Then she started screaming, and that’s when I asked myself what I was doing there at all. It was someone else’s idea, but it was either that or stay home Saturday night.
Horror movies were never my choice. These days I don’t like them because they’re just not very good movies. But when I was a kid, before I became preoccupied with their vacuous production values, I didn’t like them because they scared me.
Back then too, I would never see a horror movie out of my own volition. But you know how peer pressure and sleepover politics work when you’re a pre-teen. You do things you don’t really want to do, and I’d occasionally end up in front of one.
“People like to be scared,” was the stock answer whenever I’d ask why the hell anybody would voluntarily sit through something like Slumber Party Massacre II, but I don’t ever remember enjoying being scared, at least not then.
So in those early years, before I lost my ability to lose any part of myself in a bad movie, those occasions were almost guaranteed to be unpleasant experiences. But eventually I figured out a cure.
It was so simple, and it worked for so many other unpleasant bits in life. Enduring horror movies effortlessly was the least of it. Later I would use it to get through boring speeches without looking at my watch, sit through embarrassing moments (think marriage proposals at public sporting events) without cringing, and eventually to discover who I really was and what it really means to be human. But I’ll get to that.
The technique didn’t come to me right away, it evolved in a couple stages.
The most obvious way to get through a scary movie was to do your best not to watch it. Any time spent getting Tahiti Treat from the fridge, or making sarcastic remarks (until you get shushed) was time not spent actually watching the movie. But this technique isn’t always possible, tends to annoy others, and it’s pretty obvious to other people what you’re trying to do.
So one time, I happened to be wearing a baseball cap, and I put it low enough on my head so that the beak of the hat drooped over half the screen. It still looked like I was watching it fearlessly, but I was only seeing people’s legs, which wasn’t scary at all. I didn’t always block the nasty bits of the image, because sometimes a butcher-knifed delivery boy would drop into view, but it still broke the effect of the movie almost completely. By seeing only half the screen, only about 10% of the scariness made it through to me. Totally manageable.
But I didn’t always have a hat, and it still would probably look pretty conspicuous to anybody who bothered to look. Then one day it occurred to me — a way to watch the movie without being affected by watching it.
I would go ahead and watch the movie, and whenever I was getting a bit freaked out, I would cross my eyes just slightly enough to blur the scene, and the scariness was gone, instantly. It’s like it sucked me right out of the psycho-clown world and back into the unthreatening basics of the moment: an unlit living room with some other kids, watching a low-brow movie for kicks.
While focusing on the movie, awareness of my actual surroundings almost disappeared completely, which is actually the point, if you’re watching a movie you want to watch. But when you’re stuck in a situation where you have to endure something that creates an unpleasant mental experience, you don’t want to be lost in it. You don’t want to engage it with your thoughts or emotions.
It wasn’t long before I found myself doing this as a reflex during other unpleasant scenes in life. A painfully bad convocation speech. A profane and obnoxious cell phone conversation across from me on the bus. An argument ahead of me in the queue, between an unreasonable customer and an unreasonable employee.
The interesting thing is that for many of these situations, it was not the visual element that was the unpleasant part. My hearing didn’t blur along with my vision, I could still listen attentively to their grating nonsense, if I wanted. But blurring my eyes for a moment still made it easy not to react to it. I had a choice whether to get my feelings involved with it, and so I felt no need to get away from it, to tell the speaker off in my head, or to shut him up.
You may be thinking it’s easy to not get emotionally involved in situations like that, but our brains do it almost automatically. Could you watch five minutes of Jerry Springer without reacting internally?
Why it works
Something interesting happens when you let your eyes go unfocused like that. The world becomes an impersonal collage of sounds, colors and shapes again, like it was when you were born, and those shapes lose most of their ability to make you react.
See, the reason the world is so damn troublesome is because we human beings have a tendency to fragment it into categories and symbols. After we’ve established symbols for most categories of shapes and patterns, we primarily experience the world as a parade of those symbols — different arrangements of something we’ve seen before.
Essentially, the eye-crossing technique is a quick way of stepping out of that hyper-aggressive “association mode” that keeps us locked in reactivity. It’s not to “hide” from the movie. I don’t recommend trying to keep it up the whole way through though, not even for minutes on end. It’s enough just to use it to “duck out” for a bit here and there.
Toddlers haven’t yet accumulated a symbolic knowledge of the world and so they’re fascinated by everything. Every bug, every bird. A typical day for an adult contains just as much to see as a toddler’s, but our minds have everything tagged and bagged already, and so it’s far easier to ignore, dismiss, reduce, and take it all for granted. Instead of a procession of new characters every day, we see another weary bus driver, another tattooed squeegee kid, another stiff-suited businessman, each one something we’ve seen hundreds of times before, even though we’ve probably never seen any of those people before in our lives.
All that’s ever coming into your awareness is a stream of sensations and thoughts. The analytical part of our brain, in its ceaseless effort to organize and categorize, draws lines between different parts of this stream. It reduces the world to a collection of familiar, discernible objects. It relates those objects to experiences you’ve had with similar objects, and soon those objects become symbols of those experiences and feelings.
These symbols drive most of our emotions, because we don’t have to pause and make a careful assessment of whether something has value to us, or danger to us, because we have already reacted to what it symbolizes.
If your mind identifies a shape or sound that symbolizes fear or terror, then that shape or sound appears to you as if it actually is intrinsically fearsome or terrifying. You react mentally, and this reaction often takes the form of stress of some kind: fear, embarrassment or angst. This reaction happens without your permission, and there is normally nothing to disrupt it.
If you’ve ever seen a grown man leap up from his deck chair to run from a bee, then you’ve seen this phenomenon at its best. The man doesn’t see a black and yellow insect, he sees pain.
Another example you might be familiar with is members of the baby boomer generation who have a phobia of computers. They’re always afraid they’re going to “wreck something” and so they get their teenage children to negotiate what they see as a genuinely hazardous operation every time they need to do something.
Now there’s nothing about the computer that presents any real danger, but to the computer-phobe it symbolizes certain bad experiences: the frustration of closing an application they don’t know how to reopen, the hopelessness of trying to find the pictures they just uploaded, the uncertainty of clicking “OK” or “Cancel” to some pop-up message they don’t understand. These are all somewhat unpleasant memories, and so their brain reduces any subsequent appearance of a computer to that of a menacing object. An encounter with a computer becomes an encounter with a symbol of those same bad feelings.
The Real Show
The value in doing this isn’t really to endure dry valedictory addresses or tough your way through The Shining, though it is definitely useful for that. There is a much bigger application for this technique.
It is an experiential demonstration that all the ups and downs in life — all things that can possibly happen –are really just reactions to configurations of sounds, shapes and feelings. It’s all just content, always renewing itself, always turning over in front of us. If we could just stay aware of that, interacting deliberately where warranted but without getting taken in by the torrent, we could spare ourselves so much suffering.
If you do this you’ll notice that even the parts of your experience you normally think of as you — namely your hands and lower body — also blur like everything else. All experience, even the experience of your own body and your own thoughts, appears as a complex but unified “soup” of sensations.
Watching a difficult moment through blurred eyes is a handy way to see that nothing is constant about that soup except whatever it is that’s observing it. The way we normally see, the soup gets sliced up quite readily by the mind into discrete objects that are not a part of each other. And it reduces you to an object just as readily, to a concept of yourself: small, finite, and always on its way to its grave. When your eyes go blurry, the truth becomes apparent: it’s always “soup” anyway, no matter what arbitrary lines we project on it.
This exercise is so powerful because it takes your mind right out of its nearly perpetual game of reacting to symbols instead of sensations, and that’s where all human suffering lies, including the greatest travesty of all: reducing yourself to a thing in your mind. A bag of meat that walks and talks.
This is a point I beat to death on Raptitude but it’s so useful to understand: most of what we experience is just what we think about what we experience. It’s one thing to recognize that as a concept, and it’s something else entirely to experience it.
Now, I’m not saying that going cross-eyed during Pet Semetary is necessarily going to turn your world upside-down. It might not do anything for you, except make it easier to take certain grating experiences.
But for me it reminds me (or rather, shows me) that all I could possibly be is whatever space it is in which sensations and thoughts happen.
The normal way of operating is to picture yourself mentally, in the third person, as an object among other objects, constantly fighting to arrange itself favorably among those objects. The much more empowering — and in my opinion — more accurate model is that of yourself as The Subject that experiences all objects.
And even Freddie Kruger is no match for that. As long as you stay awake, that is.
Photo by Patrick Cain (no relation)