?This is not a romantic experience,? Christina Berkley says, looking around the circle at the 23 of us who signed up for her eye-gazing party. We sit on folding chairs in a private yoga studio on West 49th Street. The curtains are drawn against the glitter of Times Square, and soft lighting filters through paper ceiling lanterns.
Eye-gazing parties?in essence, silent speed-dating events?were invented a few years ago by a salsa teacher named Michael Ellsberg, who later wrote The Power of Eye Contact: Your Secret for Success in Business, Love, and Life (William Morrow, 2010). The objective of his parties was to bring what he?d learned on the dance floor?the power of eye contact?to the masses. The concept was soon hijacked by pick-up artists as a get-laid-quick scheme. But getting people laid is not Berkley?s agenda. ?We?re not here to seduce anyone,? she says, reminding me of drunken strangers at the bar at closing time: I?ll go home with you, but we?re not having sex.
Berkley is a new-agey type?she studies things called limbic resonance and generative trance, works as a life coach and, you know, throws eye-gazing parties?but she?s down to earth and articulate. She laments that in New York City, not to mention in the age of smartphones and Facebook, people have forgotten how to connect face to face. We hide inside ear buds. We keep our eyes on our screens. And consequently, we lose one another.
Berkley asks each of us to fill in the blank: ?Eye-gazing is ____.?
We make our way around the circle. I say, ?exciting.? Others say ?scary,? ?intimate? and ?personal.? A guy in a T-shirt, jeans and a name tag that reads ?Christopher? says, ?amazingly hot.? Christopher is clearly the youngest person in the room (most appear to be late-20s and up). With his smooth skin and wide eyes, he looks too young to say ?amazingly hot? about anything besides maybe soup.
Berkley asks, ?What makes you blush??
?Making a mistake,? I say.
?Compliments,? says someone else.
?People seeing me cry.?
?When a woman kisses my cheek or bites my neck,? says Christopher.
Berkley lays out the eye-gazing rules: Don?t speak. Keep a neutral expression. Be present.
We line up our folding chairs in two facing rows?men in one, women in the other. I?m not sure why my muscles tense, why I suddenly long to escape this group. Normally I love people, unless they?re very loud or insist on playing air guitar. When I speak with someone, even someone I?ve just met, I don?t find eye contact challenging. In fact, I like it. It?s a way of holding each other without physically holding each other.
I sit across from a man whose name tag reads ?Arjuna.? Berkley tells us to close our eyes and connect with ourselves, but all I can do is fidget. What if I laugh in Arjuna?s face? Or what if he thinks I want to have sex with him? Also, my folding chair is the wooden slatted kind that is single-handedly responsible for all the world?s back problems.
Berkley turns on some music and instructs us to open our eyes when we?re ready for the first two-minute round.
I?m not ready. According to Dr. Katalin Gothard, a scientist who studies the neural basis of emotion, eye contact is used for fighting, predation and attraction (hence pick-up artists throwing eye-gazing parties)?and maintaining it kicks the autonomic nervous system into gear. Which explains my pounding heart and sweaty palms. Eventually I worry that it?s more awkward to let Arjuna stare at my eyelids, so I open my eyes. There he is?unflappable.
Not all eye contact is created equal. Before we began, Berkley differentiated between the intense stare and the soft gaze (she encouraged the latter). Dr. Carol Goman, author of The Truth About Lies in the Workplace (Berrett-Koehler, 2013), distinguishes between a businesslike gaze (focusing on the area between eyes and mid-forehead) and a flirtatious gaze (focusing on the span from eyes to mouth). When I surrender to a full-on stare with Arjuna, I don?t know what to focus on. I want to climb out the window. Although I?m accustomed to locking eyes during a conversation, something about silent, sustained eye contact is just so ? post-coital. I laugh, and then compose myself, and then laugh again.
When the two minutes are up, Berkley stops the music and tells the men to stand and move one seat to the left. Arjuna nods at me, cool as a cowboy tipping his hat. Everyone newly partnered, we take it from the top. By my fourth eye-gaze, the urge to laugh has passed.
?How much more open can you be?? Berkley asks us.
In general, my brain fails to navigate abstract language. (I once yelled ?How?? at a guided meditation CD that told me to ?Surrender.?) But I feel myself ?opening up.? Then eye-gazing becomes a drug. A daze settles over me. My empathy kicks into high gear. While partnered with someone named Alan, a wave of compassion wells in my throat. I want to take his hand or hug him. Other people must feel drugged, too, because when I eye-gaze with Reuben, an attractive man with thick eyebrows and black hair tucked behind his ears, he starts nodding out like a junkie.
This is so trippy, I think. But when Reuben?s chin hits his chest, I have to admit that actually, he?s sleeping. This does a little number on my self-esteem. But then the two minutes end and Reuben sleeps with the next woman.
Three-quarters of the way through my partners, I?m over-saturated. I feel caged. From the wooden folding chair, I have incurred multiple spinal injuries. Berkley provides pep talks: ?We?re almost there,? she keeps saying. After the final round, the group releases a collective sigh.
We push the chairs up against the walls and convene in the middle of the room. Berkley equips us with Post-its and pens. She explains that for each question she poses, we should write down an answer and give it to someone.
?The eye-gazing softens, connects and opens things,? Berkley tells me in an email a few days later, ?and then the Post-it game takes that opening to the next level.?
?What surprised you about someone you eye-gazed with?? she asks.
To a man wearing a belt with a big silver D&G buckle, I write, ?I was surprised that you didn?t look at me.? (He stared at my ear while I gazed into his eyes.)
?You made me smile,? someone writes to me.
Someone else tells me, ?I felt like you were protecting something.?
The man in the D&G belt hands me a Post-it: ?Sorry. I tried contacts for the first time today and they were out of place.?
?Tell someone a secret,? Berkley says.
A woman passes me a Post-it that reads, ?I am really fearful of stepping into all the success I?m capable of.?
Christopher hands me a note: ?I used to be a porn addict, masturbated like 2x a day for like 6 months.?
?6 months? is crossed out. Beneath it, he?s written, ?3-6 months.?
I read the note a few times, confused. That?s an addiction? OK.
The music plays, and everyone is smiling. Occasionally, someone dances a little. Something about the eye-gazing, something about the shelter of muteness?it?s permission to reveal ourselves, to admit things to strangers that we might not admit to our friends.
Of course, despite Berkley?s insistence that ?we?re not here to seduce anyone,? things get weirdly sexual.
?I like cock and pussy,? someone writes to me, the sentence punctuated with a smiley face.
?I wonder if you?re gonna have sex with anyone from here or just head home,? writes Christopher.
?I?ve been distracted by your boobs all night.?
?I want to give you biggest orgasm.?
If I were walking through Times Square and a man yelled to me, ?I want to give you biggest orgasm,? I would clutch my purse and hurry on my way. Here, for some reason, I laugh so hard everyone looks at me.
Christopher sticks another Post-it on my shoulder and gives me a meaningful look, as if the whole evening has been foreplay leading up to this moment. I peel the note from my skin: ?I feel like if I have sex with you, I wouldn?t enjoy it. I don?t feel connected to you.?
When it?s over, when we?re back in a circle of folding chairs, communicating with our voices, one woman says, ?I don?t want to leave.?
I know what she means. The bond in the room feels palpable, crackling in the air like a current.
Minutes later, stepping into the warm night, I?m blissed out, my feet floating over the sidewalk. On the subway platform, I smile at everyone?the exhausted 2-year-old blank-faced in her mother?s arms; the man selling magazines, lit up behind the counter; the girls getting arrested near the turnstile?and people smile back (not the girls getting arrested).
My buzz lasts into the next day. ?I still feel so happy from last night!? I tell Berkley in a text message.
?That?s kinda the idea,? she replies.
A couple of days later, when Christopher emails me, I ask him about his impressions of the event. He tells me that he?s 22, that he attended the eye-gazing party ?to relax and have a good time ? and also to meet someone, too, but I already have someone, but if I met someone else that would have been cool, too.?
He goes on to say that he particularly loved the Post-it game. ?Hey this is what I think of you, good or bad, hot or not, I wrote it on the Post-it and now I am going to stick it on your face. ? That right there is the most amazing thing ever. That honesty is so great and freeing.?
He adds, ?You can use my full name if you want to quote me.?