This morning I happened to read an excerpt of a poem that described someone has having eyes that were “stiffened” in horror. “Stiff eyes”—what a striking description. And it got me thinking about the connection between stiff eye muscles and stiff necks. To feel what I’m talking about, try this experiment. Lightly place your finger pads along the back of your neck, just below your hairline. Then imagine a fly buzzing around in front of your face. Follow the fly with your eyes, but without moving your head around. What you’ll feel under your finger pads is a subtle twitching as your neck muscles adjust your head to the movements of your eyes. There are layers of muscles along the back of your neck, but the ones you’re feeling are very deep inside.
These tiny strands that interconnect the base of your skull with your upper two neck vertebrae are responsible for the orientation of the sensory organs that tell you where you are and what’s going on around you.
Still keeping your fingers lightly placed on your neck, imagine yourself studying your computer screen or a hand held device. Notice how the sensations under your fingers become even fainter, so faint that they might not be happening at all. Then imagine you are rushing to meet a deadline and your focus on the screen becomes more pointed and intense. Now the more surface layers of muscle get engaged, hardening to hold your head still. Imagine doing this for eight hours straight, day after day.
You don’t have to be confronted by horror for your eyes to become stiff--they can stiffen in the comfort of your home or office. Stiff eyes are a liability of our present-day culture of electronic devices, and they are an unrecognized cause of neck pain and headaches.
To relieve your neck, cultivate the following alternative way of using your eyes. While continuing to gaze at some small detail in front of you, notice the colors and shapes that are perceptible with your peripheral vision. Doing this engages different muscles and different parts of your eyes. You’ll find that you can see what is before you just as well as before, and that your eyes and neck feel less strained. If you wear glasses, you can train yourself to notice the indistinct images to the sides of your glasses frames.
When learning a new way of managing your body, it’s useful to go back and forth between the old habit and the new one. So stare hard at something again. Notice how this changes the sensation in your neck and the position of your head. It’s as if your head has been tightened down onto the top of your neck. Then renew your peripheral awareness to refresh the feeling of your head balancing lightly atop your neck. You might even notice that your breathing feels easier—that’s your body expressing appreciation for being used without strain.