“Look for the one who’s looking.”
Sam Harris, founder of meditation app Waking Up, often says this as he’s narrating the daily meditation session.
He then says to open our eyes, broaden our vision and consciously turn our attention on ourselves. Feel the weight of our body against our chair.
Doing this always had an incredibly calming effect on me. I would feel myself taking a deep breath and relaxing my body.
I had noticed my reaction to Sam’s words, but I did not put much thought into why that was.
It wasn’t until I listened to a Tim Ferris podcast episode with Andrew Huberman, a neurobiologist and Stanford professor, that it made sense.
I learned there is a neurological explanation, and it is a scientifically proven technique to calm the mind and create deep relaxation.
The best thing about it is that you don’t need to practice meditation — you don’t even have to believe in the benefits of meditation. Anyone can do it, any time, anywhere.
Before I go into the technique, I’ll first talk about how and why it works.
Our visual system is the strongest lever by which we can shift our state of mind
It won’t come as a surprise that our state of mind has an impact on our breathing. When we feel stressed or relaxed, our breathing speeds up or slows down.
Now, the reverse is also true. If you focus on changing your pattern of breathing, you can change your state of mind. That’s why breathwork and meditation are so effective.
This is precisely the same with our visual system.
Our eyes are part of our central nervous system. They’re the only two pieces of your brain that are outside the cranial vault, and they have an enormous impact on the state of the rest of your brain.
Aside from seeing objects, colours, movements and shapes, an essential function of the eyes is to tell the rest of the brain whether to be more alert or more relaxed. This happens without you noticing.
When we’re relaxed, our pupils change such that we have dilated vision. We see the entire environment we’re in — like a panoramic vision.
On the other hand, when we’re stressed or excited, the shape of our lens changes. The aperture of our entire experience shrinks, and we get a so-called soda straw view of the world. These sharp, focused eyes reflect high concentration and alertness.
Just like with the breath, the reverse is true again, and you can use your eyes to change your state of mind.
Think about how you feel when you are looking at a beautiful lake view. It’s very relaxing because you naturally go into the panoramic vision. You don’t just focus on one point on the horizon — you take up as much of the vista as you can.
Compare that with when you’re indoors, and you’re staring at your phone or your computer. You’re zooming in on a specific object, and your entire visual field shrinks. That drives increased alertness, which can be productive in a positive situation (like an interesting conversation) but equally negative in a stressful situation (like an important presentation).
Without conscious effort, we spend most of our days in tunnel vision and rarely go into panoramic vision.
By consciously shifting into your panoramic vision, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of your nervous system associated with relaxation and calmness. Simply put, you are sending a message to your brain that you are safe and there are no threats in your immediate environment (not that there ever were, but our primitive brains haven’t fully caught up with our modern lifestyle yet).
How can you shift into panoramic vision
Most of us don’t have access to open, expansive vistas at all times.
Luckily, it is very easy to shift into the panoramic view. It’s even more subtle than a breathing technique — no one would notice you’re doing it, whether you’re in a meeting, giving a presentation or walking on the street.
Here’s what you do.
Keep your eyes open and look directly ahead of you. Keep your eyes and head relatively still. Expand your field of view and soften your eyes.
Focus on seeing as much of your environment around you as possible — left, right, top and bottom — to the point where you can see yourself in that environment. Don’t turn your head or try to look first to one side and then to the next. Simply focus on what’s in your peripheral vision.
You can take your awareness even further, all the way around you and behind you. Remember Sam Harris’s instruction? Look for the one who’s looking. Look for yourself, almost as if you’re watching yourself sitting in your chair or walking on the street. Pay attention to what that feels like.
As you remain in this state, you will notice that your breathing has slowed down and become deeper, and the muscles in your face and body have started to relax.
Hold this for as long as you feel comfortable.
Before you dismiss it, make sure to try it a few times
I appreciate that it will feel odd the first couple of times, especially the sensation of trying to look for yourself.
I felt the same way in the beginning. I was more focused on thinking how weird it is to “look for yourself” than to try it genuinely. But, once I got over that, I quickly noticed the calming effect it would have on me.
I now find myself going into panoramic view whenever I am feeling rushed or stressed.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re into meditation or not — learning to shift into panoramic vision and maintaining that state over time is a mental trick that can benefit everyone.
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