"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."



Eyes. Eyes! We cannot endure to gaze into another’s eyes for more than a brief moment. Eyes are the electric shock of the presence of another that is unnerving, frightening. This presence comes with excitement, danger, and allure, for it is in the eyes that we most directly experience the thrill of the mortal, beating thump of life. And not just with each other, but with other species.

The first time I saw an owl, I stopped—riveted in a sacred moment. Two yellow eyes peering at me from a bare tree limb at about my height; this was not an “owl” but another living being with whom I had entered into an intimate co-presence. We were joined at the eyes. The owl’s eyes aided this union, for it mimics, and suggests, the human face, where both eyes are in the front of the face and fully visible. The form of the owl, and those piercing yellow eyes, however, also signals “difference”. This difference allows for easier dismissal; that it is “not like me”, an “owl”— but it also can be the call to leap over forms, to join another sentient being in a shared moment; a moment that thrills and disquiets.

Fortunately, my owl eye-encounter was benign, but the deep, central nervous system shock I experienced alerts to the species-leaping power of eyes. Had the owl been a grizzly bear, such direct eye contact could have been taken as a challenge and resulted in the end of my central nervous system functioning. Or if a mountain lion, maintaining eye contact could help ensure my survival. Surprising responses, and consequences, arise. I hunted when I was young, and the last time was when I shot a rabbit. Looking down at it, we made eye contact. How could I do this to this creature, now helplessly staring at me as it breathed its last, looking up at its killer? Those eyes are still with me today.


 Human eyes are more than an organ for sight—they are integral to social communication and exchange. The social-communicative function of eyes is biologically hardwired. Human eyes, unlike other animals, including primates, have irises visibly framed in the sclera, the “eye-whites”. This allows for social signaling. From birth, directed eye gaze communicates. It is a nonverbal pointer, located at the middle of the face—the center of gravity of another’s regard—graphic and unmissable. Want something? Engage another’s eyes, then look left (or right) to direct them to attend to the object or place of interest. Unsure if they followed the directive? Look back, check their eyes to see if they have followed and what their eyes signal about their reception to the overture. Do their eyes track to the location that was indicated? Are they looking to it and back to see if that is where attention was intended to be directed? Confused or interested? Stare. Angry or dismayed? Look away. The world presses too close; too much stimulation? Close your eyes. The spotlight allure of eyes is conferred at birth. Human infants are biologically attuned to seek and regard the eyes of another, which enables locating, engaging, and exchanging with others—all essential for survival.

The role of eyes in social engagement does not wain with age. Rather, it becomes part of the fabric of communication that broadens to include language. Language comes to dominate discourse, but the power of eyes, while less obvious, still holds sway. No wonder that the early iconic representations of the power of hypnosis depict an irresistible magnetic force emanating from the hypnotist’s eyes. This is more than mere hokum. While there is no magnetism, there is social influence, an intersubjective force akin to magnetism in the social-psychological field of action. Eyes are a portal for this action-at-a-distance force, and eye gaze is a common technique for harnessing this force to induce a hypnotic trance.

Eye gaze is a highly regulated activity that we must manage in the course of social discourse. The etiquette of eye gaze is a tightly scripted cultural dance that signals much. Ignore, disrespect, render invisible—with no eye contact. Acknowledge, reciprocate, exchange—with modulated eye gaze. Entice, alert, seduce—with lingering contact. Unnerve, scare, challenge—with unblinking gaze. Our eye-dance is largely habitual and automatic, allowing us to comfortably travel within established cultural pathways of exchange. This type of “looking” helps us routinize our encounters with others, to control, dim and objectify them, rendering the experience “mundane” and, thus, facilitating the ordinary exchanges required in the commerce of everyday life. Prolonged eye gaze breaks these rules, tossing us into untamed territory lurking just beneath the surface of habit and routine. Here, we experience an unregulated encounter with another, staring back, who is alive to our presence. The other person is no longer objectified. Fright, panic, intimacy, compassion—are some of the reactions this can provoke. Prolonged stare is not necessary to enter this state; we can do so by being mindful of the moment during our routine engagements, inhabiting the present,  being present with another in this altered state.


Looking at the non-animate world is similarly habit-encrusted. The first time I remember the scales falling from my eyes was when I was working as a construction worker, laying reinforcing rods for a concrete floor to be poured on the seventh story of a new building. Uncoiling my body to take a break from the ache of back-bending labor, from this perch high above everything, I saw a sign for the Shell gas station across the street. Except this time it was not a Shell sign I saw. What I saw was a large, bright, eye-popping yellow image on a pole thrust into the sky. It had been stripped of its cultural meaning, laid bare as a shocking object qua object. I could now “see” Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans as he intended—a compelling, garishly decorated, bizarre object.

“Looking” versus “seeing”. We “look” most of the time. This is necessary for quick, adaptive, appraisal of the environment. It provides comfort, stability, assurance. It promotes easy exchange and confident action. “Seeing” disrupts, overturns, startles. “Seeing” is not merely a shift in cognitive focus, not a change in perspectives—it is change in the state of being, from mundane habit to the bright lights of this moment; an epiphany. The ordinary becomes supercharged, becomes extraordinary. Shell signs, soup cans, owls, babies, and wherever else we direct our “seeing” are de-familiarized. The assumed meanings that anchor us, provide us with a sense of rock-solid security are undermined, and we find ourselves cast into a world without footholds, without a compass.

The intense, roiling emotions that possess us when “seeing”—thrill, excitement, consternation, distress, allure, fright—alert to the groundlessness beneath our feet. We are vulnerable. Impermanence prevails, intimating our mortality. And we are alive to the vision of Ahab, in Moby Dick: “All visible objects, man, are but paste board masks”.  As we journey through our days, the challenge of “seeing” confronts us: How shall we sail these seas? Ishmael’s answer: “As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. l love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts1.

  1. Moby Dick.

1 Comment

  1. Keith Roper

    Some, perhaps much of what you describe is what happens to me when I meditate for long periods. (For me this would be 40+ minutes.) In effect, I’m “seeing” parts of myself that I’m attracted to as well as parts that abhor me. Regardless, I’ve learned to be grateful for my “seeing” practice. I practice most days .

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