Have you ever looked deeply into someone’s eyes for a matter of minutes, without breaking the gaze? It’s a peculiar experiment that’s only piqued my interest in the past year, but these past two weeks have been the first time I’ve tried such a thing over and over again, and with fascinating results. They say that the eyes are the window to the soul, and I’m starting to think they’re right.
I was tempted to say that I’ve been doing this experiment with a series of 'strangers', but I’m starting to realize that the word stranger has a real negative connotation. We live in this world where we pass each other without giving a single look or second thought. We treat each other like nothing until we have a reason to. I remember sitting on the subway and watching people avoid each other’s gaze as much as possible. We create these unnecessary barriers and lose touch with the increasing number of people around us. Sometimes we make up crude stories for these strangers' lives even though we know nothing about them. But that doesn’t mean we should treat them like they’re nothing. See the difference?
i. A Tough Prejudgment
We walked around the yoga studio room slowly as the instructor told us to follow no specific pattern. Then she told us to allow our arms to touch one another as we passed. Then she told us to make eye contact with each other as we passed by them. And then came a moment to pause. She told us to find the person closest to us, stand in front of them with open palms, look into their eyes at a foot’s length distance, and then hold it. I found myself matched up with a woman with a tough appearance. Arms covered in tattoos, hair pulled back tightly, and very wide green eyes, looking at my own eyes with such intensity. She was not smiling.
In my first minute looking at her I felt myself fidget and blink more than I needed to. Then I found myself focusing on her and wondering who she might be. This was an opportunity to study her demeanour without having to look away as social norms dictate. Then I felt a certain closeness to her, some sort of common bond in who we are (even though I had no idea what her voice sounded like or which country she was from). The instructor told us to close our eyes and then reopen them. She said to hug if it felt right. When I opened my eyes the woman smiled at me in such a genuine, warm way. She then reached and gave me the biggest , most sincere hug. Here in my snap judgment I had thought this girl was unpleasant, solely based on her appearance, and now I felt like I knew this important part of her identity. My prejudgment got the best of me, even when I thought I had it under control.
ii. The Man with Blue Eyes
He had piercing blue eyes and a look of curiosity about him. He smiled when we got paired with one another. This time we were asked to sit across from one another and make a connection. I was more prepared as I looked into his eyes, but it felt more curious since I had seen him at a distance but had never talked to him in the past few days. We both seemed to be blinking and shuffling as we began, but after 30 seconds we locked our gaze and focused intensely for the next 3 minutes. At the end of it, we smiled. This time the instructions went further, and one person was asked to spontaneously start talking for 3 minutes about what they felt, while the other did nothing except listen. I chose to be the first to talk, and I relayed to him the emotions that surfaced and the feelings that surprised me. As per the instructions, he said nothing until it was his turn to speak.
His French accent caught me off guard. I hadn’t considered that English might not have been his mother tongue (yet another assumption from appearance). He said this whole experience was new for him and that he hadn’t felt such a connection before. He told me how this way of connecting was different on so many levels. He didn’t know who I was, but he felt I had a kind heart. At the end of it, we hugged. Again, this hug felt genuine and real. Hugging strangers just feels nice after you've seen a vulnerable part of them.
iii. Going Deeper
She’s sitting down, cross-legged, her face is only a foot away from mine. Our knees are touching. Behind her is the glass wall looking out to the beautiful garden that surrounds the studio room of Yoga Barn, so there’s already this glowing aura surrounding her. She’s the teacher of a class called Nada Yoga, and I’ve been paired up with her. She reads the instructions aloud to the rest of the class of 25 while already beginning to look me deeply in the eyes.
Look at the space between their eyes. Don’t move, don’t fidget. No need to smile or say anything, just gaze into their eyes.
I’m a little nervous at this point. I have done this a few times before in the class the week before, but this is the first time we’d be going deeper, as she informed us. Yes, this time she wanted us to gaze for a very long time, and to get lost in one another’s eyes. What resulted was stunning.
I was looking at her right eye, focusing intently, when I realized I was neglecting her other eye. So I adjusted and looked between the eyes. It was difficult to focus, but I followed her eye movement and did the same- I kept them still and focused. I watched her watching me; her eyes were powerful and confident. In my periphery I saw her long, light brown hair gently surrounding her face. A slight breeze from outside blew a few strands of hair down in front of her eye. But she did not move.
I couldn’t stop focusing on these little details. Her hair, her eye colour, her slightly parted lips, the sounds of stillness in the room. I noticed the greenery behind her, and I observed my thoughts and wondered if I was looking at her correctly. Did she know I was thinking this much? Her eyes were so strong, her face expressionless. How could I know what she was thinking?
But here’s the thing… I didn’t need to know what she was thinking. I didn’t need to know the details of the environment around her. She said this time we were going deeper, so I needed to do just that. I let go of my thoughts and I gazed at her eyes more intently than before. That’s when things started changing. I noticed her figure in my periphery start to disappear. I felt it vanish and blur, but her dark brown eyes remained static. I began to feel my periphery morph into strange shapes, all enhanced by the light coming in from behind her silhouette. Then I saw her whole body once again, except this time something was changing. Her fair, white skin was starting to darken. Her brown eyes remained the same, but her skin was darkening at a fast pace. In front of me was now a dark-skinned woman, but still with those same eyes. Then, back to white. This illusion was bizarre and memorable, but what could I make of it?
Skin colour is irrelevant when you’re really looking to see someone’s character; I was looking at something far deeper than skin colour. I was looking into her soul. There is something so much deeper in all of us than what exists on the surface level. The surface is literally and figuratively the shallowest part of our beings. It’s the armour that protects our inner self. Yet it’s the part that almost everyone thinks is most important. Skin colour definitely plays a role in our identity, but this experiment showed me that there’s so much more to gaze upon.
Don’t forget what they always told us as kids- it’s what’s on the inside that counts. I wish I could make this sound serious and not so light and airy. I know you’ve heard this a million times before. But I saw it today. I saw something deep and real. And it’s not just in her. It’s in all of us. So why do we place such importance on our appearance? I’m not saying we should all abandon our nice clothing and hair and the things that outwardly make us who we are. But I’m saying we should stop prioritizing this and pretending that it’s what counts. How many teens suffer from disorders based solely on physical appearance? How many adults do too? I wonder if this remains the case until reaching a certain age and realizing that appearance just doesn’t matter anymore when looks start to fade away anyway.
But this text won’t do it justice. These are just words. That’s why I hope you’ll be a part of this challenge and try the experiment yourself. It doesn’t just need to be something you do with a stranger. Maybe in decades of your relationship you’ve never looked into your partner’s eyes for longer than a few minutes. Maybe you try it with a close friend, or a parent. Just try it with someone and see how you start to see something different in them.
Set the mood and atmosphere. Sit cross-legged in front of them, spine erect, all other body parts relaxed. Allow your knees to touch. Allow for no interruptions. Your phone and children and dogs have never been less important in these five minutes. And then comes the simple instructions with challenging results.
You look in their eyes for at least 3 minutes. No talking, no need for forced expressions on the face. Just breathe and look at the space between their eyes. Maybe you cry, maybe you laugh, maybe you see a side to them you never knew existed. But I promise you will feel something new.
I’ve done this challenge with strangers many times in the past two weeks. I’ve seen them cry in front of me (in a good way, not from fear), I’ve seen them totally afraid of the closeness that the exercise provides. I’ve felt myself change my own judgmental opinions (which were horribly based on appearance), and I’ve felt I’ve seen a side to some that others never have. Not to mention I see my own reflection in their eyes, and I see many of my own fears and strengths reflected from them as well.
We spend all day using our eyes yet we hardly take the time to study things as they really are. Our eyes flutter from place to place. The one thing we spend endless time looking at is our smartphone, and even then the screen is constantly changing and in motion.
So try the experiment for yourself -- see if you see something new in a person you think you know.
What are you afraid of seeing?