Saturday, September 18, 2010

Soft Eyes and ASL

As is often the case, two very different sources of information came together for me recently, helping me to understand something very important. Here is what happened.

When I was at Camp Mark 7's "Silent Week" camp this summer, I noticed a curious thing. There was a woman at camp who was just starting her journey to learn ASL. She had taken a class or two, but going to Silent Week was going to be a stretch for her. I definitely know how she felt, because I was in the very same place last year.

I noticed that when we were chatting that she was staring intently at my hands. This was especially noticeable when I was finger spelling. I remembered one of my first tutors encouraging me to not do this, to pull my self back a little and take in the person's face and shoulders as well as their hands. I knew intellectually that my tutor was right, but I wasn't able to do it. I would hone in on the fingers, and as a result, I would miss a very valuable source of information - the person's face.

The second source was an unlikely one -- a television drama that J and I have been watching: The Wire. Set in Baltimore, MD, this show follows drug dealers, junkies, teachers, dock workers, and police. In season four, a seasoned detective gives a new detective some important advice: that she needs to have "soft eyes" at a crime scene.

Soft eyes means you are looking at nothing and looking at everything at the same time. Instead of focusing hard on one thing, we relax the muscles in our faces, take a breath and release the focus. This is the same as when you are doing eyes-open meditation, when the gaze is about 12-18 inches in front of your face, a little lower than normal eye level. Try it right now.

Soft eyes relaxes more than your forehead, at least for me. It relaxes your jaw, neck and shoulders as well. It helps to put you in a mental state that is close to "shower thinking", where your brain isn't firmly focusing, but relaxed and able to allow new thoughts and combinations of thoughts to happen. It also increases your peripheral vision.

When I use soft eyes, I find I am much more able to follow signing, especially signing by native ASL signers. I stop reading SIGN SIGN SIGN and instead move to concepts, ideas, thoughts. I am able to "hear" the "voice" of the signer.

When I am fiercely concentrating, I tend to be more scared. I am more relaxed, which absolutely helps me.

Granted, you need enough vocabulary to get started, but if you are a ASL student with a year or two of classes and interactions under your belt, give it a try.


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