through my head.
But when I keep my eyes open with a soft gaze – simply observing my present moment surroundings and/or training my gaze on a specific object – my attention gets drawn away from my inner discomfort. Using that external focus as my anchor, I breathe gently. This creates a little space for my objective observer to step in. Gradually, I can bring my inner state into my field of awareness too – trusting it will shift, as all states eventually do. And then, my whole system eases back to calm.
How To Meditate With Your Eyes Open
In addition to the moving meditations listed earlier, there are two seated techniques for meditating with your eyes open. One involves taking a soft, downward gaze. The intention isn’t to focus on anything in particular. You’re just allowing your visual field to be in your awareness, without thinking about it. This helps prevent you from dozing off and also acts as a present-moment anchor for your mind. So you’re less likely to drift into daydreams, experience flashes of images, or get lost in your thoughts. The softness of your gaze helps prevent eye-fatigue.
When you notice your mind becoming dull or less alert, you can focus your gaze more acutely. This serves to awaken your mind. When you notice your mind is overactive or you’ve gotten lost in a thought loop, you can bring it back to the present moment by broadening the lens of your gaze. Take in the fullness of your present surroundings, until you feel well-anchored in the here and now. Then ease back into a softer gaze.
The second common open-eyed meditation technique involves gazing at a specific object. Often, a candle is used. The object serves as a focal point, so your eyes are less likely to get distracted by anything else in your field of vision. As with the previously described method, you want to keep your gaze soft, so your eyes don’t strain.
Both of these methods also include a focus on the breath. Just like with closed-eye meditation practices, noticing the movement of your breath in and out serves as a present-moment anchor.
My Grounding Meditation For Anxiety + Busy Minds Technique
The grounding meditation for anxiety and busy minds I’m sharing with you today is my own personal adaptation of the traditional methods described above. It’s a technique I developed for myself to support my practice when I was feeling especially anxious and/or experiencing too much noise in my mind to find a place of calm abiding during meditation. And in doing this, I discovered this modified meditation technique provided me with a surprisingly powerful tool for grounding anxious energy.
It uses the soft gaze, but it’s not necessarily downward. And it focuses my awareness on more than just my breath and my visual sense. I notice sensations in my body, any sounds I hear around me, as well as any scents. My goal isn’t to attain insight, transcend my ego, or have any kind of spiritual experience. It’s simply to be at peace, give my mind a break, and take a big sigh of relief with my whole being. The process gently trains my mind, as I take control of where I place my attention.
Here’s How It Works
To give this grounding meditation for anxiety and a busy mind a try, find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed. If you can go outside, even better. The fresh air and display of life is uplifting and grounding at the same time. And replacing the buzz of electricity with the sensations and sounds of nature has a soothing effect. But wherever you are, be sure to turn off any devices that might distract you.
Step-By-Step: Grounding Meditation For Anxiety + Busy Minds
- Sit comfortably, and take a few deep breaths in, exhaling fully. Then, take a few moments to take in your surroundings. What can you see?
- Find something you can direct your gaze to. Whatever feels pleasant and comfortable for you to look at.
- Without focusing too intently, look at this thing. Notice its details, as well as how it dwells within its environment, until your gaze begins to soften – taking in your object at the same time as you take in what surrounds it.
- Keeping this gaze, feel your breath moving in and out of your body.
- Gradually, begin to notice how your body feels too. Feel its contact with the ground or seat beneath you. Your posture. The subtle sensations of air against your skin.
- Are there any sounds around you? Can you hear your breath? Take notice of this while still holding your gaze and feeling your breath and your body.
- Are there any scents? If so, take them in without judgment. Welcome your sense of smell in.
- You now have several present-moment anchors for your awareness – your gaze, breath, bodily sensations, and scents. Maybe there’s a pronounced taste too. You’re immersed in the here and now, simply being and observing all of it.
- Notice when you form thoughts or judgments about anything in your present experience. And when your mind slips toward troubling thoughts, daydreams, or any other mind stuff.
- You can choose to zoom in on any of your sensory anchor points to re-center yourself in the here and now. Then, gradually open all your senses again.
- Or, if one or two of your senses feels like a more grounding anchor point for you, keep your attention there.
Why It Works
We’ve already talked in depth about why meditating with your eyes open can be so beneficial for anxious and busy minds. In addition to the open eyes, this grounding meditation for anxiety + busy minds uses a multi-sensory awareness approach. And this is what I’ve found to be so beneficial. By paying attention to all these different parts of my present-moment experience, I become completely immersed in it. It’s hard for my mind to notice all these things while also producing troubling thoughts, daydreams, or any other chatter.
What’s more, when my focus wanes and I do find my mind wandering, I have several different ways to bring my attention back to the present moment. For me, refocusing my visual gaze or tuning-in more intentionally to my bodily sensations is usually most effective. But sometimes, it’s a sound that snaps me out of a mental haze. Focusing on the sounds around me then brings me back to my practice. And this also means, if there’s a pronounced noise in my environment, I’m not annoyed or distracted by it. I can simply invite it into my practice.
Lastly, this multi-sensory approach feels very open and spacious to me. Rather than drawing me mostly into my inner world, it guides me in accepting, embracing, and connecting to my outer one. When my meditative world isn’t confined to my inner terrain, it feels like the inner and outer are less rigidly defined. They become more fluidly connected, as I invite my mind to stop drawing lines – in the form of judgments, fears, expectations, worries, etc. – and simply dwell peacefully with whatever’s happening within and outside of me.
My Guided Meditation For Anxiety + Busy Mind
To help familiarize you with this practice, you can use the guided version I’ve shared below. Once you’ve done the guided practice a few times, you’ll get a feel for how it works and can do it on your own. And since it’s meditating with your eyes open, you can actually use this technique anytime, anywhere to ground yourself and connect to the present moment.
I hope you enjoy the practice and find it as beneficial as I have. While I don’t always meditate with my eyes open, sometimes it’s exactly what I need. Having different meditation techniques in your meditation toolbox can help you stick with your practice through the natural ebb and flow of your life. It can ensure you don’t give up when you feel like you’re not making progress. Or because your experience of a method you’ve been working with for a while suddenly shifts, and for whatever reason, doesn’t feel like a good fit for the time being.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. Have you tried meditating with your eyes open? What’s been your experience with it?
I wish you all the best on your meditative journey. May it bring you peace, joy, and a lightness to your step. Namaste.