In practice, we often use a dristhi, or focal point, in order to concentrate during a posture and meditation. But have your ever noticed that when you fix your gaze and you're about to lose your balance you stare harder at a point and strain your eyes? The goal of using a drishti is not to make your eyes bug out of your head and concentrate so hard that you lose all control over the rest of your body, but instead to keep your concentration fixed so you allow the mind chatter to slow and body and breath work as one.
I see this in a lot of my classes, and am guilty myself at times, at trying to hold a difficult pose or feel myself losing balance and make my eyes go bigger in order to gaze "harder" and stay where I am longer. But in fact, whenever you focus your attention you want to keep a soft gaze. Forcing the gaze causes tension in the eyes, face, and neck. When you soften your gaze your face relaxes, your jaw relaxes, and low and behold the mind starts to relax too. You may not even be aware that you are jamming the eyes forward, but check it out the next time and see if you can soften just a bit. What happens when you do?
The same can be said off of your mat. Do you notice that when you're aggravated or agitated the gaze is harder, squinter, and more pronounced? Not to mention the erroneous amounts of time that we spend on the computer, indoors with harsh lighting, or in front of the TV actually over stimulates and tires the eyes. The next time your find yourself steadily gazing forward like a little toy soldier, take a moment to close the eyes, take a deep breath, and reopen them softly. You may have to blink a few times in order to do so, but eventually you'll find a comfortable gaze. I've done this myself many times and automatically feel so much more relaxed once I'm able to soften my gaze just a little bit.
Finally, the same can be said for the way we look at others. In the beginning we may find that our gaze is harsh and judgmental, concentrating only on the negative qualities of the difficult person we may have to deal with, or even a loved one who may not be seeing eye-to-eye with. When we learn to change and soften our gaze, we may find ourselves able to look at them with more compassion and a softness in our heart. If we learn to recognize that the other person is just like us, then we ultimately learn to gaze upon them with care.
Notice your gaze the next time you find yourself in a difficult asana or life situation. Do you have enough time to close your eyes, re-shift your gaze and reopen them softly to the world around you? How does this shift your thinking about the pose or situation? How does a soft gaze translate off of your mat and in your relationships with others?