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The Practice

Thanks to some “new age” spiritualists, I bring you an old, but new to me, practice of pseudoscience. There is little room for interpretation on this one. There are no muddy studies to pour over, no controversies to weigh, just an ancient practice that physically harms you.

Sungazing is a practice that includes gazing at the sun for nourishment or as a spiritual practice.

The impetus for such a practice is to “feel connected to the universe” or some New Age jargon. But, as we will see, all the connected feelings in the world are not worth your vision.

The Claims

Proponents of sungazing claim increased energy levels and decreased appetite; as with other forms of “inedia“, however, this claim is not considered credible due to the lack of scientific studies confirming it. Sungazers also claim their eyes are capable of converting sunlight into energy for their bodies. They claim the methodology is similar to photosynthesis. Sungazing is also part of the “Bates method”, an alternative therapy intended to improve eyesight. However, ophthalmologists do not regard the method as useful or safe, due to a consistent lack of evidence and confirmation.

These kind of rituals have found a home in the new age mindset. New agers take the findings and theories of modern science, and extrapolate them far beyond that which is either feasible or proven (like “quantum consciousness” or something equally pseudosciencey sounding). What this results in is people believing they can photosynthesize, or stare at the sun and not eat, and putting themselves in harm’s way to satisfy an ancient ritual.

New age proponents have taken ancient Indian ideas of spirituality and transferred them to a more scientific, although still wrong, understanding of stars. It should also be noted that there have been skeptics who have challenged these practitioners to prove that they can receive all of their nutrients from the sun. With one million dollars on the line, a crony was caught sneaking Burger King to the sun-gazing challenger.

A Quick Aside:

As an aside: If you ever hear the word “consciousness” in a spiritual discussion, with no reference to neuroscience or the like, a whole shit-storm of pseudoscience is about to hit you. Scientists don’t even fully understand basic consciousness, what makes you think that some guru has stumbled upon the explanation for a “quantum” or “universal” or “higher” consciousness while the enterprise of science has stalled?

Quantum nonsense, I assure you.

“Spirituality” in Science

Don’t get me wrong, I feel connected to the stars/universe as well. I feel a profound awe take hold of me whenever I struggle to visualize the size and scope of the universe. However, this does not scale up to mean that your brain waves are one with the universe or some nonsense like that. Yes, we are all made out of the same “star stuff” (I love Carl Sagan), and the same energy, but this does not mean we can use this connection, or even interact with it. Just as an intuitive notion of physics can be consistently shown to be inadequate, so too can your intuitive feeling of connection to energy. You can be mistaken about the reality of your own experience.

Science can sometimes seem cold and stoic, but new age spiritualists should turn to more realistic inspirations. I find amazement and inspiration in everything that science has elucidated. Think about the complexities of the atom, the diversity of the microbe, or the mystery of the deep ocean. Just because our minds are not magical does not mean that they are not still a fantastically complex product of billions of years of natural selection (which they are). Just that fact is amazing in itself, and it conjures in me a “spiritual” feeling of complexity, insignificance, and wonder.

But that doesn’t mean that to appreciate the sun that I should put my retinas in a microwave!

Let’s do a cost-benefit analysis shall we?

The Dangers

I had the pleasure of getting this story from a guy on Facebook. I saw his conversation with another new ager:

…They say to stare at the Sun for 10 seconds or more, but if you get good at it, you should increase the amount of time. It’s hard though because it hurts your head after awhile.

What annoys me is that there is not even a recognition of the absurdity! Of course your head hurts, you are staring directly at the sun! Even new borns know not to do that! So of course, it must not be working, increase the time.

Obviously, the practice of sungazing is physically dangerous. Looking directly at the sun for even brief periods of time may cause blindness or severe damage to the eye. Solar retinopathy, damage to the eye’s retina due to solar radiation, and blindness to varying degrees and persistence frequently result from sungazing. Although vision loss due to this damage is generally reversible, permanent damage and loss of vision have been reported. Most eye-care professionals advise patients to avoid looking directly at the sun. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation, produced by the sun, is associated with damage to the eye, including pterygium and cataracts ( and you do not want those).

Another claim made by proponents is that since much of the gazing is done during periods of low light, that it is less dangerous, but this is a dangerous mistake. Yes, the decrease in visible light will decrease the stress on your eyeballs, but it is what you cannot see that really hurts you. Just as you can get sunburned on a cloudy day due to the invisible ultra-violet rays, UV light passing through clouds in even low light scenarios are still harmful to your eyes.

I am also aware that there are people who have been sungazing for many years and no harm has come to them, but I think that we can draw an apt analogy here. I know, for a fact, that there are many smokers out there who have smoked for basically their whole lives, and have seen no adverse health effects. But does this mean that smoking is not dangerous? Of course not, and the same can be said for sungazing. While some fortunate few are lucky enough to have their eyes spared, this does not imply absolute safety for the rest. Are you willing to risk your sight for that chance?

Common Sense

I am not saying that you shouldn’t be spiritual, do whatever you want. But if you are going to worship the sun, don’t stare directly at it! Aren’t there other stars that you could worship that wouldn’t cook your eyeballs? How about Sirius? What about Arcturus, I hear it’s pretty.