500/5000 vision

About two years ago, Frank had eye surgery that restored his vision to 20/40 – meaning he no longer needed corrective lenses. Having lived from childhood with 20/750 vision, he’s learned many adaptive (and not so adaptive) ways to cope with Coke-bottom eye wear and eventually with contacts which corrected his vision to legal limits.  The surgery took restorative treatment further with two new lens implants; I think one is even a bifocal lens!  The ability to relish a blue sky and that finally being able to really see me didn’t send him screaming into the hills is not the punch line to this story of our relationship.  The gift of new visual range brought into harsh relief the ways we had sculpted our growth around each other to manage the limitation.

I’ve never quite understood the whole vision terminology in the first place but learned enough to know that 20/40 means you don’t think the moose crossing the driveway is a big dog.  So, the fact that after the surgery he still couldn’t find the jam jar on the fridge shelf 10 inches away did not compute.   My logic is impeccable: if you can see something at 20 feet away as clearly as I can when I’m 40 feet away, and if we’re both 10 inches away from the damn jam jar why the heck can’t you see it too!  Try as he could, he could neither explain nor help me understand this predicament.  I, on the other hand, have many explanations that involve unpruned neural pathways, avoidance, gender differences in object pattern recognition, and subtle aversion to my homemade jam.  But none of this actually resolved the problem so he has learned to pick up and read the label of each jar on the shelf and I’ve learned to leave the room to write my blog until he bellows, “Found it!”

All poking at hubby aside, growth, spiritually and otherwise, is about vision.  First, it is in the transition between seeing with old and new eyes (the term refers to one of Joanna Macy’s stages of “work that reconnects”).  Seeing with old eyes is watching an old movie or reruns of a TV show; the brain uses an auto-fill similar to the way your computer fills in a word when you type the first few letters.  Nothing changes because nothing changed. Using new eyes brings things into relief from a familiar ground, highlighting the edges and contours that would have been missed when transmitted through the lens of the old eyes.  Of course, you know we’re not talking about the eyeball anymore.  It’s now about the way in which our assumptions, stories, and desires draw us into the lines, contours, shading, and tone of our experiences.  It’s also about the repetitive nature of how we attend to our environment; what I see today will differ from what I see tomorrow (or the next moment) – all at the mercy of being internally 20/20 or 20/800.

Wendy Johnson, in Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, describes one of her teachers, Harry Roberts, who asked the gardening students to look over the vegetable garden and into the coastal meadow that rose behind it.  Over a year, they described each week what they saw – developing trust in their vision.  About a year after they began this practice Johnson describes noticing the appearance of a sliver of green under dried brown grass.  It took that repeated effort with unattached vision, entrusting that clarity would emerge with time and seasons, to see that one spot in a field which could protect and support new growth.

Second, growth requires a powerful range of vision. It isn’t enough to simply focus on the blossoming and shoots of this season.

“Remember in your thinking,” Harry once said to me (Johnson), “That this is a Buddhist community.  And we are trying to live like one.  Buddhism is forever.  It’s not a crash program for the next five weeks.  We are looking at things from the perspective of five hundred years.  Buddhism is not a religion.  It is a way of life.  If we make it five hundred years we will make it for five thousand.  We are building for the future.”

We need to cultivate the power of this range of sight.  Playing with this concept, I imagined that the Buddha and other enlightened teachers saw our potential from 2600 years ago and we perhaps only began to appreciate that potential about 200 years ago (conservatively estimated); that gives us a vision range of 200/2600.  Not quite spiritually blind but still likely to need correction.  Now the question remains: what will be necessary in our practice as individuals and a community to adjust that vision so that it is 500/1000 or 2500/5000?

Thank you for practicing,


6 thoughts on “500/5000 vision

  1. Ha ha! I’m just thinking about going into Zen interview – as if it were like going to see the optometrist.

    She asks me to look, “Which is clearer, number one or number two?” and I always want to say “number three.” And so dharma training progresses, or doesn’t progress.

    When confronted with this kind of “progress,” Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “try try try for 10,000 years, non-stop!”

    So that’s the medium-long view…

  2. Eyesight 101 – brought to you by someone who is severely nearsighted, has presbyopia, has open angle glaucoma, has an optic neuropathy in the left eye that renders one-third of the visual field semi-opaque in bright ambient light, and has had herpetic keratitis ;who has a developing subcapsular cataract in the left eye; who sees his opthalmologist 4 times a year, and has worn glasses for more than 50 years.

    The human environment self-calibrates around the average visual acuity of the normal, healthy eye. By virtue of decades of testing, it has been determined that the average healthy eye can read the smallest letters on the Snellen eye chart with complete clarity at a distance of 20 feet. This is merely an arbitrary standard, but very useful as a basis for the diagnosis of refractive errors.

    Nearsightedness and farsightedness are most often purely mechanical in nature, where the distance from the corneal surface to the fovea centralis (the area of the retina with the greatest density of cone cells) is either too great or too short for light rays passing through the relaxed lens to create the focus necessary for clear vision. The simple cure is to change the angle of light rays impinging on the cornea to compensate for the error using lenses.

    In order for the eye to focus on near objects, the interior lens of the eye must flatten out to change the refractive angle of light on the retina. As humans get older, the lens can become stiffer and harder for the attached muscles to coax into flatness. This is called presbyopia and is the reason why so many people who have enjoyed excellent vision all of their lives find themselves holding the newspaper at arms length when they get to their late 40’s and early 50’s.

    Many people who are either nearsighted or farsighted also develop presbyopia, so in come the bifocal lenses to compensate for both near vision and distance vision.

    There is great variation in refractive error. Past a certain point, the Snellen numbers (20/20, 20/40, 20/100, etc., etc.) have very little value in assessing how well a person can see, unaided by corrective lenses or surgery.

    Oh yeah – I forgot to mention astigmatism, which occurs when the cornea is less than perfectly spherical. You can have 20/20 vision, or even better than 20/20 vision, and have astigmatism, although, statistically, this could be considered rare.

    You mentioned that your beloved had lens implants. Since I have cataracts developing myself, and I am severely nearsighted, I can look forward to lens replacement if I live long enough. My opthalmologist says that the vast majority of artificial lenses are designed to correct for distance vision. Corrective external lenses will still definitely be needed for near vision. There are “bifocal” artificial lenses, but they must be useful only in certain individual cases.

    I remember the scene from the Kung Fu television series when Master Po said to Kwai Chang Caine: “never assume that just because a man is blind that he cannot see!”.

    Hope I did not bore you.

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