Extreme Eye Contact and Other Ways of Dating

What happens when you skip the small talk during a date and go straight to hand-holding?

For roughly 50 people meeting for the first time inside a candlelit loft in Brooklyn on Wednesday, the gathering was a chance to explore attraction and desire not only with someone new, but also within themselves. Their goal: to achieve a deep, romantic connection by jumping directly to the physical.

The event, known as the Feels, fast-tracks intimacy by fusing mindfulness practices like meditation, unnaturally long eye contact and even feeling each other’s heartbeats within an environment meant for potential romantic partners.

“It’s designed to get past that first layer of ‘What do you do? Where do you live? What do you like to do for fun?’ and into ‘Where are you at this moment in this wild human ride that is your life?’” Allie Hoffman, the host and founder, said before the event.

The night was tailored specifically for the so-called ethically nonmonogamous, or ENM — people who practice alternative relationship structures involving multiple partners, like polyamory.

“I’ve never been in a poly relationship, I’m exploring the dynamics,” said Eric Cave, who described himself as “poly-curious” and came from New Jersey for the event. “So in getting to know what I would be interested in, I would definitely want to have that strong emotional connection — nothing casual.”

Shortly after 7 p.m., the crowd — a mix of people of different races and ages — were given ground rules for the night and promptly started nestling on their backs over an assortment of patterned rugs inside an East Williamsburg event space called the Knife Factory. A few minutes into the process, they were called on to reach out for one another’s hands — the “first initiation of touch.” They were then grouped into pairs and told to ask each other personal questions, like “What are you ready to own about yourself?” or “What’s something that you’ve learned about your sexuality in the last six months?”

At one point in the evening, participants settled into positions seated back to back. As one leaned as far back as possible, the other hunched forward, forming a supportive base.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Right before they started, Ms. Hoffman offered a disclaimer to the group.

“Tonight the touch points are going to include your hand holding another hand, your back against somebody’s back, your hand on someone’s heart space and their hands on your heart space,” she said, “and you’re going to take turns leaning in and out of two long-held hugs.”

The sessions are sensual, but not erotic or sexual, according to Ms. Hoffman, who likes to instead describe it as “a love letter that will be between you and your body.” At first, the room was thick with nervous tension. Some people giggled when it was time to begin the extended eye-contact sessions (final count: 3 minutes 46 seconds), and one woman quickly took a sip of her wine before getting in position.

Another participant, who identified herself only as Jenny, said she was bracing for her “natural giggly mischievousness” to flare up the way it had in previous situations that were “very intentionally about creating a connection.” She was pleasantly surprised, however, “in that it does bring up some real, genuine-seeming feelings of connection.”

In the remaining three rounds, guests were asked to pair off with someone in the room they were interested in. Some chose the same person they had been matched with in the first round, while others gravitated quickly to participants who had clearly caught their eye. There were a couple of rejections and a few who settled for whoever was remaining.

“It got to that point where it was like musical chairs,” said Gabriel Rivera, 41, who was visiting from Los Angeles. “It wasn’t necessarily my first choice, but I did feel like I eased into it and the person made me feel comfortable.”

Ms. Hoffman said the idea for the event stemmed from two separate motivations: her desire, as a single, 39-year-old woman, to be around other single people, and her eagerness to put into action her studies at Columbia University, where she was then getting a master’s degree in spiritual psychology and learning about creating connections through physical communication, somatic awareness and mindfulness.

The first event took place last year and had about 20 attendees. Since then, she has held them twice a month and tailors each event to two different groups: ENM people and monogamous singles.

A session of sustained eye contact ran for a whopping 3 minutes 46 seconds.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Ms. Hoffman said the ENM events would be on hiatus until early 2024, explaining that while they began as a way for her to better understand her own feelings about nonmonogamy after a rocky relationship with a polyamorous man, she realized she was more interested in single-partner relationships.

As the night carried on, the degrees of physical separation in the room tightened. When guests were seated back to back, they leaned as far as their flexibility would allow while the other hunched forward as a supportive base. When it was time to touch each other’s “heart space,” some laid their hands directly on the left side of their partner’s chest while others made contact with just the tips of their fingers.

Somatic practices like meditation and eye gazing have long been incorporated in relationships. Many partners seek somatic couples therapy to heal issues and form deeper bonds and improve intimacy. The innovation here is attaching this mindfulness style to first-time romantic meet-ups. At first, it can be hard to imagine people who don’t know one another reaching that level of closeness, but as the night went on, guests were easing more into the practice and their partners.

“It felt like someone touched my soul,” one Brooklyn man, who declined to share his name for privacy reasons, said at the end of the night.

For the final somatic prompt, guests were asked to hug their partners and think about how they wanted to make their approach. One woman asked the man she was paired with if she could hug him from the back. Some hugs were tighter than others, some people rocked side to side, some people caressed their partners heads or dug their face in their hair.

When it was time to stop hugging, there were a couple of people who remained touching.

According to its founder, the event is intended to help participants bypass small talk and get straight to the loftier stuff: “Where are you at this moment in this wild human ride that is your life?”Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

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