Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Can You Look Yourself in the Eye? I Couldn’t

I have spent a lot of time over the last two years looking myself in the face in an attempt to ensure that my face remains calm. I would search for pressure in the brow, and tension around the eyes, lips and cheeks. I would do this without making eye contact with myself. When I started trying to make eye contact with myself it was uncomfortable and difficult. After a while I realized that eye contact with others may be uncomfortable for me because eye contact with myself is uncomfortable.

I realized that instead of looking myself directly in the pupil I would usually just look at my nose, or around rather than at the eyes. I even realized that often when I thought I was making eye contact with others, I was not looking them straight in the eye. I asked myself: “What does it mean that you cannot look yourself in the eye?” “Don’t you trust yourself?

The most interesting thing about this to me is what would happen if I tried to sustain eye contact with myself. I would look into my own pupil in the mirror for only a second or two and my eye would start to flinch. My eye would unconsciously begin to saccade away from making eye contact. This is because the brain areas devoted to controlling eye movements (such as the frontal eye fields, and the superior colliculus) were not habituated to continual eye contact. They were acting out of fear. The motor systems that control the eyes have been programmed unconsciously by some of our worst social experiences – the kinds of experiences where threat forces us to avert our gaze. We should all try to break this neurological reflex because it stunts our social growth. Also from junior high on two of my best friends had strabismus which prevents a person from directing both eyes toward the same fixation point (also known as cross-eye or lazy-eye). Because of this they avoided eye contact and I learned to do the same.

At this point I knew that it was very important for me to spend a few minutes each day staring into my own pupils while monitoring my breathing and heart rate. If you can breathe deeply and peacefully while doing any activity you can habituate to it much faster. Try looking into your own eyes without making a face, without raising your eyebrows, and without squinting. Also, focus on noticing and resisting the impulse to glance away. After practicing this for a few weeks I can now make unwavering eye contact and feel calm while doing it. I have a slightly different relationship to myself now. I feel more trustworthy, and making eye contact with others looks more natural and feels less effortful.

I believe that lower eye-control centers, such as the superior colliculi are a hub for holding stress and anxiety. I think that I can sometimes feel the pressure to keep glancing around neurotically, and this comes from eye-motor centers that act below the level of conscious awareness. I think that the best way to retrain these centers is to incorporate “fixed gaze” practices into your meditation routine. When you are relaxing, spend a few minutes staring at a single point, and notice, and override the impulses you have to look around nervously.