Updated 4/24/08

The Physiology of Vision
Where The Rubber Meets the Road
Into the Night
Perpetual Calm
Peripheral Awareness
Going Public
Guide to NightWalking
Into the Dark
Walking on Faith
Strange Lights and Sights
The Big Picture
The List


For a long time we have had a keen interest in what is variously referred to as flow, peak or optimal experience -- those moments when actions and thoughts are unusually smooth, clear and effortless. We seem to shift into a higher gear. Time slows and an almost magical feeling of control is accompanied by an oceanic sense of union with everything around us.

Accounts of flow are often found in what appear to be wildly different sectors of experience such as athletics and mysticism. And yet to a great extent both arenas are devoted to the attainment of the same physiological and neurological state, the same feeling of transcendence. John Brodie, who was quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers some 25 years ago, has talked enthusiastically and knowledgeably about flow, perhaps encouraged by his friend, Michael Murphy, founder of Esalen Institute. He once recalled how in the midst of a game his level of play would suddenly jump to a higher plane. Though huge lineman crashed in on him, he was in perfect control as he calmly stepped back, set up, and threw. Brodie described how the football appeared to travel on a "wire of will" that connected him to his receiver, usually the peerless Gene Washington. He claimed that he had seen defensive backs cut in front of Washington to intercept the ball, but it had hopped over their fingertips and into the pass catcher's hands. It seemed inevitable that the play be completed.

Bill Russell has described how the great Boston Celtic teams of the late 60s would sometimes get into such a flow, a scoring surge that could only be stopped by the opposition calling time out. He and his teammates were absolutely in tune with each other. Each player could “see the whole court,” and preternaturally anticipate his teammates actions. They were playing not only over their heads, but "out of their heads," operating on instinct and maybe inspiration.

In religious contexts the vocabulary is different and we hear of “flashes of insight,” “clear vision” and “brilliant light.” Saul on the road to Damascus was such an example. In recounting events of sudden realization, many individuals give visual reports of the moment of enlightenment: "I suddenly saw the answer,” “It all became clear to me,” or “I saw with a crystal clarity that . . .”

Most people are familiar with this kind of high, at least in secular contexts. You might have felt it on the golf course, working in the garden or doing a crossword puzzle--the sudden feeling of being in absolute control, of feeling like you know what's going to happen before it happens. You're so totally engrossed in the activity that your eyes seem to open a little wider as visual data streams into your brain, flows through the realm of ideas, and floods into action, as if the three things were different aspects of one unnamable thing that connects you and the putter or the roses to be pruned or the clues to 36 across and 14 down. Stop and think about what you're doing and the spell is broken; the whole brain engagement with the outside world interrupted by conscious involvement. The ball slices into the woods, the thorn that a moment ago caressed your fingertip now draws blood.

In the spring of 1989, we decided to spend some time trying to find a way to maximize the potential for our experiencing flow. We began with a theory, that people who have the ability to see farther, or wider, or more deeply or more clearly might have access to whatever the brain processes are that give rise to peak experience. We began to think that the descriptions of such experiences were not just metaphors, but were, in fact, literal representations of actual internal experience. People who frequently experience flow aren't just more athletic or smarter or more creative or holier than the average person but perhaps literally see--and therefore understand and even experience--the world in a different manner. This "seeing" might access a neurological facility enabling them to process vast amounts of spatial and even intellectual material and resolve it into inspired action or insight. As we looked for direct relationships between the meanings of words like seeing and understanding, vision (VEN) and Vision (VEB), it slowly became apparent that we might be on to something.

We knew that individuals' reports of intensely joyful experiences often revolved around a change in visual perception and theorized that the converse was also true: that a change in visual perception could engender peak experiences.

The first step was to review the science of vision.

The Physiology of Vision

Newborns can see objects in front of them, as well as objects in the periphery. The pupil, the opening that regulates the amount of light entering the eye, functions well at birth, contracting in bright light and dilating in darkness. However, some parts of the newborn's visual system are only partly developed. For example, an infant sometimes fails to adjust the lens of the eye to differences in distance. A newborn's eyes have a fixed focal point at about 7.5 inches, so stimuli have to be presented at about this distance if the infant is to see them clearly. Within weeks a young infant focuses best on objects 8 to 20 inches away, just about the distance of the face of a person feeding or caring for him or her. Objects closer or farther away can be seen, but not as sharply. Infants begin to focus sharply at around 2 months of age but it's not until the age of two that children have a fully developed visual system.

Even when there is nothing to look at, awake, alert infants scan the environment, but mostly from side to side and hardly ever up and down. Using special television cameras that translate infrared light into visible images, observers have watched infants when the lights in a room are turned off. Infants, even if asleep, open their eyes and scan the darkness which, as we realized during this investigation, is an important neural activity for structuring one's environment.

Figure 1

The retina of the human eye (Figure 1) is composed of three distinct areas: the fovea, macula and peripheral regions. Each area performs a distinctive visual function and contributes to the sense we call sight. Because these different functions operate simultaneously and blend into each other, they aren't normally consciously differentiated.

Figure 2

The fovea is a small circular pit in the center of the retina packed (figure 2) with an unbelievable concentration (160,000 cells per square millimeter, an area about the size of the head of a pin) of color-sensitive receptor cells called cones, each with its own nerve fiber. In total, the retina contains an astounding 125 million rods while cones number about 7 million.

Figure 3

Based on area, the fovea has 35 times as much representation in the primary visual cortex as do the peripheral portions of the retina. Figure 3 shows the visual pathways leading to the primary visual cortex. The fovea enables the average person to see most sharply within a circle less than an eighth of an inch in diameter at a distance of twelve inches from the eye.

Surrounding the fovea (figure 4) is the macula, an oval body mostly composed of cones. Macular vision is quite clear, but not as clear and sharp as foveal vision, because the cones aren't as closely packed as they are in the fovea. We use the macula for reading or watching television, among other things.

Moving away from the central portion of the retina, the character and quality of vision changes radically. The capacity to see color diminishes as the color-sensitive cones become more scattered. Fine vision associated with closely packed cones, each with its own neuron, shifts to a coarser vision in which two hundred or more of a different type of receptor cell--the rods--are each connected in a parallel fashion to a single neuron. The effect of the connections between rods is to amplify the perception of motion and light while reducing the capacity for distinguishing detail.

Figure 5

For our purposes, we began to think of the retina as divided into two areas: a) the fovea and macula, both with high concentrations of cones and therefore the province of central vision; and b) the periphery, where rods predominate--in short, central and peripheral vision. A quick way of understanding the coverage of these two regions of sight is to extend your fists arm's length in front, side by side. They cover the approximate area normally seen with central vision; the rest of the visual field is largely rod mediated and therefore peripheral.

From our reading we discovered that in low light, peripheral vision is far superior to central or focused vision. Night vision relies almost entirely on the rod cell receptors of the peripheral region of the retina, which because of their neural connections and physical makeup are very sensitive to light. Rods need about 30 minutes of dark or dim red light to activate fully, and then, it is claimed, they have the capacity in the healthy eye to detect a single photon--the equivalent, under optimal conditions, of the flame of a candle that is ten miles away. In the dark, color-sensitive cones are not very useful--hence sight at night is almost entirely dependent on peripheral vision.

To sum up, five aspects of the physiology of vision seemed most important:

• Cones have a one-to-one correlation with nerve fibers while many rods may connect a single nerve fiber.
• Cones are sensitive to color while rods primarily register the intensity of light.
• Rods are much more sensitive to light than cones.
• Rods are much more sensitive to the detection of movement than cones.
The cones and rods are parts of separate neurological systems and are processed separately. In fact, there is much speculation on just where information from these two systems intersects in the brain.

Most people in industrialized countries have come to rely almost entirely on focused sight. Our culture's dependence on focused vision has deprived us of the mental processes which accompany peripheral vision. We don't even have an adequate descriptive vocabulary for peripheral abilities. And this was one of the more troubling aspects throughout our investigations, our culture has little understanding, appreciation or experience with peripheral vision.

Might it not be true that many of the special perceptions claimed by mystics and athletes comes from the ability to observe the world and themselves from a "different point of view," in a broader, more open context? Since it is clearly established that we all possess two visual systems, it may be that creativity, intuition and even some kinds of ecstatic experience might have a direct connection with second sight, a sight dependent to a great extent on the brain's capacity for processing peripheral vision.

Searching for extra-scientific references that might shed more light on second sight, we found a succession of texts from the Taoists of early China through the accounts of Carlos Casteñada that speak of a certain kind of all-seeing gaze. One in particular gave very precise description of the powers of second sight and instructions for its development.

In The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary swordsman of 16th century Japan, implies that he fought his greatest duels with his eyes crossed, and goes into considerable detail about developing and using this strange ability. He writes somewhat mysteriously about a state he entered while so engaged. He also refers to the two types of sight which he calls Ken and Kan. Ken registers the movements of surface phenomena; it's the observation of superficial appearance. Kan is the examination of the essence of things, seeing through or into. For Musashi, Ken is seeing with the eyes, Kan is seeing with the mind, a difference paralleling that between style and substance. He gives instructions for developing Kan sight: "It is important to observe both sides without moving the eyes. It is no good trying to learn this kind of thing in great haste. Always be watchful in this manner and under no circumstances alter your point of concentration."

We were by this time spending hours sitting beside the Rio Grande, experimenting with our vision. We had practiced enough that we could watch the movement of the water which registered in our peripheral vision. We'd considered peripheral vision to be a passive type of sight, certainly not one to be used in a duel. Most of the references to cross-eyed meditation and "soft-focus vision" were in calm, quiet circumstances. In our search for methods to create peak experiences, we'd unconsciously assumed that the peak experiences only became available when anxiety was absolutely abated, and that anxiety abatement would, by necessity, require serenity.

But reading Musashi changed all that. While anxiety abatement might be necessary, passivity certainly wasn't. Musashi may not have understood the biology of sight, but we discovered that he was acutely aware of the difference between cone and rod vision.

We were sure that neural structures existed within the eye and brain, which facilitate a way of seeing that is radically dissimilar from the one we're accustomed to using, and that this way of seeing is available to all of us all the time. The question was how. We experimented with Stereoscopic Mandalas and they turned out to be good tools for developing second sight, but they lacked the depth, the passion and the experience we were searching for.

Where The Rubber Meets the Road

What Musashi was saying was that peripheral vision was a dynamic type of sight. It had been in all the physiology texts, but we had overlooked it: we are most sensitive to motion in our peripheral field. Peripheral vision is made for movement!

So the problem became that of creating a visual point which would remained fixed while one moved. We settled on attaching a nine-inch rod with a bead at the end, pinned on the bill of a ball cap. (You'll want the bead about 12'' from your eye) We could turn our head from side to side and move around, all the time focusing on the rod tip. This would also satisfy the requirement of holding one's focal point constant and not on the object observed. It was an easy way to achieve Musashi's insistence on cross-eyedness. He had apparently taught himself to focus and keep focused on an imaginary point during life and death sword battles. There must be something to the technique or else he wouldn't have used it. While we thought sword fights were a little extreme as a means for testing our thesis (at least for beginners), we needed an activity that required that our peripheral vision be operative to insure our safety. In the end we decided that hiking over somewhat rough terrain would do the trick.

And so on a bright May afternoon we drove across the beautiful landscape near our homes in northern New Mexico looking for a suitable place to walk. We selected a path that began as a rocky dirt track through piñon-dotted hills and led into a sandy arroyo, put on our caps and set out.

Keeping our eyes always focussed on the bead, we soon became too engaged with the immediate difficulty of walking through uneven terrain to worry about what we looked like. Everything we saw in the central area of vision around and in front of the rod was doubled, an illusion caused by binocular vision. (To illustrate this point, hold your finger about six inches in front of your nose. Stare at your finger and you'll notice that everything in front of it and to several degrees on either side is doubled.) So while watching the bead at the end of the rod, it appeared as if the straight path we were walking on always seemed to be approaching a Y, or the path ran straight between two rocks--two rocks that became one at the moment our foot, aimed to step between them, came down directly upon 'it.'

Two solutions for dealing with the doubling presented themselves. One was to tilt the head to the right and up, so that the line of the path, for example, was seen undoubled in the left portion of our peripheral field (peripheral vision is unfocused, so there's no doubling unless viewing something very close to the eyes, in which case central and peripheral visions overlap). The other was to guess: the real rock is probably not on the right or the left, but between the two. Then we discovered a third method: don't think about it. The brain knows where the 'real' object is even if our eyes and conscious mind don't, and left alone it delivers unerring instructions to our limbs. This seemed a wonderful revelation, that a virtually unknown part of us knows much more than we 'know' it knows. This was the first of many challenges to what we'd long assumed to be the supremacy of consciousness, and the implications left us giddy.

We may have looked silly as we proceeded slowly up the rocky trail, shoulders hunched, chins extended, staring so intently at our little beads, but inside we soon felt ecstatic. It was as if our eyes and chests had opened up wide, and in the process some previously inviolable boundary between ourselves and the landscape had evaporated. Everything was simultaneously peaceful and scintillating. Our senses of balance and muscle control were so acute that the ground seemed to rise and gently join the foot with each step.

Soon we gained confidence that we could walk in unfamiliar territory using only peripheral vision, that what looked to be the abstract quality of peripheral sight provided plenty of information to the brain, allowed it to guide our feet automatically and unerringly over and around rocks, dips and rises in the ground, and protected our body--eyes in particular--from contact with tree branches.

As we walked we became aware of the limits of our peripheral vision and tried to create a simultaneous awareness of the whole peripheral field--nearly 180 degrees horizontally, perhaps 130 degrees vertically. In tricky passages requiring special attention, we found we could concentrate our awareness on the lower center area in our peripheral vision and thereby ease our progress, although again we had this magical feeling that we didn't have to pay attention. we did, however, have to be alert, and alertness seemed to expand automatically when locked in peripheral vision. Other senses awakened as well, and we noticed that hearing, balance and touch expanded, as if each sense had a peripheral realm of its own. Concurrently, the perception of weight shifted lower in the body, to the hips and on down to the feet.

We tried running and found that it intensified the thrill but surprisingly without a rise in anxiety. We pushed ourselves into unsure situations where footing was tricky, as if to confirm that we could negotiate obstacles with almost effortless flow.

Occasionally we stopped to exchange impressions. We found that when standing close, a tree appears the same, whether viewed with peripheral or 'normal' vision; we noted a time lapse of what seemed to be several moments between the apparently automatic action of our feet as they avoid an obstacle and our consciousness of their movement.

After a couple of hours of walking we were deeply relaxed. It took us a while to understand the source of this pronounced calm: Walking while relying on peripheral vision requires that the conscious mind trust the nonconscious, and this inter-mind trust might be the essence of relaxation itself.

When we returned to the truck we found that our hands had warmed and swelled slightly, an indication that active employment of peripheral vision might also stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. And we both remarked on a sense of time distortion, that it felt as if we'd been out about an hour when in fact we'd walked more than twice that long.

For the next several months, we walked once a week, added new elements to each sojourn, and wrote reports on what we'd experienced. For one early walk we recorded audio tapes to see how various types of music affect the experience of what we'd come to call, only half in jest, sense-surround. The tapes began with the didjeridoo music of aboriginal Australia, and proceeded through increasingly 'sophisticated' music, ending with what might be the apogee of aural stimulation, Bach's Goldberg Variations.

The terrain we picked was similar to the first, though steeper and more arduous. We donned Walkman players, started the tapes, and headed up the trail. Almost immediately we fell into the already familiar state, our shoulders hunched a little and our chin jutting slightly in a posture we associated with 'early man' and Musashi. The didjeridoo music established a wave that seemed to carry our breath and feet. In an effort to evaluate the sounds, we tried to detach from the flood of pure sensory experience and succeeded just long enough to become aware that a rising and falling buzzing sound was not on the tape but rather an insect, a cicada, perhaps, buzzing in our 'peripheral' hearing. We turned up the volume and the buzzing intensity increased apace--up to a point where the didjeridoo was so loud it drowned out all peripheral sound.

The next music was Steve Reich's Music for Large Orchestra-- contemporary `trance music' built on a repetitive structure. Dominated by the bright, light sounds produced by instruments such as vibraphones, the music enhanced the brightness of the day and the lightness of our step.

Such concordance between the music and us was generally true throughout the walk--Al Green's tenor lifted; Ike and Tina Turner's "I Idolize You," with its surprisingly hard, punkish edge, and The Talking Heads' apocalyptic "Burning Down the House" induced a tinge of paranoia.

In general, we found that lyrics got in the way. They forced our attention inward, tended to make us more aware of the specific, less aware of the general, the sweep of color and sound and the feelings aroused by the landscape. Nevertheless, we found no correlation between type and/or volume of sound and the ability of our unconscious to process data from peripheral vision. What it did affect was the scope or range of our consciousness.

From our reports:

"I think that the music should be much fainter so one would focus on environmental sound and hear music peripherally. “It seems to me that when the conscious mind is given specific tasks to focus on--walking, looking at the end of the rod and listening to environmental sounds--the unconscious is freed to participate in a much fuller way.

“General awareness seems to be basic to the peripheral state, while specific awareness tends to bring things into consciousness. Without specific awareness, consciousness doesn't exist. Therefore, it would seem that specific awareness would be useful only when necessary.

“This brings up a paradox: One can't be immediately aware of deep, general awareness and surface, specific awareness at the same time. Therefore to operate while only conscious of general awareness, a certain faith seems to be required!”

This was it, the central metaphor for accessing the peripheral state--an act of faith. To reach the state, one has to let go of reliance on central vision, on “knowing” where you're going, and come to trust that unknowable brain and eye functions will guide and protect. Without such faith we stumble.

The more difficult terrain of this walk yielded another important insight: We could control fatigue and pain easily through an application of will, focusing attention on the tired body part, for instance, and moving the discomfort off to the edges of awareness--virtually the same process as moving our attention about in the great field of peripheral vision without moving our eyes.

A few weeks into our walking experiments and we knew we were on to something important, maybe profound. We'd found that simply walking outdoors with eyes focused on the tip of a little metal rod, seeing where we were going by moving our attention rather than our eyes, resulted in an altered state of consciousness. No drugs, no mantras or rigorous meditative practices. Simply clip on a rod and take a walk. Eventually we discovered that we didn't even need the rods. All it takes is the suggestion, "Go wide," and everything opens up--mood, perspective, vision in every sense of the word. Change the way you see and you change the way you feel.

After twenty or thirty minutes of walking, we'd click into an ecstatic state of "no thought." The mind got absolutely quiet and the body filled with the uncensored, unconsidered sights, sounds and smells of the New Mexico landscape. Distinctions between "me" and "it" evaporated as we reentered the state, which felt natural and oddly familiar, as if in our dim evolutionary history there had been a time when our brains were wired for joy.

Into the Night

Since we had already missed one of the most important features of peripheral vision, detecting motion, we returned to the physiology texts and read again. This time we took seriously the fact that peripheral vision is superior in low light situations. That meant dark! (For the darkness of the night sky worldwide and in the Western hemisphere) Of course. When light levels are low enough the cones hardly function at all. We had already separated central and peripheral vision by using a fixed visual point and giving the peripheral part of our vision something dynamic to do. By walking at night we could separate it even more. By walking at night while focusing on the rod tip we should have the opportunity to totally experience the mental states associated with peripheral vision.

The headgear was altered by painting the beads on the rod tip with luminescent paint, and we started taking vitamin A which is necessary for the formation of visual purple, a substance which enables the eyes to adjust from bright light to darkness.

We set out around sunset along some old dirt tracks that crisscrossed the sage prairie west of Taos. Entering the peripheral state was more difficult than it had been, partly because of some apprehension of walking around in an unfamiliar place in the dark. We'd read that this was the kind of place and the time of day and year one is most apt to encounter rattlesnakes, and though we couldn't really "see" the road, we imagined it covered with them. We strained our peripheral hearing and vision for telltale signs. Long, dark shapes were everywhere, the air was filled with the sound of hollow clacking insects. We thought we'd probably "know" if we were about to step into something ugly, but the maintenance of faith in peripheral vision, so critical to our endeavor, wasn't easy. The knowledge that adult males seldom die from bites was of some comfort.

As an aid to quieting internal dialogue, on previous walks we'd tried sub-vocally chanting nonsensical phrases with an odd number of syllables, matching syllables and steps. We had speculated that this exercise would help to balance the two hemispheres of the brain, reinforcing the basic relaxing effect of deliberate reliance upon peripheral vision. We started with a four-count on inhalation, something like "hear-ing foot-falls" five on exhalation, "ris-ing on the air," which seemed to suit our pace and our respiration, but we couldn't maintain it. So we shifted to numbers, counting three steps while inhaling, for example, and four while exhaling. As the light faded, so did our apprehension of snakes, but it was replaced by a new concern for orientation. Where was the truck?

Waiting for full darkness, we stopped and looked ahead at the loom of Tres Orejas mountain, back at Taos beginning to twinkle. Then we set out into the black and then it happened!

The most accurate description is that we entered the night. It became alive. Rabbits hopped by casually, nighthawks and bats flew past to check us out. Our steps got lighter, walking approached the status of flight, and we felt like we'd fully entered the peripheral state, much more deeply than before. If there were snakes out there, we would pass safely among them. We moved through lovely currents of cool air that wave through the desert. We smiled at the thought of what we were doing-- walking effortlessly in the night under the stars, with no conscious knowledge of what was on the path in front of us, no consciousness of anything but the feeling of everything.

We could have been flying it was so much fun. For uncountable time our gaze expanded as if we saw the path and the landscape, the sagebrush and scrubby juniper as clearly as if a third eye were set in the middle of the chest. For a moment we wondered where we were and the direction back to the truck and then let that go and put ourselves in the arms of another part of ourselves. Suddenly we "knew" we were back at the truck. Without consciousness of "seeing" it, we knew that it was there, five or six body lengths to our left, standing in some deep night shadows. We laughed and then looked. Sure enough, it was there.

Almost immediately NightWalking became one of the most consistently relaxing and exhilarating experiences either of us had ever had. The reports, ancient and modern, were true--employing peripheral vision and "second sight" facilitates a distinct change in perception while promoting a serene sense of well-being. We discovered that anxiety in general, and fear of the dark in particular, are effectively eliminated, as if they were somehow related to the brain processes of central vision. We learned to see by moving our attention around in the visual field and found that with this kind of attention management we could ameliorate pain and discomfort by shifting our attention away from it and onto anything else in the whole field of sensory perception.

Not only were we learning to travel freely in the dark; it was becoming apparent that this capability connected us more directly to a nonconscious part of our brains that seems devoted to our safety and general security. Far from being a storehouse of fear, we found the nonconscious--or at least the aspect of it that is accessed through the state of peripheral awareness--to be a trustworthy protector that not only leads us around rocks, away from cliffs and back to the truck, but perhaps also serves as a guide to some natural state, to some most basic part of ourselves. In the peripheral state we felt comfortable, alert, relaxed, open, happy and very alive. Feelings of fear, anger, worry, doubt, and lust seem antithetical to the state, as if the neural wiring, whatever it is, for these such strong emotions, is bypassed. Benign accurately describes the feeling of NightWalking.

Our next night out--our wives had come to think of our walks as the equivalent of the boys going bowling or playing poker--we experimented walking with our eyes closed, starting with a short stretch of about five paces, working rather quickly up to a hundred. As with each new impediment imposed, we were amazed that we could do it at all. We found we had a heightened sense of our feet. The road we were on had fairly deep ruts and our feet were adept at feeling the ridges and keeping us either in the dip of a rut or on the crest. We listened carefully to the sound of each other's footsteps, navigating by sonar, and our hearing was sensitive enough to pick up slight changes in the distance between us.

What made us open our eyes? A combination of factors, including--not fear but feeling ourselves wanting to fear, an arousal vaguely sexual, of feeling a need to release the growing excitement, a sense that we're conditioned to contain a finite amount of arousal, whether its quality is fearful or pleasurable. As suggested above, maybe the nature and strength of the feeling was out of synch with the peripheral state.

A short time after opening our eyes, we heard a sharp rattling come from behind a bush we'd just passed. It continued for several seconds then stopped abruptly. We were convinced it was "our" snake. Though glad it was by now behind us, we were unrattled.

The dark half of the walk started roughly. We were tired and a little hazy, our thighs were tight, stomach upset. After a few minutes of struggle we shifted our attention outside, away from the discomfort and onto the breeze.

Then we stopped, knowing we were back at the truck, again before we were conscious that the truck was indeed there, before we "saw" it. Is this normally the case, that we "know" things before we're conscious of knowing them? Is it possible that consciousness is merely a monitor of--or a comment on--our nonconscious responses to the world and ourselves?

As Daniel C. Dennett writes in Consciousness Explained, "Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness at all."

The more we walked, the more we questioned the supremacy of consciousness. We came to believe that, ironically, peripheral vision was making us more conscious of what we were not conscious of, the particulars contained in that huge, mysterious mass of neurons, like a computer that is making decisions and judgements on its own. The brain doesn't need the 'me' of conscious thought to operate--in fact, it often seems to operate much better without the intervention of consciousness. It was--and still is--a sobering and sometimes unsettling realization, though most often it leaves us wide-eyed with wonder, a wonder comparable to walking on faith in the dark across the New Mexico landscape.

Many of our insights into peripheral vision around this time came from people with an interest in mystical traditions. A friend vaguely recalled reading something about Tibetan holy men walking at night. We checked a few sources and soon found Alexandra David-Neel's Magic and Mystery in Tibet. In it she describes her encounter with and investigation of Lung-gom-pas, Tibetan spiritual walkers of extraordinary ability. According to David-Neel, whose book was first published in 1931:

The walker must neither speak, nor look from side to side. He must keep his eyes fixed on a single distant object and never allow his attention to be attracted by anything else. When the trance has been reached, though normal consciousness is for the greater part suppressed, it remains sufficiently alive to keep the man aware of the obstacles in his way, and mindful of his direction and goal.

Any clear night is deemed good for the training of beginners, but strong starlight is especially favorable. One is often advised to keep the eyes fixed on a particular star. This appears connected with hypnotic effects, and we have been told that among novices who train themselves in that way, some stop walking when "their" star sinks below the skyline or rises above their head. Others, on the contrary, do not notice its disappearance because by the time that the star has passed out of sight, they have formed a subjective image of it which remains fixed before them.

Some initiates in the secret lore also assert that, as a result of long years of practice, after he has travelled over a certain distance, the feet of the lung-gom-pa no longer touch the ground, and that he glides on the air with an extreme celerity.

About this time we began to experience some strange visual phenomena. From the reports:

I began to see a patch of distortion below the rod tip, which was separate from the normal distortion there. It had a strange dimensional quality and at first would dance and move separate from the rest of the distortion. I got to where I could watch it while focusing on the rod tip, and then it would slowly elongate, stretching out maybe two-hundred yards, and a shaft of it would come directly into my mouth creating a profound sensation of being very physically connected to the environment. As I walked, this thing would enter my mouth at the same speed that I walked. Then I realized that what I was seeing was a second road extending out in front at head level which basically matched the road that we was walking on. After a while I could see them both, the one I was walking on and the one I was eating. Moving my head from side to side changed the appearance of the upper road but not the lower, as if I were seeing it more with one eye than the other. I can't tell you how I did this, however I suspect it has to do with focusing the eyes much closer than the rod tip. I'm left with the strong physical sensation and the puzzlement of seeing something (the upper level) distinctly while also distinctly seeing through it. When I first walked into this "river of light" it hit me with a jolt, this stream running into my face and mouth, so palpable that it literally made me feel full, as if I'd drunk a quart of water, who knows how many cubic seconds of light.

Some hours later, as we were returning to the truck, we both saw the stream. This time it was lighter in color, and we found we could coax it up off the road, almost at will. We'd open our mouths wide, move a little left and right until our position on the road seemed right, get the stream going good, get our heads canted just so, then the stream would jump up off the ground and into the mouth. It had a force to it, the weight of the light pushing against the inside of our cheek. But at the same time it seemed to be drawing us forward along its length.

Perpetual Calm

The apparent ability to alleviate anxiety while in the peripheral state quickly became of considerable interest to us. One Sunday night in the middle of June, 1989, we were walking across an unfamiliar stretch of road through the hills bordering the long, sandy wash just east of Velarde, a few miles southwest of our homes. The moon was nearly full and the night almost too bright for peripheral navigation. Intense moonlight, like snow, tends to wipe out the contrasts in the terrain that are such an aid to seeing in the dark. The road petered out quickly, so we struck out into the brush and then up a steep, loose-rocked slope. Some Rio Arriba pachucos were carrying on below us in a wash maybe a half mile away, drinking beer and howling at the moon, and their presence disturbed what we often feel is the sanctity of the dark. Their voices carried on the wind and grated at our sense of well-being. At one point as we walked along the crest, we heard repeated, over and over, "You dummy! You dummy, up on the cliff!" The taunts had a violent edge, but rather than feeling panic as we might have in a normal "state" we just directed our attention to the quality of the sound. We found we could cope with the particulars of the fear, the presence of the pachucos in 'our' night without falling out of the peripheral state. They were just something else to be factored in, like the steep, slippery slope we were on, the most difficult we'd traversed at night.

We were acutely aware of a sense of caution in our feet. As we moved steadily up the slope, the soles of our feet were super-sensitive, feeling out the ground, the angles, the vectors, the form and stability of the rocks under us, and we moved on.

Here we were in new territory, at night, on terrain that would be difficult to traverse in the day using focused vision, and we were having a ball. The sense of confidence was remarkable, as was the surprise that yes, we really could do this! We weren't sliding around, weren't tripping on rocks or stumbling into bushes or over cliffs. We proceeded slowly, exquisitely up this loose and in any other state possibly dangerous slope.

The use of peripheral awareness to dampen anxiety demonstrates the everyday value of what we'd learned. Later, in NightWalking workshops which we conducted, we asked participants to think (while NightWalking) about a person or situation that generally causes them to feel anxious or unhappy. Most of them can't do it. "It just doesn't seem to fit," one person said. Another admitted having difficulty with the exercise. He said that unpleasant thoughts caused him to switch to central vision, and he dropped out of the peripheral state and couldn't get back in. This supported our growing belief that there's a direct correlation between anxiety and central vision, and it might well be that some people, whether for neurological or psychological reasons, have more trouble detaching from their reliance on central or focused seeing than others.

Peripheral Awareness

As the experiments progressed, books and articles began to come to us in the strange surges of synchronicity that seem to typify flow itself. Some dealt with second sight directly, some 'peripherally.' It was as if we'd opened a channel and sent out a request for information, and some neurological receptors in us were tuned to receive and recognize the incoming responses. In Et Cetera, Et Cetera, Notes of a Word-Watcher, by Lewis Thomas, we found the following description of how the nonconscious handles masses of "peripheral" input:

To be a surviving pedestrian on the sidewalks of New York City takes special skill and training. The problems are not so much those encountered at busy crossings, when agility and speed and an instinct for avoiding outright death are usually enough to get you through. It is the seemingly simple act of walking along the sidewalk, threading your way through the moving crowds of people coming at you from the opposite direction, that poses the harder puzzle. The worst of possible outcomes is the mutual embarrassment involved in the standoff, when two individuals advancing toward one another try to move quickly out of each other's way in synchrony, and find themselves either bumping or trapped in a sidewise dance. The way to avoid this, we have learned, is to avoid the eyes of the oncoming pedestrian. If he, or she, catches your eye, both of you are at risk. If you really look at each other, full in the eyes, even at some distance away, you can be certain of colliding regardless of footwork. Each of you needs to have the other somewhere in the field of vision, but never in the center of the field. If you can learn to keep every member of the approaching crowd off somewhere at the outermost corner of your eye, something not much more than a moving object occluding the light, you'll have no trouble. Automatically, by a series of instantaneous reflexes, you and your stranger will pass each other neatly and without notice.

We have learned this lesson only recently, having noticed that there are many more people walking much more rapidly on the sidewalks of our city, and I'm pleased with our discovery. But having made it, it now occurs to us that a closely related problem, reading, reading anything at all, newspapers to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, has similar problems, maybe solved by the same technique.

Never look a word straight in the eye, especially one that you've just noticed there at the end of the line you're on, even one standing out a paragraph down. Do not engage the word, or you will be brought to a standstill, wordless. In a phone conversation one day with an artist in New York, Steve happened to mention our interest in peripheral vision. He talked for a minute about what we were discovering and its possible application to aesthetics, and the artist suddenly got excited. "I know what you're talking about," he said. "I must use it all the time, balancing color and form when I'm working on a large canvas. But--you're not going to believe this--when I'm in a room full of people at a party I can immediately spot any woman who's had a nose job! I told my girlfriend about this and now she does it, too. Out of the corner of my eye I see a face and I know that something's not right about it.

Recognizing nose jobs sounds like an outrageous claim for peripheral vision, but the more we thought about it, the more revealing the notion became. Peripheral vision analyzes patterns, in this case the pattern in the bone structure of a face. 'It sees' that something is off, unnatural in the pattern. The brain processes the information, computes the discrepancy and alerts the artist's consciousness. He looks, and sure enough, cosmetic surgery. Though the artist was unaware of the role of peripheral vision in making aesthetic decisions in his work, his innate neurological familiarity with it facilitates his ability to spot reconstructed noses.

It might well be that peripheral vision is the vision of aesthetics. The following we found in a book by Jonathan Cott, Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn:

The possession of very good eyesight may be a hindrance to those feelings of sublimity that exalt the poetic imagination. The fact is, that the impressiveness of natural scenery depends a great deal upon the apparent predominance of mass over detail, to borrow Mr. Hamerton's own words; the more visible the details of a large object--a mountain, a tower, a forest-wall--the less grand and impressive that object. The more apparently uniform the mass, the larger it seems to loom; the vaguer a shadow-space, the deeper it appears. . . . Again, attractive objects viewed vaguely through a morning or evening haze, or at a great distance, often totally lose artistic character when a telescope is directed upon them.

Following a more New Age bent, James Swan writes in “Sacred Places:”

Rolling Thunder tells me that he looks at a person's energy field to help determine his or her health. He says he does this by looking at the person out of the corner of his eyes. The physiology of the human eye is such that we see details and colors best by looking directly at things, because the cone cells in the center of the retina are specially suited for this kind of work. However, rod cells are located more along the periphery of the retina, and they are better at seeing patterns. It is through developing this ability to see patterns that Indians make good trackers and possibly also see life energies. Only with the invention of the printed word and other modern media have people come to use their intense visual focus faculties so much, as opposed to scanning the overall environment to look for changes and then to check out what they are.

After a year of reading, studying, and most importantly actively experimenting with second sight, we came to understand that what we were after was the state that peripheral vision engenders -- the state of peripheral awareness. And since it is an experience, it's hard to describe or explain. The following excerpt from The Experience of Place, by Tony Hiss, comes as close as anything we could add.

We can experience any place because we've all received, as part of the structure of our attention, a mechanism that drinks in whatever it can from our surroundings. This underlying awareness--we call it simultaneous perception--seems to operate continuously, at least during waking hours, even when our concentration seems altogether engrossed in something else entirely. While normal waking consciousness works to simplify perception, allowing us to act quickly and flexibly by helping us remain seemingly oblivious to almost everything except the task in front of us, simultaneous perception is more like an extra, or a sixth, sense: it broadens and diffuses the beam of attention evenhandedly across all the senses so we can take in whatever is around us--which means sensations of touch and balance, for instance, in addition to all sights, sounds, and smells.

Anytime we make conscious use of simultaneous perception, we can add on to our thinking. "One sees both close up and for miles, with the focus equal everywhere," as art critic Robert Hughes has said of landscape drawings by nineteenth-century German Romantic painters. With the help of this extra sense, the familiar hard-and-fast boundary between ourselves and our surroundings seems softened, expanding our sense of the space occupied by "here" and the time taken up by "now," and uncovering normally ignored patterns of relationships that make us part of larger groups and events. It's simultaneous perception that allows any of us a direct sense of continuing membership in our communities, and our regions, and the fellowship of all living creatures . . . .

Going Public

In two years of experimenting with peripheral vision, we refined the equipment and techniques to the point that we felt we could teach anyone to employ it in a few days (and nights) of training. Word of the goings on had leaked out and friends and acquaintances were clamoring to go NightWalking. After a few initial forays into the night with groups, We began giving NightWalking workshops to the general public. At the present, the origin of the participants is about one-third international (mostly Europe), one-third national (US) and one-third local (northern New Mexico). To date we have trained several hundred individuals to employ their peripheral vision. Within this group about 95% learned to enter the peripheral state at will. (While watching NightWalkers there is a way to know with certainty who is and who isn't in the state. Again, Musashi was right on the money.) And of those who could achieve the state, all reported a distinct shift in perception of internal well-being. More than once we were asked if it was all right to giggle while NightWalking. Tears of astonishment are not at all uncommon.

We chose to teach peripheral abilities with NightWalking because darkness is a condition in which peripheral (rod) vision is far superior to focussed (cone) vision. In our culture, darkness increases fear and a sense of foreboding, leading to imagined dangers and panic under sudden stress. We had discovered that fear is effectively overcome by developing a sense of and confidence in "night abilities," that is, to see peripherally and master the darkness. While fear, anxiety and even physical pain are associated with focussed vision, peripheral processes engender relaxation and delight.

"Understanding" in our culture is usually synonymous with focused vision. However, the brain processes used by focused vision aren't designed to gather massive amounts of ambiguous information and distill them into an "understanding." Rods and rod circuits in the brain are ideally suited for this purpose. Much of what we think of as intuition and creativity rely on the rod circuits of the brain. Wisdom is a phenomenon of the peripheral mind, not the focused mind, for "to see clearly" is not to see with the eyes but instead with the mind.

Guide to NightWalking

Here follows a set of condensed directions for those who want to develop their peripheral awareness. We invite adventurous readers to gain direct experience of what they are reading about. The most wonderful thing about this method is its simplicity. Peripheral awareness is available and useful to virtually everyone who can see, and with a little determination readers can master it quickly and easily. The process is akin to acquiring a new physical and basically neurological skill, like learning to ride a bicycle. It takes about the same length of time and is not as dangerous. All that's required is the desire and a little determination.

The whole secret to mastering peripheral awareness is keeping one's visual attention independent from focused vision.

We ordinarily attend to the point of our focus. When you can move your visual attention independently from your focused attention you're on the road to mastery.

Before continuing, a little practical experience with peripheral vision might be helpful. Turn on your television, it doesn't make any difference what program. If you normally wear glasses, you can put them on or not, whichever is more comfortable (peripheral vision is unaffected by corrective lenses). Sit in a chair fifteen feet or so from the set and watch whatever is on. Without taking your eyes off the screen, start moving your attention around in the visual field. Notice the edge of the throw rug on the floor underneath the set, the plant on the table by the window, the books on the shelf to the left. The important thing is to keep your eyes focused on the screen. You don't have to stare at the set--it's just a place for your central vision to settle. The object is to use your mind to see rather than the muscles in your eyes. Quietly observe or attend to the colors and textures in the room, the bright spots and the shadows. The closer to the edges of the peripheral field an object is, the less definite its form will be, but you'll be surprised at how clearly you'll know what objects are without focusing on them.

Still looking at the television, hold your arms out straight to the side from your shoulders, hands up, and slowly move your arms forward until you can see both hands at the extremes of your peripheral vision. Try to put equal and simultaneous attention on both hands. You might find it helps to wiggle your fingers and open your eyes a little wider than usual. Watch your hands for a minute or so and pay attention to the way you feel when seeing this way. Notice any changes in breathing and mood. If, when you lock your attention solidly on both hands, you sense a subtle but pronounced click you've just entered the realm of peripheral awareness.

Clip the NightWalking rod to the bill of a ball cap and adjust the cap so that the rod tip extends out directly in front of your eyes. (There is an up and down to the rod. Clip it on so the rod is under the clip and points slightly downward.) Keep your eyes focused on the bead at the end of the rod. If your eyes are properly focused you will see only one bead. If you see two beads, it means your focus has slipped slightly before or beyond the bead. Bring your eyes back to the bead. If you have trouble focusing, hold a finger up to the bead and look at your fingertip.

Everything beyond the bead in your central vision will be doubled--that's as it should be. Remember that the bead is a place to “park” your eyes. You don't have to stare at it. If you start to get a headache or experience eye strain, you're probably trying too hard and you need to relax your eyes. Just watch the bead. The bead is just a little closer than the distance most people focus to read, and you can focus at reading distance without difficulty for considerable periods. Put your hat and rod on, rod centered, bead level with the horizon, eyes watching the bead.

Now it's time to go outdoors and take a walk. Start with a familiar place--your back yard or the local park--and if it's a sunny day wear sunglasses (peripheral vision is especially sensitive to bright light). If you're feeling at all unsure take along a friend. Examine the clouds without "looking" at them. See them with your mind. Observe the trees as they pass. You may find that the experience can be like standing still while the landscape moves past you, which is comparable to the way ancient Polynesian sailors navigated. Using their knowledge of the stars and ocean currents and waves as guides, they kept their craft pointed in the direction of the destination and let it come to them--the opposite of the way our culture navigates. Keep this metaphor in mind as you walk.

Since much of what is seen peripherally is processed in the nonconscious parts of the brain, you'll undoubtedly find, as we did, that using it to walk requires a certain act of faith, and it might take a bit of fortitude to get used to the the fact that you can "see" without being conscious of the fact that you're seeing. After you're comfortable in secure surroundings, add a minor degree of risk and walk down the sidewalk in front of your house or through a nearby park. Keep your focus on the rod tip and resist the temptation to switch to central vision when feeling unsure.

Slow down and/or stop if necessary. Keeping your eyes on the bead, slowly move your head from side to side, scanning with your peripheral vision before proceeding. Always keep the rod tip up near the horizon. The major task at this point is to resist moving your focused vision to the point of your visual interest.

Your peripheral awareness will probably be blurred and hazy--it will clear with use and practice. With a little persistence you'll find that obstacles are avoided automatically. Let your unconscious brain do it's job. Notice how other senses--balance, hearing and even smell--are stimulated and sensitized as visual attention expands. Rather than looking directly at objects as they pass, wonder about them. Try and discern an object's nature by examining its color and pattern. After 15 or 20 minutes, stop and shift back to central vision. Pay attention to how differently the two states feel, the alert calm of the peripheral state versus central vision's almost nervous concern for detail. Start practicing entering the peripheral state at work and at home with the simple reminder to "go wide." See with your mind rather than your eyes.

Into the Dark

This is a lonely place, but as we walk through it on the darkest night it's like a spirit world. The darkness is filled with speckles of bioluminescence and ghosts left in deep arroyos by the shadows of starlight. We can't see the ground at our feet--the rocks, the sticks, the cactus, the prairie dog holes--because we're gazing at a tiny phosphorescent dot set a foot in front of our noses. Although we're not conscious of seeing these obstacles, our minds do see them, see them clearly and deliver silent, sure instructions to the feet as we glide with perfect safety over rough terrain. It is like walking on faith, supported by a serene confidence, every one of our senses alert. The mind is left free to explore the night spread across the wide-screen field of vision. What we are doing is NightWalking.

Before NightWalking, increase your daily intake of Vitamin A to 50,000 IU. Vitamin A is necessary for the formation of visual purple, the substance in the eyes which enables them to adjust from bright light to darkness. If you want to increase your night vision even more, avoid alcohol, nicotine, carbon monoxide, fatigue, high-fat meals and bright sunlight for thirty-six hours before NightWalking.

Find an old road or a trail in the country, as far as possible from city lights and free from distractions, and lay out a route of a mile or mile and a half. You might want to include a stretch along the way that goes through woods or an open field. Walk the route once or twice in the daylight, paying particular attention to landmarks along the way. Plan your walk for a moonless night. We usually don't go out other than a few days on either side of the new moon. It may be hard to believe at this point, but the light of even a quarter moon is more of a distraction that an aid to seeing in the dark.

For those who want to keep track of moon phases, sunset times, Nautical twilight, etc. there are some nifty shareware programs:

Mac -- | PC --

also check out for related and other shareware.

The evening of the NightWalk wear comfortable outdoor clothing and hiking shoes. Set out at sundown so your eyes will naturally adjust to the dark as it descends. Notice how the color drains out of the landscape as it gets darker. You're switching from cone to rod vision as this happens. (learn more about Twilight)

When it's dark, stop for a few minutes and charge the bead (you'll need to recharge it every twenty or thirty minutes) using a small flashlight cupped in your fist. Insert the bead between your fingers and expose it for a few seconds. Don't let the light shine in your eyes.

During the first 15 or 20 minutes, walk fairly slowly and steadily, ideally along a path or trail of some kind. As mentioned earlier, if you're unsure about your footing, slow down, stop for a moment if necessary, but keep watching the bead at the end of the rod. At first you're apt to be preoccupied with the fact that everything directly in front is doubled. Which of those two paths in front of you is the real one? Try turning your head fifteen to twenty degrees to one side or the other and looking at the path with peripheral vision (peripheral vision is unfocused, so there's no doubling). Eventually, most people discover they don't have to be concerned which tree or rock or path in their doubled vision is the “real” one. The brain knows where the real object is even if the eyes and conscious mind don't. After a while, you'll get used to the doubling and no longer be bothered by it. In time the rod tip will seem to disappear altogether.

Use of off-center vision, 6 to 30 degrees to the side, is most effective at night. This will direct the light more to the rod (instead of cone) region of your eyes. You can see dim stars much more clearly while looking to the side instead of directly at them. Many objects of the night sky can't be seen at all using focused vision. The habit of attempting to see something by looking directly at it is deeply ingrained, and it will take some experimenting on your part to convince yourself that, at night, peripheral vision is indeed much more sensitive than focussed.

The mind gets very quiet when the peripheral circuits are consciously engaged. Brain chatter, the internal dialog most of us experience a good part of the time, stops. As you walk, spend some time experimenting with ways to achieve this quiet. Try switching your attention from inside your head to what you can see outside, in the peripheral field. With a little practice, you'll find that you can easily achieve this state of quiet alertness by simply suggesting to yourself, “Go wide,” and taking in the whole visual field.

While NightWalking you will notice that senses other than vision will expand and become more acute. Your skin will feel different, more “solid” perhaps. Due to mental concentration and the air qualities of night, hearing and smell are improved. Human's sense of smell is less than ten percent as powerful as a dog's, yet we usually use only about two percent of our potential. To use your sense of smell at night, face 45 degrees toward the wind, relax and breathe normally but take frequent sharp sniffs. Think about smell; try not to think in words or pictures, but keep your mind blank and concentrate your awareness on odor.

Notice how the perception of "weight" shifts lower in your body, to the hips and on down to your feet. Most people seem to assume a slightly different posture while NightWalking. Shoulders slump slightly, and the chin juts out a bit in a stance that is almost simian. Hands may swell slightly and they will warm considerably.

When you begin to get comfortable NightWalking, work on splitting your visual attention. Observe two widely separated aspects of the landscape at the same time -- clouds on upper right, for example, and the bushes along the side of the path on the lower left. Hold your attention on both aspects equally and simultaneously. When you've got that, add a third element from another sense--the sound of the wind, for example, or the feeling of the air on the backs of your hands.

Then put your awareness on the limits of your peripheral vision. Open your eyes a little wider than normal and try to achieve a simultaneous awareness of the whole peripheral field--nearly 180 degrees horizontally, perhaps 130 degrees vertically. With practice, you'll achieve the Gaze, a purely sensory experience of drinking in the whole landscape, the big picture, everything in the 180-degree field of peripheral vision. Many find that the Gaze induces a sublime feeling of oneness with the environment, the essence of flow. Keep your eyes focused on the bead and keep it at or near the horizon. If anything, you want to keep the rod tip higher instead of lower.

Walking on Faith

Peripheral vision “recognizes” objects by decoding a thing's pattern and texture rather it's details, which is the province of central or focused vision. When you suddenly turn and see a familiar face across a crowded room, you have already “seen” the face peripherally, processed the structure of the face nonconsciously, found it to be of interest, to have special meaning worthy of further experience, and then shifted to consciousness and central vision.

The same process is at work all the time and is especially evident when you're out NightWalking. Notice how it is that you recognize particular kinds of trees in your peripheral vision, how you know the difference between an oak tree and a spruce without any awareness of the details. It's a feeling of oak or spruce that tells the difference, and this feeling is ‘fed ' by peripheral vision.

Since much of what is seen peripherally is processed nonconsciously, you'll probably find that using it to walk requires a certain act of faith, and it might take a bit of fortitude to get used to the fact that you can "see" without being conscious of the fact that you're seeing. For example, we 've often noticed while walking in the Southwest how we unconsciously know the pattern of cactus and automatically move to avoid it. People from other parts of the country have to learn the cactus pattern -- which is done in seconds by simply observing it peripherally -- and from then on they “naturally” and automatically avoid stepping on it.

Because so much of what's happening during NightWalking is nonconscious, you'll find that to proceed you will have to "trust" some of your native but dormant abilities. Your conscious mind won't be able to see much and so will resist "trusting" other parts of you which can find your way easily. But it might well be that relying on peripheral vision while walking requires that the conscious mind trust the nonconscious, and this inter-mind trust might be the essence of relaxation itself. With a little persistence, you will quickly learn to trust. Then there may be moments when you will be able to experience these nonconscious processes directly and suddenly "see" the landscape as if by heavily overcast daylight.

By the end of the first NightWalk, many people feel elated and energized. It's not unusual for them to have no idea how long they've been out. Many comment on how light it is, even on a moonless, overcast night.

The peripheral vision system might well be our original visual system, and through the long, slow process of evolution, central vision was laid on top of it as the neo-cortex developed. If that's true, when we see peripherally we're seeing as a lizard sees, and perhaps feeling as a lizard feels. This is certainly speculative, but it leads to another engaging metaphor. The oceanic feeling (what Navajo's call 'Walking in Beauty ') that sometimes settles over NightWalkers is a natural state. The development of central vision is akin to 'The Fall', and focused sight and concomitant analytic functions stand as the evolutionary equivalent of original sin. In the peripheral state we feel comfortable, alert, relaxed, open, happy and very alive. Feelings of fear, anger, worry, doubt, and lust seem antithetical to the state, as if the neural wiring, whatever it is, for such strong emotions, is bypassed. “Benign” is a word that accurately describes the feeling of NightWalking.

Once again, the Physiological Shift created by NightWalking

Near the end of a NightWalking training, we ask participants to think about a person or situation while using peripheral vision, that generally causes them to feel anxious or unhappy. Most of them can't do it. "It just doesn't seem to fit," is the common response. See if that's true for you. This is a clear example of the emotional perceptual filters inherent in each quadrant of the Physiology Map.


In subsequent NightWalks, incorporate various terrains -- open fields and deep woods, up and down hills and through river bottoms. Take along a Walkman tape player as we did and see how various kinds of music affect the experience.

The NightWalking Rod is a training device. Once you've mastered peripheral skills and can switch easily from one visual system to the other, you can use any distant point of focus -- star, tree on the horizon, stop sign at the end of the block. It's important to have a point of focus, though, to keep yourself grounded firmly in the external world. Deliberately using peripheral vision is the antithesis of “spacing out.”

On your second or third night out, pick a star in front of you and 20 to 30 degrees above the horizon and focus on it instead of the rod tip. This is a practice that, according to Alexandra David-Neel in her book, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, was employed by Lung-gom-pas, Tibetan spiritual walkers.

Strange Lights and Sights

Because of the rods ' extreme sensitivity to light, you may see unusual light phenomena during your NightWalks. Some of this is “imaginary,” caused by "overcharging" of unused optic nerves, the rest results from natural or bioluminescence. Achieving peripheral awareness sensitizes the eye and brain to an astonishing degree, so some of what you "see" may surprise you. We once saw piezoelectricity flashing from beneath a bird's wings when we startled it from its nest in the middle of the night. And strange bioluminescence from something growing on certain clumps of sagebrush. Watch for satellites (you can spot several most clear nights) and the “river of light”.

We clip red LED's on the top of the caps of our workshop participants to keep track of things (see bottom of this section for more info) and there is a phenomena whereby small moving lights without a referent background will suddenly seem to be traveling extremely fast. This is the basis of many UFO sightings that report “. . . and then the craft just shot off at an incredible speed.”

The Big Picture

As mentioned before the NightWalking rod is a training device--but don't discard it too soon. We use it every time we go out NightWalking. The essence of peripheral awareness training is learn by use. Finding your way in the dark with your foveal vision fixated (thereby effectively removing it) requires the full functioning of your rod mediated visual system. Fifteen to 20 hours of practice should be sufficient to gain conscious control of peripheral vision. Beyond that we haven't found any end to deepening the ability.

Yet while the ability to navigate at night is interesting, useful and even exciting, our intent is to teach you a new way of seeing--both literally and figuratively. Bill Bradley, former senator from New Jersey, the ex-New York Knick, is a prominent example of a person who has firsthand experience of both the micro and macro applications of peripheral vision.

Practicing peripheral vision . . . led me to the discovery that I could look one way on the basketball court and see things other players couldn't, he wrote in the July, 1994 Reader's Digest. That made it easier for me to pass or move. This way of seeing the game naturally led to the idea of its being a sort of radar in your life or your profession, constantly scanning all the possible implications for any particular action. My eyes have become a metaphor for a frame of mind.

In a complex and fast moving world, peripheral mental abilities may be the wave of the future. Global environmental, economic and political concerns demand comprehending massive amounts of information about disparate but tightly interrelated systems and belief structures. This is the domain of peripheral awareness.

Currently a computer design revolution is under way. Something called “neural nets” are beginning to replace standard computer design. This revolution parallels the differences between rod and cone neural wiring to an astonishing degree. Fortunately you won't have to rewire your own brain, a little reprogramming will do the trick. You already have the circuits in place, deeply embedded in eye and brain, ready to be activated by using your peripheral vision. It's the only way to see and understand the big picture.

Peripheral vision can be 'seen' as our outdoor sight. It's probable that prehistoric people, hunter-gathers in particular, were much more familiar with peripheral vision than we are. There is speculation that their survival may have been dependent upon their ability to detect slight movements and shifts in patterns in the landscape that indicated the presence of game, enemies and changes in weather, perceptions mediated by the use of peripheral vision.

Looking back even farther, recent research suggests that peripheral vision is the primordial visual system, the vision of our reptilian ancestors. Studies on the visual systems of primates indicates that many of the pathways that carry peripheral "messages" are linked to the older (in terms of evolution) mid-brain areas concerned with fundamental reflex functions necessary for survival. As central vision developed, probably in concert with the higher brain functions that gave rise to what we think of as intelligence and consciousness, the species became more concerned with and adept at dealing with details. We chipped flint for tools and weapons, drew pictures and learned to write, invented the printing press, the steam engine, the television and the computer. We moved from the countryside into the city and then into the apartment, and in the process we became addicted to the details of sharp-focus vision and forgot about the outdoor, "wide screen" vision of peripheral seeing.

It was surprising (maybe it shouldn't have been) that the requirements for attainment of peripheral abilities mirrored the visual habits of very young infants. It may be that the peripheral visual system is intact from birth and focused vision is what has to be learned. If this is the case, NightWalking is just "relearning" what we already know.

As humans, of course, we need to be able to do both, to see and to look. Now at the turn of the millennium, the need for seeing "the big picture" and our unique place in it are increasingly important. To deal effectively with global problems necessitates a clear recognition of complicated patterns. To cope with the stress and uncertainty of rapid change requires that we proceed from a calm center. Mastery of peripheral awareness may hold the key to both.

There was the night, new moon, overcast, far from lights, deep in the New Mexico badlands when it suddenly dawned on us that it wasn't going to get any darker. That this was as dark a night as we could find anywhere in the world. And we could see perfectly well! It was then that we started on the inner aspects of NightWalking. Insights and personal changes (some small-others significant) keep occurring. Should you discover something “illuminating” please let us know.

The List

The following is a partial list (in no particular order) of our operational presuppositions as they apply to peripheral vision. They've been compiled from the literature, our experience and conjecture. In the following, central vision is intended to mean the parafovea--vision mediated by cones.

1. Humans possess two distinct and separate visual systems (central/peripheral) each with its own photic receptor (cone/rod), neural structure and method of mental information processing.

2. Evolutionarily, the central visual system has been “laid” over the older peripheral system.

3. Central vision is associated with stimulation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system while peripheral vision is associated with stimulation of the parasympathetic.

4. Central vision is closely associated with consciousness while peripheral vision is associated with non-consciousness.

5. It is possible (and we think beneficial), through training, to gain complete conscious awareness of the total peripheral visual field. Through our training, we have developed the ability to consciously differentiate and switch between the two visual systems and to consciously observe the total visual (rod) field as a single, uniform, bright, clear image. Further, (conscious) switching between visual systems creates immediate and measurable (brain wave and other) changes in states of consciousness.

6. In the brain, central information is processed in a different location and in a fundamentally different way than peripheral. For lack of a better analogy, these methods might be called sequential and simultaneous.

7. Peripheral mental processing has the following attributes and is strongly associated with: spontaneity, non-consciousness, creativity, relaxation, calm, intuition, wisdom (XXB) and feelings of elation. Deliberate use of peripheral vision increases stamina when engaging in physical activity such as hiking or jogging.

8. Many religious and hypnotic techniques begin with fixation (and therefore isolation) of central vision.

9. Development of peripheral vision gives conscious access to and develops the attendant peripheral (ordinarily nonconscious) mental processes.

10. Central vision is strongly associated with mental linguistic activity while peripheral vision is strongly associated with motor activity and sensory input.

11. a. Because of the structure and nature of central vision, it is impossible to focus on more than one point at a time; differentiation between “focused” points is, in fact, the major function of central vision. These points of focus can only be organized in a temporal sequence. Central vision is, fundamentally, a time-based system (memory is required for its operation).
b. Because of the structure and nature of peripheral vision, all points are equally and simultaneously “focused”; differentiation between “peripheral” points is, in fact, difficult, if not impossible. Peripheral vision is, fundamentally, a spatially based system (memory isn't required for its operation).

12. Reaction times associated with peripheral vision are notably faster than those associated with central vision.

13. It's possible to separate one's mental visual attention from one's point of central focus.

14. Peripheral vision can't be “improved” with glasses or other optical means.

15. There seems to be a strong correlation between the operation of peripheral vision and the emerging field known as Fuzzy Logic. Peripheral vision may be the ultimate demonstration of fuzzy logic--fuzzy vision as it is.

16. Visual hallucination can not take place within the peripheral visual system.

17. One can't remain depressed while employing peripheral vision.

18. There exist two distinct and separate ways to “think”, each at some point connected with the distinct and separate neural structures and methods associated with central and peripheral vision.

19. Any theory of consciousness which ignores the equal importance of and interaction between “central” and “peripheral” processing will be incomplete.

Your task is to gain mastery of your peripheral vision through NightWalking. Mastery is signified by the ability to separate focussed vision (VEN) and visual attention (VEB) and use each independent of the other. Practice until you can do this at will for extended periods of time and have a distinct familiarity of the difference between them. The ultimate point of this exercise is to have knowledge and experience of and be able to shift your state of attention to (XXB) at will.

What might be called Indoor NightWalking can be explored at Steroscopic Mandalas.

The next and fifth section is Echo Listening.

For those who want to keep track of moon phases, sunset times, Nautical twilight, etc. there are some nifty shareware programs:

Mac -- | PC --

also check out for related and other shareware.

For more read:

Night Vision by R. F. Hess, L.T. Sharpe and K. Nordby, Cambridge University Press
Experiments in Visual Perception edited by M. D. Vernon, Penguin Modern Psychology
Eye and Brain--The Psychology of Seeing by Richard L. Gregory, Princeton University Press.
Eye, Brain and Vision by David H. Hubel, Scientific American Library.
Perception by Irvin Rock, Scientific American Library.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, Bantam.
From Sacred Places by James Swan
From The Experience of Place by Tony Hiss
Little Manual for Players of the Glass Bead Game by George Pennington, Element Books Ltd.

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