On a sunny Sunday afternoon in the Lake Merritt neighborhood of Oakland, 200 people from around the Bay Area got together to stare at one another. It’s called the World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment.
Akele Atumereal had just experienced one minute of eye contact, and was brought to tears.
“The opportunity to really see one another through the center, the blackness within our eyes and connect that way is so amazing to me,” Atumereal said.
The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment is coordinated worldwide by the Liberators International, a group that organizes “participatory acts of freedom.”
For this event, they asked strangers to make eye contact with each other for at least one minute. People paired off and sat on cushions or yoga mats, calmly staring into each other’s eyes. Despite the business of the park on a Saturday, the participants were mostly silent. They wrapped up sessions with hugs and quiet conversations.
Some came from nearby cities, traveling for up to a few hours. And Oakland isn’t the only city participating in the event. 78 countries worldwide are a part of this. It’s the third year it’s been going on. Some of the worldwide events draw only a handful of people, but the organizers said they are thrilled to have their movement spread.
“The first time I did deep eye contact with somebody I went into tears,” said Harmony Gates, the local organizer for Oakland. “I was like ‘oh my god, I need this so much.’ I felt this person loved me and…they were a total stranger.”
At the event, Jay Sakta was trying the eye contact experiment for the first time.
“First it was a little uncomfortable because the dude that sat down with me wasn’t talking, we weren’t talking and it just felt a little unnatural,” Jay Satka said.
Jay Satka was there with his brother, Isara Satka. They had both practiced meditation before but hadn’t tried anything like this. A number of people at the event saw their participation here as a kind of spiritual connection, a way to foster world-wide peace and empathy.
Isara Satka explains that he came to the event partly because as a society, we don’t usually connect this way.
“Like for example, when I go out to dinner with like my family, I just see all like my sisters and my relatives literally just be on their phone and don’t have any eye contact with each other,” Isara Satka said.
And Jay Satka said he thinks this experiment will could alter his life outlook, for at least a little bit.
“Maybe to place me into a more vibrant mood ‘cause lately I’ve been a little low-energy and lethargic,” Jay Satka said. “So, um, I don’t really get a chance to connect with a lot of humans.”
Just imagine looking at a stranger for one full minute. Would it be awkward? Like the way it feels when someone catches you staring at them in public?
Robert Levenson is a psychology professor at UC Berkeley and he studies eye contact.
“It’s perfectly ok to sort of sip another person visually, take a look, look away, but when you lock in and you do it for over a certain amount of time, the person can often feel quite uncomfortable,” Levenson said.
Levenson said we’ve all experienced this kind of sustained eye contact before. In fact, one of the first times, he said, is “when our parents are angry at us and they kind of stare us down.” Staring like that is a clear sign of dominance but we also use eye contact in very familiar and romantic connections.
“There are all of these intimacy exercises where you look into the eyes of another person and you feel closer,” Levenson said.
Harmony Gates, the event organizer, wasn’t surprised that this prolonged gazing sometimes feels like a radical experience.
“Sometimes we can go our whole lives and not really get that kind of eye contact,” Gates said. “That kind of open acceptance without having to perform or be somebody other than who we are in this moment and so it’s deeply healing and kind of cracking open for people.”
Overall, those gathered in Oakland showed overwhelming appreciation for the chance to make this sort of eye contact. In fact, many of the folks say they will look for ways to insert more extended eye contact into their lives in the future. At the very least, it’ll give them something else to do besides staring at their phones.
REPORTERS: Rachel Cassandra
PHOTO: Ericka S Streeter Hodge