Soften the eyes and extend the gaze

Elite athletes will tell you how important it is to have ‘good body language’ during competition.

Under stress, the energetic system of the athlete tends to tighten and rigidify. In extreme cases of stress, the athlete can get immobilised and stuck at critical points during the competitive contest. This hinders the spontaneous movements that are required to execute complex physical actions. In such cases, there is greater possibility that the visual system misjudges the movement and distance of the ball and/or the movements of an opponent.

When dealing with stress during competition it is important that the athlete learns to (a) soften the eyes and (b) extend the gaze.

In stillness: Two klipspringers extending their gaze
In stillness: Two klipspringers extending their gaze

Many years ago, I did a night walking exercise with Dr Ken West (who specializes in sports vision). Before the walk, I learned that there were two types of photoreceptors in the retina, (a) cones, that were condensed in the centre of the retina, and (b) rods that covered the rest of the retina. The cones were responsible for color and daylight vision and provided us with our sharpest vision, or highest acuity of vision. The rods did not detect light as sharply as the cones did, but were more sensitive to low light levels than the cones were. Finally, there were many more rods than there were cones in the retina.

From a sporting perspective, the cones are used to focus eyesight in a concentrated way (watching the ball), while the rods are used for peripheral vision (broader awareness of the surroundings). Of interest, I established that the reaction time for spontaneous action of motocross racers at the start line was significantly quicker if peripheral vision was used (as opposed to focused vision on the start gate). The fundamental reason for this difference in reaction time is that the cones are linked to conscious thinking, while the rods are associated with the unconscious (which bypasses logical thinking).

During the night walk, we had to utilise our rods (peripheral vision) to navigate our way. The purpose of the night walk was to activate the unconscious and stimulate creative thinking (via the use of peripheral vision). While asleep that night, I had such vivid dreams, that to this day, I can still remember them. My friend, Ken, also reported having vivid, unusual and intense dreams.

Precision in action: A green backed heron striking a fish
Precision in action: A green backed heron striking a fish

During stress, intense focused vision tends to gets over-activated, which in turn, tightens the visual system. To soften the eyes, the athlete needs to go into peripheral vision at times when there is no activity or concentration required. In cricket, for example, the batsman can go into peripheral vision between the balls that are bowled. This helps the eyes to relax and also stops the mind from thinking too much or too logically.

The eyes can help improve the body language of an athlete. When dealing with failure, an athlete’s body tends to cave in, with the head and shoulders dropping (indicating heaviness). As this unfolds, the vision is directed down, almost in shame. This sinking sensation in the body can be countered if you look up or extend the gaze. By looking up, I don’t mean staring up into the heavens, but rather lifting the gaze. As you do so, the eyes lift the body as well as the spirit.

An elite athlete needs a visual system that is alert and relaxed in order to perform optimally. Softening the eyes by activating the peripheral vision and extending the gaze into the distance will help the athlete to achieve this.

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Scarcity and unpredictable intrusion

Food is scarce in the cold, snowy regions of Germany. The climate is harsh and the challenge for most of the living species is to ensure that they can survive this unforgiving environment. While the survival of the fittest and strongest definitely applies, there may be one or two unexpected moments in getting or losing food that becomes part of the story.

The steal

The group of crows were happily feeding on a small piece of food. Out of the blue, a red kite descended onto the group, stealing what little food was available. The sudden, unexpected arrival of the red kite was its main weapon as it activated a chaotic reaction within the group.

Just as quickly as it arrived, the kite was off again making its way into the sky with the food in its mouth.

The steal

The pursuit

One of the crows was able to orientate itself quickly and gave chase. It had some distance to make up, but seemed to have a focused determination to catch the intruder.

The pursuit

The drop

The crow managed to get close to the kite and did everything to harass it. After a couple of seconds of harassment, the crow seemed to tire, lose heart and/or lose interest in challenging the bigger predator, and turned away to fly towards the group still on the ground.

As the very moment when the crow turned its attention away from the kite, I saw it drop the piece of food. Maybe it lost concentration or maybe it was the unexpected relief that it was not being continually attacked by the crow that resulted in the drop. While there also may be the possibility that the food may not have been to its liking, the shocked look in its eyes suggested otherwise.

The drop

As the food landed on the ground, the group of crows made their way across to its location and continued their meal as if nothing had ever happened. Such is the nature of nature; harmonious energy returns without any indication of that past moment when the sudden explosion of unpredictable intrusion disrupted the natural relaxed order.

Seeing is believing: In search of the beavers

I had been sitting patiently at the wetlands along the Rhine for about two hours waiting to photograph some of the birds that frequent the river. The place was beautiful, with mist hanging over the tree tops. To the naked eye, however, it seemed as if all living creatures had abandoned this part of the river.

I had seen another photographer in the distance also waiting patiently for nothing to happen. I was about to leave when he walked across and joined me for some conversation. We spoke about photography in general, and more specifically about our experiences photographing nature and wildlife. He told me that there were beavers in this area, yet he had never seen them. I asked him how he knew. He said that the farmer had told him, since his crops had been eaten by them. However, the farmer had also not seen them. He knew that there were beavers since there were trails of bits and pieces of crop that were left between the farmland and the river, in the mornings.

He then proceeded to take me on a guided tour along the river showing me evidence of the existence of the beavers. He pointed out burrowed tunnels on the bank of the river. He showed me the trails of foliage across the gravel cycle path that separated the farmland and the river. He also showed me huge sculptured indentations on the trunks of large poplar trees. As I looked at the trees, I couldn’t imagine an experienced lumberjack doing a better job of chopping the trunk with such grooved precision.

As I was shown all of evidence, I felt a strong desire to see and photograph the beavers. Being told and shown evidence of their existence was not enough for me. I needed to witness and experience the beavers for myself. As a psychologist, I knew that the most effective way to learn about anything is to move into the experiential domain and to personally witness and observe what is being spoken about. Telling and showing are only secondary levels of the learning process. The primary and most impactful level of learning is to go through an experiential process.

Many years ago, I saw a film called Searching for Sugar Man, which documented the search for the poetic singer Rodriguez, who had disappeared into obscurity after producing a chart winning album.

After reading up about beavers and their habitat, I felt compelled to go back to the wetlands in search of the illusive beavers. Beavers are nocturnal rodents, but can be seen at dawn or dusk. In the 1900’s, they were hunted to near extinction for their coats. They were reintroduced into a number of European countries in 1960-1970.

Before sunrise every morning for a week, I sat patiently waiting for the beavers.

My first sighting felt surreal. The beaver seemed to emerge out of nothingness, swimming across my line of vision. Throughout the week, the sightings were sporadic as they swam passed me, or emerged from the burrows on the opposite bank of the river. There was only one morning in the week that I did not see them. I felt satisfied that my search for the beavers was so richly rewarded. I now knew that they definitely existed. Seeing was truly believing.

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Galloping into 2014

In the Chinese zodiac, 2014 is the year of the horse. In it’s wild, untamed state, the horse is a noble, independent animal that enjoys the freedom of movement.

Chincoteague and Assateague are islands, situated on the Atlantic east coast of Virginia, USA are known for their herds of wild horses. On a recent trip to Assateague I wondered if I would be lucky enough to spot one of these elusive horses. As it so happened I was gifted with a rare sighting.

A wild horse on Assateague island
A wild horse on Assateague island

While travelling to Assateague the car broke down. We were forced to re-plan, to deal with this mishap. Being stranded in an unfamiliar place kicked up anxiety. We felt vulnerable. It is only in times such as this that one realizes how important having independent transport is and how this enhances and supports ones feelings of security and strength. However, after hiring a car and having lost a large chunk of time we were back on the road towards our destination.

After this hiccup in our journey there was discussion in the car, about modes of travel, horses, and hindrances in reaching our destination.

We were only staying one night on the island of Chincoteague, since Assateague was a nature reserve that did not offer any accommodation.

While standing on the balcony of the hotel room in Chincoteague, I looked to my left. It was just before sunrise, overcast and cold. I focused on a house in the distance that was on the edge of the water. Above the house, the clouds filled the sky. The was no possibility for a single sun ray to penetrate the thick cloudy blanket. The water in front of the house was still. It offered a perfect mirror to create a dreamy, fluffy reflection that matched everything that existed above.

Looking to the left just before sunrise
Looking to the left just before sunrise

After an outing, I returned to my room mid-morning. Once again standing on the balcony, I looked out to the right. A beautiful perspective of lines and simplicity was in front of me. The full blanket of clouds had broken. The natural clear blue sky was coming through. A bridge surrounded by a strip of golden coloured reeds and marshy vegetation separated the distant sky from the still water.

Looking to the right at mid-morning, 10h30
Looking to the right at mid-morning

Perspective and point-of-view are what determines our explanations and interpretations of the experiences we have in our lives. As we gallop into the new year, we will no doubt encounter our challenges and mishaps. Our journeys may be temporarily halted. It is during such times that we need to be aware of our perspective. The two perspectives standing on the balcony highlighted the following for me:

  • Conditions change as time unfolds
  • A clear distant goal emerges out of a sea of murky possibilities
  • There are at least two perspectives when standing in one place – try and access both of these
  • Look for a clear, simple straight line to your goal
  • Look for the bridge that joins two distinct (and maybe opposing) worlds
  • Keep still to allow reflection
  • Try and access the beauty that surrounds you

Wishing you all an exciting new year.

Battle for food

I was out walking the streets of Richmond in Virginia looking for urban art to photograph. Out of nowhere, a raptor (which I later identified as a red-tailed hawk), with prey in its talons settled on the top of a street pole right in front of me. I couldn’t believe my eyes (and luck) as I witnessed this sighting. This was such an unusual sight in the middle of an urban context of a city, where wild life seldom ventures.

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I only had my 50mm lens on my camera and couldn’t get closer to the action. While this lens was perfect for the intended use of street art, I hankered after my telescopic lens while snapping away at the raptor as it was eating the squirrel it had caught.

And then…the attack.

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The hawk enjoying its meal spread its wings over the prey as its competitor descended. A brief scuffle ensued, with the intruder being driven off. The hungry hawk found its own perch as it re-assessed its next move.

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The attack came again…

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And off they flew over the high rise buildings; the ‘have’ fleeing the ‘have not’.

While not so openly evident, the tense dynamic between ‘those that have’ and those that are in desperate need, also exists with humans. In the USA, for example, statistics show that the few rich are getting richer, while the many poor are getting poorer. And of concern is that the gap is widening as time unfolds.

As I gathered myself, I re-focused on my original task…looking for urban art.

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Love bird fish eagles

In the bush you can be a witness to many wonderful moments that nature ‘decides’ to share with you. However, you may need to be in the right place and at the right time to be part of the unfolding process. Some call this luck; since you generally do not have to wait patiently for nature to reveal itself. During a recent visit to the Kruger National Park I was given the gift of being part of a special moment when two fish eagles were mating. It all happened so quickly.

While it is said that every picture can tell a story; a series of pictures helps to enhance and enrich the narrative.

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The over-riding feeling of being in awe enters one’s being after you have witnessed something special in nature. There is also a need to share the event with others; to talk about it; to re-live the moment over and over again. But words are generally unable to fully describe the experience and/or do justice to the unfolding process. I was thankful that I was able to photograph the two love birds and I am happy to be able to share this with you.

The Otter trail and the anticipation of the Bloukrans river

The Bloukrans river crossing is usually the first thing that is spoken about by those hikers who have just completed, or are about to embark on, the Otter trail. There have been many stories about the difficulty of crossing a raging Bloukrans river. There have been some drownings that give testament to the challenge of getting across the river. For those who are unfortunate, taking the escape route may be the only safe way off the trail if the crossing is considered too dangerous (in which case the hikers will not be able to complete the rest of the trail).

The anticipation of crossing the Bloukrans can feel like a black cloud that hovers over those who set out on this most beautiful trail along the Eastern Cape coast between Storms River mouth and Nature’s Valley. One has to cross this river on the fourth day of the trail; so the unease and uncertainty lingers with you right from day 1. The crossing needs to be planned for low tide. The river is about 10Km from the overnight hut and you may need to start off very early in the morning when it is still dark in order to reach the river at low tide

If you have an experience for the first time, you have nothing to compare or contrast it with.

In December 2000, I did the Otter trail for the first time. It is a tough trail and you have to be physically fit to cope with the ups and downs as one moves continually from mountain to shoreline (and back again) on difficult, uneven terrain. However, the beauty of the trail is well worth the physical pain that one may have to endure.

My wife and I have just returned from doing our second Otter trail.

In our preparation for this trail, we pulled out some of our old photographs taken in December 2000. As I looked at the images of the Bloukrans river, my stomach turned. I could immediately recall the fear that I had to deal with when crossing the river. Although in the past; that fear was now staring me straight in the face. Doing the Otter trail required me to cross the Bloukrans river again. In 2000, the crossing of the Bloukrans was a taxing experience. Fortunately, there were some strong swimmers in my party that could assist weaker swimmers such as myself.

Ready for the challenge
Tackling the Bloukrans river crossing, December 2000
Looking back at what we had achieved

I have always advocated that you should do an extreme event at least twice. For example, I did the Comrades marathon twice and found the second time far more mentally challenging. The first experience is usually the easiest since you approach it with no pre-conceived ideas. No assumptions are made and you usually encounter the experience with a ‘beginner’s mind‘. There is a naivety in the experience.

As we approached the Bloukrans river in March 2012; my experience in December 2000 was strongly etched in my mind. I was worried. Unlike in the previous crossing, my wife and I were on our own this time. There was no one to assist us, if necessary. This heightened my anxiety.

We had planned our arrival exactly at low tide.

My surprise and relief looking down at the Bloukrans river, March 2012
Where is the raging water?
Crossing ankle deep

The crossing of the Bloukrans in March 2012 reminded me of a number of things:

  • That in life the only constant is change itself and that no two experiences will ever be the same.
  • That my tough first crossing had created fearful anticipations of what I was possibly going to encounter the second time around.
  • I couldn’t stop thinking of what my reaction would have been if my experiences of the two crossings had been swopped – an easy first experience and then being shocked at the raging river for the second crossing.
  • Having ‘no mind’ (clean slate), ‘open mind’ (receptive mind), and ‘beginner’s mind’ (dealing with what ‘is’ in a non-expert way) as a mental stance when encountering an experience for a 2nd or 3rd time helps to challenge the assumptions and anticipations that we may build up in our minds (as fantasies).
One of many breath-taking views
Crossing rivers and passing waterfalls on the trail
The beautiful rock formations on the coast
The tranquility of the overnight huts
High above, looking back at the huts
The protea – such natural beauty on the trail
Reaching the end with mixed feelings; re-entry back into society

Being in nature, away from ‘the madding crowd’ always helps to restore emotional balance and reminds one of ‘one’s place’ in the bigger scheme. The trail is a humbling experience. I had an over-riding feeling of gratitude and joy to have had 5 days in such beauty.