Have you ever found yourself across from the very person who asked you to dinner, only to find them checking their phone? Ever taken a moment to look up from your phone only to see that everyone else also has their head down, engrossed in whatever's on their screen? Has your phone and what is happening on it - work email, text messages, Facebook, etc - become a priority over what's happening all around you?
Me, too. And ironically, I've spent the last few years helping with seminars teaching others how to connect, how to be present with themselves and those around them. Yet there I am, choosing to shut myself off from the world from time to time.
This past Thursday, October 15, I chose differently. I shut down my device for 3 hours, alongside more than 154,000 other people worldwide. Why, you ask? To gaze into the eyes of complete strangers.
It all started with a video by The Liberators International, headquartered in Australia. It was a call for cities around the world to participate in The World's Largest Eye Contact Experiment. The concept was simple: Each city's participants were to share 1 minute of silent eye contact with complete strangers (#share1minute). Each city was to have signs, whether printed or handwritten, saying:
"Where has the human connection gone? Share one minute eye contact to find out."
People from over 100 different cities on earth answered the call, including Amy Silverman, Founder of The Connection Movement in New York City. When she said she was organizing the event in NYC, it wasn't even a question in my mind to take the day off from work and hop a train up from Washington, DC, in order to participate.
More than 3,000 of us signed up in NYC. We spread out between Times Square, Washington Square, Madison Square, Union Square, and Herald Square (where I was). And while I have eye gazed on a smaller scale before many times, nothing prepared me for the lessons I gained over the course of the 3 hours we walked around our square with our printed signs, either approaching or being approached by complete strangers. Here's what I learned:
1. A large number of people feel lonely, even when in a relationship. In pain, they crave being seen for who they truly are.
Human beings in today's world are starving for quality attention, love, and touch. I did the eye contact experiment with at least 30 people. At least half of them had tears of pain or joy roll down their cheeks, sharing afterwards how much they lack and miss this quality of attention in their lives, or how good it felt to finally get it.
People took the time to share with me things they'd never shared with others, including their own loved ones. It has me wonder, how many other people spend every day walking around with a mask on, pretending everything is all right? How many of us don't get our emotional needs met?
2. While being present is sometimes hard, it's also worth it.
Being present and making eye contact is not a staring contest. It's not about making something happen or trying to go somewhere or get something. It's just breathing in, being aware of one's own body and feelings in the moment. The amazing thing is, awareness of another human sitting or standing across from us, with their very own world and set of experiences, has the power to change us. And them. Especially when we see them as a being about whom to be curious, not someone on whom to impose our own set of values, judgements or stories. How often do we do that? How often do we judge without actually checking in with the person about what's actually true for them?
Sometimes all it takes is a moment of real presence with another person to shift us in deep ways. It's worth it.
3. Eye contact can be extremely vulnerable.
Being across from someone without speaking leaves some people feeling naked. Without words to hide behind, all that's left is to be seen. How many times do we say something because we feel like we have to? How many questions have we asked because social norms dictated we do just that? How many times have we filled up space between ourselves and another person with words, conversations that don't really matter, because we'd rather that than sit in the discomfort of silence?
Sitting in the silence sometimes is good for our hearts. Sharing it with another being is good for our souls.
4. I've been missing out on other people's beautiful features.
With every interaction, I saw the quality of detail on a person I would have missed if I hadn't been paying attention. Brown eyes weren't just brown, they were amber with streaks of green and yellow. Blue eyes had flecks of bronze in them. Skin tones weren't just one color, they had pink, yellow, blue or olive undertones. Some people had adorable freckles, distinctive birthmarks.
Each wrinkle had a story. Each face had emotions or thoughts they expressed without one word spoken. I was able to appreciate each detail of a person, details I would usually miss out on. What are we all missing out on all when we're not paying attention?
5. It is possible to feel love or attraction, name it, and do nothing about it other than acknowledge it.
I wore jeans, a blue Atari t-shirt, my favorite pair of Converse, and windblown hair. He wore a collared shirt, black loafers, a beautiful designer black jacket with white stripes, and his hair was impeccable. It was like eye gazing with Jude Law. And while I saw that he was attractive, he wasn't my type; attraction didn't even cross my mind.
When he approached and asked what this was all about, I explained and offered to sit with him to give it a try. Once we sat, what I can only describe as a vortex of time and space happened. It was as if the rest of the world didn't exist. At some point, I knew we were way over the suggested 1 minute of shared eye contact. I asked if he wanted to continue, he said yes, and I suggested we share what feelings or sensations were showing up in our bodies or minds as we eye gazed. I said I felt short of breath, my chest was pounding, and that I felt nervous, completely turned on, and emotionally nude. He said he felt same, and we kept going, both totally turned on.
Then, intuitively, we knew it was time to stop. We stood and looked at each other. Both of us struggled for words, a bit in shock as what to do next. I asked if I could give him a hug; he excitedly said yes. We hugged tightly. It lingered. Then we pulled away, eyes still gazing at one another. We understood that there was, in fact, nothing to do other than appreciate the gorgeous moments we spent together. We parted ways.
I saw that it's not always about getting somewhere. Sometimes it's just about being in whatever's true. Together.
6. Silent eye contact makes it possible to love more deeply.
One of the most moving experiences for me didn't even involve me. A married couple on vacation from South America saw my sign. The husband approached, asking if I was doing this because of cell phones (I said it was one of many reasons). He said almost everyone in New York City has their heads buried in their devices, that they miss almost everything happening around them. I agreed, and invited him to share the 1 minute with me. He declined.
But his wife, who was barely able to speak English, wanted to give it a try. She said her English was "not so good," to which I said, "You don't need English for this. Actually, you don't need any words at all." So she sat across from me, nervous and uncomfortable. We shared less than a minute of eye contact when I had the sudden sense that I wasn't the one she should be sitting across from - it should be her husband. I requested we switch spots, and he sat down immediately, excited.
What unfolded was, in a word, gorgeous. Over the course of one or two minutes, their lips began to quiver, their eyes welled up with tears, and they began to cry. This husband and wife were so moved by one another, they were crying.
When it was complete, they embraced. It was long, hard, the kind someone doesn't want to let go from. When they got up, they hugged me and thanked me. The husband told me they just fell deeper in love with one another, and it was because of me. I thanked them and said, no, it was all because of you. I had the joy of witnessing love be reborn.
It's odd to use words to describe something that went beyond words. I'm writing this because I want to try. The truth is, it was an honor to be a part of something bigger than myself that day. I was a part of a day on which I got to facilitate love, connection and reconnection. I gave and received love, truly saw others, and allowed myself to be seen. I was both witness and participant to something that had the potential to ripple out from the over 154,000 participants, and perhaps impact millions. Even it only for that day.
Being present is a choice. Aside from obligations we may have to work or otherwise where we need our devices, we can choose to turn them off. We can be completely present with ourselves, loved ones, coworkers, even strangers.
What could we learn if we did turn them off? How might our relationships shift if we agreed to shut them down completely, even for just one hour? Would we feel happier, more connected? Would there be fewer incidents of loneliness, depression, disconnection? Would people feel more seen, and less alone? Would our attention spans improve? If you find yourself asking these questions, there is only one way to find out.
Last Thursday, we gathered in Perth, Hanoi, Paris, San Juan, Rabat, Montreal, Tel Aviv, Houston, Durham, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, New York City, and more. We congregated in squares, parks, piazzas, plazas, and village greens. We sat together along streets, boulevards, avenues. The World's Largest Eye Contact Experiment was an opportunity to look beyond our differences, and share a moment of love and humanity.
We live in a relatively disconnected world. Fortunately, that is mostly by choice. The fact is, we don't need to wait for an International Day of Connection or a global eye gazing experiment to choose differently. We can just do it.
And that, my friends, is beautiful.