20/20 vision is a term used to describe visual acuity, or the clarity and sharpness of vision measured at a distance of 20 feet. There are many reasons our vision may be impaired, including refractive errors like nearsightedness and farsightedness, neurological disorders and eye injury or disease. Since we receive up to 80% of our impressions through our eyes, when our vision is impaired in some way we are challenged to rely on our other senses to gain information about our environment.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a workshop led by author Leif Hallberg entitled: “Creating Nature and Sensory-Rich Equine Experiences” at the Natural Lifemanship Conference in Brenham, Texas. In one of the exercises, we took turns being blindfolded while a partner guided us through a series of stations involving all of our senses besides sight. I immediately felt the discomfort of navigating an unfamiliar environment without the benefit of visual input. The exercise took place in a pasture and at first the uneven terrain caused me to tentatively shuffle my feet to avoid falling. As I gained confidence in both my partner Julia’s trustworthiness to guide me and the ability of my ankles to adjust to the dips and rises in the ground, I began moving more confidently forward. At one station, Julia gave me a bowl of cut up fruits and vegetables to identify first through touch and smell and lastly through taste. One of the food items smelled and felt like a piece of pineapple, but the shape seemed wrong – I typically cut pineapple into chunks, and this was more like a thin wafer. Although it felt and smelled like a pineapple, my brain rejected that assessment until I actually tasted it, and realized it truly was a thin slice of pineapple. I marveled that despite so much sensory input pointing towards the fact of this being a piece of pineapple, because it did not fit my expectation in one category, it cast doubt on my ability to identify it.
At another station, I was invited to dip my fingers into bowls of finger paint and create a picture on white butcher paper taped to a table. I was hesitant at first; I identify myself as someone who is not creative or capable when it comes to art. When my children were young they loved to draw and would ask me to draw with them, which despite my best efforts inevitably ended with them asking, “what’s that?” even though it was perfectly obvious to me that I had drawn a horse, or dog or house. I was never the favored partner for a game of Pictionary (although I am a fierce opponent in any game involving words like Scrabble or Boggle!) However, I soon realized that not being able to see the picture I was creating with the finger paints freed me up to dip and draw with abandon, totally focused on the tactile sensations of the smooth, rich texture of the paints and their soft, slightly cool feel on my fingers. I didn’t worry about which colors to use or how the lines and shapes I was making on the page would look, but focused instead on how it felt to swirl and sweep my fingers into the paint and onto the paper. When I later saw the finished image, instead of seeing a “mess,” I remembered how enjoyable it was to create it. It was about the experience, not the final outcome for a change.
My favorite experience from that workshop involved an unexpected encounter with a horse that wandered into the area where the stations were set up. Julia was guiding me to the next table when I heard a scrunching sound in the grass and sensed a large, warm presence off to my left and asked her if we were near a horse. She affirmed that we were. I held out my hand to see if the horse would approach and let me touch him. To my delight, I felt a warm breath on my fingers, then bristly whiskers before the horse pressed his soft nose into my outstretched palm. It seemed as though time stood still as I felt what can only be described as a child-like delight that the horse was willing to offer me connection in that moment. I stood quietly transfixed as the horse snuffled my hand for what was probably a few seconds but felt much longer before walking on past. As I reflected on this encounter afterwards, I marveled at the unique sense of mindful presence that characterized this moment. I am privileged to work with horses almost every day. I cannot begin to guess the number of times a horse’s nose has touched my hand. Although I always enjoy that sensation, I see the horse’s nose moving towards my palm and my eyes interpret this as one experience. However, when I was not sighted, I experienced this in several separate stages: first noticing the presence of the horse through feeling its energy in my body when he came close, then feeling the warmth of his breath as he drew near, then the bristly sensation of his whiskers on my skin, before the actual press of his nose against my palm as he lowered his nose to meet my hand. My other senses of hearing, smell, and touch were heightened when I lost the ability to rely on my sight to give me information about my environment. I had to rely on my ears, nose and skin to relay information I typically rely on my eyes to communicate, and it forced me to slow down and be mindful in ways that intensified and heightened my experience of each moment.
I was fascinated by the ways my brain attempted to categorize information into already existing structures and beliefs instead of being open and curious about what was actually transpiring. How often have I missed the truth in favor of my biases? How often have deep, well traveled neural pathways in my brain hijacked my experience of the present by projecting outcomes from the past instead? This experience challenged me to question my interpretations and stop relying on the assumptions I quickly make based on what I “see” in favor of gathering more information through my other senses, including my central nervous system. We are born wired for connection, but relational trauma can create a conflict within us as we start to wire around strategies of self-protection while still seeking that connection so vital to our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. These coping strategies can cause us to miss opportunities for healthy connection due to the attachment wounds we bear that color what we “see” in our interactions with others.
Let’s make 2020 the year that we clarify our vision of ourselves, others, and our environment by slowing down, refusing to accept the self-fulfilling prophecies created by past traumas and challenging ourselves to gather information using ALL of our senses to accurately interpret the truth of each moment, being open and curious to new sensations, sounds, smells, and yes, sights. We do not have to give up using our eyes but stop relying only solely on their input at the expense of the richness our other senses bring to our world. 20/20 vision is considered “perfect eyesight.” Ironically, it turns out that we need more than our eyes to “perfectly and truly see.”