As we were driving to Burning Man at the end of last summer, I came across a listing for a class called “Intimate Breathwork & Eyegazing”. The workshop promised to help couples connect in a very deep way and I thought “I want to connect in a deep way with my husband… let’s do this.”
If you’ve never been to Burning Man, let me pause and set the scene. Burning Man is a city constructed for a week in the Nevada desert offering its 60k+ participants an array of experiences largely revolving around meeting strangers, sharing your passions, exploring art work spread throughout 7 square miles and enjoying music played by DJs. Personally, I enjoy attending for creative expression, reflection and renewal.
On Thursday morning at 10am, we hopped on our bikes and headed across the dry and dusty city toward the workshop. When we arrived, several other couples had already arrived, and by the time the class started, the deliciously air-conditioned tent was full of other couples also lured by the promise of deep connection with their loved ones.
Now I don’t know how much eye gazing you do in your normal life, but it turns out I don’t do a lot. I mean, I’m a good student and learned to look people in the eyes during a presentation. And at some point during dinner, I take a moment to look at the people I’m talking to instead of the food that I’m eating. And maybe I’ll catch the eye of the clerk at the grocery store or coffee shop. But overall, I don’t actually spend much time in my day gazing into other people’s eyes.
Despite my relative lack of experience with eye gazing, I jumped into our first workshop exercise thinking, “This will be easy” and began to follow our instructor’s guidance to look into my husband’s eyes for a couple minutes. Almost immediately I was intimidated by the raw intimacy of looking in someone’s eyes so deeply. Instead of being able to settle into the gaze, I began thinking “Should I be looking at his left eye, or his right eye?” and “I wonder which of my eyes he is looking at? Is it possible to look at both eyes at once?” And thoughts like “I never noticed we breathe at such different rates!” and “How is he so calm when this is totally starting to unnerve me?!?”
Based on conversations with girlfriends, I knew that most of us keep our eyes closed during sex, especially during orgasm. We agreed this helped us stay focused on sensations. And most of us had sex in a dark or very dimly lit room. We agreed this was romantic, not to mention kind to body parts we may not want highlighted. But at that point in the workshop, I was starting to realize that I had avoided staring into my husband’s eyes for extended periods of time during sex because it is too vulnerable, too intimate. Which is a little ironic, because one of the things I crave most in my relationship is to be seen.
That’s a lot to take in less than five minutes into the workshop, and the learning wasn’t over yet. Little by little, I began to settle into the moment. So that my eyes didn’t feel twitchy, I picked a single eye to stare into, which helped my breath rate slow and start to match my husband’s breath. The corners of his eyes got all crinkly and happy in response, and I mirrored the same back with mine. I dare say it even started to feel nice.
And then I noticed his height meant I had to look up to meet his gaze and he had to look down, which suddenly gave me a sense of powerlessness, which in turn brought tears to my eyes. To be clear, I am NOT a crier. Yet here I was abruptly and unexpectedly crying! Thank goodness the instructor had started calmly explaining that this could bring up a lot of emotion and gave us a moment to connect verbally with our partners and share what was going on.
When I explained to my husband how I was feeling, we decided to put a pillow under me so I could be the same height as him. The sense of powerlessness I felt was something we agreed to explore more later, and I’m sure different things came up for others in the workshop that were specific to their relationships, but our mini-intervention of bringing my eyes level with his allowed me to settle back into the exercise once more. The class was only 20 minutes, but even in that short time, I felt both deeply connected with my husband, and also learned a few new things about our relationship and myself.
Later that day we took the connection further by integrating eye gazing into sex and I found it much more intimate than eyes-closed sex. In the year since, I’ve learned that there are days when I’m craving different points along the sexual spectrum from purely physical to purely intimate, and I’ve found the conscious decision to keep my eyes closed or to seek out my partner’s gaze gives me a tremendous amount of control over the experience.
And now, we head to the desert once more. I wonder what workshop I’ll discover this year…