“Soften your gaze,” is something my Tai Chi teacher says most lessons. It took me a few weeks to work out that this is something I do in other contexts, and to realise why it is so important.
When I see other people out and about, they’re usually looking at something. It might be the phone in their hands, or the path in front of them, or the people they walk with. Our default is to look with intent and look at what we expect to see. There’s a great deal you don’t see when you have this kind of focus.
The soft gaze is part of how I walk. Unless I’m dealing with a section of challenging footing, I look around. It’s worth mentioning that most places round here, most of the time, are not hazardous underfoot. I don’t look for anything in particular which means my peripheral vision is operating. I see a lot of wildlife as I walk, and that softer gaze is a large part of why I’m able to do that. I know from walking with other people that I often see things they don’t because I’m not looking in the same way.
There are more layers to this, though. Softening your gaze means softening your attention. It means not being focused on something, and thus not being especially goal orientated. If you’re trying to achieve something, you focus on it. The soft gaze goes with reduced interest in achievement, and in a spiritual context that tends to be a better idea. Inspiration, a sense of the numinous and other spiritual experiences don’t come because we strain for them. Instead, they call for a gentle openness to possibility, and making room. The soft gaze is one way of making that space, hence the relevance for Tai Chi.
There’s a relaxed quality to not being too focused on anything. There’s no great push or drive going on. This alone can take us out of everyday mode and into other ways of thinking. Not having our eyes focused in the same way can open our minds up to less driven thinking. The mind wanders with the gaze, open to possibilities, and ready to stop and pay more attention if something invites that. Focus comes in when called for – to watch the deer or the butterflies, to appreciate a plant or the way light catches a leaf, or to stop for a view. It means being open to experiencing things I had not specifically expected. And then, letting go again and moving on.
If you have any visual capacity, how you undertake to look at things will inform what you feel about them. The soft gaze is kind and not especially judgemental. How you look also informs what you see. When we’re focused on specific things, we don’t see what we weren’t looking for – there’s some fantastic science out there about this. We tune out what we think is irrelevant information. The soft gaze has no assumption about relevance, and thus it opens up our perceptions and lets us experience what’s right there – the everyday beauty and magic that otherwise we may not notice.