“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. 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 Ms. 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.
Ms. 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.
Ms. 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.
Ms. 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.
Ms. 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 nametag reads “Arjuna.” Ms. 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.
Ms. 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, Ms. 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, 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, Ms. 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?” Ms. Berkley asks us.