I recently visited Dr. Marc Grossman, a behavioral optometrist, acupuncturist, and natural vision educator, to learn about integrative vision care. Nothing else would likely have gotten me to an eye doctor for any number of years. Who wants their eyesight foibles reinforced? But rather than reprimand me for my neglect of vision check ups, he guided me through a fascinating hour similar to a patient’s first visit at his New Paltz office. Within a minute of our session, the first of several unique aspects to this approach revealed itself.
“Already I’m looking at things that I see,” he said as he scanned the way I stood and moved. “For one thing, you’re tilting your head to the side.” That observation may be related to vision, as people tend to tilt their heads to compensate for eyesight problems such as astigmatism. “That puts a bit more tension on the cleidomastoid muscle on one side,” he said, referring to a strap like muscle on each side of the neck that runs from behind the ear to the chest. Grossman explained that the body in many ways accommodates to eyesight needs—and not just the physical body, but the emotional and psychological self as well.
The integrative vision approach
I was a bit embarrassed to admit to Grossman that I had only thought of eyeballs as objects that mechanically take in the scenery as best they can. That’s partly right: Eyesight refers to how eyeballs collect light and form images. But their role is only one element in the bigger picture of vision. “Vision is our ability to take meaning from our environment,” he explains in one of his books, Greater Vision: A Comprehensive Program for Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Clarity (coauthored with Vinton McCabe). “It is pervasive in everything we see, touch, and do. It is a reflection of our biases, our hopes, and our judgments, all in one package.” His training and practice in Chinese medicine enhances Grossman’s perspective that everything is interrelated, and his books are brimming with examples from his patients of how good vision depends on much more than good eyesight.
Like other tasks running in the brain, interpreting what we see is inextricably linked to other sensory input, thoughts, biases, memories, emotions, nutritional and health status, and just about every other aspect of being human. What’s more, a bounty of behavioral, psychological, and developmental studies have demonstrated how what a person reports to be seeing does not necessarily match what their eyes are capable of taking in.
Vision truly is a holistic activity. As such, visual problems are best treated through a holistic approach. “The integrative approach,” Grossman explains, “evaluates the person’s lifestyle, habits, diet, exercise routine, and stress management, along with the family history. It attempts to bring in the patient as an active partner in the program to improve or maintain eye health.” A treatment plan may include acupuncture, chiropractic, athletics, psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and other healing modalities, in combination with vision exercises.
Ironically, glasses are also an accomplice. They often perpetuate, and even worsen, a vision problem. That’s because, like any neglected muscle, eye muscles that don’t have to work so hard (because the glasses are letting them off the hook) weaken over time. As a result, you become dependent on glasses, and on increasingly stronger ones. It’s such a commonplace strategy that we don’t suspect the “cure” is reinforcing the condition.