On the third day of a zen retreat I had an eye-opening experience. We had just finished a round of sitting meditation when the zen teacher said that every person should face another person and look him or her straight in the eyes for one minute.
After that minute we had to switch and look another person in the eyes, and so on, until we had done that exercise with 10 different people.
I had never heard about this exercise, so I didn’t know what to expect. I went and got right in front of the person next to me. The zen teacher gave the signal to start the exercise and I looked straight into the eyes of the person in front of me.
What happened then hit me like a sledgehammer. It was a totally unexpected experience. I could look straight into the soul of the other. With that I refer to an experience we all know, but it was much clearer and deeper than in ‘normal life.’
We all know that when someone experiences an extreme emotion, you can see that in the eyes of that person. My experience during this exercise was akin to that, but I could see much deeper. I saw what I would call the basic emotional paradigm of the person in front of me.
While having that eye contact, I felt my heart burning. It was like there was a bridge of energy connecting my heart directly to the heart of the other. So I was actually “looking” with my heart, guided by the eye contact.
I remember seeing in someone’s eyes (I didn’t really know these people) that this person was carrying a deep emotional trauma around, but at the same time I saw this person had accepted the pain of the trauma and carried it willingly. Another person whose eyes I looked into carried a similar type of trauma around, but I saw that person instead resisted the pain.
In the eyes of another I saw that person was actually a very simple and plain person, while I thought that only profound people would visit a retreat. In the eyes of yet another I saw that he had admiration for me, which I had not noticed before. It was all quite revealing.
Of course I have no objective measure to evaluate whether any of this subjective experience was real. Still I have the impression that because I was opened up through the meditative practice, I caught a rare glimpse of a world that normally passes us by because we are too caught up in ourselves.
One thing I realized after this exercise is that during the first two days of the retreat (before I did that exercise) I had unknowingly already recognized what I saw in the eyes of those people during the exercise. I just wasn’t aware of it then. Realizing that, I suddenly understood what keeps me from having the experience of the exercise all the time.
That’s because normally when I look someone in the eyes, the first split second there actually subconsciously is the kind of contact that I had during the exercise. But immediately after that first split second I ‘shut down’ on that person, because there are aspects of that person that I don’t like. So I label the person according to some stereotype and then ‘being open’ goes right out the window.
That realization concurs with the Mahayana Buddhist notion that in essence we all are open, enlightened beings. We’re just not aware of it because our mental obscurations get in the way.