Eyes up here, buddy
One of the things I was taught from day one, and have heard over and over since then, is "maintain eye contact."
The reasons why one should maintain eye contact usually came from a strategic standpoint. If I'm looking at uke's eyes, I can see what rest of him is doing out my visual periphery. So if I'm looking at uke's hand because I'm trying, for example, to do kote gaeshi, I'm vulnerable to his other hand smacking me upside the head.
But when it came to judo, we find that if I'm looking at uke's eyes, I can see what his upper body is up to, but his feet tend to fall out my field of vision. Therefor we were often told to look about chest level, and huzzah! Now I can see all of him, the sneaky bastard!
Then I ran across this quote from O-Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba:
Do not stare into the eyes of your opponent: he may mesmerize you. Do not fix your gaze on his sword: he may intimidate you. Do not focus on your opponent at all: he may absorb your energy. The essence of training is to bring your opponent completely into your sphere. Then you can stand where you like.
Wait—What? I'm not supposed to maintain eye contact then? I guess that sort of makes sense—keep my gaze upon the mountains, so to speak. Look at nothing and see everything, and a bunch of other similar maxims I'd heard over the years. Okay, so I tried that for a while.
I got mixed results. On one hand, I found myself more open to "going with the flow" and didn't get fixated on doing a specific technique. Great.
On the other hand, I also found that when those techniques did happen, they weren't any more successful or effective than they'd ever been. I just got pretty good at evading attacks. Additionally, my attention occasionally drifted completely away, and in randori, that's when my partner would normally zap me.
What's going on here? The answer might be unveiled by looking closer at what O-Sensei was trying to say.
"Do not stare into the eyes of your opponent." Have you ever paid attention to how we, as humans, handle eye contact in everyday life? If I look at someone directly in the eyes, it can get uncomfortable fast. When we're walking in the mall and that guy with the clipboard is trying to get people to take a survey, what do we do? We avert our eyes. When we're in love, we'll spend hours gazing into our lover's eyes.
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then connecting two sets of eyes allows opportunity for souls to connect directly. Great, if it's someone you love and adore. Not so great if it's someone who wants to seriously hurt you. Their soul barges in through your windows and takes control.
"Do not fix your gaze on his sword: he may intimidate you." Well, we don't really go around carrying swords anymore, right, so he must be taking about any kind of weapon, like a knife or baseball bat or something. Yes and no.
Think about a real confrontation—not a practice session in the dojo with someone you know and trust—but "out there" in the real world. Here's some dude you've probably never met before who wants to at least dominate you mentally or physically, and at most cause you bodily harm. Maybe he's bigger, has tattoos, huge muscles, or just looks rough, like he's spent some time behind bars.
It's human nature to fixate on those things. Most animals as well as our prehistoric ancestors, use visual clues to quickly determine whether another animal or situation is safe or potentially dangerous. It's one of the many ways a species survives. We see signs that we associate with danger, and our lizard brain says time to panic, and flips the switch to fight or flight mode.
Ueshiba is urging us to rise above all of that. If we fixate on the sword and keep thinking, Man, that thing sure looks dangerous. What am I going to do to keep from getting cut? we've already decided that we're going to loose. But the fact that some guy has tattoos or even the fact that he has a baseball bat doesn't guarantee his victory—unless you let it.
"Do not focus on your opponent at all: he may absorb your energy." So we're not supposed to look at him at all? I tried that, and I got hands coming out of nowhere knocking me on my ass!
Hang on—think about the words he uses: stare into, fix your gaze on, focus on. He's talking, I believe, about more than just whether or not I'm physically looking at the guy. He's talking about where my attention is at, where my thoughts, my awareness, my intent, my mind, my imagination, my emotions, my energy is at. Where my "ki" is. Is it stuck on something specific? Am I trying to predict the future outcome of the encounter, or am I fully present in the moment? Am I allowing him to intimidate me, or am I open to the whole person, the whole experience, the whole room, myself included?
Eyes are not just the windows to our souls. Our energy, our ki, tends to go where our eyes go, at least when we want to do something with any degree of efficiency. If I'm looking around at nothing, as I tried to do for a while, my ki ended up just flowing out into space randomly, like a sprinkler. Maybe my uke got hit with some of it, maybe not. And if I look at his sword, or his big muscles, my attention narrows and those things quite literally steal my energy, like a black hole sucking in all the surrounding light.
Ultimately, it's not just about where my eyeballs are physically looking. I now suspect I was told as a new student to maintain eye contact as a way of preventing me from focusing on the technique I was trying to do and not to neglect my uke; to keep me from thinking, Okay, I'm going to twist his wrist this way and do note gaeshi.
Ueshiba did not want us to neglect or forget uke; he urged us to "bring him into our sphere"—to embrace him, all of him. My attention, my thoughts, my awareness, my intent, my mind, my imagination, my emotions, my energy—my ki—is on him, flowing over him like water, engulfing him. Not just his eyes, not just his hand, everything. I'm not trying to defeat his energy, nor escape from it.
It's difficult to put into words, but you can definitely feel it when you're on the receiving end of it! Whether we realize it or not, we often just go through the motions when it comes to practicing kata. We then wonder why nothing seems to work right when it comes to randori! When we find ourselves in the midst of chaos, we suddenly wake up and start wondering what to do.
Ever notice how, when driving home from work, you can think about all kinds of stuff, and not even remember seeing other cars, or passing certain stores, etc? Because it's familiar, our subconscious mind can handle it, so you go on auto-pilot. Then we make a wrong turn and end up in a neighborhood we've never been in. Now we pay attention!
The secret is more than just where our eyeballs are pointed. Where is your ki pointed?