By Erin Finkelstein, M.M., GCFP CM
“Come into my eyes, and look at me through them,
for I have chosen a home far beyond what eyes can see.”
What is your relationship with your eyes like, away from your computer or smartphone? Most of us take our eyes for granted, until some vision change sends us to the optometrist or ophthalmologist. With the increasingly narrow use of our eyes due to our dependency on computers and smartphones, many are having eye issues at an earlier age and with increased frequency. I often encounter complaints of jaw and neck pain in my private practice, but people rarely link this to their eye usage, or to the resulting breathing patterns. The muscles of the eyes have a direct connection with many other muscles in the body, and help guide all of our movement patterns. When not engaged with full and complete movements, the resulting disconnect can create obstacles to proper functioning and freedom of movement throughout our whole body and nervous system.
From an evolutionary standpoint, humans once used the eyes in more diverse ways than our current societal structures demand, and the potentially detrimental effects of this on movement, nervous system, and overall health are extensive. In modern society, we don’t have the need to utilize all of the eye movement patterns as frequently as our ancestors did. We don’t hunt for our food on a regular basis, we don’t live and sleep under the stars or build our houses and communities by hand, and advances in transportation have had the effect that our bodies are not tasked to function at their highest level of capacity and design. This change in physical functioning has had a mirroring effect on the range and quality of movement in our eyes.
The decline of the regular usage and range of our eye movements has accelerated with the development and prevalence of smartphones, and it has been further compounded by the lifestyle constraints brought about by the pandemic. Even such seemingly non-physical tasks as walking to pick up a dictionary and turning the pages to look up a word have been replaced with barely having to move our eyes along the screen during a Google search, for instance. Having mainly been confined to looking at computers for the past 2 years, today’s children are the first generation of people who are developing without sufficient eye movement flexibility. As the pandemic lingers and continues to inhibit in-person education and socialization, smartphones and computers have become a lifeline for many.
The eyes help organize many of our movements, and their muscular function is critical–even for people with compromised or lack of vision. The eyes are intimately connected with the function of the neck and jaw muscles and can greatly influence patterns of movement in the nervous system. There are six pairs of muscles used to generate eye movement. Humans have encountered the horizontal written word for over 5,000 years, largely using the Lateral Rectus and the Medial Rectus muscles to look outward and inward (or left and right) along the horizontal plane. The other four sets of eye muscles were used with frequency for other more diverse activities: the Superior Rectus to look up and inward, the Inferior Rectus to look down and inward, the Superior Oblique to look down and outward, and the Inferior Oblique to look up and outward. Coordination of these combinations of muscles allows us to look in any direction with ease and immediacy.
The corresponding ability to use the 6 sets of eye muscles to their full capacity influences the head and neck relationship as well. Imagine you are looking at a horizontal landscape, and a bird off to the right catches your eye. Involuntarily, you not only look in that direction, but your neck muscles organize the movement to rotate your head and cervical spine to turn with ease. Additionally, the ability to move the neck muscles in one direction and the eyes in another is not as readily accessible for many individuals in today’s society, whereas our ancestors would have had much more necessity for that particular differentiation in action.
In a world where the glowing, tantalizing rectangles that live in our pockets and in front of us provide us access to an inexhaustible wealth of information, we have come to expect instant access to anything we could possibly desire to know. We are in such a hot pursuit of information–some useful, some not–that it can truly be a challenge to look away in order to move our eyes in the fully functional orbital movements, with no other reason than the pleasure of moving and perhaps letting our imagination wander. We have developed a capacity for extreme focus over long periods of time, our eyes darting to and fro in an extremely small amount of space over our devices. Often, this over-focus leads to eye pain, and an inability to unfocus. Try it now; can you intentionally go between blurring your vision and softening your gaze, or do you remain in focus at all times? This over-focusing can also lead to screen apnea, which is an unintentional holding of the breath for extended periods of time. As you read this, can you intentionally feel how the air comes into your body? Where do you notice your body being moved with the inhale and exhale? Can you look away from your computer screen for two minutes, and gaze off into the distance letting your eyes unfocus?
We are so used to being over stimulation, that I believe the pursuit of boredom and “zoning out” is actually critical for our overall health. For many, the desire for productivity is so strong that boredom is not valued as something that might lead to creativity and better productivity. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that you had no screen to look at; what would you do with your eyes all day long? One might begin to imagine the creative output of our ancestors (their art,music, and entertainment) as having come about directly and simply from an internal source of inspiration. Our eyes convert light into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain to form pictures of objects’ sizes, shapes, and textures, and of the distances between objects. Beyond perceiving the external world, our eyes are also a key to the inner world of imagination, emotional states, and the balancing of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The imagination, as seen through the “mind’s eye”, can navigate the body to form a full picture of one’s self in the nervous system. Humans are capable of creating such amazing beauty by allowing our eyes to guide us through interpreting our inner and outer worlds in unique and creative ways. Eyes are the means by which we take in and process more information than could consciously be articulated.
What is lost as a result of this physical and mental relationship with our computers and smartphones can be recovered with Awareness Through Movement® lessons. Dr. Feldenkrais understood the importance of eye awareness long before the personal home computer existed. Dozens of his lessons center around becoming aware of how you use your eyes and inviting new movement patterns through coordination with the rest of the body. Never has this work been more important and relevant than now. We can acknowledge the benefits our various electronic devices and the wonders of technology offer without disregarding the truth: our eyes are tired and depleted. It is vital that we have discourse about how to nurture the health of our eyes and nervous system. Eye health is body health–even apart from the ability to see–and moving the eyes is essential for all coordinated movement.
When was the last time you turned off your phone or computer for a day, or even two? Perhaps just half a day? Or even an hour? When was the last time you enjoyed gazing off into the distance with unfocused eyes, letting your mind wander without seeking anything except the comfort of your imagination? What is the quality of your breathing when you do? If you try turning off your phone for a whole day, take some time to put pen to paper to reflect on what it feels like. Do you feel like you’re missing out on something? Do you feel guilty? Do you feel refreshed? Can you sit with the discomfort and remember that there was a time in the not so distant past where our lives moved at a more leisurely pace?
In this exploration, I invite you to really see the world around you. Where do your eyes rest? Can you imagine something more beautiful than what exists in front of you? Can you create space for the unknown of what creative signal might emerge? Can you find intrinsic value in the exploration? Invite yourself inward, to rest and remember a part of yourself that is always ready to see something new, to move in a new refreshing way.
My student sent me this note after doing the lesson that I am offering you below: “Hi Erin, I think I’m having a SpiderMan moment. I haven’t been able to see this clearly without my glasses on…ever. I’m actually typing this out without my glasses on. Crazy! I wonder how much of this astigmatism that I have is actually due to tight eye muscles. Thank you so much for the wonderful lesson!”
*Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (2008). “Love’s Ripening: Rumi on the Heart’s Journey”,
p.113, Shambhala Publications
About Erin: Erin Finkelstein is a guild certified Feldenkrais Practitioner with 15 years’ experience. Her in-person Feldenkrais® practice, Sound Movement Services, encompasses a wide range of people; from children with Cerebral Palsy, to the aging population, and people of all occupations. With her online practice, she holds a weekly zoom class and has a learning library with over 130 ATM lessons available on demand. Erin is a professional clarinetist and a member of Urban Nocturnes in Phoenix, Arizona, and the Carmel Bach Festival in California. Her website is www.erinfinkelstein.com