Gazing at the Beloved

Just as archers fix their gaze upon a distant target before loosing the strings of their bows and sending their arrows flying, so do lovers of God fix their gaze on the face of God, each releasing the soul so it too can fly toward its target where it celebrates its homecoming. All spiritual paths teach us that if we want to find God, then we need to turn directly toward God, come face-to-face with the energies of the Divine, and then surrender to whatever begins to occur as a result of the impact that such an encounter creates in our lives. But where do we turn? And where exactly is it that we find the face of the Divine? Is it everywhere? Or in one particular location only? And can perhaps a particular location, a particular face, serve as the doorway to the face of God?

One way to look upon the face of God is to create an image of God, either a painting or a sculpture, and then gaze at the image for an extended period of time. This practice can be found in the Greek Orthodox Church where icons of saints and personages from the Bible are the only companions that monks and nuns take with them into the isolation of their cells during long periods of retreat.

When one fixes his or her entire attention on these images over long hours and days, the images may come to life and enter into animated dialogue with the practitioner. Many devout Hindus create personal shrines in their homes and temples in which images of a god or goddess serve as the means for personal dialogue with the Divine. It is said that the eyes of these images are the most important of all the facial features, for by creating eye contact with the image a devotee achieves darshan, a sanskrit word meaning "seeing and being seen by God."

Miniature Reflections of God

Most of our spiritual traditions tell us that, as humans, we are miniature reflections of God and that we have been created in God's image. If this is so, then it would follow that a more direct way to look upon the face of God would be to sit and gaze at an actual person, a real flesh-and-blood human. If he or she will sit and hold your gaze in return, something begins to transpire between the two of you. If you can truly see another and be seen by the other, you begin to see that he or she is an embodiment of the Divine, and you begin to feel that you are as well.

In India, darshan often occurs in formal settings between teachers and their students. Teachers may sit at the front of a room, perhaps on a slightly raised dais so that no one's view will be obstructed. They may sit silently, pouring out their gazing, inviting students to meet their eyes and to hold contact with their gaze. This contact allows the Divine to enter their students' awareness. In the words of Ramana Maharshi, one of the great Indian teachers of the twentieth century and one of the great givers of darshan, "When the eyes of the student meet the gaze of the teacher, words of instruction are no longer necessary."

Why gazing at another person and having him or her hold your gaze in return can open both participants to a direct experience of the Divine is a mystery. All of us, whether we're consciously aware of it or not, know about this practice from a very early age. School children will often enter into staring contests during which their conventional experience of self is momentarily suspended to accommodate the new and unusual energies that the visual contact between them generates. A common response to the dramatic shift in awareness that prolonged eye contact triggers is to burst into laughter, and so the contest ends with both of the children being the true winners, with smiles on their faces.

As we mature and need to become strong individuals, separate from the whole, we tend to avoid eye contact when we speak to others, for if we did hold the other's gaze we might find it difficult to remain focused on the information that we're trying to convey, melting instead into a shared sense of wordless union with the person to whom we're speaking. Only when real love forms the basis of our communication with another do we find it more natural to hold and soften into our partner's gaze.

Because the eyes are universally acknowledged to be the windows to the soul, when we hold the gaze of another, we hold and cradle his or her soul. This most intimate of acts is reserved as a privilege for people who love and trust one another. Newborn children are natural adepts at the practice and are often able to draw their parents into gazing at them for long periods of time. People newly in love may find that they automatically fall into gazing at each other as a natural expression of the love that they feel. In fact, this unintentional and spontaneous dissolving into the eyes of the other is often the signal that, at long last, they have finally found the beloved for whom they've been searching. When describing this newfound love, people will often rejoice that, finally, they have met someone who truly sees them as they are.

When eye contact between two people is initiated and maintained, an invisible energetic circuit is established between the two participants, dissolving the barriers that ordinarily separate them from each other, drawing them ever closer into a shared awareness of union. This experience of union is always pervaded by the feeling tone of love, just as the experience of separation from others, as well as from the larger world we inhabit, tends to breed feelings of fear and alienation. However, we live in a culture that worships the individual and that is embarrassed by joint forays into the Divine, into the great ground of being that is our heritage and true birthright as humans on this planet. In our culture, this most natural of actions, the holding of the gaze between two people, is taboo. And, yet, how tragic it is that we turn away from this heritage, forfeiting our birthright in an act of fear.

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