Through our eyes we search for each other, we see each other, we connect — or have the potential to connect — with our fellow humans. We convey that we’re here, we’re interested, and we value the person we’re with in this precious moment.
Eye contact helps infants grow and develop. Healthy emotional attachment is furthered through eye contact with an available and attentive parent.
Although we’re wired with a longing to connect, we may not take full advantage of those two hollow openings in our skull, which offers a remarkable capacity to connect us with life. I often hear clients complain that their partner does not make enough eye contact, leaving them feeling lonely and disconnected.
We want to be understood, appreciated, and valued. We want to be seen. Or do we? What we most deeply long for often is what we most fear. Our eyes bring us delight, but they also open us to what can be scary.
When people look at you, what happens inside? How do you feel in your body? Do you welcome eye contact or shrink from it? Is it frightening, tantalizing, or both? At what point do you divert your eyes? Is there something inside you that you don’t want others to see?
Being seen is something we long for. But it can also be terrifying. What might they see? Our beauty, our goodness, our wonderfulness? Or do we fear that they’ll see something ugly about us, whether real or imagined? Perhaps they’ll see our flaws, our unworthiness, our insecurity. Being human, our antennae silently probe for any hint of being shamed and criticized.
The renowned philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously declared, “hell is other people” due to their capacity to fix us with their gaze and see us as an object rather than in our subjectivity. If we quickly look away, we don’t have to bear the brunt of any possible negative perceptions of us. We can spare ourselves the shame of being seen in a diminished way.
When you look into another’s eyes, do you notice yourself judging them or simply being with them? Do you tend to put people in a box or do you look at them with open curiosity, spaciousness, and availability to be contacted?
Perhaps if we practice a more open way of seeing people — staying relaxed with our breath and in our body, allowing our eyes to soften, being with them and letting them in, we’ll notice how our presence allows them to relax and move toward us. The more we hold ourselves with gentleness and caring, the more quiet strength we may find to be present through our gaze, especially with people we feel close to.
Eye contact, along with the connection it may bring, can become a kind of mindfulness practice. If it feels right for you, perhaps notice how you feel extending your gaze with your partner. Settling into more relaxed eye contact with a good friend might also bring greater fulfillment. As I explore in Dancing with Fire:
What is happening in our stomach or heart as we gaze into our lover’s eyes? Do we experience delicious warmth or expansiveness or a fear of being seen or losing ourselves? Can we stay with our bodily felt experience rather than leap out of ourselves as we notice a delightful or threatening feeling?
This doesn’t mean staring at people or making them feel uncomfortable. There is a natural rhythm of looking at people and looking away. When it feels right, perhaps we can hold our gaze a little longer, relishing a simple moment of human connection. Life becomes more fulfilling as we become present to the rich connections that are freely available if we awaken to them.