Try Walking With Your Eyes Closed

People have a biological mechanism to discourage them from walking with their eyes closed. Although I read this somewhere a few years ago to have it confirmed, I’ve known it since I was a child; I’ve always known it, since I often try to walk with my eyes closed.

The highest number of steps I have counted is twenty-five; that’s the longest I can stand it, the mechanism. It begins around eight steps (maybe sooner, if you’re new to walking with your eyes closed). You could be walking in an empty field, you could trust firmly in the emptiness of the field and the sanctity of your aloneness, and it’ll still march upon you, the mechanism that starts as a crawling unease and builds to a maddening itch, screaming that if you don’t open up your eyes you will hit something promptly.

You can defy this sensation with logic, you can be quite convinced through the private calculations of your spatial relations that you are not about to walk into anything.  And even still the mechanism will still engage, screaming between your ears, peeling you out of your skin, rattling around under your breastbone and digging in and pulling the lids of your eyes open like pop-tops. At times like that the simultaneously terrifying and beautiful nature of the human machine becomes evident – your neurology has the ability to defy your own mind, your own will, in the preservation of your best interest.

You can witness this principle in operation if you try to see how long you can hold your breath, or endure not blinking your eyes, but walking with your eyes closed is, to me, the most visceral.

I’ve tested it. Once when I was young I tied a bag around my head with a little string I knew I could break because I wanted to see how long I could stand it, the panicked clanging of oxygen-starved alarms throbbing inside my skull, knocking furiously at my chest as if some force was begging me, poor child, open the door to your lungs again. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to see how close I dared walk to the threshold of actual death. Like it was just a country that I had never visited.

That was why I walked around with my eyes closed sometimes, too. Because from the time I was small, I dared nurture the fervent hope that when I opened them, I’d be somewhere else. I imagined that the disorientation, the protest of my body when I walked with my eyes closed, was the compression or expansion of crossing dimensions. I imagined some ancient tomes prescribing me instructions, declarations that if I could endure the discomfort I’d be rewarded with my dearest wish: the transit to some other plane.

I wanted to visit the characters in my books who seemed so much more loving than the kids in school. Or I’d have these dreams – once when I was nine or ten I dreamed that my neighborhood was deep underwater, and it was many years in the future, and where my house had stood there was a tall white lighthouse inscribed with runes and operated by crystals. All my neighbors and my family were gone and there was no one in the lighthouse except for other kindly time-travelers, shamanic parent-figures who smiled when they saw me and wanted to hug me and teach me arcane gifts. Another time I dreamed I woke up in a primal rainforest the vivid green of which I can still remember, that’s how realistic it was, and a man on a white horse rode up and told me he would always love me. I was probably eleven when I had that dream.

­So at recess I would decide that maybe I could go back to those places, if only I could keep my eyes closed for long enough. I would endure it until my biology tore my intention from my animal panic, until reflex forced my eyes open, white-spotted, blinking breathless on a soccer field wrapped in a chain-link fence.

I would take a moment to turn around in place, to examine the other children around me, because what if I had made it somewhere else and the differences were subtle? But it was always the same place, the same children, and it was time to go back to class.

Of course, by now I have basically surrendered the idea that I can thrust myself through the curtain of this world and into another one. I’m sure I could never have conjured the spectacular crystal-writ lighthouse with all of its runes, with its special rooms full of artifacts and planetariums and musical flames if it were given to me to do today. I’m just too old. Sometimes I still think about running away, though. Car trips across pink deserts to undiscovered tourist-traps, diners wallpapered in license plates, plastic flamingos, ninety-nine cent dreamcatchers that purport to be authentic. When I press myself down toward the needful blackout of sleep I sometimes think about the remote beach house I hope I can visit one day.

Sometimes I walk home from bars with my eyes screwed tight. I force myself to endure twenty-five steps, because if I did it once, I can do it again. Like the principle keeps me young. I envisage that beach house. It sits on stilts in the middle of the water, off the shore of an island too small to be mapped, that few have ever found. Without trying, I envisage it as a fragile thing, bamboo and rattan, about to be swallowed by the savage sea.

I open my eyes when I can’t stand it anymore. I am always on a city sidewalk, just as I was before. No matter what discomfort you endure, even should it rend at your very being, challenge the nature of the assemblies in your blood, there is no place to go. You can close your eyes for as long as you want, and yet when you open them you cannot be anywhere else but twenty-five steps from where you were before. TC mark

image – Viktor Bezrukov

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  • Verona

    I know this so, damn, well.

  • http://twitter.com/MorningTempest Morning Tempest

    It’s lovely.. one of the best articles that I have found in a long time.  It’s touching and alive.  Thank you for sharing.

  • Donald

    A new one by Leigh Alexander, and it’s spot on. I love your articles, they just have something magical about them.

    Thank you.

  • Radarticle

    Oh snap, another gem! 

  • Alex

    Love this. I used to close my eyes as a child, walking home from school. I don’t think I ever made it more than 15 steps though.

  • http://twitter.com/sophiakiona Sophia Anderson

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on here in a while. I really enjoyed reading it, thank you.

  • Fishele1

    wonderful! the best post i’ve read on tc

  • Fishele1

    wonderful! the best post i’ve read on tc

  • Alison

    When I was little I would put my comforter over my head and walk around the house. I’m legally blind, and my doctors always told me that with the state of my eyes, they would degenerate to the point of blindness by the time I was 21. I wanted to know what I would feel like, what it would be like, and under the comforter it was black as night and everything was muffled. It was so disorienting, like I was in another world.
    My mom would always find me after I had broken something by knocking it over and pull the comforter off my head. After a while she asked me what I was doing. I happily told her I was practicing being blind so I would be used to it. She cried, and told me that she would never let that happen to me. I will never forget that.
    Now, however many years later, I’m 20, and my eyes have actually improved since childhood. I still have a myriad of ocular problems, but the doctors don’t know what happened. My eyes consistently get better with every checkup. I like to believe it was my mother, her love, and all that time spent under the comforter, practicing, acquainting myself with the feeling of blindness, that changed something.

    Anyway, I loved this article. Beautifully written. Well done.

  • Zee

    Wow. I am going to try this some day.

  • guest

    I try to walk with my eyes closed to sometimes, just to see how far I can get-glad I’m not the only one

  • weirdowalker

    This is so weird. I just started doing this really recently and thought it was a thing only I did! Now I don’t feel so special…especially since I’ve never made it to 25 steps.  

  • weirdowalker

    This is so weird. I just started doing this really recently and thought it was a thing only I did! Now I don’t feel so special…especially since I’ve never made it to 25 steps.  

  • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

    “I imagined that the disorientation, the protest of my body when I walked with my eyes closed, was the compression or expansion of crossing dimensions. ”

    This is actually one of the reasons I am still kinda scared to close my eyes for a long time, like when praying. Not even joking.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

    I will be the happiest the day I stop wishing to be somewhere new when I finally open my eyes.
    I will already be at the best thing my imagination could create.

  • rose georgia

    this was beautiful. 

    when i was small i used to try to choke myself with a scarf, just to see how long it took to get to that point where every part of me was tearing at me to untwist it. i also wanted to know if you could pinpoint the exact moment you fell asleep and what it felt like. often i used to fall asleep trying to devise ways i could signal that i was now dreaming. it’s funny how quickly adults forget that children think like that, the fact that they’re always testing and exploring how to live. 

  • Maya

    Beautiful. This is beautiful. It captures everything, well.

  • tiger

    When I was a kid ( 3-4 years old) I tried to walk with my eyes closed. I fell down the stairs and broke my lip( I’ve got an ugly scar) and stayed in hospital for a week.

  • Nancy

    This makes me think of swimming…it’s natural to close my eyes and I don’t think I’ve noticed that sense of disorientation. Interesting…

  • Robert L.

    Wonderful. I love walking around in the dark for the hell of it, because it feels so different from when the house is lit.

  • http://zeolitefuhrman.com etoile-z

    I really love it when you write about escape. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/wingedthing Leigh Alexander

      fave subject

  • JB BRYAN

    Leigh, this was very beautifully writ, and 
    i must say, pretty inspiring.
    I’m going to read this again sometime.

  • http://twitter.com/kalina8malina Elena Shuliakovskaya

    It was beautiful! This post is almost a literature: a lot to think about after rading it. Thank you for nice mood afterwards)))

  • AMY

    Maybe my favorite yet. It’s special because I tried doing this the other week. And then you wrote about it. You’re awesome Leigh.

  • Anonymous
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