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Seeing in the Dark

By Susan Beal

I started wearing glasses when I was in fourth grade. At first I was excited—they were something new, and it was fun to see so clearly! But after a while I started to resent how they split the world into things I could see well within a little oval frame, and things outside the oval that were blurry. I learned to feel anxious without glasses, dependent on them to make the outer world clear to me.

In my teens, I became interested in vegetarianism, herbology, and various alternative approaches to health and wondered why eyesight seemed like the only part of our well-being that we couldn’t heal. I took a number of natural vision improvement programs and read various books about it, but I wasn’t able to cure my myopia. In fact, my prescription grew stronger through the years. Even so, I kept thinking there must be a link between the eyes and our overall well-being, a link that might explain why such a big percentage of modern humanity needs corrective lenses.

Not long ago, I went to a weekend course on natural vision improvement, this one based not on nutrition and eye exercises, but on the idea that our eyesight is a direct result of how we think about ourselves and the world as well as what we believe about reality.

The instructor told us that the anatomy of the human eye tells an interesting story about perception and consciousness. Only about 5% of the photoreceptor cells on our retinas—the cones—are devoted to the acuity, color, and detail that characterize daylight vision. The other 95%—the rods—are devoted to night and peripheral vision, to shadows and movement, and they are nearly 1000 times more sensitive than our cones. Our rods, he said, are not only a major part of whole vision, but intimately tied to our subconscious brain activity and the parts of our psyche involved with dreaming, imagination, and non-ordinary reality. In other words, our eyes are superbly designed to see in the dark, both literally and metaphorically, yet we rarely use them that way.

The instructor said one of the most healing things we can do for our vision and our psyches is to spend at least half an hour every day using our eyes in the dark. It takes at least half an hour of darkness before our eyes are dark-adapted and the rods come fully online, so to speak. Meditating or lying in bed with eyes shut doesn’t count. By cultivating night vision we nourish our retinas, he said, and we also nourish the part of our mind that knows and perceives things beyond the conscious, well-lit, everyday world.

Which to me begs the question: what happens when we routinely rely on little more than 5% of our visual capacity? When we don’t take the time to see in the dark, might all kinds of wonders and mysteries we might otherwise perceive become nothing but vague shadows, things to be feared, ignored, or forgotten? For the first time in history, more than half the world’s population is urban. It’s significant for many reasons, not the least of which, to my mind, is that for the first time in the history of the world, most of humanity never experiences true darkness or a night sky black enough to see stars. Even for those of us who live in the country, it’s rare to spend 30 minutes or more awake in the darkness. Most of us keep the lights on until we lie down to go to sleep, and even then many folks have some kind of light in the room, intentionally or not. Given the link between night vision and the subconscious, is it any wonder that the world of dreams, of subtle perceptions, of imagination and realities beyond the physical realm, are dismissed as unreal? And is it any surprise that anxiety, the harbinger of information from the subconscious, is pandemic?

There’s a traditional Scottish poem that goes: “From Ghoulies and Ghosties and long leggedy Beasties and Things that go bump in the Night, May the Good Lord deliver us.” Before electricity, we spent half our lives in darkness. Whether the light and darkness was equally divided each day, as near the equator, or divided up by the season, as toward the poles, we spent many hours awake and seeing in the dark. Perhaps it explains why we also had more tacit acceptance of— as well as more overt fear of—the shadow realms. We couldn’t simply shut out the spectres or scatter our demons by turning on a light. We couldn’t medicate our fear, or dismiss as superstition anything that couldn’t be explained by scientific means.

Similar to the percentage of cones to rods, it’s often said that only about 5% of the activity of our brains is conscious, with the other 95% being unconscious. It’s also supposed that the percentage of ordinary matter in the universe is about 4%. The rest is dark matter and dark energy. To me, there is an interesting pattern here. The conscious mind likes things neat and tidy, black and white, rational and physical. But it turns out those things are only a tiny percentage of what’s out there to know and perceive.

In addition to the lining of rods and cones on the retina, there is an area called the fovea, where the optic nerve connects and there are no rods or cones. It leaves a blind spot in the very center of our vision. In daylight, it’s hardly noticeable. But at night, if you try to look directly at a star, it will disappear, thanks to the blind spot.

As with stars at night, many things are difficult if not impossible to see by looking directly at them. Instead we need to open your vision wide and pay attention to the edges and peripheries, the liminal zones. The vision instructor taught us to stop trying to see accurately or clearly, and instead to try to see panoramically, with a wide perspective instead of a narrow focus. This approach, he assured us, would allow us to see more of what was really out there. He also said to let the light and darkness come into our eyes as if we were letting the world in, rather than staring at the world like a movie screen that is either in focus or not. And good vision is not just about accuracy, color and clarity. There are ambiguities, fuzzy places, shadows and movements we can’t always clearly define.

There is a parallel between approaching this liminal, shadowy boundary of daytime and nighttime perception, and the classic boundary between the everyday, human world and the mutable, shadowy realms of faeries and spirits and the things we have forgotten how to see or might rather not know. It’s reminiscent of dream recall, that moment between dreaming and wakefulness when the memory of a dream can seem as intangible and fragile as a wisp of mist in bright, hot sunlight. Even the memory of inner journeys and meditations can be hard to bring back into normal, daily consciousness, unless written down or recited while one is still between states of mind. As physical beings, we are grounded in a world of duality, of matter and spirit, of shadow and light, of conscious and unconscious. We are the bridges between realms, and we can learn to see beyond that duality, toward the wholeness of the world within and outside us.

It begins by learning to see in the dark.


Views from the Lorian Community publishes essays from a team of volunteer writers expressing individual experiences of a long term, committed practice of Incarnational Spirituality (and the general principles shaping such a practice.) Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or thoughts of any other person in Lorian or of Lorian as a whole. If you would like to subscribe, please visit our website and click on Follow Our Blog Via Email. Or email the editor:drenag@lorian.org