Imagine yourself as a complex switchboard of circuitry. Over time, as you’ve developed certain habits, particular wires have been connected to specific jacks in the board. Some connections might be looser than others, and we can easily replug those wires into new jacks. As I discovered ten days ago in my Feldenkrais training, it turns out I can quite comfortably use utensils with my non-dominant hand, despite believing I could not.
Since the training began, we’ve done several Awareness Through Movement lessons that involve moving the eyes in unfamiliar ways, differentiating their movements from those of the head. In brief, this means moving the eyes and the head in opposite or different directions, starting from various positions, rolling the eyes in their sockets, or attempting to move each eye independently of the other to create new neural pathways. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, “The body reflects the attitudes of the mind. Improve the function of the body and you must improve the state of the mind. The movements are nothing. They’re an idiotic thing. What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains.”
Moving my eyes in unfamiliar if not awkward ways seemed like trying to remove an old wire that had rusted into a switchboard. I noticed that my eye muscles began to tire, unaccustomed to the effort. By the end, however, my eyes felt very large, as if I had become a reptile or bird with astonishing peripheral vision, able to take in perhaps 30 percent more of my environment without having to turn or lift my head. Moving my eyes also rearranged other aspects of my being I had believed were fixed. I’ve spent much of the last decade either designing jewelry with often tiny beads, selecting and distinguishing colors, textures and shapes for mosaic art, composing photographs or proofreading my writing. Yet, for a day and a half following that particular eye exercise, I had zero desire to read, write or otherwise train my focus on a narrow area.
The absence of any urge to zero in on details or detect nuances or inconsistencies made it seem as if I had been handed a different personality if not an entirely new sense of self. The expansion and softening of my vision lifted my spirits and even straightened my spine (the eyes often direct the movement of the rest of the body). For the next 36 hours, this introvert experienced what I imagine it’s like to be an outgoing person, someone whose attention is more effortlessly and eagerly drawn to the external world rather than internal experience, taking in the bigger picture rather than the details. The change was so striking, and freeing, that the day following the exercise I mentioned to the group that it felt like some fundamental pathway had been severed.
“That’s strong language,” said Alan Questel, director of the training.
At the time, ‘severed’ seemed appropriate to the starkness of the contrast, obtained in about 60 minutes of subtle movement. The deeply felt experience of using my eyes differently made me realize that I had become so identified with having a “good eye” that I unwittingly brought that habit with me everywhere, even to situations where it was either irrelevant or perhaps counterproductive (even when keeping my observations to myself, visual disturbances alone often had a negative impact on my experience). My ability to quickly notice aesthetic discrepancies was so automatic that it was more of a compulsion than a conscious choice to direct my attention in that particular way at specific times. I now had my own example of what Moshe Feldenkrais referenced in the preface to 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. We think or rather feel that we need not bother about behaving otherwise. It is not so obvious that good habits can make us unhappy. It is an elusive truth.”
In hindsight, perhaps those wires connecting my eye movements to my self-image had not been permanently cut but temporarily disconnected and hooked into different jacks. Composing this post, my eyes no longer feel as wide and huge as they did last week. But neither am I staring intently at the screen or narrowing my gaze to aid concentration. There will likely be many situations where keen, discerning vision will be of benefit to myself or others. For the rest of the time, I now have an experiential reference for a different way to use my eyes. Sometimes life is more enjoyable when situations and people are first met with a soft, broad gaze.