Once upon a time two guys were standing on the muddy shore of a huge sea. This was the first time that they had seen such an immense body of water and they didn’t know what to do. They were at the front of a group of escaped slaves who were running for their lives. The world’s most advanced army, equipped with swords and chariots, was chasing them. Their people had been enslaved for 400 years and this was their first chance at freedom but now their feet were in the mud.
One of these men, looked down and said, “Yuck. My feet are all muddy. This mud looks exactly like the mud I’ve been using for 30 years to build bricks. I’m tired and hungry. What good is freedom if I’m just stuck in the mud with nothing to eat?” He kept looking down as he thought to himself, “We should just all go home to where it will be safe. Sure, the slaveholders will be angry at us, and might even whip us, but at least we’ll know what to expect. Standing at the shore of this sea is just craziness.”
The other man, whose name was Nachshon, felt the soft mud around his sandal-clad feet but didn’t look down at all. He already knew what mud looked like and chose to look up because had never seen such a vast expanse of water before. He was in awe! Even though he could hear the horses coming up behind them, he did not turn his head but opened his eyes wide so he could take in the enormity of this amazing sight. Instead of looking down, he chose to look up and step forward into the water. As the water reached his knees, then his chest and then his neck, he kept walking. Just as he was about to lose his ability to breathe, the sea parted and a pathway opened up for him and all the others to make their way to the Promised Land.
The story I just told is a midrash, a Jewish story that was written years after the Hebrew Bible as a way to explain some of the gaps in the Biblical text. For years, I’ve loved this particular story and have shared it as a metaphor for the potential possibilities that can open up when one is willing to take risks: When one steps into the unknown, new opportunities appear. If one isn’t able to take that first step, one will always be stuck in the mud.
After studying more about the neurological aspects of movement, I have another layer to add to the story. In the version of the story I just shared, an unnamed man looks down in the mud, doesn’t want to step forward and considers the advantages of returning to slavery. Nachshon, on the other hand, looks up, steps forward and along with Moses, guides thousands of people to freedom.
The fact that he was looking up is not a coincidence. It turns out that how we position our eyes affects how we move, and how we move affects how we feel.
The muscles that move our eyes are connected to cranial nerves. These nerves send messages to the brain and spinal cord, affecting muscles throughout our body. Looking up promotes extension of the muscles and inhibits flexion, making it easier to increase the range of motion between our joints. The opposite happens when we look down: The muscles of the body flex and extension is inhibited, making it easier to round forward and harder to stand up straight. Looking up facilitates inhalation while looking down facilitates exhalation.
In simple terms, moving our eyes upward is energizing. It facilitates the muscles that extend and support the lifting of the head. Our bodies are more capable of moving forward and we can breathe more deeply. Looking down is not unhealthy; it is more quieting. Sometimes it’s important to rest, relax and focus on our internal experience, but continually looking down can close us down.
When Nachshon chose to look up and witnessed the marvelous sight in front of him, the experience gave him the physical energy to take in more breath, extend his spine and step forward into freedom.