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Beyond Words: The Power of Eye-Gazing

The mutual gaze is a powerful practice for connecting with others.

Key points

  • Looking into another’s eyes—without speaking—is a powerful way to connect and understand yourself.
  • Studies show that people feel closer, more trusting, and more empathetic following a deep gaze.
  • We think silence between people means nothing is happening, when something profound is happening: presence.
Sasha Kim / Pexels
Sasha Kim / Pexels

For three months in the spring of 2010, New York City's Museum of Modern Art hosted an event called The Artist is Present, during which performance artist Marina Abramovic sat silently in a chair for eight hours a day, and invited the public (one at a time) to sit across from her while gazing at each other—for as long as they wanted. There were 1,500 people who took her up on it, and in the process, confronted one of the most persistent taboos in modern, urban life: Staring a stranger in the eye.

Some of those strangers sat poker-faced, some smiled, others cried, and one even sat for seven hours. And they all participated in not just a piece of performance art, but a social experiment in the power of the mutual gaze—the giving and receiving of presence.

Afterward, Abramovic said, “Nobody could imagine that anybody would take time to sit and just engage in mutual gaze with me. It was a complete surprise, this enormous need humans have to actually have contact.”

Anyone who’s attended personal-growth workshops or retreats is probably familiar with a version of this performance piece, though it’s generally referred to as eye-gazing. Soul-gazing might be a better term for it—given that the eyes are famously considered windows into the soul—and might explain the cascade of nervousness and awkwardness that often accompanies the exercise, in which you sit or stand in front of someone else, usually a complete stranger, and just look in their eyes for a few minutes, as a way to practice presence and interpersonal mindfulness.

Rude to Stare?

Were those eyes a couple of marbles sitting on a table, you’d probably have no trouble staring at them un-self-consciously. But knowing they’re connected to a judging brain, a mind you can’t read, makes it intimidating for most people, as if someone were peering in their living room windows, or scrutinizing them. And most of us were taught that it’s rude to stare.

But the reason mere presence with another person is such a challenge to our composure is because of what’s absent in such an exercise: words. I’ve often noticed that the moment words stop in a conversation, even momentarily, eye contact breaks off. It’s simply too intimate to just stand there looking at each other. It’s like trying to keep your eyes open during a sneeze.

Even when silence is the rule and people expect it, it still makes us squirm. I’ve spent time at Trappist monasteries and in silent retreats, and I’ve noticed that during meals when people are sitting directly across from each other at narrow tables, no one exchanges eye contact. Everyone looks down at their plates or up at the ceiling or into some middle distance. If it doesn’t accompany talking, eye contact becomes excruciating, even invasive.

In the animal kingdom (from which we either arose or descended, depending on your viewpoint), sustained eye contact is often a form of aggression, dominance, or even threat, and though the human in us may not register this, the animal in us certainly does. It’s no coincidence that the ability to hone in on a target and focus your gaze is a hunting tactic.

Furthermore, when there’s a power differential between two people, or two animals, eye contact from the dominant one typically evokes avoidance in the subordinate, a lowering of their gaze.

Cultural and Neurological Gaze Can Differ

The mother-child bond is an obvious exception, as is being in love, or engaged conversation, in which sustained eye contact simply means you’re paying attention and eager to connect. There are also cultural differences in our tolerance for eye contact. East Asians, for instance, have a typically lower threshold for it than Europeans or Americans.

There are also neurological differences, with eye contact tending to ramp up stress in people with autism, social anxiety, and childhood PTSD (for whom eye contact is associated with a threat), in contrast to people who are “neurotypical.”

Still, it’s no surprise that sharing a wordless gaze is unnerving, and that when silence drops into conversations—even among people in long-term relationships—we react to it the way DJs react to dead air. Suddenly, it’s all hands on deck. Eyes dart nervously, sweat beads in unseen places, and file cabinets in the brain are ransacked looking for something to say.

Silence = Emotional Intelligence

But forcing words into conversational silences strikes me as a failure of faith, if not emotional intelligence—we don’t trust that we’ll speak when we’re moved to speak. We think silence means nothing is happening, when what scares the daylights out of us is that actually something very profound is happening—presence, just our presence with one another.

Once we get over the initial awkwardness of being in that presence, the mutual gaze can be surprisingly moving, especially when you consider this other person’s humanity, filled—like your own—with joys and sorrows, aspirations and disappointments, and that in this very moment, they may even be holding great grief inside them.

At which point your eyes might fill with tears at the same exact instant, cutting straight through the crust of superficiality that attends most social encounters and dropping you into the deeper waters of relationship, into what’s abstractly referred to as being real.

Eye Contact Invites Intimacy

There’s a difference between eye contact as a staring contest and as an invitation to real intimacy. The idea is to exchange a gentle, soft-focus gaze, feeling your togetherness in the exercise, your shared humanity, and whatever emotions arise. And as with meditation, if you get distracted, just bring your attention back.

Studies show that both strangers and romantic partners will feel closer, more trusting, and more empathetic toward one another following a deep gaze. And some evidence suggests that prolonged eye contact helps two nervous systems link up, spurring them to release oxytocin and phenylethylamine, which are considered “love chemicals.”

Eye contact prepares the brain for sharing mental states with someone else, creating a form of what’s called entrainment, the process by which individuals synchronize their movements with others, bringing on a deeply satisfying experience of losing boundaries which, at its farther reaches, becomes ecstatic, an altered, if not exalted, state.

Musicians call it the groove, soldiers call it lock-step, and friends and lovers call it being on the same wavelength. Entrainment speaks to a kind of force field, a co-respondence that can be generated between and among people without a word being spoken.

Wordless Dialogue

Dialogue, the physicist David Bohm says, is a stream of meaning flowing through and between people, and that stream doesn’t necessarily have to be made of words. A Quaker doctrine, in fact, says that what’s required to apprehend the “spirit of God” is a suppression of self that’s best got to through silence, or more to the point through presence and attention, a deep listening which is the hatch that leads to communion. How much of ourselves—of our essence and emotions, our passions and compassions—can we express just through our presence? And how much can we learn of others through theirs?

Unfortunately, most people—especially those habituated to feeling power in action and oratory, and who feel naked without language—treat silences between them and others like a hole they’re in danger of falling into and so constantly try to fill it, instead of a Roman candle that can illuminate a far broader landscape than merely the words that people speak.

The goal of communication is communion—sharing something in common—and the goal of a talk is to open the way for silence. Not the silence that accuses us of having nothing to say to one another, but the silence in which nothing more needs to be said.

And intuition tells me that at the very end of life, in those last moments—assuming I’m granted last moments and the consciousness to count them, and am not just snatched from the scene in a split-second—what I’d crave is just such communion. A last deep gaze into the eyes—and thus the soul—of a beloved person, and in that gaze to be held.

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