Nightwalking : Exploring the dark with Peripheral Vision
from Whole Earth Review 1991
by Nelson Zink and Stephen Parks
courtesy of Keith Idell
posted on KeelyNet BBS on March 8th, 1992
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
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
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
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 Kan.
Ken registers the movements of surface
phenomena; it's the observation of superficial appearence.
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 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
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
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 context.
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
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 sight.
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 peripheral vision.
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 perfectly well.
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 second sight.
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 our feet.
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
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 away.
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 ante.
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 alive.
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 second sight.
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
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 Sense-Surround.
A friend heard what we were doing and tipped us off to Alexandra
David-Neel, who for some years studied and toured in Tibet.
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 of
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
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 us.
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
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
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.
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
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 crystalline vision."
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 yard.
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 artificial lights.
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
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.
Enjoy, Keith Idell
The man continued to advance towards us and his curious speed became more and more evident. What was to be done if he really was a lung-gom-pa ? I wanted to observe him at close quarters, I also wished to have a talk with him, to put him some questions, to photograph him. . . . I wanted many things. But at the very first words I said about it, the man who had recognized him as a lama lung-gom-pa exclaimed:
" Your Reverence will not stop the lama, nor speak to him. This would certainly kill him. These lamas when travelling must not break their meditation. The god who is in them escapes if they cease to repeat the ngags (a mantra or Tibetan chant), and when thus leaving them before the proper time, he shakes them so hard that they die."
By that time he had nearly reached us; I could clearly see his perfectly calm impassive face and wide-open eyes with their gaze fixed on some invisible far-distant object situated somewhere high up in space.
The man did not run. He seemed to lift himself from the ground, proceeding by leaps. It looked as if he had been endowed with the elasticity of a ball and rebounded each tine his feet touched the ground.
His steps had the regularity of a pendulum. He wore the usual monastic robe and toga, both rather ragged. His left hand gripped a fold of the toga and was half hidden under the cloth. The right held a phurba (magic dagger). His right arm moved slightly at each step as if leaning on a stick, just as though the phurba, whose pointed extremity was far above the ground, had touched it and were actually a support.
However, our slow pace could not in any way be compared to that of the leaping lung-gom-pa, who seemed as if carried on wings.
The student sits cross-legged on a large and thick cushion. He inhales slowly and for a long time, just as if he wanted to fill his body with air.
Then, holding his breath, he jumps up with legs crossed, without using his hands and falls back on his cushion, still remaining in the same position. He repeats that exercise a number of times during each period of practice. Some lamas succeed in jumping very high in that way. Some women train themselves in the same manner.
As one can easily believe the object of this exercise is not acrobatic jumping. According to Tibetans, the body of those who drill themselves for years, by that method, become exceedingly light; nearly without weight.
These men, they say, are able to sit on an ear of barley without bending its stalk or to stand on the top of a heap of grain without displacing any of it. In fact the aim is levitation.
We were travelling in a forest, Yongden and I walking ahead of our servants and beasts, when at the turning of the path, we came upon a naked man with iron chains rolled all round his body.
He was seated on a rock and seemed so deeply buried in thoughts that he had not heard us coming. We stopped, astonished, but he must have suddenly become aware of our presence, for after gazing at us a moment, he jumped up and threw himself into the thickets more quickly than a deer. For a while we heard the noise of the chains jingling on his body growing rapidly fainter and fainter, then all was silence again.
"That man is a lung-gom-pa," said Yongden to me. "I have already seen one like him. They wear these chains to make themselves heavy, for through the practice of lung-gom, their bodies have become so light that they are always in danger of floating in the air."
He was most unwilling to answer, but I managed to obtain some information which confirmed what I knew already. He had been told that sunset and clear nights were favourable conditions for the walker. He had also been advised to train himself by looking fixedly at the starry sky.
Any clear night is deemed good for the training of beginners, but strong starlight is especially favourable. One is often advised to keep the eyes fixed on a particular star.
This appears connected with hypnotic effects, and I 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.