It’s interesting to notice that the stereotypical US military hero – he of the Top Gun aviator shades and sharp, preppy haircut, almost always has his eyes covered. A friend with military connections suggested this may be more than a coincidence and there’s research to back this up: according to this paper published in Psychological Science, subjects behave differently when they feel anonymous and tend to act more selfishly and less morally even when this anonymity is illusory. It seems that a screen between humans – even something as superficial as a pair of dark glasses, in some way blocks the uniquely human interaction that eye contact can engender – something that could be seen as an advantage for soldiers in conflict zones, required to carry out acts that would, in the normal run of things, be considered “inhumane”.
Wandering in the internet jungle a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across an intensely moving film produced by Amnesty International. In the 1990s American psychologist Arthur Aron conducted a series of experiments, concluding that 4 minutes of looking into each other’s eyes can bring people closer(1). Based on this theory, the film portrays a simple experiment, during which refugees and Europeans sit opposite each other and look into each other’s eyes.The experiment participants were ordinary people. The situations were not staged; the responses are natural and spontaneous. The people sitting opposite each other had not known each other before and saw each other for the first time during the experiment. What is important, the refugees mostly came from Syria and had not been living in Europe for longer than a year. The results speak for themselves – it’s certainly something I would recommend watching.
Amnesty’s point was that when talking about the problem of refugees, we use dehumanised language, which reduces human tragedy to numbers and statistics. But this suffering concerns real people, who – just like us – have families, loved ones, friends; their own stories, dreams, goals… When you sit down opposite a specific person and look into their eyes, you no longer see an anonymous refugee, one of the migrants, and notice the human before you, just like yourself – loving, suffering, dreaming…
How easily is this simple looking forgotten in the melee of digital communication, in life lived at a pace and intensity unsurpassed in human history. In the context of Buddhism, to love is, above all, to be there – it sounds simple but all too often we’re lost in a sea of regrets about the past, worries for the future, preoccupation with our own plans, anger, jealousy or whatever and we’re simply not really available – to ourselves let alone to other humans. Without being fully present, it’s impossible to recognise common humanity and we become woefully isolated beings, craving intimacy but unable to understand or be understood by our fellows.
Like so many simple concepts, it’s a habit that requires cultivating. Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Tich Nhat Hahn writes:
“In order to love in a real way, we must first learn to be fully present in our lives”
It takes practice – and this is what meditation is, bringing true presence to the here and now, to those you love, to life.
1 The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings Arthur Aron 1997
True Love – A Practice For Awakening The Heart Tich Nhat Hahn