Here is a well-known, if somewhat gruesome, Zen parable about meditation, a monk named Bodhidharma and the origin of tea:

While traveling in China, Bodhidharma – the first Chinese patriarch and founder of Ch'an (now Zen) – decided to study with the monks at the Shaolin Monastery. For unknown (or forgotten) reasons, upon reaching Shaolin, Bodhidharma refused to enter the monastery. Instead, he saught shelter elsewhere, and took up residence in a nearby cave, where he sat in meditation for nine long years, staring silently at the back of the cave wall. Seven years into his wall-gazing, he dozed off. Upon awakening, angry about his lack of concentration, he suddenly ripped off his eyelids and threw them on the floor. From his eyelids the first tea plants immediately sprang up, and thereafter tea provided the necessary stimulant to keep all future generations of Ch'an meditators awake.

Though not historically accurate per se, this parable does offer an important lesson: open your eyes.

Unlike Bodhidharma, and despite the urgings of my teachers to the contrary, for years I have meditated with my eyes closed. It simply “felt” right. I came into the practice with the preconception that sitting quietly in a corner with my eyes closed was exactly what meditation was supposed to be. After all, every photo I had ever seen of a practicing meditator showed exactly that. So much for practicing with a “beginner’s mind!”

Recently, I’ve started an experiment: gently opening my eyes.

So far, this small change has proven invaluable. Here’s why:

  • Perhaps as Bodhidharma already knew, with your eyes closed during practice, meditation can rapidly devolve into “sleepitation.” For several years now, I’ve welcomed the new year in silent meditation at the Zen center, sitting from 11pm until well past the midnight hour. And without fail, every New Year’s Eve I have done this, I have inevitably nodded off at least once. Opening my eyes has helped immensely for meditating when tired. Sleep is fantastic, but it’s not meditation.
  • Meditation provides a practice for developing increased awareness in daily living. In fact one could argue that this is the primary goal of meditation: to be aware and mindful in day-to-day life. But day-to-day life happens with your eyes open. Why not meditate this way? By practicing with your eyes open you become more aware of daydreaming and other eyes-wide-open mind wanderings.

The key to eyes-open meditation involves keeping a focused, gentle gaze. There is no need to rip out your eyelids, but if you’re feeling drowsy, perhaps a little tea can help.