The Extraordinary Power of Prolonged Eye Gazing
I invited strangers from all over the world to look into each other’s eyes for five full minutes
The sun is about to set in Fukushima, Japan, and I am sitting on the top floor of an old building that used to be a primary school. In front of me, 10 adults sit on the floor with their eyes closed, facing each other in pairs.
They are all waiting for my sign. When the gong rings, they will open their eyes and stare at their partner for five minutes. No words, no movements, no looking away: just presence.
‘The Artist Is Present’
In 2010, Marina Abramović held an exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art called The Artist Is Present.
What made this event unique among Abramović’s performances was that she sat in a chair for a total of 736.5 hours, inviting each member of the public, one by one, to sit in front of her and look into her eyes for a few minutes.
The results? People queued outside the museum overnight to sit in that chair. When they finally did, there were tears and laughter. One woman took it even further by suddenly and confidently removing all her clothes on the spot (and was immediately removed by security).
The exhibition was intriguing and fascinating, and it made me realize an unexpected truth about myself: I barely ever look into other people’s eyes. There are moments when I do — meeting someone new, making love, paying for my groceries, talking to a friend — but as a general rule, this never lasts for more than a few seconds.
The realization suddenly brought new questions into my awareness: Am I the only one? Do we all tend to avoid eye contact by default? If so, could this be why an intentional moment of eye gazing can be so powerful?
Once You’ve Seen It, You Can’t Unsee It
Humans are the only primates with eyes that contain a white sclera around the dark iris and pupil. As a consequence, unlike other primates, we have the ability and tendency to follow each other’s gaze, and we can tell when we are being looked at. Not surprisingly, eye contact plays a crucial role in human communication.
Eye contact is so important for our species that a lack of it can have extremely detrimental effects. One 2012 study shows that a major factor explaining online toxic behaviors and negative disinhibition is — surprise, surprise — lack of eye contact. According to the study, it’s even more significant than anonymity and the sense of invisibility provided by the safety of our screens.
The more I learned about the science behind eye contact, the more I noticed the harmful effects of its absence in my life.
It became clear to me that by avoiding other people’s gaze, I had been slowly dragging myself into the depths of loneliness. I could hear what people said, but I couldn’t deeply listen. I was there with them but never truly present. On top of that, I was so unconscious in my disconnection that I didn’t even feel it.
But now that I was finally aware of the problem, it was time to fix it.
Let’s Go for a Drink and Look at Each Other
The first step in my eye-gazing journey was to make it a daily habit. Following Tim Ferriss’ advice, I strengthened my confidence by not looking away every time I met a stranger’s gaze on the street. Whenever I listened to someone, I began locking my eyes onto theirs, reassuring them that I was listening. I gazed and stared and connected through eye contact whenever I had the chance.
The more I brought eye gazing into my daily life and relationships, the more connected, loved, and empowered I felt. I finally started implementing eye gazing as a tool for self-improvement, and the results were obvious.
However, my curiosity wasn’t yet fully satisfied. I knew there was more in this practice to be explored.
For example, what would happen if instead of simply locking my gaze onto someone else’s for a few seconds, I did it for a few minutes? Or a few hours? So far, each time I looked into someone’s eyes, I always had this feeling that there was more to see — and more of myself to be shown.
I wanted to involve more people. What kind of impact could this have on others? How could I make them reap the same benefits I had been bringing into my life?
To fully unravel the mysteries of eye gazing, I had to analyze and experiment like a scientist who dissects, treats, and observes a new plant species under the lens of a microscope.
So I got together with a group of friends on a regular basis to gaze into each other’s eyes.
Once or twice every week, we would spend one or two hours staring at each other. We experimented with different formats and different durations: Sometimes we would exchange pairs every five minutes; other times we would let ourselves be hypnotized by stares of longer durations. Sometimes we would sit, sometimes we would stand, and occasionally we would mix in relaxing activities like dancing and singing.
After a few such sessions, we were hooked. We had all been friends for a while, but after spending this time looking at each other, our relationships took on new dimensions.
Eventually, when we had a solid session format and a lot more experience, we decided to bring our experiment to more people. In 2016, we applied to perform at an arts festival in Edinburgh; we were accepted, and the performance was a success.
Since then, I have been organizing eye-gazing events all over the world as I travel.
There are certain kinds of communication that go beyond language barriers and cultural frameworks and that touch upon something much deeper than words could ever describe. Eye gazing is one of the most powerful tools for interpersonal closeness I have ever experienced, and sharing it with the world is both a privilege and a pleasure.
1, 2, 3, Open Your Eyes
Imagine yourself entering a dimly lit room with soothing, mysterious music playing in the background. Your eyes take a moment to adapt to the semidarkness. With you, nine other people look around this unfamiliar place.
As you enter the room, a woman dressed in black introduces herself as the host, asks you for your full trust, and invites you all to stand in a circle. One by one, each person steps inside the circle and gazes into the eyes of each of the other participants for a few seconds. When your turn comes, you do the same.
As you meet each person’s gaze, your heart rate begins to speed up. Suddenly, you feel unusually present, fully awake.
After the circle, it’s time to sit in pairs — that was just a warmup exercise. You face different partners for five minutes each. As you look into your partner’s eyes, your whole life plays in front of you like a movie in fast-forward. The world around you seems to disappear, and nothing exists apart from you, your partner, and a powerful, unexpected, invisible force connecting you to each other.
The music draws you deeper together. You can feel your own breath.
Fueled by a kind of silence it has never experienced, your mind starts running at a thousand miles per hour.
You start exploring thoughts and ideas that had never before crossed your mind:
“Is he feeling what I am feeling?”
“When was the last time I ever looked into someone else’s eyes for so long? Oh shit. Never.”
“Are we separate entities, or is the air between us no more than an illusion?”
The host’s voice keeps guiding your attention back into the present: “You are the observer and the observed. You are an individual, but you are also part of a whole universe of consciousness, and right now your gaze is your gateway to connect. Let yourself sink into that stare. How does it feel?”
When the last gong rings, it’s time to be on your own again. You’re given a piece of paper and colorful stationery materials. You are asked to put your thoughts and emotions on paper through either writing or drawing.
As you finish your drawing, you look around to see those people with whom you have just shared a powerful experience. Somehow, you now see them in a different light.
1. A mother and her teenage daughter who came to this performance together.
Now, after staring into each other’s eyes for what might have been the longest period in their lives, they pour their thoughts onto a piece of paper in separate sides of the room.
2. A thirtysomething guy who is clearly tipsy.
When you faced each other, you couldn’t tell whether he was on the verge of sleep or enlightenment, but one thing was clear: He came here by accident.
3. A young couple who just got engaged.
For the first few minutes, as they stared at each other, he laughed uncontrollably. She followed shortly after, and soon the whole room was laughing. Then his laughter gave way to a curious expression. A few minutes in, tears rolled down the faces of both lovers, who smiled as if they suddenly understood the hidden mysteries of the world.
4. A foreign traveler who doesn’t speak English.
Only later you might realize that she went through the entire session without understanding a word of the host’s instructions, but still, when your eyes met hers, you caught yourself falling in love.
5. A young bartender looking to pursue a career in the arts. A teenage girl with heavy makeup and a Rolling Stones T-shirt. Someone’s grandfather.
Myriad people looking to spice up their routines, to be entertained, to find themselves, to connect.
And now, you have all shared an experience. You have all seen each other — and something inside you has changed.
There Is More to Human Interaction Than We Think
The most recent eye-gazing event I organized was in Japan — a place where direct eye contact is often considered inappropriate or rude.
At the start, participants seemed shy and awkward, filling the room with nervous laughter. But soon the mood shifted. Some people cried. Many of them hugged and exchanged contact information after the session was over. A new level of openness could be felt in the air; the tension had been broken and emotions could flow freely.
Most of the events I have organized showed similar results. Seemingly extroverted people left speechless, and the introverted couldn’t contain their excitement. Art students, stay-at-home moms, busy entrepreneurs, and people of all ages and backgrounds were moved, transformed in one way or another, expressing their intention to bring this practice into their own life, and sharing gems of insight brought to them by the simple act of looking into someone else’s eyes.
It’s Up to You Now
So often, we speak with other people without really connecting with them.
So often, we forget that we are standing in front of another living, breathing human being. So often, we forget that each interaction we have with another person can bring us not only pleasure, but also awe, deep closeness, and even profound wisdom.
There is such a simple step we can take to achieve this: Look at them. See them.
Of course, you can’t just go staring intensely at random people and expect them to thank you for the life-changing experience. People often feel intimidated if you keep eye contact for too long. But that’s only a small exception in your complex world of relationships. The general rule is that people in your life will feel closer to you if you take a moment to look at them.
You can ask your wife for five daily minutes of conscious eye gazing to improve your relationship. Look at your children more. Look at your friends when they speak. Look at your boss, at your lover, at that stranger in the subway who seems to throw a glance at you every few seconds.
Open your eyes and your heart will follow — and very likely, so will the hearts of those around you.