This winter break, I decided to sign up for a retreat at the yoga-Mecca of the Northeast, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in the nearby Berkshires of Massachusetts. Coming from a hectic semester, I thought a four-day yoga retreat would be the perfect way to restore my clarity of mind. This particular retreat, titled “Quarter-Life Calling,” promised to help 20-year-olds create an “authentic life of meaning and purpose” through mindfulness, meditation, and yoga practices. Finding a clearer path couldn’t be a bad thing, I thought, so I signed up.
Upon arriving in the snow-dusted mountains, in which Kripalu was nestled, I found that I was in for something much more involved than I originally suspected. We weren’t just going to hear how to live a better life; we were going to actively find it ourselves by engaging in all of the emotions that life brings—wonderful and painful—through a bunch of exercises that would induce a whole lotta feelings. This was no downward dog. I am being intentionally vague here because I think everyone should do this program, and go into it blindly.
But I will tell you about one exercise, because it taught me about a really important idea that I think you should try, now. For this exercise, we were instructed to sit in front of a member of the group we had not yet engaged with (there were about 40 of us total). We sat crosslegged on the ground, inches apart from our partner, facing each other. “Without losing each other’s gaze, touching each other, or saying any words,” the instructor explained, “I want you to say these things in your head: just like me, this person has experienced pain; just like me, this person is trying to do their best; just like me, this person wants to be loved,” etc. I’m sure this sounds a little kooky, but bear with me.
The exercise lasted around four minutes, four minutes of silent, stern, steady eye contact with a complete stranger. Think for a moment of the longest amount of time you stared someone in the eyes…how long was it, and how long did it feel? Well, these four minutes felt like an eternity. A barrage of feelings pervaded my mind: What possibly can they see in me if I don’t talk to them? Are they noticing I’m nervous? Can they see all of my flaws by looking into my eyes this long? Do they hate me? Why can’t I just look away and chalk this one up to a “good effort?”
It was hard. And then suddenly, it wasn’t. I found these thoughts could only last so long before I started to really see. I began the exercise looking inward, self-conscious of the way this person saw me. But eventually, my perspective shifted to the external; my mind quieted and I just looked.
I realized how much time I spend looking at other people for the way they perceive me, instead of actually seeing them, acknowledging them, focusing on them. It makes sense that eye contact is hard, because it forces us to look at a person looking at us, and we often associate others’ looking at us as a chance for people to see all that we hate about ourselves. If other people look too hard, maybe they’ll see our pain, our awkwardness, our bad habits, our insecurity, our needs.
But how many times have you looked someone directly in the pupils of their eyes and felt negative feelings toward them? We look people in the eye when we’re communicating our love for them, when we’re trying to get them to understand something without words, or when we want them to really hear something. We look away when we feel angry, or that we can’t communicate, or that something’s not working. Eye contact is made for compassion, for connection, for great things. At the end of the exercise, it felt hard to look away and willingly break the connection we had cultivated in those four minutes. But our connection, originating solely from eye contact, remained for the rest of the four days.
A lot of us go through our days not really seeing: We look down when we walk; we look at our screens instead of the physical, beautiful, interesting, breathing bodies around us; we intentionally avert our gaze when we see a love interest. But why? When we look away, we lose the ability to find compassion for, and connection with, the people around us. It doesn’t matter if these people are strangers, because the best way to practice compassion, as I learned, was to find it in an absolute stranger. And it’s gratifying when you do…can you imagine the ease of making a friend if all you have to do is look them in the eye for awhile, no need for the inauthenticity of words, or the effort of showing them you’re cool, or interested, but through actions?
We all require love, we all require acknowledgment, we all crave authenticity. We all suffer in this world where there is a distinct lack of compassion and connection, simply because it isn’t common practice. We are taught not to stare; that holding someone’s gaze too long produces awkwardness; that engaging with strangers is dangerous and/or isn’t how you make new friends. It’s all wrong.
Okay, if you want to live a typical life, where you go through the motions, become subservient to the needs of others and not your true self, and spend most days unsatisfied, then yes, continue to look away. But, if you want to live a life where you are able to fully feel the beauty of joy, sorrow, and the spectrum of human emotion; experience deep and essential connection with other people; relentlessly follow your calling; and be your authentic self, then don’t follow the rules you were taught. They were meant for order and control.
It all starts here, right now. Look at the people around you, engage with the active and present world, acknowledge your need for true human connection, that simply cannot be provided by social media, or virtual communication, as much as we may try. We are all connected, and we must remind ourselves of that with every degree of difference we may encounter.
Look. See. And don’t look away.
Wheeler is a member of the class of 2017.