A Zen Thing…

I checked Google for “tunnel vision.” It offered: defective sight in which objects cannot be properly seen if not close to the center of the field of view.

Informally, it suggested: tunnel vision is the tendency to focus exclusively on a single or limited goal or point of view.

The Merriam-Webster language crowd said: constriction of the visual field resulting in loss of peripheral vision or extreme narrowness of viewpoint: narrow-mindedness; also single-minded concentration on one objective.

I can live with these definitions, because I’ve experienced tunnel vision. I experienced it as a platoon leader in the Army and as a bowhunter. I experienced it during a road rage incident in Florida. Heck, I probably had tunnel vision the night I met my wife, when I first asked her to dance. At times in your life you almost certainly have had instances of tunnel vision as well.

Tunnel vision isn’t altogether a bad thing. It’s complicated. In combat, soldiers experience extreme tunnel vision, but that can be overcome because there are so many other men (and women) supporting them that, together, they can effectively cover the field of fire. A cop will get tunnel vision when he draws his weapon or approaches a stopped vehicle; this gives him focus, filters out extraneous influences and lets him observe a subject very carefully.

The 14th Dalai Lama

So tunnel vision has benefits as well as drawbacks. It helps focus and concentration and blurs the surroundings, most (but not all) of which are only distractions: citizens watching and pulling out their cell phones, for example. As inexperienced as we non-professionals are in handling a sudden, violent incident, tunnel vision programs us to identify the principal aggressor and become immediately attuned to his actions and our reactions. Of course, this blinds us to what’s happening to the side or who might be assisting the perp. (Think of the YouTube.com videos of street cops who are struck by passing vehicles.) Some have argued, in after-action reports, that their tunnel vision during a fight seemed to shut down their ability to hear and respond to commands as well.

If you ever draw your carry weapon in a true life-threatening situation, you will experience tunnel vision, so you might as well understand it in advance. Maybe you have to accept it in an encounter because it is difficult enough to engage a single explosive nut case in an advantageous and legal manner. Two or three aggressors at a time are simply too much for one person to handle.

If we can think during a situation — and there are valid arguments that thinking rather than practiced reaction can get us killed — we can realize that we have tunnel vision. We can accept its benefit, the ability to concentrate, and counter its negative affect. We can think and move and open our peripheral vision. We can get into position to run or fight if necessary, because if an aggressor has a buddy helping him, that buddy will be positioning to threaten you from behind. So careful but determined movement and the cover of obstacles are tremendously important in an encounter.

Think of the football player, the ball-carrier running through a broken field. Members of the defense and his own blockers are moving as fast as he is, angling toward and around him at different speeds. The crowd will be roaring, but players say that, during a pivotal moment, they don’t hear it. Like an unexpected encounter on the street, the average length of a football play is maybe 6-8 seconds. The great runners are those who overcome their tunnel vision, their focus on the goal line, and weave their way through opponents to gain yardage. In the critical moment, they don’t think. They react based on their personal instinct and repetitive training.

I’m not sure how I would react if I had to pull my pistol on the street or in a parking garage or in church or the grocery store. My body and brain would tell me to focus, to concentrate, but somewhere in what I’ve learned and studied and practiced, a part of me would be a broken field runner, advancing the ball, moving and seeking shelter. It’s hard to be focused and not focused at the same time. Maybe it’s a Zen thing. Whatever it is, I think it’s a learned skill and a valuable one at that.