The Eyes Have It
Ways of Seeing Differently
by Jean McClelland, MAmSAT
It is common for beginning performers to have intense performance anxiety. Well-meaning teachers often advise students to look at the exit sign at the back of the auditorium as they perform to help “calm the nerves.” Dutifully, students stare, looking at times like the proverbial deer in the headlights, only to find themselves still at the mercy of their stage fright.
There is a grain of truth in this strategy; vision does hold one of the keys to mitigating stress, but only when we are guided in understanding how to see. Martial arts practices speak to this, and more recently, Stanford neurobiologist, Andrew Huberman, has focused his research on how neuronal pathways respond to visual threats.
In his The Book of Five Rings, 17th century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi describes two ways of seeing: Ken and Kan. Ken is surface observation and Kan sees into the essence of things. Kan is “soft focus” and is the favored visual state to be in to counter an opponent. In Huberman’s research, he observed that when people are under threat (such as stage fright), their pupils dilate, and vision narrows. It is like being in portrait mode on one’s iPhone. But when Musashi’s so-called soft focus is practiced, it is like taking a photo in landscape mode. We can see panoramically and peripherally. This way of seeing creates a powerful parasympathetic nervous system response which calms our agitated state.
Experimenting with different ways of seeing can be revelatory. One way is to develop artist’s eyes which allow objects to come into our field of vision rather than looking out and “trying to see.” This takes practice, but there is power in allowing. When we allow images to come to us, they come alive. This is how artists paint a still life so that it breathes for the viewer. Allowing a most mundane object to come forth and “speak” to us is wonderfully nourishing. It becomes organic, and the play of light and shadow can be seen within it. Moreover, this practice encourages presence and a quieting of the mind, opening the way for the essence of the object to be seen, not just the object itself.
Another visual practice is to focus on a vista far in the distance while walking, allowing it to come closer with each step. It will lead to instantly feeling enlivened and joyful, and perhaps even wondering if, somehow, X-ray vision has been acquired. This is Kan or what Huberman calls “optic flow.” Truly, when we are allowing and present, we can see forever.Jean McClelland, MAmSAT, is a senior teacher of the Alexander Technique and teaches voice and Alexander Technique in the MFA acting program at Columbia University. For more information, visit JeanMcClellandVoice.com.