Plenty of workshops and retreats promise to change your life, even over a weekend! That might work for some people. But one of the simplest ways that anyone can improve their well-being is by learning to use their eyes differently.
Most of us ignore our eyes until they fail or are injured. Several years ago, on an annual visit to Montreal, I noticed I could no longer read the street index on my trusty map. An optometrist prescribed progressive lenses. At 46, I purchased my first pair of glasses. Less than 12 months later, I discovered I no longer needed to wear my spectacles as much, if at all. Not only that, I learned that how I used my eyes affected my entire being and experience of life.
How was that possible?
I’d enrolled in a training for the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education, developed by the Israeli engineer, judo black belt and visionary Moshe Feldenkrais, to heal a leg injury. We explored many verbally guided lessons, called Awareness Through Movement. Among these, we learned to work with our eyes in unfamiliar ways. Starting from different positions in lying and sitting, we gently and slowly rolled the eyes and sensed their weight in the sockets. In various experiments, we tried moving them independently of each other, or in a direction opposite to that of the head. By doing so carefully, and paying attention to when our eyes jumped rather than shifting smoothly, we began to create new neural pathways and possibilities.
Moving my eyes non-habitually felt like unplugging a wire that had rusted into a switchboard. Unaccustomed to the effort, my eye muscles began to tire. At the end of one lesson, however, I experienced my eyes as almost double their usual size, as if I’d become a reptile. Without having to turn or lift my head, I was able to take in 30 percent more of my environment than before. Moving my eyes also rearranged parts of myself I believed to be immutable. I’d spent much of the preceding decade making fine visual distinctions. As a designer and artist I’d worked with often tiny beads to make jewelry, and selected subtle colors, textures and shapes to create mosaics. I also spent hours doing graphic design, editing photos or proofreading. Yet, for a day and a half following a series of eye lessons, I had no desire to train my focus on a narrow area.
The absence of an urge to hone in on details or detect nuances, flaws or inconsistencies made it seem as if I had been handed a different personality if not a new self. The expansion and softening of my vision lifted my spirits and even straightened my spine. For the next 36 hours, this introvert experienced what I imagine it’s like to be an outgoing person, someone whose attention is more naturally drawn to the bigger picture rather than gravitating towards details.
The striking change helped me realize that I had become so identified with having a “good eye” that I unwittingly brought that trait everywhere, even to situations where it was irrelevant or counterproductive. My ability to observe what others overlooked had been more of a compulsion than a conscious choice to direct my attention for a certain purpose. I now had my own example of what Moshe Feldenkrais referenced in The Elusive Obvious: “We often make mistakes. We carry over from one activity to another attitudes of mind that do not make life what it could be…Somehow we behave as if good habits are always good.”
Another elusive truth is that our eyes direct the movement of the rest of the body. When humans hunted and gathered, our eyes oriented us to the surroundings. They helped us spot dinner (or threats) and identify and forage non-poisonous foods. Today, many of us hunt and gather online. We collect and analyze information for work or we’re in pursuit of a job, a good price, a new relationship, or an engaging Facebook discussion. The rest of our body still wants to participate in the action, so we might find ourselves slightly crouched, hunched, or tense, as if ready to pounce or pluck a delectable item. Maybe something we see or read makes us feel threatened so we recoil. While stepping away from the computer or redirecting the gaze to the horizon can help, I’ve found that nothing resets me more than following a recorded Feldenkrais eye movement lesson. They relax ocular muscles I’ve strained and engage those which I don’t normally use. It’s like sending my peepers to a playground where movement is divorced from utility, goals or achievement. My refreshed eyes help me experience deeper relaxation.
That my vision improved and my sense of self expanded through Feldenkrais is not unique, nor is my experience as miraculous as that of David Webber. After five operations to address complications from uveitis (an immune disorder causing inflammation within the eyes), he was declared legally blind in 2002. Desperate to regain his sight, he experimented with alternative remedies and found that Awareness Through Movement lessons helped him move safely and pleasurably. Immersion in a Feldenkrais training allowed him to discover that he could heal and rewire his visual system and restore his sight.
I’ve learned that life is more enjoyable and fulfilling when I’m aware of what my eyes are doing and I choose how to use them. Mr. Webber learned to see again. Who knows what you might discover if you take the time to roll your eyes, slowly and with awareness?