The Bates Method
An alternative to eyeglasses.
by Michael Braunstein
There are many who consider Aldous Huxley a visionary writer. His Brave New World is a classic often set next to Orwell's 1984 as mid-century visions of a suspect future. For all his insight as a writer, though, Huxley was nearly blind by the age of sixteen. In 1942 he wrote the book, The Art of Seeing. "At sixteen I had to depend on Braille for my reading and a guide for my walking," wrote Huxley. Thanks to the Bates Method, "I am now wearing no glasses, reading, and all without strain . . . My vision . . . is about twice as good as it used to be when I wore spectacles, and before I had learned the art of seeing."
One of the first steps in the Bates Method doesn't even involve the use of exercise. It involves a relaxed way of seeing. Students are encouraged to see, to look around at objects in the field of vision, with a relaxed attitude.
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The man Huxley thanked was Dr. William H. Bates, an ophthalmologist trained at Cornell University. Born in 1865, Bates attained his medical degree and entered a residency at Columbia University Hospital in New York. It was during this time that he first began to develop what is known as The Bates Method for Better Eyesight Without Glasses.
Bates' logic is a classic observation about the allopathic medical approach of Western medicine. Id est, Western medicine is more concerned with treating symptoms than in healing. In the case of eyeglasses, it was clear to Bates. Corrective lenses correct refraction of light but do nothing to heal or correct eye problems. In fact, corrective lenses, in Bates' opinion, and that of many others, actually harmed and interfered with the ability of the eye to correct vision. This viewpoint did not sit well with Bates' superiors at Columbia whose charge it was to train doctors who would then prescribe eyeglasses. Their paradigm was being challenged.
"NOW WE SEE THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY"
It was in 1898 that Bates became an intern at Columbia hospital. And it was during this time that he saw thousands of patients with eye problems. As a trained ophthalmologist, Bates used methods of measurement like the retinoscope to get a good idea how the eye worked. What he finally came to conclude was not in complete accordance with his colleagues, then or now. Conventional thought at the time held that eye focus, or the refraction of light by which the eye "sees," was solely done by accommodation of the lens by the ciliary muscles. The shape of the lens was believed to change to focus the light reflected off objects. Bates held differently. He believed that the external muscles of the eye changing the shape of the eyeball is the most important factor in proper eyesight. And not only did a corrective lens do nothing to improve the ability of the eye to see, it actually put greater stress on those muscles.
According to the Roman historian Pliny, Nero used a "glass jewel held in a ring" to view the games in the coliseum. That may be the first pair of eyeglasses we know of. The Italian lens makers of Florence truly became the first mass marketing "lenscrafters" during the middle ages. But according to Bates and others, eyeglasses "always do more or less harm, and at their best they never improve vision to normal."
Eyeglasses correct the light that is coming in. The problem isn't in the light that is coming in! It's with the eye. How typically human. There's an error and we pretend it's "out there." If there is an error, correct it where it needs to be corrected. Do eyeglasses even attempt that?
The logic does seem pretty sensible. Glasses are designed to correct a refractive error of a certain amount. In order for a person to see clearly through them, the eyes actually must return to the error in the first place. Glasses don't work unless the eye is seeing wrongly first. Bates' idea is that errors of focus are not constant. The eye changes. The moment one puts on eyeglasses though, the eye has to automatically adjust -- to an incorrect position, an unnatural position of focus to accommodate to the glass lens. So, if you woke up in the morning and your eyes worked properly at the moment you arose, you'd be making your eye muscles put your eyes out of focus the minute you put your glasses on! At the least, you would be reinforcing something undesirable -- poor eye focus.
Bates was moved by the facts he believed. When he saw an infant at the clinic being fitted with tiny glasses, knowing that she would be condemned by the present system of ophthalmology to stronger and stronger lenses, he uttered "It's enough to make the angels weep."
IN YOUR MIND'S EYE...
Bates believed that vision problems are the result of two primary factors: mental strain and misuse of the muscles that shape the eye for focus. The sets of muscles that control focus and eye movement are referred to as the extrinsic muscles of the eye. Like any muscle, they can be affected by stress, tension, and fatigue. They can also be trained by misuse and retrained by simple exercises. Good sight is the result of a relaxed state of mind and body.
Here is a very important point that Bates applied. Exercise can certainly enhance the performance of muscle. But exercising an already fatigued and strained muscle will not improve its performance. So the first key in the Bates Method is always learning to relax the muscle. Bates believed that correct seeing is a natural ability and should be done with ease. That is an important realization in the retraining the eyes.
"Of two equally good pairs of eyes, one will retain perfect sight to the end of life and the other will lose it in the kindergarten, simply because one looks at things without effort and the other does not," Bates says. One of the first steps in the Bates Method doesn't even involve the use of exercise. It involves a relaxed way of seeing. Students are encouraged to see, to look around at objects in the field of vision, with a relaxed attitude. Seeing is a natural thing. It's not supposed to be hard. If it's hard, looking at something else is what the eye naturally wants to do. A beginning is seeing only, looking at only, the objects and things that are easy to look at. Immediately a sense of strain is lifted. The muscles become relaxed. It is a mental attitude that serves to relax at first. Seeing in its natural way without strain takes in all in the field of vision yet allows that some points in that field will be easier to see than others. It's the nature of the mechanism of the eye to work that way. Relieving ourselves of the stress of trying to see parts of the field of vision that are not seen as well results in better focus on the central part we can see better. In Bates' words, "The eye with normal sight never tries to see."
To the end of relaxed seeing, Bates instructed his patients in a way of central fixation. He was holistic too. He wrote, "Since central fixation is impossible without mental control, central fixation of the eye means central fixation of the mind. It means, therefore, health in all parts of the body, for all the operations of the physical mechanism depend upon the mind." Bates saw all manor of disease alleviated by the techniques of central fixation.
RELAX. DON'T DO IT
There are four basic exercises in the Bates Method after the learning of the mental skill of central fixation.
- Palming -- This is the primary technique of relaxation. Though many conventional ophthalmologists are not learned in the Bates Method, many are familiar with this technique. It is a classic for optical relaxation. And the mind relaxes easily too. Palming relaxes the eyes by closing all light out. One rests the head on the hands with the heels of the palms against the cheekbones. No pressure should be placed on the eyeball. The result, Bates noted, is a complete relaxation of the eyes and the optic nerve. After just a few minutes, Bates teachers measure an immediate, usually temporary, visual improvement. Palming remains in the repertoire of the student throughout.
- Sunning -- This one is easy. Bates recognized that our relationship to light is essential for seeing. Not only that, but he intuited that some form of nourishment not entirely understood came from sunning. Just recently, research has upheld his ideas. The sun is good for us. In the exercise of sunning, the head is turned toward the sun with the eyes closed, of course. Gently rocking the head back and forth, the mental image of bathing the eyes in light is encouraged. The eye regains a trusting relationship with light.
- Swinging -- Not related to the late musical trend by the same name, swinging is the exercise of gently swaying the whole body back and forth while focusing on a fingertip held out in front of the eyes. The shifting back and forth, when done as directed, helps integrate the peripheral sight input and the point of focus input.
- Blinking -- Yet another way to relax and massage the eyes. Combining this with breathing exercises is a good way to integrate the senses of the entire body.
"The doctor treats, Nature heals."
-- Aldous Huxley, The Art of Seeing
In Los Angeles I met with an opthalmologist in Malibu who did nothing but Bates Method-related therapies; no lenses at all. She approached me about helping her use hypnosis in her practice. Since the Bates Method emphasizes mental relaxation so much, it was a natural request.
Further, there are many other practitioners who utilize and combine holistic and alternative therapies in helping people with their sight. Lisette Scholl is author of two books on holistic therapies for eyesight problems, Visionetics and Hypnovision. Dr. Samuel Berne has a recent book, Creating Your Personal Vision that honors many of Bates' ideas while contemporizing many of the issues. Most authors see the relationship between nutrition, general overall health and metaphysical bases for vision compromise. And, of course, Bates' book, Better Eyesight Without Glasses is still available.
Eyeglasses are neither inevitable nor compulsory. Your free will has not been rescinded.