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Seeing With Your Whole Being

by Jacob Liberman(more info)

listed in vision and eye sight, originally published in issue 83 - December 2002

Eyesight Improvement is Possible for Everyone

Have you been told that you have progressive myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness), astigmatism (visual asymmetry), or presbyopia ('old-age vision')? Have you been told that you will always have to wear glasses, at least for certain activities? Have you been told that the body has no natural way to reverse vision problems?

Most people have heard these statements at one time or another, and have believed them to be true-but are they? Have you ever wondered why our eyes - our most important sense, vision - are apparently the only organs in our miraculously self-regenerating body that lack the ability to correct their own imbalances? Why do doctors find it easier to believe a story of spontaneous remission of cancer than of self-correcting myopia?

Eye doctors tell us that 90 percent of us will need to wear glasses at some point in our lives. Another 70 percent of us, including many with 20/20 eyesight, unknowingly suffer from visual problems that are not even tested in the conventional eye examination.[1]

Yet my twenty years of clinical experience with vision care have repeatedly demonstrated that eyesight improvement is within the reach of virtually everyone. I've seen and heard of thousands of people who have improved their eyesight. It doesn't seem to matter how 'bad' their vision is, how long they've had the problem, or what the problem is. The most significant factor in natural vision improvement seems to be in the mind, not in the eyes! Throughout, we'll be seeing that the way we think actually determines the way we see-and that something as simple as a shift in awareness is capable of instantaneously transforming our vision.

Eye exercise from China
Eye exercise from China
(See printed magazine for full details)

Over half the people in the United States wear corrective lenses, and almost all of them are capable of seeing much more clearly - if they would only experiment with changing their ideas about vision. As a practicing optometrist in the mid-1970s, I found that it came as quite a shock when I began to discover how our conventional beliefs about vision were keeping millions of us locked into limited eyesight and limited self-awareness! But I now realize that the conventional vision care that I was taught is designed not to treat (or heal) vision problems, but simply to mask the symptoms. Yet those symptoms are not just random - they are urgent signals that something in the body/mind is out of balance and requires attention. By sweeping those messages under the rug, conventional vision care may actually create more problems than it solves.

With a new way of seeing the world, I've been able to improve my own vision dramatically, and have helped thousands of others to reclaim their visual birthright.

What I was Taught in School

I was taught that vision is a mechanical function that works just like an optical lens - a 'camera' in the eye. In my textbook, the chapter on the optics of the eye was preceded by a chapter on general optics. First we learned how light moved through lenses and prisms, and then we applied this to the vision process. In fact, we studied the eye as if it were a camera that just happened to be located in the head.

The ability to see clearly was called 'visual acuity', which we measured as a person's ability to identify a certain size of letters at a distance of twenty feet (the standard test distance). We used twenty feet because this is the distance at which the light rays that enter the eye are roughly parallel - so it was defined as 'optical infinity'. In other words, looking at an object from twenty feet away is optically considered to be equivalent to looking at an object from miles or even light years away. Although this may be true for a glass lens, I've found that it is not necessarily true for the human eye, which has far greater adaptive flexibility.

In any case, 'normal' vision is defined as '20/20'. This number simply means that when you're standing twenty feet from the eye chart, the smallest symbols that you can read are those that eye doctors have decided a person with 'normal' vision should be able to read at twenty feet. The first number is the testing distance (twenty feet); the second number is the distance at which a person with 20/20 vision could read that letter. As your visual acuity gets worse, the first number stays the same (because you are always tested at twenty feet) and the second number rises. For instance, a score of 20/200 means that the smallest symbols you can identify on an eye chart twenty feet away could be identified by a person with 20/20 vision at two hundred feet away.

How was this norm, upon which all lens prescriptions are based, developed? The originator of the method, Dr Hermann Snellen, simply measured the vision of an assistant whom he felt had good eyesight, and set that as the standard against which all of us would be evaluated![2] It seems that there is no objective way to establish what ideal eyesight 'should' be. So it's possible that 'normal' vision is meant to be well beyond our idea of 20/20.

Corrective lenses are prescribed in diopters, which are measurements of lens power. The smallest unit is one quarter diopter. So the minimum prescription is 0.25 diopters; the higher the numbers, the stronger the lenses. A prescription of 5.50 is therefore twenty-two increments of lens power, which is a strong correction. The concave lenses that correct for nearsightedness are indicated by a 'minus' prescription, such as -5.50. The convex lenses that correct for farsightedness are indicated by a 'plus' prescription, such as + 5.50. A lens that corrects for astigmatism (visual asymmetry) may consist of two minus corrections or a combination of plus and minus corrections.

If vision were a purely mechanical process, then it followed that the clarity of our vision could not be affected by what we saw, how we felt about what we were seeing, or how we felt about ourselves. Furthermore, since the eyes worked just like camera lenses, they certainly couldn't react or adapt to changing psychological or environmental conditions.

If our vision works like a machine and the machine isn't working, then there must be something wrong with the parts, right? Any deviation from the visual norm was called a 'refractive error' - "a condition in which the eye, in a state of rest, is unable to focus the image of distant objects upon the retina".[3] (As we will see, however, in its natural state, the eye is never in a state of rest, even during sleep.) Refractive errors include conditions such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism, presbyopia (old-age vision), and so on. I was taught that these problems were inborn flaws or limitations in the eye's equipment, and that we could only examine them by analyzing the physical structure of the eye. In this way, we had 'discovered' that nearsightedness was caused by a long eyeball and farsightedness by a short eyeball.

This physical definition of vision is the basis for the two methods that most eye doctors use to determine your prescription - the 'subjective' and 'objective' approaches. The 'subjective' method is the familiar part of the vision exam in which the doctor asks you, "Which is better, number one or number two?" It's called 'subjective' because it asks you to judge the clarity of the two choices based on your own perception.

The 'objective' method, on the other hand, is strictly a mechanical approach designed to bypass your perception completely. This method measures each eye's ability to focus light on the retina, as if it were a camera lens - how well you can actually see is irrelevant. The eye doctor begins by placing your eye at rest - either by putting a lens in front of your eye to blur your vision, or by paralyzing your ability to focus with eye drops. A beam of light is then sent into your eye and the focusing power of the eye is equalized with a series of optical lenses. (This process is called 'retinoscopy'.) The doctor knows the proper correction has been found when the beam of light passing through the lenses focuses directly on the retina rather than behind or in front of it.

Other Factors Affecting Visual Acuity It sounds pretty scientific, right?

Unfortunately, it ignores what I have found to be some of the most important factors affecting visual acuity. It completely avoids the fact that when the eye is working properly, it is never in a state of rest but in continuous movement. As we'll be seeing later, whenever the eye stops moving, our vision begins to deteriorate. It also does not take into account that even when the eyes are in an artificially induced 'resting' state, the mind/body will retain any habitual stress or tension that may have been undermining the visual acuity. Finally, this method is unable to assess true vision because, as we will be seeing later, vision is actually more of a projective process than a receptive one.

To prescribe corrective lenses, eye doctors generally use a combination of the objective ('retinoscopy') and subjective ('Which is better?') tests. However, in formal studies of vision improvement, the objective measurement is the only test that is considered to prove scientifically that vision change has taken place. We'll see later that the results of the two tests can be quite different, and that both often differ from how well we actually see when we walk outside on a sunny day.

Why? The objective approach artificially paralyzes the natural function of our eyes, ignores the link between vision and the mind, and is based on the questionable premise that objective observation is possible. The subjective test, on the other hand, only measures one tiny aspect of our vision, and it doesn't consider that the observer's beliefs and state of mind may be affecting the measurements. Both tests are based on the mistaken assumptions that our vision is physically determined and that we see only with our eyes, so they block out all of the nonmechanical aspects that make our vision come alive (I'll be explaining all of this more fully later).

As a result, how well you can actually see may have very little to do with how a vision specialist would define your visual acuity. This distinction becomes especially important in defining vision improvement (or lack of improvement). For instance, although I now have vivid and clear vision (and can even see things that are considered to be invisible), an objective measurement of my eyes would indicate that I'm still moderately nearsighted and significantly astigmatic.

As a rule, the rest of the eye-care profession has been taught the same doctrine that I was: focusing problems (such as myopia) are due to the shape of the eyeball, and the shape of the eyeball is preprogrammed by our genes - therefore, vision improvement is impossible.

Epidemic of Myopia

If the hereditary shape of the eyeball is really the cause of weak vision, why didn't our ancestors suffer from the same problems? People do not realize that an epidemic of vision problems - especially myopia - has recently emerged in the industrialized world, while nearsightedness is still almost unheard of in less-developed societies. The incidence of myopia seems to escalate, within one generation, as people become more literate and spend more time indoors. Gottlieb mentions several studies that have demonstrated this effect: "Young (in 1969) found a 59 percent incidence of myopia among sixth-grade Eskimo school children, but only a 5 percent incidence in their parents and none at all among their grandparents". In 1964, Sato found a "two to three times increase of myopia in Japan over a twenty-five-year period which came at a time of industrialization and westernization".[4] So, although genetics may play a role, other factors are obviously involved.

Even in the modern world, "the incidence of myopia is markedly lower among peasants or farmers than among highly educated and professional people".[4] In fact, the more education you have, the more likely you are to be myopic. The statistics look something like this:[5]

Age or Educational Level             % Myopic
At birth                                             less than 1
Age 5 to9                                                        3
age l0 to 12                                                     8
end of 8th grade                                           20
high school graduation                                 40
college graduation                                   60-80
graduate students                                        80[6]

The Chinese have found that the escalation of myopia with modern education is reversible, given a public commitment to vision improvement. In 1949, the Chinese government decided to do something about the increasing incidence of myopia. So Chinese students and factory workers do eye exercises twice a day, for about ten minutes, using an official poster of eye exercises. As a result, the Chinese say they have actually reversed their increase in myopia.[5]

The Genius of Dr William Bates

It's hard to reconcile all these findings with the theory that unclear vision is simply due to mechanical defects in the shape of the eye. An alternative explanation was first proposed by Dr William Bates in the 1920s. Bates was a respected ophthalmologist in New York City when he began to question the effectiveness of using corrective lenses to treat vision problems. He developed a radically new explanation of vision problems and how to treat them, which was firmly rejected by the medical establishment at the time (and ever since).

Bates's work is the foundation of the natural approach to vision improvement. He proposed that poor vision originated not in mechanical factors within the eye but in a combination of physical, emotional, and mental responses to an environment of unhealthy stress. Dr Gottlieb points out that this holistic approach sounds amazingly up-to-date today, almost seventy-five years after it was first presented: "Modern civilization forces individuals to exist under continual strain, worried, lost in thought, reviewing memoirs of past experiences which filter out present experience. It is only within the last decade that popular attention has begun to focus on stress-related illnesses, a relationship which Bates pointed out over six decades ago."[4]

As Bates himself wrote in 1920, "If (primitive man) allowed himself to get nervous, (he) was promptly eliminated; but civilized man survives and transmits his mental characteristics to posterity".[7]

Bates's opponents point out that his approach has never been 'scientifically' proven to be effective - but can we really explain away the thousands of people who have benefited from natural vision improvement in the last seventy-five years as simply imagining that they can see without their glasses? It appears that the real barrier to widespread acceptance of Bates' method is that it is based on an entirely new way of thinking about vision. His approach is so different from the 'accepted theories of physiological optics'4 - the mechanical explanation of vision - that it may not even be testable without a new 'psychophysical model' of how vision works. Gottlieb, for one, suggests that the current methods of studying changes in vision may be inadequate, which would not be surprising, in light of the accepted doctrine that vision changes are impossible in the first place.

Bates' ideas were not mentioned during my training. We did hear that 'behavioral' optometrists believed that the stress of reading was the primary cause of vision problems. These doctors said that reading is a biologically unacceptable activity that creates physiological stress, affecting the structure of the eyeball. However, that theory was not given much credence by mainstream eye doctors. The main assumption was always that vision problems can't be prevented or healed. So we were simply trained to measure the problem, compare it to a standard of normal operation, and then prescribe the appropriate lenses to correct it.

The psychological aspects of vision were also hardly mentioned. Yet we've seen that vision is our most important sense, the helm of our neurological network. What we see profoundly influences our mental/emotional state and vice versa, but you would never know that by what I learned in school!

Like most other optometrists, I was trained to administer the twenty-one-point vision examination - a comprehensive series of specialized vision tests, including the subjective and objective methods described earlier. This procedure measures almost every aspect of the visual process - in isolation-and then analyzes their relationships to one another. In real life I found that not even this battery of tests was able to evaluate true vision, the integrated system of how we really see in everyday life. The individual parts never seemed to add up to the whole person. However, in practice, the full twenty-one-point procedure is rarely performed anyway. So most of the time the eye doctor is only measuring a tiny portion of the patient's eyesight, which in turn is only one small aspect of his vision.

My Story

Every afternoon, around the time parents were picking their children up from school, there was a slow period in the office. I decided to use this time for my experiment. We had a vision therapy room where we worked with children who had visually-related learning problems. I decided to go in there every afternoon and take my glasses off for a while, just to see what would happen. The first day I sat down, removed my glasses and placed them on the table next to the chair. Then I just sat there and looked around. Nothing seemed to be happening. As I was sitting there, my right hand very quietly reached over, grabbed my glasses, and put them back on my face! I didn't even realize what I was doing. Before I knew it, I was back working in the office, as usual.

The same thing happened the next day and the day after that. Every day I would go into the room, remove my glasses, and, after a few minutes, unconsciously slip them back on. After several days of this, I noticed an uneasy, anxious feeling that seemed to arise just before I reached for my glasses. I tried to wait a little longer, past the point when I noticed the discomfort. The longer I waited, the more uneasy I became. The uneasiness turned into anxiety. The anxiety turned into fear. The fear turned into other emotions - sadness, anger, or feeling out of control. The longer I kept my glasses off, the more feelings would surface. As soon as I put them back on, the feelings disappeared. Trying to make sense of this, I vaguely wondered if I could be using my glasses to modify my emotional state, just as an alcoholic uses alcohol. This was my first inkling of just how addictive those little lenses are.

One day, after my glasses had been off for about fifteen minutes, I was wondering how merely removing a pair of corrective lenses could create such powerful emotions. Then it dawned on me that I had it backward: the glasses were masking my awareness of the uncomfortable feelings. These feelings, then, must be aspects of my life that I couldn't bear to see. I had blurred them out and then unknowingly buried them by wearing glasses. The longer I kept my glasses off, the more they would keep surfacing. This theory fitted my experience, but could it be possible? None of my teachers in optometry school had mentioned any connection between vision and emotions.

As I sat with my glasses off a few days later, I looked up from my chair and glanced at the eye chart at the other end of the room. It looked different somehow. Then I realized that I was clearly seeing the 20/80 and 20/70 letters, which are about half the size of the 20/200 letters - the best I'd been able to see in years! I couldn't believe it. I was so excited! I couldn't wait to share the miraculous news with my colleagues. I said to one of them, "I've been doing this experiment, and my vision is twice as good as before!" He gave me a strange look and said, "That's just blur interpretation", as if to say, "How could you be so naive?" All the other optometrists whom I shared this experience with responded in the same way. I felt like a child who had been slapped in the face. They didn't even want to hear about the experiment. After all, I didn't have a control group or a statistically significant study - I was just recording my own experiences.

I continued anyway, slowly extending the time that I would sit there, and my vision just seemed to get better and better. The longer I kept my glasses off, the more clearly I could see. Eventually I decided to reexamine my prescription. After all, if the vision tests could measure eyesight that was deteriorating, they should also be able to measure eyesight that was improving. If this experience was real, and not just a figment of my imagination, my prescription should be measurably weaker.

I sat myself down in the examination chair and placed that large instrument in front of my face. I did the complete series of tests on myself, and it was very enlightening. For the first time I asked myself that famous question, "Which is better, number one or number two?" How confusing it was to be both the patient and the doctor at the same time!

It also seemed strange that this large optical instrument was totally blocking my visual field. I knew that the eyes process visual information both centrally and peripherally. Central vision is whatever we are focusing on; it perceives the details and colors of the stationary objects in our central focus. Our central vision is primarily active during the day, as it works best under high levels of illumination. Peripheral vision enables us to perceive shapes and movement. It scans the objects out to our sides around our central focus. We use peripheral vision at all times, and it is our primary form of perception in the dark, under the lower light levels of nighttime.

Yet here I was in a totally dark room, where I should be using my peripheral vision, but it was being totally blocked by a large optical instrument. I realized that my prescription was being based on my confused responses to a series of questions that just didn't feel right. My guts kept trying to tell me that this whole setup just didn't make sense.

Despite this sense of disorientation, when the exam was completed, I found that my prescription actually was weaker than before.

Even though I didn't like wearing glasses, I was so thrilled about the weaker prescription that I couldn't wait to get my new lenses. In the meantime, I continued to wear my old lenses less often - whenever I noticed that I didn't really need them, I would take them off.

Then the new lenses arrived and I put them on - and something very unexpected happened. As soon as I put the frames over my face, it felt as if my whole being was shrinking inward. My eyes felt very tight, almost painfully so. My awareness seemed to be pulled inside, and the vital energy flowing through my solar plexus seemed suddenly cut off. What in the world was going on?

The Straitjacket of Glasses

Since I hadn't been wearing my glasses as much, when I suddenly put them on again, I felt a dramatic shift in my perception. The same narrowing and tightening effect actually occurs every time we put on corrective lenses, but we usually become so accustomed to it that we stop noticing it. You may remember a similar feeling the first time you put on a pair of lenses or even when you got a stronger palr of lenses. It's the same part of your awareness that says, "Gee, this feels funny". We usually suppress our perception of that discomfort because we trust our doctor's words: "Don't worry you'll get used to it".

How did putting on a pair of lenses create this feeling of constriction? I was familiar with studies which indicated that the two aspects of vision weren't simply about seeing straight ahead and seeing out to the side.[8] Central vision, on which all the routine tests are focused, is the aspect of our mind's eye that looks analytically, that scrutinizes the details of our world. Peripheral vision, which is rarely examined unless pathology is suspected, is the aspect of our mind's eye that feels the world as a whole. This global perspective enables it to continuously scan the entire range of our perceptive field and decide what to bring into focus next.

The peripheral aspect of our vision is significantly reduced when we wear glasses. Remember how the optometrist puts that little ruler across your nose? She is measuring the distance between your pupils so that the optician can place the exact prescription directly over the center of each eye. If you examine your glasses carefully, you may be able to locate this optical center. The problem with this standard lens design is that it doesn't take into account the fact that your eyes are in constant motion. Your prescription actually changes every time your eyes look away from the optical center. Your eye doctor doesn't mention this, because her training gave her the impression that it wasn't important.

How important is it? When you look through the full prescription at the exact center of your glasses, you can discriminate very well. You can see all the details as if you're looking through a microscope or a telescope. As soon as your eyes move right, left, up, or down - anywhere other than straight ahead - your prescription shifts and the details begin to lose their focus. A prismatic effect is created that distorts the clarity of your vision. Your eyes respond to this distortion by repeatedly returning to center and eventually deciding to stay there.

By encouraging us to only look straight ahead, those glasses become a highly effective feedback tool that trains the eyes to remain in one position - they literally teach us to view reality through a single fixed point of view. However, the part of our vision that looks straight ahead only knows how to analyze and discriminate. The more we wear our glasses, the more we learn to judge our world rather than feel it, the more we lose our innate ability to sense its wholeness.

Notes and References

1. Lorch Ingrid. Total Vision. East West. April 1990.
2. Leviton Richard. Seven Steps to Better Vision. 1981.
3. Allen James H. May's Diseases of the Eye. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 24th Edition. 1968.
4. Gottlieb Raymond L. Neuropsychology of Myopia. Journal of Optometric Vision Development 13(1): 3-27. March 1982.
5. Data from Dawkins Hazel, Edelman Ellis and Forkiotis Constantine. Suddenly Successful: How Behavioral Optometry Helps You Overcome Learning, Health, and Behavior Problems. 84-86. 1990.
6. Grosvenor Theodore. The Results of Myopia Control Studies Have Not Been Encouraging. Journal of Behavioral Optometry. 4(1): 17-19.
7. Bates William. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses. New York: Central Fixation Publishing. 1920.
8. Marrone Marie A. Peripheral Awareness. Journal of Behavioral Optometry 2(1): 7-11.

Edited extract from Take Off Your Glasses and See by Jacob Liberman, OD PhD.
Published by Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-517-88604-9. 1995.


  1. Arbra Tawwab said..

    I just read this article and curious to know if Dr. Liberman has any exercises he could recommend to do to strengthen your eyes. I was just getting ready to schedule laser surgery for cataracts. I would prefer to heal my sight. I spend a lot of time on the computer and notice my site getting worse. But, as of today, I will start taking my glasses off more often.

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About Jacob Liberman

Jacob Liberman OD PhD

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