Letter to a New Teacher.

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Letter to a New Teacher.
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Exploring Headlessness with Douglas Harding
Carlos Castaneda & Soft Eyes
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Out and Around Myself, H.D. Thoreau on Perception
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Seeing Anew: Exploring Perception

Letter to a New Teacher

August 30, 2010

As I was working on repairing our back deck yesterday, I recalled some incidents and insights about teaching and seeing that I thought might be of interest to you and your teaching/learning.

When she was the director of Oak Grove School, Karen Hesli had a strategy for observing prospective teachers trying out for teaching positions there. She liked to observe if teachers could keep a wide enough focus when teaching to notice when a student or students on the periphery started to lose focus or act out during a class activity, so that the teacher could re-engage the student or students back with the class before their spinning out could spread to the rest of the class. To be able to do this suggested that a prospective teacher realized that he or she could not afford to only concentrate on a particular student or lesson plan, but at the same time needed to keep a wider focus on the class as a whole.

Along these lines, Katherine,who taught a primary class at Oak Grove School, and who was originally from France, told me that she purposely did not wear her prescription glasses when teaching, because she felt they inhibited her ability to notice peripheral movement in the classroom. She also told me that she deliberately cultivated in her students the sense that she could notice what students were doing at all times even though she might be facing in the opposite direction.

A friend of mine, who had recently returned to teaching high school earth science classes, upon learning of my interest in seeing and peripheral awareness told me that she had had an interesting experience in this regards at her recent eye examination.

The vision assistant, who was testing her peripheral vision at her optometrist's office, told my friend that she had excellent peripheral vision, and then the assistant off-handedly asked if my friend was a teacher by any chance? After my friend answered in the affirmative, my friend asked the assistant why she asked her if shewas a teacher, and the assistant replied: “Oh, teachers tend to do very well in our peripheral awareness exam.”

My friend then told me that, when she first started teaching again with high school students, they would pull stuff on her all the time. For instance, while she was writing something up on the white board at the front of the room, a student would throw a spitball or a wad of paper across the classroom, and when my friend turned to see who had thrown it, she could not detect who had done it, because everyone was sitting perfectly still and attentive. But after a short while, she learned to utilize her peripheral awareness more effectively, and she could notice and abort a student preparing to throw something, as she continued to write on the class white-board at the front of the classroom..

I believe I first became aware of the possibility of developing peripheral awareness from the books of Tom Brown, Jr. including The Search and The Tracker. He wrote about his best friend's grandfather, Stalking Wolf, an Apache Indian stalker, and he explained that it was virtually impossible for either Tom Brown, Jr. or Stalking Wolf's grandson to get anywhere close to Stalking Wolf by sneaking up on him. No matter what Stalking Wold was doing, he kept his peripheral vision awake and he quickly spotted Tom Brown, Jr. or his grandson attempting to sneak up on him.

Someone I knew attended an intensive wilderness awareness workshop with Tom Brown, Jr. in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. At the workshop he learned a game called Deer Stalking, and when he returned to Ojai he taught the game to me. Over my many years as a naturalist at the Matilija Environmental Science Area I have shared it with thousands of young people and their teachers and parents, but I can't remember if I ever did it with a class you were in?

In deer stalking, everyone but the leader of the activity lines up in a line facing out towards where I am facing them about twenty feet out in front of everyone. I explain that all the animals of the forest have learned to be wary of humans, so everyone will need to keep their hands crossed and still in front of them, not swinging freely at your side which advertises that you are a human.

You will also need to not stare at the deer with a hard, penetrating look, but instead soften your vision, take in the whole scene noticing all around the deer, rather than narrowly focusing intently on the deer.

While gazing straight ahead, notice when the deer drops its head and begins to chew on the grass. Then you can proceed moving very slowly towards the deer, because quick, sudden movements will alert the deer to your presence and send it into the next county.. Use a narrow fox walk step, that allows you to freeze at any moment, whenever the deer looks up from its feeding. Hold yourself completely still when the deer is looking in your direction, and only resume a very slow stalking when the deer's attention has returned primarily to feeding.

I explain, as I crouch down in front of them on all fours, that I've arranged to have a deer come by. Well, actually I'm going to pretend to be a deer. As a deer, I will be instinctively using my own 'soft eyes' to notice any quick and sudden movements, or someone who keeps moving towards the deer even when the deer is looking up and right at them. It's a little like the red light green light game. If you move too quickly when I'm not looking, or keep moving when I am looking, then I will point to you and you will need to take 2 giant steps back before continuing. Requiring rushing or inattentive participants to take 1 or 2 giant steps back, will usually slow down the rushers a bit and help remind all of the participants to pay more attention to whether the deer is looking at them or not.

As the stalkers slowly approach the deer, I call out that once they reach the deer they can touch it gently on the shoulders and get behind the deer until everyone has touched the deer.

After everyone has reached the deer, I ask if they would like to do the activity again, and they all usually do. Then after being the deer one more time, I ask if anyone else would like to be a deer?

Usually several will volunteer to be deer, and if enough want to be a deer, I will become a stalker with the remaining deer students and parents and teachers.

With many students being deer, it's quite difficult to make any movement at all without being spotted. I will often feign frustration at being 'caught' moving so much and having to take giant steps back before proceeding.. At the close of the activity we talk about how deer grazing in herds enables some to graze while others are on alert as sentinels. I then explain that you can use deer stalking not only to stalk deer, but also to stalk squirrels birds and lizards, and other wildlife, and one student wrote me that he had even stalked his dad while he was reading his morning newspaper at the table on their patio..

Many times I have been walking with friends out in nature, and I have suggested that we put 20 or 30 yards between ourselves on the trail, and occasionally using our arms outstretched to the side with wiggling fingers, to remind us to widen our gaze.

On one particular walk I was taking in the Ojai Valley with two college student friends, we separated on the trail and experimented with widening our vision as we walked individually along the trail. At the conclusion of our walk one of them mentioned to me that Frank Ottiwell, a master Alexander Teacher who taught in San Francisco, had some related information, and she encouraged me to contact him about it.

I wrote Frank and he wrote me back with an interesting story. It seems he was having lunch at the Ojai Valley Inn out on an open patio when he notice a bird of prey sitting in a nearby tree. I don't know if it was a hawk or an owl, but since it was during the day most likely it was a hawk. The bird's eyes shone with an intense alertness that totally captured Frank's attention. He couldn't get over the wild aliveness of the bird's gaze.

A short time later while walking down Geary Street back in San Francisco, a strange feeling of his eyes spontaneously widening came over Frank causing him to first recall the very alert bird of prey he had noticed at the Ojai Valley Inn and then a transcript he had back at his office on widening of the eyes and the Alexander Technique.

In his initial letter to me he promised to follow the letter with a copy of the transcript he had on widening the gaze. When I received the transcript from Frank in the mail, I read it with great interest. The transcript was taken from a talk in the late sixties given by a master Alexander Technique teacher who studied with F.M. Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique. Her name was Countess Catharine Wielopolska In her talk she was joined by Dr. Mario Pazzaglini a Clinical Psychologist. The Countess explained that most of her Alexander Technique teaching involved carefully implementing the directions she had received from the founder of the Alexander Technique, F.M.Alexander..

However, she had stumbled upon a new direction, one that she made up herself. It was “Eyes free to go apart.” She found that it provided a dramatic additional release in many of her Alexander Technique students that she asked to try it out. In her talk with Mario, she explained how she stumbled upon the “eyes free to go apart: direction and why they thought it was so effective in initiating release in her Alexander Technique students. I have been playing with the “eyes free to go apart.” Alexander Technique direction for many years now, and I have found it very helpful in engaging peripheral vision and allowing stationary objects to appear to move, an important aspect of Bates natural vision training.

With the “let stationary objects appear to move.” Bates direction, when we walk down the side of a street or on a nature path the objects, such as trees and telephone poles we approach can appear to move as we approach them and move by them, or because we know them to be stationary objects, they can appear to remain quite stationary.

It's as if we are making a choice to perceive objects as we know them to be – stationary and unmoving, and we consequently register them in our minds as a series of still snapshots as we move through and past them, or we can perceive their apparent movement as we move up to and past them, as if we had a video camera mounted on top of our head. We know the trees are not moving, but direct perception indicates these stationary objects appear to move as we move by them, because it is difficult to easily perceive whether the trees are moving or we are. The speed of the apparent movement of the trees or other stationary objects increases dramatically when perceiving from a moving car or train.

Mark Lee in an address to an education conference shared a vision related incident with Krishnamurti when Mark was teaching at the Rishi Valley School in India. Krishnamurti asked a small group of students to try out an exercise in which they were asked the next time they went to their classroom, to not look around by moving their eyes, but to look straight ahead while noticing everything around them while keeping their eyes still.

Mark reported that several students said they had noticed a significant difference in their perception, noticing things that they had previously been unaware of..

Through using the Krishnamurti CD, I discovered that Krishnamurti, over the many decades that he spoke with people throughout the world, asked people to explore keeping their eyes still, not in a concentrated stare, but with eyes and brain 'completely alive but still'. He asserted that when we think, the eyes will move.

I shared some of the quotes I found by Krishnamurti on seeing in the Krishnamurti CD with Krishnamurti's friend, Mary Zimbalist, and I requested to interview her on the subject. She agreed to my interviewing her, and when I talked with her in her home, she told me that Krishnamurti often encouraged people to “Look wide like the Buddha looked.”, and she said that she took Krishnamurti to mean to look with a wide gaze, as portrayed in many Buddha statues.

Ms. Zimbalist also told me that while driving one time near Malibu, she had attempted to convey to Krishnamurti what it was like for her swimming in the Pacific Ocean, which she had done when she was younger. She told Krishnamurti about the bracing coldness of the water, and swimming against the waves and the rip currents. Krishnamurti listened raptly, and then he replied, “That's the kind of seeing that I am talking about.” Mary said that a few weeks later, Krishnamurti gave a public talk in Ojai on seeing with all the senses, but she said she didn't know if their conversation about her ocean swimming had sparked that particular talk.

When I relayed this story to Mark Lee, he told me he had another related story. It seems in the early sixties, when Mark Lee was teaching at the Rishi Valley School in India, that Krishnamurti was meeting with teachers at the school. Krishnamurti asked the teachers to be very aware of how the students at the school walked, talked, looked and listened. He then explained a little more about what to watch for with each activity, and when Krishnamurti got to how the students looked he mentioned the aborigines of Australia. He said that he's heard that when the Aborigines are out in the outback, they notice everything. What's in front of them, what's beside them, and even what's behind them! “How can we help our students here at Rishi Valley School to see in this way?”

Mark told me he went away from that meeting quite perplexed, as he wrestled with Krishnamurti's simple but challenging question. After considering it for awhile, Mark came up with an activity that he implemented for awhile at the Rishi Valley School. Each morning he would have the students stand by their desks in the classroom and extend their arms out to their sides at shoulder level with their fingers pointing towards the ceiling. Then while looking straight ahead and slowly wiggling their fingers they would slowly move their hands forward until they could notice their wiggling fingers out of the corners of their eyes while still looking straight ahead..

Apparently, at first the students had to bring their arms well forward of 180 degrees before they noticed their wiggling fingers, but after a little practice, they could notice their fingers earlier in a much wider range while still looking straight ahead.

Mark approached Krishnamurti with this new activity he had introduced and told Krishnamurti of the students' progress in noticing more widely. Krishnamurti listened enthusiastically and then commented,

“This is great. Now we just have to get them to see this way all the time and not just for 10 minutes in the morning.”

While surfing the Internet I discovered a related quote by Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. “And when you look up, look wide. And even when you think you are looking wide, look wider still.”

In Carlos Castaneda's book, The Second Ring of Power, he wrote about instruction he received from one of his teachers, Don Juan Marcos: “Instead of teaching me to focus my view as gazers did, he taught me to open it, to flood my awareness by not focusing my sight on anything. I had to sort of feel with my eyes everything in the 180-degree range in front of me, while I kept my eyes unfocused just above the line of the horizon.”

Carlos Castaneda also wrote extensively about “seeing” in A Separate Reality and referred to the multisensory quality of 'seeing.” Carlos had assumed that vision was something that one did only with one's eyes, but Don Juan was quite impatient with him and how long it took Carlos to realize that 'seeing' might be something that involved other bodily senses as well.

In the Japanese martial art of Aikido, they use something called “soft eyes”. Using “soft eyes” is about resting your relaxed gaze on some distant point while simultaneously fully engaging your peripheral vision. Soft eyes allow you to be aware of the whole, both inwardly and outwardly with all the senses, and simultaneously both centrally focused and peripherally aware. It is the antithesis of a concentrated, self-absorbed stare.

Soft eyes enable you to not become exclusively concentrated on any one thing, for instance, an individual attacker, so you can respond to everything that is going on around you, including, for instance, multiple attackers, because to concentrate on only one attacker would leave you vulnerable to the actions of the other attackers.

Sally Swift has adapted 'soft eyes' to the teaching of horseback riding and she writes about it in her book Centered Riding. She has found that employing 'soft eyes' helps her riding students to be more aware of themselves inwardly, such as their breath, and of their horses under them, while maintaining an arena awareness that allows them to skillfully avoid running into each other or the arena.

In Centered Riding Ms. Swift summarizes:“Using soft eyes is like a new philosophy. It is a method of becoming distinctly aware of what is going on around you, beneath you, inside you. It includes feeling and hearing as well as seeing. You are aware of the whole, not just separate parts.”

Donna Farhi, a yoga teacher and author of The Breathing Book, is familiar with Sally Swift's application of soft eyes to horseback riding instruction. Ms. Farhi uses soft eyes with her yoga students. She encourages her students to use soft eyes when encountering a particularly challenging yoga asana, Ms. Fahi also describes in her book how she uses soft eyes to stay centered in chaotic situations or when walking down a busy city street. She also mentions in The Breathing Book that when using 'soft eyes' she imagines that she is looking from behind her eyes with receptive rather than grasping eyes. 

I think Ms. Farhi would appreciate this quote from Rosemary Gaddem Gordon a natural vision teacher whom I interviewed on KMUD radio a few years ago: “Look effortlessly from the core and let the world touch you.”

I also came across a website from a high performance auto racing school that advocates using soft eyes to help their students to be more aware of the road ahead of them, how their engine is running, and how well their tires are gripping this particular road surface. These High Performance Driving School students are also encouraged to use soft eyes, so that they can be aware of, not only the road ahead, but simultaneously anything that is going on in their rear view and both side mirrors.

Bill Bradley, New York Knicks basketball legend and Democratic presidential candidate, had exceptional peripheral vision which he reportedly developed in his youth by dribbling a basketball around dispersed folding chairs in a gym while wearing special training glasses that blocked out his normal central vision. Bradley would also walk down the main street of his small hometown and attempt to notice with his peripheral vision all the merchandise displayed in the shop windows while looking straight ahead. He would then retrace his steps to determine how accurately he had noticed things with his peripheral vision.

Another NBA great basketball hall of famer, Magic Johnson, talked and wrote about how on a fast break down the court there are so many things to simultaneously attend to: who's with him, who's defending him, who's fast, who's slow, who's open, who's covered, who's where he likes to shoot from, who's not, does this player have good hands for taking hard passes in traffic? Magic calls it: “seeing with your 100 eyes.”

The Great One, hockey immortal Wayne Gretsky had exceptional court sense. He chalked it all up to self preservation. He said that when you weigh 170 pounds, and your playing with 210 pound guys, then it's essential that you know where every player is on the hockey court at all times, or “you'll find yourself forechecked into the mezzanine.”

Hap Palmer writes in his book The Courage to Teach: “I want to make a conscious effort to help myself and my students develop softer eyes when confronted with something new. I believe it will allow all of us to have more authentic responses and “think” more “new” thoughts.”

Song of The Seeing Being

By Polly Berrien Berends

The more we realize that seeing is the Issue in Life

the more interested we are in seeing.

The more interested we are in seeing,

the more we look at everything for what it has to teach us,

The more we look at everything for what it has to teach us,

the more we see that we are being taught,

the more we know that we are loved.

The more we know that we are loved,

the more we see love.

The more we see love,

the more lovingly we are seeing.

The more lovingly we are seeing,

the more loving we are being,

the more we realize that seeing is the issue in life.

{Start over}


“The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past














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