Nelson ZINK & Stephen PARKS
Whole Earth Review ( 1991 )
KeelyNet BBS ( March 8th, 1992 ) ---
Nightwalking : Exploring the dark with
Nelson Zink and Stephen Parks
It all began one afternoon a couple of years ago. We were
talking about people who have the ability to see farther or more
deeply or more clearly than the rest of us, those exceptional
individuals who can easily master complexity and ambiguity and
arrive at startling insights.
We began to speculate on the possibility that these people
weren't just smarter or more creative than the average person
but perhaps literally saw the world in a different manner. As we
looked for direct connections between the literal and figurative
meanings of words like sight and vision, it slowly became
apparent that we were onto something.
We reviewed the physiology of sight and discovered that neural
structures exist within the eye which facilitate a way of seeing
that is radically dissimilar from the one we're accustomed to
using. We confirmed that there is, indeed, a neurological basis
for a distinct "second" type of sight, and that this way of
seeing is available to all of us all the time. (Usually we are
so absorbed with our focused vision that we're unaware of its
Could peripheral vision possibly be related to Vision, to
Insight, to all those capitalized powers of perception?
Searching for references that might shed light on second sight,
we found that while many individuals weren't particularly aware
of how they accomplished their achievements, the reports
contained eery similarities.
We found a succession of texts from the Taoists of early China
through the books of Carlos Castaneda that spoke of a certain
kind of all-seeing gaze. It was often difficult to determine
whether the authors were speaking literally or metaphorically,
but it was perfectly clear in the case of Miyamoto Muksashi, the
legendary swordsman of fifteenth century Japan, who had the
clearest and most insightful description of the powers of
peripheral vision we found.
In The Book of Five Rings,
Musashi refers to the two types of sight which he calls Ken and
Ken registers the movements of surface phenomena; it's the
observation of superficial appearence.
Kan is the profound examination of the essence of things,
seeing through or into. For Musashi, Ken is seeing with the
eyes, Kan is seeing with the mind.
The difference is akin to that of style versus substance.
Musashi 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."
While Musashi certainly didn't understand the physiology of
sight, he was acutely aware of the difference between cone and
rod vision. We reviewed the science of vision and read that the
retina of the human eye is composed of three distinct areas: the
fovea, macula and peripheral region. 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 differentiated.
The fovea is a small circular pit in the center of the retina
packed 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. 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 is the macula, an oval body of
color-sensitive cells. 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 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.
For our purposes, we began to think of the retina as divided
into two areas: the fovea and macula, both with high
concentrations of cones, and the periphery, where rods
predominate - in short, cone and rod vision, responsible
respectively for focused and peripheral vision.
A quick way of understanding the extent of these two regions of
sight is to extend your fists directly in front, side by side.
Your fists cover the approximate area normally seen by cones;
the rest of your visual field is largely rod mediated. Thus it's
apparent that only a small percentage of our total visual field
is clearly focused. Attending only to this region results in
what is commonly called tunnel vision - figuratively and
literally, as we've come to believe.
It became evident to us that many of the special perceptions we
sought came from the ability to observe the world and ourselves
from a "different point of view," in a broader, unfettered
In time the obvious struck us, that the experience of insight,
rapid learning, invention, creativity, intuition, and perhaps
even personal change have a direct connection with second sight,
a sight dependent almost completely on the brain's capacity for
processing peripheral vision.
We decided to try to develop a technique which would
effectively stimulate this special way of seeing. After some
trial and error we originated an exercise and designed a simple
piece of equipment which seemed to enhance our access to second
On the bill of a baseball cap we mounted a metal rod welded to
a binder clip, extending about a foot in front of our eyes. On
the tip of this rod we glued a small bead of plastic resin about
the size of a baby green pea. This created a fixed point on
which to focus. We reasoned that with our focused vision on the
bead, any physical activity would necessitate the use of
We chose hiking.
We drove out into the countryside near our homes in northern
New Mexico, found a place where we wouldn't be interrupted,
donned our caps and set out. In the beginning, disoriented and
functionally blind, we made our way cautiously along an old jeep
trail. Soon we noticed that our feet seemed to know what to do.
We stepped over and around obstacles on the ground without
consciously being able to see them. It became apparent that our
non-conscious minds could see the ground directly in front of us
Within an hour our field of vision began to clear, and we both
became engrossed with the phenomenon of seeing double. Walking
behind, one could watch two identical people moving up ahead,
walking side by side, each making identical movements. A sort of
Zen paradox arose as to which was the real one. We later
understood that the solution to this and other "reality"
paradoxes was an important part of learning to use and trust
As we walked we began to notice that other senses such as
hearing, balance and touch naturally expanded and became more
acute, as if we'd gradually become conscious of the peripheral
regions of these senses too. Concurrently, the perception of
"weight" shifted lower in our bodies, to the hips and on down to
After a couple of hours of walking along the road we began to
experience a deep sense of relaxation. We noticed our hands had
warmed considerably, an indication that stimulation of the
parasympathetic nervous system was somehow related to the
experience of second sight.
Each time we have walked (probably a hundred times by now), a
sense of deep calm has been experienced. It took a while to
understand what was going on, but our theory is this: Walking
while relying only on second sight requires that the conscious
mind trust the non- conscious, and this inter-mind trust is the
essence of relaxation itself.
On the next few outings we picked steeper grades and rougher
terrain. We found we could easily control fatigue and pain by
using 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.
In our reading we had been reminded that in darkness,
peripheral (rod) vision is far superior to focused (cone)
vision. Night vision relies almost entirely on rods, which
because of their neural connections and physical makeup are very
sensitive to light. Rods need about thirty minutes of dark or
dim red light to activate fully, and then, it is claimed, they
have the capacity to detect a single photon - the equivalent, in
clear air, of detecting the flame of a candle that is ten miles
In the dark, cones are for the most part visually useless, and
so we figured that walking in the dark would force us to become
even more dependent on peripheral vision. It was time to up the
We modified the headgear by painting the beads with luminescent
paint and increased our daily intake of Vitamin A (necessary for
the formation of visual purple, a substance which enables the
eyes to adjust from bright light to darkness) to 50,000 IU for a
week to make sure we weren't deficient.
We picked an area where we hadn't walked before and started out
around sunset. For the first hour of walking we noticed all the
familiar inner shifts and sensations. And then something strange
happened: we entered the night.
We really don't have better description. When it became
apparent that we could see perfectly well, the night became
Rabbits hopped by, nighthawks and bats flew past to check us
out. Our steps got lighter, walking was approaching the status
of flight. We felt like we'd fully entered the experience of
Other senses expanded even more than we'd experienced before.
Balance became much more sensitive. Later we developed a very
slow- waking kind of Tai Chi just to enjoy this exquisite sense
of balance. Our skin started to feel peculiar, more "solid"
perhaps, and we found we could walk comfortably in quite chilly
air without any clothes.
Probably due to our increased ability to concentrate and the
air qualities of night, hearing and smell were vastly improved.
As we became proficient at seeing in the dark, we found that we
could run down arroyos and climb steep banks in the dead of
night, all the while focusing on the luminescent beads. With the
calm of Nightwalking, we discovered that anxiety and fear of the
dark, so common in our culture, are effectively eliminated.
Fear, anxiety and even physical pain are seemingly associated
with focused vision, while peripheral processes engender
relaxation and delight, a state we have half-seriously dubbed
A friend heard what we were doing and tipped us off to
Alexandra David-Neel, who for some years studied and toured in
In Magic and Mystery in
Tibet, she describes her encounter with and
investigation of Lung-gom-pas, Tibetan spiritual walkers of
extraordinary ability. According to David-Neel, "The walker must
neither speak, nor look from side to side. He must keep his eyes
fixed on a single object and never allow this attention to be
attracted by anything else.
When the trance state has been reached, though normal
consciousness is for the greater part suppressed, it remains
sufficiently alive to keep the walker aware of the obstacles in
his way and mindful of his direction and goal." We felt in good
Nightwalking became one of the most consistently relaxing and
exhilarating experiences either of us had ever had. The reports,
ancient and modern, turned out to be true - employing second
sight did facilitate a distinct change in perciption and sense
Not only were we learning to travel freely in the dark; it was
becoming apparent that this capability connected us more
directly to the non-conscious. Far from being a storehouse of
fear, we found it an incredible protector, dedicated to our
safety and happiness.
Just to make sure we weren't doing something that might cause
undue eye strain, we thought it might be wise to take an
optometrist on a Nightwalk. We contacted a respected Santa Fe
practitioner who initially sounded skeptical but agreed to join
Not only did he give us a clean bill of health, but by the end
of his first walk he was speculating about the possible value of
Nightwalking in treating myopia.
We began wondering whether Nightwalking would prove as exciting
and useful for others as it did for us. So we planned a training
which was divided into four sessions of about three hours each,
covering various terrains and their attendant challenges.
The first group of a dozen trainees assembled shortly after
sundown in the dry stream bed of the Rio de oa Truchas, on
Bureau of Land Management land between Santa Fe and Taos. Hats
and rods were passed out along with simple instructions: Watch
the rod tip and keep it up near the horizon, walk slowly and
start to notice the scenery to the sides as you pass by. With a
sense of mystery and excitement this first group set out,
walking single-file into the twilight.
Musashi had given instructions for a particular kind of stance
to practice while using second sight. We had fiddled with it
early on but found that the stance came naturally while engaging
in second sight.
We wondered if people would automatically adopt this stance as
they became more proficient at Nightwalking. They did, and we
found we could tell if a particular person was using second
sight just by watching their walk.
After the third session everyone could run over the rocks and
gravel in dry stream beds in the dark using only second sight.
By the fourth session members of the group could take the lead
and find their way unerringly on the darkest of dark nights.
After twelve hours of practice, virtually every one in the
group could enter second sight at will, which had taken us about
a year to figure out and master.
After the training we queried participants about the lasting
effects of the experience. Most of them reported shifts in their
worldly perception and daily lives. Several commented on their
increased ability to quiet "brain chatter." Virtually all
walkers said their awareness of the world around them was
broadened, and they were less "stuck" in their heads.
As someone in a later group aptly pointed put: "This is really
about convergence. It's about taking a whole bunch of things
that are semi-clear and converging them into a single
TIPS ON NIGHTWALKING
For people living outdoors, peripheral vision is critical for
staying alive. It may be time to rediscover it. Here are a few
tips. Fix yourself a modified cap and adjust it so the rod tip
is directly in line with your nose at eye level. Focus on the
tip as you walk around your house. Then try walking around the
Avoid places where there may be traffic or drop-offs. In the
beginning your vision will seem blurred. Pay attention to the
total field of vision, far to the sides and up and down. Slowly
you'll be able to perceive a fairly clear field of vision with
only the center (cone vision) blurred, doubled in fact. As your
field of vision begins to clear take it as an indication that
you're switching over to second sight.
Later you can begin to examine elements in your field of vision
by simply moving your attention to them. Notice that we say
attention, not eyes. Your eyes should remain constantly on the
tip of the rod.
This is really what second sight is about, using just
peripheral vision and the mind to gather and process visual
information. The first part will take about three hours, the
second about the same length of time.
By keeping your eyes focused on the rod tip while walking, you
will eventually break two strong visual habits - relying only on
cone vision and moving the eyes to new points of interest. Find
a place to walk in the dark which is out of the range of
Pick a night with little or no moon; take a friend.
Because of the rods' extreme sensitivity to light, you may see
unusual light phenomena. Some of this is imaginary, caused by
"overcharging" of unused optic nerves, the rest results from
natural or bioluminescence.
Over time Nightwalking sensitizes the eye and brain, so some of
what you see may surprise you. We've become aware of
light-emitting bacteria in rotting logs and along the veins of
certain plants. Fireflies seem like strobe lights. Glow worms
are blinding. A quarter moon rising on a clear night can bring
tears to your eyes with its brightness.
Nelson Zink is a psychotherapist and author. His first book,
The Structure of Delight, is available from Mind Matters Press
(Taos). Stephen Parks publishes inside Art, a newsletter
covering the Now Mexico art scene. Together they run The
Embudo Center, where they offer instruction in Nightwalking.
For more information, write P. 0. Box 181, Embudo, NM 87531 [
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