The past few days, my Facebook, inbox, and dinners have all been abuzz about the NY Times article on Arthur Aron and colleagues’ research: “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” The piece argues: ask a stranger a series of 36 intensifying questions, stare into each others’ eyes for four minutes, and love emerges.
This fall, I had a similar experience, though with a different outcome. I stared into several strangers’ eyes, I was asked one question repeatedly, and ultimately I fell in love with myself. Or more accurately, I came to know myself deeply, and self-love emerged from there.
It was my final day at Burning Man – a festival of 66,000 in the desert of Nevada – and I was dusty, dehydrated, and exhausted. I stumbled into a crowded workshop, knowing little more than the title. Our instructions were simple: stare into your neighbor’s eyes. After a seeming eternity (probably about four minutes), we switched, and then switched again. And then the directions changed; maintain eye contact, and ask your partner the question: “Who are you?” Repeat the question, switch partners, repeat the question, switch partners. Don’t lose eye contact.
I’ve asked myself the question “Who am I?” at length while meditating in Sri Ramana Maharishi’s ashram in India in 2013. I achieved quiet and confusion, but no insight.
But this time, the journey was different. I had a partner.
Who are you? Michael. Who are you? A scholar, a designer, a brother, an American. Who are you? Warm, vulnerable, anxious.
And then finally, I got to as deep as I could. Who are you? I am presence. That’s it. I am alert, I am aware, I am being, I am flow. I am presence.
Just for that moment, all the labels were gone. And in their absence was deep quiet, deep knowing, and deep love. Love of myself, love of who I am, deep down. Because how could I not love pure presence?
That experience did not last long. My attention returning to mundane concerns like eating and planning, and society quickly reminded me of my social roles and labels. But the afterglow of the workshop has persisted for four months now. I have a deeper sense of who I am, and greater love for who I am. My heart has been more tender and open than ever before. My romantic life has also significantly improved [more on that in my next post].
What if my mother or romantic partner stared in my eyes and asked me the same question: “Who are you?” I don’t think I would have arrived at the same place. There’s a special-ness to strangers, an absence of history and purity of intentions. We can be vulnerable with strangers in a unique way. A stranger can be like a mirror, reflecting back exactly what we need to see.
Let’s return to Arthur Aron’s research. It’s tempting to view vulnerability as the path to love; share your dreams and your fears, and someone will love you. But my experience suggests another interpretation. In the right context, a stranger can uniquely reflect our deeper self, and thereby allow us to be vulnerable with ourselves. It’s the process of knowing and loving oneself that opens us to love of others. It’s not surprising that thereafter, the person who brings you to this state, and seems to accept you as you are, becomes the object of your affection.
Before seeking out a stranger to fall in love with, ask a stranger to help you fall in love with yourself.