There's more to it than meets the eye!


Relaxation is a key concept and practice in the Bates method, and to maximise its benefit it is worth taking some time to understand what is fully meant by the word.

To begin, here is the most commonly understood definition of relaxation, from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1. The state of being free from tension and anxiety:
‘I guided my patient into a state of hypnotic relaxation.’
‘Since the body, mind and spirit are in harmony, you experience relaxation and contentment.’

OED definition of 'Relaxation'

This is a useful start for understanding what is meant by relaxation in the Bates method: in common, note that in this definition relaxation encompasses the dual aspect of the physical and mental (tension and anxiety), and that relaxation is perceived as a state of being.

However, in familiar use, relaxation is most often associated with purposeful and voluntary processes. A person 'relaxes' by choice, after effort; and it is assumed that there is an easily accessible conscious awareness throughout.

In the Bates method we are using the word to encompass a broader process that often is, by contrast, involuntary and unconscious. Consider the following:

The senses are by default already passive, and ready to receive at all times. It is in that state of total passivity that they receive and transmit information to the mind, to their fullest capacity. So without any effort at all, the senses work at the peak of efficiency. This is their default state.

The senses can be acted upon; they cannot act.

Wm H. Bates M.D., PSWG

Note how similar this is to the above definition of relaxation: the senses, by default, work perfectly in a state free from tension and anxiety.

Next, consider what happens when a person first experiences a disturbance in their vision. Putting aside what may have caused this to occur, think about the feelings and reactions that might take place inside the person; in their thoughts, and physically. While every person is unique of course, a similar pattern can be observed in most cases:

‘I can't see this. What's happened? I need to see this. Oh this isn't any good, maybe if I try to force my eyes? That sort of helps but it feels awful. Help, it's even worse now!’

Notice how quickly and easily the thoughts have diverted from the ideal state of passivity for the senses. The person is no longer free from tension or anxiety. If the visual demand is great, then the greater the physical and mental tension; each passing moment leads to another step in the wrong direction, with anxiety piling on anxiety.

Many people in the world now live in a visually complex and demanding culture. Visual cues that continuously affirm that the sight is troubled, lead to a vicious circle of reaffirmation: ‘I'm anxious because I can't see well and I can't see well because I'm anxious.’ This is practiced so easily it rapidly becomes a modus operandi - something the person is completely unaware they are doing. The awareness of the acute initial discomfort subsides, giving way to either numbness or perhaps occasional headaches and other symptoms.

The relaxed eye in the Bates method is vibrant and alert, bright, and interested in seeing. It holds no concerns nor cares about how well it is seeing; it is, indeed, free of anxiety and unnecessary tension. Understand that the anxious practice of physical and mental tension upon disturbed vision can be a very deeply set habit; and that when you are relaxing the eyes and mind with the Bates method, you are uncovering these unconscious habits, and taking your eyes and mind back to your default state, free of cares.

It is not so much learning something new, but unlearning something. Dispersing a pattern of use, an assumption, letting go a subconscious level of effort and strain.

Like taking off a cloak that you didn't know you had put on.


Relaxed and vibrant eyes - Image © 15 Second Art Ltd

Further reading: FAQ: 'What is Relaxation?'

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