Michael Lewis and Kirsten Hugo practise eye-gazing. Picture: ARJA SALAFRANCA
Michael Lewis and Kirsten Hugo practise eye-gazing. Picture: ARJA SALAFRANCA

 In a cavernous, industrial space with exposed bricks, high ceilings and empty sockets where windows once were, Michael Lewis and Kirsten Hugo lay out a circle of colourful mats and cloths on the concrete floor.

It’s noon on a Sunday, and it’s the first eye-gazing event in SA. Lewis leads us in a short meditation, and then we turn to the person next to us to start. We’ll be moving around and changing partners.

A silence descends as participants do what is considered rude in polite society — stare into each others’ eyes. I’m in front of Lewis. I don’t know where to look: my eyes keep darting from his left to his right eye and I imagine I must look shifty.

He whispers to me to concentrate on just one eye at a time and so I do. I look into his right eye for a while, then his left, and back again. When you’ve had enough you bow your hands in the Namaste gesture and indicate your thanks. I don’t know how long I look at him, it’s hard to measure time in this situation.

My next experience is with a young man with challenging brown eyes, and I blink hard and often against his stare and against the glare coming from the sky behind him. It’s a short encounter as he ends our contact soon after starting.

I’m paired with another woman, her kindly eyes are wreathed in fine creases, she smiles and laughs a little as we gaze at each other. I don’t know what I am thinking. But I need a break. This is hard work. It requires so much concentration.

The eye-gazing movement was started in Australia three years ago by actor Igor Kreyman and has spread to other countries. The aim  is to draw on mindfulness techniques.

Lewis, a mindfulness and intimacy coach, and Hugo, who teaches meditation, aim to hold eye-gazing events once a month in Johannesburg.

“We’re never 100% present; we never really see what is in front of us in every day life. When you eye gaze you really look at another person, you start to ‘live’ in the present,” says Lewis.

It’s a simple process and it shifts you into the now. It changes lives —  because by being present you can let go of the past.”

Hugo is equally enthusiastic about the practice. “Eye gazing opens you up to asking, ‘who is in charge?’. Is it me or my archive of fear from the past? We respond to people and experiences from the way we have experienced them in the past,” he explains.

“With eye gazing, we become aware of our monkey minds. When you are present and aware of your thoughts, you can then release those thoughts, instead old thoughts and fears controlling you. It’s a stepping stone to bringing us to greater awareness.”

Hugo says there are no negative side-effects experienced by people practising this technique, but some people are not ready. “It’s very intimate and brings out reactions and emotions that are hidden. I find that people who don’t want to do this have intimacy or relationship issues,” he says.

Lewis says that some people have said that eye gazing is uncomfortable. “If they have low self-worth or are insecure, it can trigger them,” she warns. “But ultimately, there’s no agenda, it’s breathing and just sitting there.”

Counselling psychologist Ronelle Hart says that eye contact is a very powerful behaviour in infant-mother bonding. Adults use eye contact to make themselves feel seen and heard.

“Eye contact is simply used to help the person in therapy feel seen and heard and attended to, and soft, open eye contact can create a sense of empathic connection,” Hart says.

“But prolonged eye contact, however, can trigger neurological states of emotional distress in some people, as well as visual hallucinations, because of how the brain processes visual information.”

While acknowledging that eye gazing can feel really good and can be beneficial, Hart adds that some people can experience it as intrusive and distressing. She is concerned that mass eye-gazing events offer insufficient support for people who might be triggered.

After taking my break, I walk back into the circle and take my place opposite a grey-haired, ascetic man. His blue eyes are penetrating, but I persevere for a bit.

I then sit opposite a young woman. It’s a short encounter. She asks if I am okay a few times and gives me a heartfelt, lengthy hug afterwards, which leaves me wondering what she saw in my eyes.

As the circle closes, Lewis and Hugo ask the participants what they experienced. The voices ring out: “What I liked was that your name doesn’t define you.” “You’re observing someone, paying close attention to their shifts in energy.” “I needed this, I feel so light.”

And finally: “It’s not easy what we did. Not everyone can do it. Respect and courage to all.”

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