Preventing Near-Sightedness

In a companion Resources for Recovering Resilience post (The Human Age – the World Shaped by Us), I mention Diane Ackerman’s report that Americans are becoming increasingly near-sighted because we spend more time looking at the small screens of our digital devices than we used to and less time looking at the far horizon where our brain would process visual images differently. For years I’ve been teaching workshop participants an exercise in “belly botany,” reprinted below from my book Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being.

Exercise: Belly Botany

Years ago I was hiking in the back-country of Yosemite National Park, seeking new landscapes to get a new perspective on some old problems. Seven miles along the trail, I came upon a park ranger with a small group of hikers sprawled out on the ground, each of them completely absorbed in observing one square foot of ground from a height of six inches. Each person was simply focusing attention on everything he or she could see in that square -plants, lichens, bugs – everything that was happening in it for five minutes. The ranger called this an exercise in “belly botany.”

I was astonished when I tried it myself. I saw life, death, stillness, aggression, beauty, all on a tiny scale. I was even more astonished when I looked up again at the 8,000 foot peaks all around us. My view exploded exponentially – every square foot of these hundreds of square miles of wilderness was full of the things I had been present to in my small belly botany patch. This quantum shift from micro to macro scales can quickly shift our view of our place in the larger scheme of things and open our minds to possibilities not thought of before. You can try this exercise almost anywhere.

Exercise: Using Belly Botany to Shift Perspectives

1. Find a one-square-foot patch on a favorite beach, in a meadow, in a forest, in your own back yard, in a flowerbox, or in a city park. Lie comfortably on your stomach so that your eyes can focus on your patch from a height of approximately six inches. Come into a sense of presence.De-focus on any sense of self in this moment; concentrate your attention on your patch and notice any activity, any stillness, any change of the light and shadows, the relationships of things one to another; notice harmonies of colors and shape; notice oddities.

2. After five minutes (or more) stand up and focus your attention on the larger landscape. Notice the sudden change in scale. Maintain the de-focusing on your sense of self in this larger view for a few minutes, noticing the shapes and colors, harmonies and oddities in what you see.

3. Bring your attention back to yourself and notice any changes in your view of yourself, any new perspective on the place of your life in the small and the vast.

* * * * *

When we focus our awareness on things at a small scale and then shift our awareness to the vast, the shift in focus in the visual cortex helps us begin switching between the focusing network in the brain, which engages with experience more concretely by focusing on specific objects, tasks, activities, or perspectives, and the defocusing network, which engages with experience more diffusely from a spacious, “simply being” perspective.

The shift to the defocusing network shifts our processing from the structured and the concrete to the more fluid and unfolding. This creates a neural receptivity that allows new perspectives and new insights to emerge out of a deeper, intuitive knowing. The subjective experience of these moments of insight often feels like an “Oh!” or “Aha!” moment and carries with it a “truth sense.” “Oh, now I get it; this is what’s true.” From our new viewpoint, we can make new choices.