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 my friend, 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.

Moving into an uncertain future

In my previous article on vision and framing, I took a predominantly past-orientated perspective of how we construct frames around our experiences, and in particular, around our problems.

In this article,  I would like to focus on the power of how you can use frames to create and mold a meaningful future for yourself.

Walking into an uncertain future

By nature, the future is both uncertain and unpredictable. From an evolutionary perspective, a range of possibilities (outcomes) may exist in the future, but nothing is definite. However, the potentiality of these outcomes are influenced and determined by what has unfolded in the past and what is presently occurring in the present.

As part of creating a frame or focus for your future, you need to consciously prime yourself to move into your future with optimism. You can do this by activating an internal process that playfully entertains possibilities that have not yet materialised, but which you can see or imagine.

During play, children transport themselves into a new domain of experience through the power of fantasy and imagination. When next you watch children play, see how easily they are transport themselves into a ‘new place’ during play. Imagination is the vehicle for the transportation.

In consulting with elite athletes, I create frames for future performance through the process of visualisation. This helps to transport the athlete into the future in a way that conditions the mind to be prepared for an upcoming competitive event. An expectancy of how the future will unfold is very much part of the visualisation.

Meditation and mindfulness help a person mentally connect to the present moment that is unfolding. While these processes do not provide actual frames with which to guide you into your future, they paradoxically open up the future for you by asking you to carefully notice the present moment unfolding before you (be it on a mental, emotional or physical level). This heightens an inner awareness that assists you in dealing with life’s demands more effectively. As a spin-off, you will begin to feel more emotionally relaxed about your future, thus neutralising the anxiety that tends to get activated when dealing with uncertainty.

There are times, when I will sit and write a reflection about a particular experience. As part of the reflection, I will tease out what I have learned, as well as, consider possibilities of what else could have unfolded, or what I may have done differently to facilitate a different outcome. In particular, I look at my patterns of behaviour that may have blocked me from achieving what I had set out to do. This helps heighten my awareness regarding my own functioning, offering me alternatives of how to interact in the future. This is how journalling or reflective writing offers a frame of how to move into the future more effectively.

Finally, I believe that your perceptions of what you think your future may hold are determined by your philosophy of life (see my article on viewing life through your personal lens). This philosophy is self-recursive; connecting your experiences with your beliefs and assumptions in an ongoing, unfolding way. On another level, your personal philosophy also influences your anticipations and expectations of your future. Do you have a general feeling of optimism as you journey in your life? Do you see yourself as having the necessary courage to walk into an uncertain future? (See my article on being optimistic in the struggle).

Framing your vision

Creating and defining the realities that you experience in life, can be likened to taking photographs.

Your mind is full of snap shots. Each of these snap shots are framed, which helps to provide clarity and order in how you see and interpret your experiences. Frames define and direct where you look, helping to give meaning to your experiences.

The frame that you place around a particular snap shot, is self-constructed, and is determined by your beliefs, assumptions and perceptions. Knowing this, will help to liberate you from a restrictive view point, since this realisation will offer you the chance to frame your old snap shots in different ways.

In helping my clients resolve some of their emotional or interpersonal difficulties, I have seen how problems have a way of narrowing their vision. The frame that is placed around ‘the problem’, tends to prevent them from seeing the array of possibilities that exist outside of the frame. The frame acts as a boundary that keeps their eyes rigidly locked into one particular perspective. This tends to tighten and intensify where they look and what they see.

There is an old castle not too far from where I live. A couple of months ago I took a photograph using a wide angle lens. It was a misty morning as I looked south towards the Alps. I decided to do a black and white conversion of the photograph.

Into the distance
Into the distance

Last week, I went back to the old castle and again looked south to see the Alps in the distance. It was a clear morning and as I framed my shot I decided to use a telescopic lens. The early morning sun rays were starting to shine over the tiny village in the foreground.

Into the distance

As a therapist, I have become sensitive not only to how my clients frame their problems but also to how I am framing what I am hearing and seeing in the stories that they are sharing with me. This awareness has helped open up my vistas as I encounter the vast array of complex snap shots being shared with me.

Part 4: Observation


It was early morning and my eye caught an old man looking down and observing some passers by. He was drawn into what was unfolding below him. He was totally absorbed in observation.

As a therapist, I have come to learn that my observation is constantly being pulled and pushed in different directions by those I consult with. This occurs through what is being said and how it is being said. Problems are like visual magnets. They draw you into a particular reality, usually a rigidly defined water tight reality. The challenge, as a therapist, is to notice what is not ‘being said’ about what is unfolding right in front of you. Or to notice the little unusual pieces of behaviour or insights that are not part of the dominant story being told.

Central to the very heart of reality, a beautiful vision is available – when we can ‘see’ without adopting limiting positions (quote by Tulku, 1977). But in order to access this reality which is full of possibilities, you need to be aware of where and how you look at what is unfolding before your eyes. Where you look, is what you will see. What you see is determined by what you believe and the assumptions you may make. In other words, what you observe in reality tells you more about yourself (the observer) than what is perceived as the ‘truth’ that exists external to yourself (the observed).

When taking a photograph, you have a range of possibilities in how you want to frame a scene. Do you want to use a telescopic lens to highlight specific detail in the distance (narrow focus), or a wide angle lens to include as much detail so that a broad context is revealed? What about the position of the camera, taking the photograph from a low vantage point, or standing tall? What about the light: during early morning, mid-day, sunset or at any random time that is convenient? All of these many different factors then converge to create the final product.

Life philosophy (including religion), attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, values, family ecology (ideas/knowledge passed on from generation to generation), education, life experience and culture are some of the interacting factors that converge to create the ‘photograph’ that you see in life.

In general, I believe that we can view life through one or more of four lenses: (a) the co-operative, (b) expansive, (c) perfect and/or (d) random lens. Each of these lenses, views life from a different perspective. This philosophy helps me to understand some of the complex dynamics of life and guides my observations, responses and actions in my work as a psychotherapist.

As you observe a human system, you will have an impact on what is being observed. This is a tenet of quantum physics. Your observation will affect the dynamics of the system, even if you do not act at all. If you are able to observe with compassion, those who are being observed will feel the warmth, care and understanding. This type of observation has the power to heal. No other action is required.