In class this week, I asked my students to sit across from their partner, in silence, and just stare at each other for two minutes straight. During this time, they should be aware of any distractions that pop into their mind that might distract them from the task at hand. Simply staring at the person across from them.
This exercise, popular in acting circles, is designed to help people be present and observant.
When the two minutes were mercifully up, the students smiled, laughed and acknowledged how incredibly uncomfortable and unnatural it felt. At the same time, they also began sharing the most wonderful and kind observations about each other; how beautiful one’s hair was, how another’s face so perfectly matched their positive personality and so on and so on.
It is often said that it is impolite to stare at someone. Of course, we don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or come off as creepy. At the same time, in our culture of distraction and negativity perhaps staring just a bit more could be a helpful step in making us more present for each other and more capable of change.
To stare is “to look fixedly at something with eyes wide open.” It is an act designed to help us truly see and appreciate what is before us. Rejecting our impulse to look away either out of distraction or discomfort.
In some cases, like my student example above, or when recently I took the time to stare at a squirrel whose tail allowed him or her to maintain an uncanny balance, it deepens our appreciation for someone or something. Seeing something bewildering or beautiful as if for the first time. It can translate into feelings of wonder, awe, compassion or even sympathy. These in turn can compel us to act – offering a kind word or a helping hand.
In other cases, staring can help us understand the complexity of a problem that cannot be produced by a passing glance. In the movie Wall Street, the protagonist Bud Fox is about to be arrested for securities fraud, escorted out of his office in front of his co-workers in handcuffs and in shame. A wise mentor stops him and says, “staring into the abyss is what keeps us out of the abyss.”
I think it’s fair to say that we have not as a society spent as much time staring into the panoply of abysses that threaten our institutions, our democracy, or our planet.
Staring out into the horizon can open us up to possible futures previously unimagined. (It can also improve our increasing nearsightedness)
Staring at objects of beauty both animate and inanimate, is often the inspiration for works of art in all forms.
Staring at our problems is a necessary step for solving them. Just ask any scientist.
Staring at those we love deepens our appreciation for them.
Even if only for a few minutes this week, fix your gaze on something with intention and with your eyes wide open. You may be amazed by what you actually see.