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How to See Straighter by Crossing Your Eyes

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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 trick

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)

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Tobi June 29, 2011 at 12:27 am

First one to comment!

Another great post! I’m going to try going cross eyed every time I’m people greeting at Walmart! Once of the worst jobs ever. I’m hoping it’ll also make it so I don’t cry in stressful situations all the time… which is really embarrassing. Thank you for this David, it’s got me interested in Harding again. I’ll go check that out.

David June 29, 2011 at 6:50 am

I have found it works best when your role is a passive one, and for moments that are acutely unbearable in some way. It might be hard to really withdraw when you have responsibilities in those moments. But it’s worth a try to see what happens. Practicing Harding’s exercises and reading his work would probably be a lot more effective for situations in which you have to interact and do things.

Célia (@peace) June 29, 2011 at 4:09 am

That’s really interesting. My way of coping with scary movies is to detach myself mentally from the story and tell myself it’s just a film and what is happening in it is not happening to me, I’m safe. Basically I stop myself to really engage in it and I got really good at it over the years. I guess your cross eyed trick is a good physical trigger to detach yourself mentally from something you don’t want to experience; it gives you that space to choose how you want to react emotionally.

David June 29, 2011 at 6:51 am

This accomplishes the same thing in my experience, except you don’t have to think. It draws you right out of the emotional stream of the movie.

Antony June 29, 2011 at 4:59 am

I have a somewhat similar way of taking in the world that allows me the space to assimilate what is around me from a different perspective that the usual “adult” driven/bored place that is so easy to drop into.

I call this “soft eyes”.
We tend to place the source of our vision some place just behind the bridge of the nose.
Allow your vision to reside at the back of your skull and un-focus your eyes ever so slightly.
Along with this, it often happens that my breathing becomes deeper, steadier and more cyclical.
I feel slightly detached – “in this world but not of this world” – and more able to drop the instant judgements that come from being (overtly) focused on those people and events around me.
Life becomes a pleasure, not threatening.

David June 29, 2011 at 7:01 am

I do something like this too, and that nonjudgmental effect is what I’m really getting at here.

Douglas Harding is right up your alley, if you haven’t check him out yet. He developed a method of cultivating that deeper sense of first-person interaction with the world. The absence of judgment is what happens when you shift from looking out of the typical third-person mental perspective of yourself (looking at the world from “two holes in an eight-inch meatball” as he says) and seeing the world from a true first-person perspective. It’s fascinating and there’s no author I’d recommend more highly. Judgments still appear, but they’re just parts of the scenery (like all thoughts are anyway) and they are easy to take or leave.

I’ve written more about him here.

That post is the third of seven in a series about this, but it’s the most explicit.

marylin June 29, 2011 at 5:41 am

I used to love scary movies, but they were the kind they you could actually get over. When I was a little girl (in the 60’s!), Frankenstein and Dracula where about as scary as it got and there was a level of fun in the fear or anticipation of it. There are great scary horror films out there but there are recent horror films that focus on the level of wound infliction. I don’t think we should be watching “entertainment” like that anyway. Being older, I refuse to watch such movies as I refuse to be in situations that give me a certain level of discomfort. Having said that, I realize that everyday life can make one wish to be cross eyed, permanently. Detachment isn’t always possible and focus is often crucial. I have learned to ignore irrelevantness, it was difficult but it is necassary. I admire what you have to say David and your blog has lightened up a few aspects I have been dealing with. For such a young guy, you write with insight and depth. You should write that book you know.

David June 29, 2011 at 7:04 am

Yeah these days some of them are stray from “scary” into “mean”.

The cross-eyed technique is essentially a way of restoring perspective for a moment, and I think there’s nothing better for dealing with fear and aversion than perspective.

CK June 29, 2011 at 7:02 am

The danger in this is that often, we can get so cross-eyes as to stop caring about unpleasant things that we SHOULD care about. A litany of examples: atrocities against humanity, like Rwanda, or Bosnia – it’s someone else’s country. Against another traveller on your public bus, who’s being harrassed by a fellow passenger – it happened to me, in Toronto, I was being physically intimidated, and the entire bus looked away with the exception of one man. A child being inordinately slapped in a supermarket – better not interfere, it’s someone else’s kid. I get your point about ceasing to be reactive, but how much of what you don’t like should you tune out, until it begins to change who you are — as a human being?

David June 29, 2011 at 7:10 am

Hmm, nowhere did I recommend you live your live tuned out from reality, or refuse to help people when they need help. In fact this exercise is all about tuning back into your present reality when you’ve become lost in thought and emotion. I believe I said something about “acting deliberately when warranted.”

Colleen June 29, 2011 at 9:04 am

So, are you talking about disconnecting one’s inner observer or ‘watchman’ in order to connect with your sensory experiences – being in the moment and all that? I’ve found it hard to do that without a little ‘herbal’ assistance. My watchman demands a front row seat, and keeps up a constant critical analysis of all my interactions and experiences. Even though it’s not the same sort of concept at all, I always think of the movie “Men in Black,” where a guy’s skull opens up to reveal a tiny alien seated at the controls, who’s been looking out through the man’s eyes. I probably need to read Harding, too. By the way, don’t stereotype Baby Boomers too awful much – plenty of us are computer literate. Even my 82-year-old dad emails back and forth with all his Depression era elderly friends.

Joy Langtry June 29, 2011 at 10:56 am

Hee hee – David’s usually so ageless, but I felt a twinge there, too. The thing is, there is a group of us (baby boomers) that really do that, just as there is a group that doesn’t.

David July 3, 2011 at 2:59 pm

No, not disconnecting the “watchman” (so to speak.) But to snap out of the symbol-oriented experience we normally have, and remember that it’s just you and a bunch of sense information. By blurring the visual part, it’s easy to see that the definite objects in life are assembled mentally from contiguous sense data, they are not separate in themselves. Our emotional reactions hinge on the recognition of symbols, so blurring your eyes keeps the sense data present but you don’t get overwhelmed by the instantaneous reaction to symbols that is the typical way to assess your surroundings.

I’m a bit confused by the reaction to the baby boomers remark. I thought it was pretty clear I wasn’t talking about every member of the generation. I needed a familiar archetype to make the point. Don’t be offended people!

Melody | Deliberate Receiving June 29, 2011 at 1:36 pm

David, this is excellent. You’ve found a way to take your mind out reaction mode and observe the process (rather than being part of it). That’s fantastic. And when you take your focus off of whatever was causing your reaction, the reaction stops. What a simple yet eloquent way to demonstrate that all our power is in what we focus on (and what an enormous amount of power it is…).

Great post!

David July 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm

That’s pretty much what it amounts to, yes. Objects (the thought-defined symbols we make out of what we see) get obliterated when you blur your eyes.

Andrew Olson June 29, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Hey David, this is a great concent, and I’m definifely in agreement about horror movies – they’re terrible. I’ve never actually been ‘scared’ during one, but they’re super boring and poorly made.

Joy June 29, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Hi David,
I cannot watch horror movies even though I know they are not “real”, it allows Fear to be present front and center for me….
My first thought is that blurring my vision means I am releasing clarity…fine at the movies and other instances that you suggest..However, now when I am speaking at an engagement, I will be wondering if anyone is crossing their eyes.. *grin*

Alyanah June 30, 2011 at 1:05 pm

This is pretty good advise for poeple who are really scared and those hwo have nightmares after watching horror movies. But I am an avid horror movie fanatic. What I do is, I only watch horror movies in the day time, not in the night time and it works pretty well for me. And another thing, don’t watch it alone. Watch it with a group of friends so that while watching you can joke aroun it. That can put your mind out of it and just remember how you had a good time with your friends.

David July 3, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Well this post isn’t really about horror movies. It works for any experience that you are averse to in which you play a passive role.

Alyanah July 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Thanks for the post David. I think this can help me. I am at a point right aht wont I am really scared of the future and I am now mkaing stupid mistakes which is the effect of me being scared. Something happened a month ago that I wasn’t reday for, well maybe that is life anyways. But I hope I will be okay and will overcome this weakness. =(

Alyanah July 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm

by the way, sorry for the typo. I really tend to type fast, me being a transcriptionist.LOL I don’t look at the words 1 by 1. Sorry again David.

Brenda June 30, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Good writing here, son shine, despite the hackneyed ageist example. I saw The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs only because I’d read the books and that’s about the extent of my involvement with horror. But my vision is mostly a blur whether I have my one contact on or not. Close to the computer screen with no lenses on is where I find my clearest vision. Yes, with some exceptions, much of what we experience is just a programmed response to what we see and hear, which is why deliberately detaching from stale views and taking on new views can be refreshing.

Jim July 1, 2011 at 5:37 am

Hi David
It’s interesting, if you really investigate how thought and perspective works, you may find that one stays in a regular state of seeing reality clearly without the stories clouding perception.

Michael July 2, 2011 at 2:37 am

Have used this technique for quite a long while now…glad I ain’t the only one who ‘gets’ this :D

David July 3, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Good to hear someone has found this out on their own. I’d be shocked if I was the first person to have discovered this.

Matt R July 2, 2011 at 4:30 am

Great way of putting it. Our vision is just what we’re focusing on. We could change that as needed.

Sibyl Chavis July 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm

David: I thought this post was great and had such a powerful message. I really appreciated the analogy you made to real life and it being “soup” anyway. I think that is such a great insight because so often we let the things that happen to us in life just suck us in. But, if we can look at them from the right perspective and understand that they are not a constant, we really can manage through situations so much better. Really great message and post.

David July 3, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Hi Sibyl. I think you picked out the most important concept here: the soup. Our experience is always soup — it surrounds us completely, and while it has features it is ultimately seamless and can be regarded as one thing. It never lasts in its current state, it is always there, everything that can be perceived is a part of that one thing, and you are whatever is watching it.

marc van der Linden July 4, 2011 at 1:00 am

Interesting idea! When I’m in the middle of an scary moment, I tend to not look at all by closing my eyes or looking in another direction. But in that way it can happen I miss the whole experience. With your blurring technique it would be possible to stay in the experience with the less intimidating third person perspective. I will give it a try …

Thanks for sharing!

Kiron July 6, 2011 at 11:27 pm

I’ve used this exact trick my entire life when people are trying to make me laugh and I’m trying to be ‘uncrackable,’ or when people are trying to gross me out (horror movies were never an issue, I’ve never had friends who liked them). I suppose the first is kind of a backwards use, to avoid happiness rather than to avoid terror, although whether or not laughter and happiness are the same thing is debatable.
I love hearing about other people’s methods of interacting with reality, and there’s something comforting about hearing someone else describe something that I actually understand.

nickyO July 7, 2011 at 6:22 am

Hi David,
I’m glad this little trick works for you. I like the idea on symbolic level too. For me, it’s not going to work. I cross my eyes and I see double not truly blurred and I get headache and people can see my eyes cross.

I’m going to have to come up with my own useful way to apply the underlying idea. Hmmm, maybe I’ll look at people’s foreheads or look past people’s shoulders or find some “non-situation” focal point.

In meetings I tend to doodle and when people call me out about it, I tell them I’ve read studies that show that doodling helps people concentrate (which is true by the way).

Katie July 9, 2011 at 8:32 pm

It’s interesting that you find blurring your vision helps you disconnect, because my technique is to do the opposite. If I find myself in an unpleasant situation I choose a detail and focus on it intensely, which distracts me from the symbols I am reacting to. If someone is angry with me, I notice that he needs a shave, or during a scary movie I try to figure out how they made the props. In a situation I find boring I imagine that I am someplace completely new to me and open myself to the full experience instead of trying to pull away. I try to imagine that toddler’s experience.

kaBinks July 9, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Interesting exercise. I wonder if it would forestall a panic attack. I’ll try it out.

shane February 2, 2013 at 7:29 am

Excellent study. One issue i have with crossing my eyes is that there is an evident physical change if you look closely in the mirror. I mean my eyelids are microtwitching. With the lost of symbols it makes for an interesting speed read. Ive flipped through plenty of self help books while being cross eyed, just holding the page down button all the way through although i think it works better when you take ome time. I suppose i have a question to verify like is crossing your eyes a technique in speed reading. Oh yeah, i have heard speed reading to be called a myth but if you try it you might feel different.

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