Mindfulness is an important aspect and benefit of practicing Tai Chi. We practice mindfulness through our focus on the details of the movement and our awareness of our breathing.
What is often overlooked in teaching is what we should do with our eyes or our gaze. It’s easy to be so fixated on the moves and techniques that we miss what our students are doing with their eyes.
The general rule in Tai Chi is to not focus your gaze, especially not to stare or get tunnel vision. There are some exceptions from this, for example when we are ‘spreading the wings’, but those changes in focus are deliberate and consciously controlled.
As we practice, we want to relax our eyes. We avoid staring at any given point, especially we avoid watching ourselves in the mirror all the time. Our gaze should be unfocused, reaching out to the horizon and by that engage and train our peripheral awareness.
As to where that unfocused gaze is oriented, a good rule of thumb is that we should point our head and gaze roughly in the space between your hands. Our eyes are looking into infinity and we should be able to see both hands in our peripheral vision at all times.
Be mindful, be deliberate
For certain movements we transition to focusing our eyes. Make this a conscious and deliberate change.
Think of it as your mind discovering something in your peripheral vision that it finds interesting. As it notices that interesting movement, it hones in and focuses. Once examined in detail, you let go and gently go back to an unfocused gaze with peripheral awareness. This trains both mindfulness as well as the essence of martial arts (zanshin 残心).
Good examples of the above are how we are following our hand when we ‘spread the wings’ or how we are following our fingers and then let go again in the Qi Gong exercise of ‘shooting an arrow’.
Keep your gaze unfocused, in the moment and able to ‘see’ everything through peripheral awareness. Keep your mind open for unexpected observations. Every now and then something interesting will get into your view and grab your attention. Watch and examine it with a child’s curiosity. And then let go again.
Feel your movements
One last but extremely important thing: learn to ‘feel’ your movements so you don’t have to constantly look in the mirror or at your hands and feet to control what you’re doing. Your body needs to learn to give you that feedback, not your eyes.
Don’t get into the habit of looking at yourself to control your movements. You can do it every now and then to ‘check in’, but be very conscious of it and make sure to let go of it again. Looking at our own movements is especially tempting when we have a mirror in the room.
You want to develop a feeling for your movements and you want your body to learn what’s right or wrong without having to control with your eyes and your logical brain. Turn off the lights every now and then or simply close your eyes and see what you discover.
Don’t think. Feel. (Bruce Lee)
On this topic I also found this post interesting: http://slantedflying.com/peripheral-visual-awareness-in-taijiquan/.