A longer version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Namaskar:
Wherever our sights are set, the arrow will fly. Our view forms our intention and guides the trajectory of our path. So our view is key. Whether focusing our gaze on the tip of the nose or envisioning a new direction in our life, how we “see” things is a primary indicator of the depth of our yoga practice. Dristi is a tool to settle the mind and refine our view. It helps to keep coming back checking in to see if your vision needs focusing. It’s sort of like an attitude adjustment.
Our dristi can help calm or motivate us. It helps us focus and become aware of What Is Happening on more and more subtle levels of experience. We start with the grossest level, the physical, and gradually, with patience and discipline, we start to tune in—to see– the more subtle aspects of our experience.
On the simplest level, dristi refers to our gaze. On the mat or cushion, dristi keeps our practice focused and stable. Dristi can compensate for imbalances in the asana practice; different gazing points are often suggested for the same posture, depending on the particular student. In a forward fold, for example, looking toward the big toe can help extend the spine and create a sensation of more openness. For those who are hyper-flexible, however, gazing down toward the nose can help encourage grounding.
If you find yourself falling asleep during meditation, raise the gaze slightly to refresh and uplift the prana. If you feel agitated, lower the gaze to an area just down the line of the nose. Be honest with yourself about what you need in order to maintain even and steady presence.
Steady gaze equals a steady mind. So if we wish to effectuate certain changes in the subtle body, then directing the gaze can help a yoga posture sing. Dristi creates the mood of a posture. It’s like the icing on the cake; you may think it’s just extra fluff on top, but actually it’s what makes it delicious, and, some say, the whole point of cake.
Refining the View
Off of the mat or cushion, dristi translates into our view. If we pay too much attention to the nitty gritty details of daily life, we can get bogged down with heaviness. But impermanence is reliable, and if we can lift the metaphorical gaze, allowing a larger view, then things often look more cheerful and bright. When I get too scattered, it is often from having an exaggerated vantage point, looking too far into the future, obsessing on plans, hopes, and dreams. When that happens, its good to pull the reins in a bit, lower the gaze to bring the awareness back to the present. So the dristi can help us work with states of mind.
If the goal of yoga is to settle into a state of deep meditation, then in order to prepare the ground for that to happen, we need to look at all aspects of our lives. Yoga provides us with a handy tool bag, but we have to know how to choose the correct tool. In that tool bag, we find antidotes to the habitual reactions that flame up in the midst of daily life. Ultimately it is our view that determines how we respond to life situations. So if we see clearly, we know which antidote to apply. Yoga Sutra 1:33 offers a helpful guideline.
By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are non-virtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.
The brahma-viharas, or as they are called in the Buddhist world, the 4 immeasurables, provide a guideline for navigating the path in daily life. Maitri, loving kindness, toward those who are happy, dispels jealousy. Karuna, compassion, toward those who are suffering dispels hatred or desire to inflict harm. Mudita, joy, toward those who are virtuous spreads virtue. Upeksa, equanimity, toward those who are not virtuous removes intolerance.
By responding to life situations with this guideline, we reduce our habitual reactions to situations that may throw us out of harmony—situations that push our buttons. When we reduce anger, pride, jealousy, ignorance, and craving, we are essentially reducing the tamasic and rajasic energies in the body, which allows the sattvic energy to blossom. When this happens, the body becomes a ready container and meditation arises effortlessly.
Essentially the path of yoga is about stilling the mind by working with the tools of yoga– including asana, pranayama, bandha and dristi–in order to set the stage for meditation to dawn. If practice is the map, we have to know where we are on the map, and we do this by looking around at our surroundings. Do our acts, speech and thinking support or hinder our progress in yoga? Unless we know where we are going, we risk floating along just hoping that these practices will influence other aspects of our life. It’s not very realistic.
If we are serious practitioners then we need to look at the 22 hours we spend off the mat or cushion each day and observe how our view may sabotage the peacefulness we spend so much time cultivating during formal practice. So dristi could be considered in the larger context as this: to become aware of what is manifesting around us, so that we can respond appropriately, rather than getting sucked in to the heat of the moment. Once the mind is stilled, we are ripe for insights about the nature of the universe.
The Look of Love
Eyes are the windows of the soul; they betray our true feelings. So when we practice directing, softening and steadying the gaze, we are directly working with our internal environment. We say breath and the mind are flip sides of the same coin; perhaps dristi is the opposite side of the emotional coin.
Consider the vast difference in meaning when someone asks, “what are you doing?” with kind soft eyes full of compassion versus that same question delivered by someone with a hard cold glare. The words (breath) are the same, but the meaning is completely different. Perhaps the practice is to simply gaze on the world with kindness and love.