Keep your eyes open;
if you want to be awake in yoga
you must travel this secret way.
—Mahendranath Bhattacharya, 19th century Bengali poet
Many Indian-affiliated practitioners, especially those in Advaita Vedanta traditions, have great affection for closed-eye expressions of ecstatic bliss. Some teachers are revered for their ability to enter such states, rightly or wrongly deemed “samadhi.” Biographies of the saint Ramakrishna exude positive affect and affection while describing the need for Ramakrishna’s disciples to carry him from spot to spot and wipe his bum while he was lost in samadhi.
I once attended a concert during which a well-known kirtan singer related a story about a mentor of his who would enter samadhi while doing puja. This gentleman would freeze in place with his mouth hanging open, eyes closed or rolled backwards into his head. He would remain like this for long periods of time, apparently oblivious to life around him.
This obliviousness is admired and sought after in transcendental traditions. But in direct realization Tantra, and even more emphatically in Dzogchen teachings, students are warned not to die in one of these “bliss states.” To do so consigns you to perhaps eons in deva lokas (god realms or bardos). Once you enter these bliss-soaked realms, it is difficult to kick the habit of bliss and resume your sadhana.
To be fully awake, eyes wide open, is to find the capacity to taste bliss in pain and pain in bliss, not to be “blissed out.” It is to have all of one’s senses fully alive, and yet to be established in equipoise. Another way of saying this is that the cosmos has the capacity for nondual, dual, and unnameable experiencings. To be fully awake is to be awake in all of these.
In the event of an experience of anything pertaining to Supreme Reality or to the Self, one does not say: “Where have I been? I did not know anything for the time being;” there can be no such thing as ‘not knowing’. If it is possible to describe in words the bliss one has experienced, it is still enjoyment and therefore a hindrance. One must be fully conscious, wide awake. To fall into a stupor or into yogic sleep will not take one anywhere. —Anandamayi Ma
Primordial awakeness is the base continuity or presence that cannot be interrupted or interfered with. This uninterruptible presence is turiya, the pervasive fourth state beyond waking, sleeping, or dreaming. Turiya is complete equipoise and “sits behind” all other arisings. Turiya is Shambhu Shiva, not a state of bliss, but the source of bliss. Look into the faces of the great masters of the awake, open-eyed traditions, and you will see turiya peeping out.
While many wonderful practices are rightly done with eyes closed, teachers of the direct realization of turiya will generally insist upon an eyes-open meditation posture. There are two reasons given for this. First, many practitioners, keeping their eyes closed, will wander into sleep, trance, or less aware meditative states. More importantly, though, the completion of this sort of practice is integration: uncontrived, spontaneous naturalness in every moment of life. If we are distracted from the natural state by seeing the world, relaxation is still far off.
Little-by-little, after dedicated, consistent practice, one realizes an ever-present awakeness that is not dependent on posture.
In the Tripura Rahasya, an ancient exposition of the View of nondual Tantra, you will find the amusing and instructive story of the wise woman, Hemalekha. Her husband withdraws into a state of samadhi. When he comes out of it for a moment, she asks him: “Tell me, what have you found to be the benefit by closing your eyes or the loss by keeping them open?
He answers: “My dear, I have at last found complete repose. I find no rest in external things, which are filled with suffering.”
Here, you can see the contradiction. How can repose be “complete” if it depends on shutting one’s eyes?
This Hemalekha, however, already has great accomplishment. She says to her husband: “What you know is next to nothing. Seeing the supreme state does not depend on closing or opening one’s eyes! . . . . How can the Whole possibly be attained by doing anything, going anywhere, or closing one’s eyes? If it were located inside oneself, then how could that state be the Whole? Myriads upon myriads of universes exist in one corner alone. How can these be made to disappear by the mere opening or closing of an eyelid measuring a digit’s width?”
In some traditions, it is not customary to acquaint students with such an expansive View until they reach a certain level of accomplishment. The danger is that beginning or intermediate students, upon hearing that ultimately posture is of little consequence, will imitate accomplishment they don’t have, or will use the broader View as fodder for simple laziness. I have certainly seen this, particularly among students who do not have a teacher guiding them from day-to-day.
But in my sadhana, I have found it very useful to hold awareness of both my more limited situation and the more expansive situation I might grow into. I know that the limitations of my channels and state of awareness (both the same thing, really), dictate that I utilize certain tried-and-true postures and attitudes in my practice in order to encourage a state of open relaxation. On the other hand, being simultaneously aware of the more expansive View, I am less prone to dogmatically hold onto particular forms and glorify them. When it is time to move on, I am less fearful of letting go of the supports that were appropriate at one time, but may now be better left behind.
As usual, the best traveling companions on the road to becoming awake in yoga are humility and honesty.