Mutual gaze

I came to realize I could not ‘get’ love in the lover, but together we could find love with each other.

~ Linda Schierse Leonard

The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with.

To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.

~ Pema Chödrön

Buckminster Fuller, the legendary inventor of the geodesic dome, was also known for returning the “hello, how are you?s” of others with the stolid reply, “I see you.”

This virtual conversation-stopper could be super-discomfiting to Fuller’s American fans. Even though the “I see you” is a customary greeting in the central African highlands, for us it gets at the uneasiness of being in acknowledged relationship. If you see me, both you and I exist, are here, and are being counted–a scary thought.

When one person’s gaze meets another’s, sooner or later someone breaks the contact. On the subway or bus or in the concert hall, we usually check out others only until they are aware that we are looking at them; once our eyes meet, we must break the gaze or stand behind the perception of aggressiveness that we’ve done much of the work to create. Similarly, animals establish dominance by mutual staring, one of them eventually looking away and yielding to the superior aggression of the other.

The leader of a 5Rhythms workshop I took a few years ago asked us to experiment with mutual gaze. With a partner, we sat and held each other’s eyes for only so long as we could do so while also maintaining awareness of ourselves. (It’s surprisingly challenging to do this.)

Whenever our consciousness of our partner superseded our self-awareness, we were instructed to close our eyelids and restore contact with self before re-immersing once again in the river of our partner’s gaze. So sometimes we would be looking at closed eyes; at other times, our partner’s eyes would be fastened on our closed lids, and we’d have to wrestle with what biologist Rupert Sheldrake studied and named The Sense of Being Stared At. And, once both of us were entirely settled into the experience, eventually we could both fix our eyes on each other for long periods, stilling our self-consciousness and our fear of contact.

The tacit “I see you” became quite profound in these moments, the recognition of a commonality and of a kind of oneness. The seeing emerged from a place that acknowledged both that we had a self and that another wanted contact with us, yet there was a unity–a co-authored reality–in the shared fastening of eyes.

In everyday life, we tend not to choreograph our gaze ahead of time, yet it can have some predictable patterns. Many of us cast our eyes downward or up on a quizzical diagonal as we talk to others: it’s, after all, challenging to hold self and other at once, all on top of our so-elusive thoughts!

Capoeira, a dancelike Brazilian martial art, emphasizes maintaining continuous contact with the eyes of one’s opponent in order to anticipate his intention. Without such contact, capoeira teachers warn, it would be impossible to outwit the other player in the roda, or challenge circle in which pairs dance and spar and mischievously attempt to outwit each other. Like the animal gaze of mutual aggressors, the “I see you” of the martial arts is a warning not to assume superiority too readily. It is like both the 11th to 20th century Western duel and the hunting technique of Teddy Roosevelt: an opponent worthy of killing is the one with whom you are nearly perfectly matched in skill.

Partnership is at once the context for and the product of the mutual gaze. We can feel that in:

  • the woman in childbirth, staring in fright and need at her partner or midwife and feeling that gaze returned in unerring, yearning support;
  • the shared glance of subterfuge at a corporate meeting the participants recognize to be a sham;
  • the nursing mother who locks eyes with her infant; and
  • the contact between a rapt audience member and the performer or speaker desperate to find someone who understands (and agrees with) what she’s saying.

The most-intense of our mutual gazes imply deep connection, as well as the opportunity for sitting with both the dignity of our separateness and the beauty of our oneness.

Comment from Mary Bast: Yesterday I saw Avatar and of course was entranced by the fabulous technology. What stuck with me the most, however, was how the Na’vi on Pandora greeted each other: “I see you.” … The meaning of this phrase goes beyond the simple act of visual recognition; rather, it communicates, “I see into you, I see and acknowledge and honor who you really are.” … Early in my coaching career, when I found myself disliking the behavior or values of someone, I would visualize myself bowing and giving the traditional Indian greeting, Namaste …  So I wasn’t surprised to find vimoh’s … discussion of “I see you” from Avatar: He defines Namaste as acknowledging “the spark of the divine” in another. What better way to remind ourselves to be fully present? Namaste. I see you.