The Drishti: Looking Out & Looking In

A friend of mine is struggling in her relationship with her boyfriend.  They've been together for quite some time, but he's feeling stuck and wants to move on.  He tells her that he's in love with her, but then tells her that he needs to move out, to find his own place.  She's getting all sorts of mixed messages, and she can't help but vacillate between wanting him to stay or demanding that he just moves on. Either way, she feels hostage to his moods and to his indecisiveness.  She says, "I can't really move forward in my life until he makes a decision."

While not all of us have been in a position like this, we can all empathize with her. We've all experienced the sense that our happiness, security, or well-being was in the hands of someone or something outside of ourselves.  The problem my friend is stuck with is that she's in a perspective that leaves her powerless.  All the power is in his hands.  Each time she feels elated or crushed by his next intended move on the chess board of their life together, she has no say.

A Profound Meditation on the Self

The recognition that we always have a say, however, is what is the essence of the practice of drishti in Ashtanga Yoga.  Mostly, when teachers discuss drishti, they talk about it as a way to keep the mind focused in the present moment. They describe the various gazing points as tools to keep the mind anchored in the present moment, much like the bandhas or the sound  of the ujjayi breath.  But it's my sense that the drishti is so much more profound than this.  It's really a meditation on waking up to where we direct our attention and how it effects our relationship to the Self.

The Windows of the Soul

You know the saying, "The eyes are the windows to the soul"?  When we say this, we think about looking into another's eyes, but when we practice drishti during or Ashtanga practice, we're looking through our own eyes and deep into our own souls.  Drishti, in the context of Ashtanga Yoga, is a form of sense withdrawal (pratyahara).  While we gaze at the tip of nose (nasagrai drishti) or the hand (hastagrai drishti), we're not simply looking at objects, but we're noticing the gazer that is gazing at them.

While the Sanskrit word, drishti, means to gaze, the drashtaa is the seer, and the drishya is the object that is seen or known.  So, for example, if we're gazing at the tip of the nose (nasagrai drishti), the nose is the drishya, the capacity to gaze is the drishti, and the one that gazes is the drashtaa. The significance of this triad known in Sanskrit as triputi is that when we're practicing the drishti, it isn't exclusively the nose we're really looking at.  Rather, it's the whole phenomenon of the self (drashtaa)  looking (drishti) at the nose (drishya).  And so the nose is really a profound meditation into the questions: Who it is that is looking at the nose?  In short, the drishti is not just a point of concentration that keeps us focused outward, but an inquiry into the relationship of the seer within (drashtaa) and to the objects that define it.

Choose Your Gaze Wisely

As I shared the practice of drishti with my friend, she began to see that his indecisiveness was simply a stimulus that evoked feelings of pain and uncertainty that have always been with her and that were independent of him.  In addition, she could see that she wasn't simply at the whim of his uncertainty but that by continuing to gaze (drishti) at his uncertainty (drishya), she (drashtaa) was choosing to suffer.  The most significant revelation she discovered through this practice was that by continuing to direct her attention toward his doubt, she didn't have to be with her own regret and insecurity, as well as her wisdom and depth.  By waiting for his decision, she didn't have to make one, herself.

Once she woke up to her role in his vacillation, she could be at choice.  She could ask the questions: Did she want to continue to put energy into and empower his vacillation?  What wounds did she need to handle that predated their relationship?  And did she want to continue to wait for him to decide to stay or go, or could she find a different path?

The practice of drishti allowed her to see she could be conscious of and at choice in where she focused her attention.  By focusing entirely on being held captive to his capriciousness, it left her uncertain, scared, and even sleepless.  But if she redirected the awareness on the greater learning this experience evoked in her, then she could actually use it to grow.  In addition, she recognized that by focusing on the negative in him, she only experienced pain and negativity within herself.  So she chose to redirect the focus of their conversation from what his next move will be to how they could consciously collaborate in designing a new relationship with one another.  All of this recognition simply occurred because she was able to recognize that her gaze, her drishti, didn't just have an object that it was attached to.  On the other end was her, a subject, a soul, and a spirit very much at choice in terms of where she wanted to direct her gaze.

To me, that's the power of drishti. It's not just something you do when you're practicing asana.  If we consider all of life "the practice," then we can start to wake up to where we're focusing our attention.  Do we point it in directions that feed us and remind us of the rapture, wonder, and mystery that we are? Or do we point it at situations, people, and things that suck us dry and leave us with a sense of our impotence?  Mastering drishti is a life-long endeavor because it's really the development of the capacity to wake up to both what we see, what it tells us about ourselves, and what choices we want to make, as a result.  And so next time you're in downward dog, gazing in the direction of your navel, begin this profound inquiry by asking yourself, "Who is it that's gazing?"