I was just five years old when I was prescribed my first pair of glasses to treat myopia, or short sightedness. Over the years, the prescription was strengthened until, as a 20 year old, I was wearing glasses that looked as though they had been groun
It was around that time I stumbled upon with my impaired sight, it was my major method of discovery the teachings of Dr William Bates, a New York oculist who had developed a way of seeing without glasses. He died in 1931, but his cause was championed by writer Aldous Huxley in the 1940s through his book The Art of Seeing. Huxley had been nearly blind he was forced to read with the help of a powerful magnifying glass and his vision improved one hundred per cent in just over a year by using the Bates method.
My introduction to Bates was through a charming Irishman, Michael Ronan, who practised close to Harley Street. (I do not believe he is still there, but trust he is alive and in rude health.)
Michael’s sight deterioration and improvement had been far more traumatic than mine. At the age of 11, he had been sent away to boarding school. Almost immediately, a traumatised young Ronan developed a stammer and impaired vision.
At the age of 18, he discovered Bates and, in a most romantic gesture, threw away his glasses then and there. Eighteen months later he was rewarded with perfect vision (and his stammer left him, too).
The Bates method is quite straightforward and, like so many discoveries, was due to happenstance. Dr Bates, himself a glasses wearer, took off his glasses after a long, weary day one evening and put his hands over his eyes. There he sat for 15 minutes or so drifting in and out of a light sleep. When he took his hands away, he could see perfectly.
From that simple discovery, Bates went on to develop other techniques to regain sight which I shall touch upon in a moment. But the significance of his discovery was that it was not the eye that does not see, but the way it attempts to see. The eye, and the brain behind it, literally “forgets” how to see, possibly following a shock or trauma, sometimes because it has used bad habits of squinting or staring.
But the eye, like every other part of the body, rejoices in being self healing if it is given the chance. That chance is removed if a pair of glasses is clamped on the face. Glasses do the seeing for the eye, a fact you can prove by looking closely at a glasses wearer; you’ll notice his eyes never move but are fixed in a stare. Then look at someone with perfect vision. His eyes move very slightly all the time as they build a picture of what is in front of him.
Bates believed that the eye, and the brain, can be retaught the techniques of seeing that are, of course, innate and instinctive. His methods included palming (the method by which he accidentally stumbled on his discovery), swinging of the head and pinpointing. This latter exercise will often be carried out on a diagram or object observed earlier; Bates believed much of seeing is linked to memory which acts as a convenient short hand in seeing.
Within a short time, I was experiencing the exhilarating happening of “flashes” of perfect vision. So exciting was this that I successfully negotiated a busy Regent Street without glasses until my nerve broke.
Despite these breakthroughs, I was not a success. Possibly I had worn glasses for too long or maybe my resolve was not strong enough. Later, I discovered the muscles did not properly shape my eyes and so I may be among the 20 per cent of glasses wearers who Michael reckoned really do need them.
A disappointment, then, but Michael was more than compensated by the many children he had retaught to see and so saved them from a life of wearing spectacles. I shall remember that should my daughter ever return home with a prescription from a well meaning optician.