In an overheated studio in the Reflections Center for Conscious Living and Yoga, a big balding man in cargo pants and a Hawaiian shirt shook his head, and tried repeatedly to speak. “I… I… I feel like I can’t express my feelings in articulate language,” he said. “I feel like I need to do a Native American dance instead.” The man hoisted himself up from the floor and walked into the middle of the circle of twenty-one strangers. He jumped up and down, his belly bouncing, and chanted tuneless syllables to himself. Some people pounded on the floor in time—most with reluctance, but a few with relish. When he sat back down, he was grinning with relief. The group was not as pleased. “I am inspired by your courage, but I feel uncomfortable imagining how that might have made a Native American person feel,” said one woman.
We were attendees of the Connection Movement NYC, a group that meets every Monday in this yoga studio east of Murray Hill. Its gatherings are meant to “engage vulnerability, earnest connection and playing full out,” as a means of “appreciating yourself and others at a deeper level,” according to its website. Beginners start at 6:30 for an introductory session and experienced practitioners join them an hour later. Entry costs thirty-five and twenty-five dollars, respectively.
When I arrived, there were already a handful of others waiting, chatting and making cups of herbal tea in the kitchenette. Amy Silverman, the group’s founder and facilitator, sat cross-legged on a couch, presiding with a kindly air. I had interviewed her over the phone earlier that week and she’d invited me to attend, so long as I promised to protect everyone’s anonymity. Amy has a girlish voice, enormous eyes and apple cheeks. She wore athletic leggings patterned in splotches of blues and greys, and had her brown hair back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck. She looked like an elfin Jewish mother. I’d hoped to just take notes and observe the session, but she told me I would have to participate.
At 6:30, Amy led us down to a studio in the basement. We sat in the round on the pale wood floor and Amy explained the methods of circling. It’s a “presence-based practice,” she said, “a relational meditation,” in which, instead of observing ourselves, we observe our connections. She called it a sacred geometry, making sweeping circles with her arms, as if treading water or casting a spell over a cauldron. I waited for her to introduce me as a reporter in the room, but when she didn’t, I said nothing.
The practice bears resemblances to some aspects of group therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous, but its most direct predecessor is the encounter group, also known as the t-group or training group. Popular in the Seventies, these groups “encourage open displays of approval, criticism, affection, dislike, and even anger and tears, rather than the tact and inhibition of emotional expression that ordinarily govern our social behavior,” writes Dr. Terry F. Pettijohn, a professor emeritus at Ohio State University, in his introductory textbook Psychology: A Connectext. Some met weekly; some held marathon sessions for twenty-four continuous hours or more. The hope was that, by breaking down boundaries and being honest with each other, the participants would make personal progress.
I found something ironic in the promise that we would find authenticity in a preordained methodology, and something sinister in the idea that the alchemy of relationships could be hacked with a few simple tricks. Curious about the science behind it, I spoke to Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychology professor at SUNY Stonybrook, whose “36 Questions” experiment became synonymous with accelerated intimacy thanks to a popular New York Times Modern Love column by Mandy Len Catron. In it, Catron and an acquaintance conduct Dr. Aron’s study—answering thirty-six intimate questions and then holding four minutes of eye contact—on themselves, in a bar. At the end, they did fall in love. How had Dr. Aron conceived of this experiment that people found so magically effective? “We took research on how friendships spontaneously develop. They often develop by people sharing personal information. Not too much too fast, but gradually building up and going both ways,” he said.
Amy instructed us to find partners, and to hold eye contact with them. I turned to the person to my left—a woman in her thirties with black hair, crooked teeth, and a heavy Russian accent—and opted to hold contact with the immaculately tweezed area between her eyebrows. For each element of the practice, we did an exercise. All of them were designed to teach us to be present with each other—to listen, to notice.
In one exercise, we were asked to watch each other, identify what we saw (body language, a facial expression), and determine what it meant. We were to use the script, “I’m seeing you do X. I interpret it to mean Y. Is that correct?” Our partner would then agree or disagree with our conclusions. I was excited by this exercise: an opportunity to attune myself to someone and to figure out what was really going on; I expected to be preternaturally good at it. (I was, after all, the writer in the room.) Instead, my partner and I kept misinterpreting each other. No, I did not sit up straighter because I felt confident; I was trying to relieve some lower-back pain. No, she did not fidget her feet because she felt anxious and restless; she was stretching for her ballet class. I found it disheartening. Even when we gave all of our attention to each other, we could only see ourselves.
By the time my partner and I finished this practice others were arriving. The crowd was evenly split between men and women, a range of ages—shallow diversity within its whiteness. Amy checked registrations on a tablet at her feet and asked after payments frankly, which seemed to embarrass no one but me.
That night, Amy said, we would be doing a surrendered leadership circle, where any member can speak or call upon others to share their experiences. Amy reminded us to approach each other with curiosity, but not of the “data-collecting” kind. (Professor Aron confirmed the psychological efficacy of this: when it comes to cultivating closeness, feelings are always more powerful than facts.)
We started by going around the circle and describing how we were feeling in the moment. It was mostly anxiety and excitement—very American of us. But, two thirds of the way through, a woman, perhaps in her forties, with honey hair and a narrow face, said, “I’m pissed,” her voice full of acid. It lingered, even as the woman next to her, of floral sweater and thinly plucked eyebrows, declared herself “giggly and alive.”
Amy led us in a brief meditation that felt fizzy with anticipation. When it ended, we opened our eyes and looked around at each other. The silence was tense. A girl in overalls spoke first and our attention snapped toward her. “I feel like this is melting the side of my face off, that’s how intense it is,” she said, tugging at her cheek, staring at the woman who was pissed. The woman gazed at her ferociously, and the girl cowered. “I was pissed, I was extremely pissed, until this connection,” the woman said, moving her hand as if along an electric current between them. “You really intrigue me.” From the way that this interaction captivated the group, it seemed that this moment—instantaneous and overwhelming attraction—was what everyone had come in search of.
“What about her intrigues you?” asked a chubby young man with prominent eyebrows.
“Well, I like her haircut. And her skin looks soft. I find her very attractive and it sort of irritates me, actually,” she said, and then paused. “Whew! That felt good to admit.”
The girl in overalls blushed. She really was lovely, in such a natural way, like she was very good with plants. “Oh, my face feels so hot. I’m flattered but I feel embarrassed.”
Eyebrows guy interjected to say that he felt jealous, and competitive with overalls girl. And he felt upset about his competitiveness, which he saw as his biggest flaw. Another young man, in business attire and clear-framed glasses, spoke up to reassure eyebrows guy that he too had felt competitive with overalls girl. They nodded approvingly at each other.
When overalls girl speculated that there might be something gendered about their jealousy of her, eyebrows guy got defensive, explaining that his mom had hated his dad.
A bald man in sweatpants and a red shirt jumped in. “I’ve been feeling rage, an intense bubbling rage.” He pointed to a handsome Italian in a slim-fitting sweater. “And I could see that you were also feeling rage, listening to everyone babble on.”
“I was actually not,” the Italian replied. “I was feeling some nice warmth in my chest.”
I was scribbling furiously, amused by the projections and missed connections, perplexed by all the confrontation and drama in a setting that I had expected to be a big group hug. An older man in a polo pointed to me, “I’m noticing that you’ve been taking notes this whole time. And I’m wondering what’s going on there.”
I admitted that I working on an essay about connection, and I was there looking for inspiration—participating, but observing too. My admission was greeted by a constellation of wide eyes.
A woman with wavy reddish hair and long teeth spoke first. “I feel really unsafe knowing that there is a writer in the room. I feel betrayed to learn that that’s what you’re here for and that you didn’t say anything.”
My heart pounding, I explained that I had arranged my visit with Amy, that I had her permission, that we had an agreement. But Amy just looked on in placid silence, allowing us to experience the experience, I guess.
Others chimed in to tell me how violated they felt by my notetaking, my intentions, my secrecy, my inadequate apology—all held up as evidence that I had violated the primary principle of circling: the commitment to connect. The woman who had been pissed told me that she felt sorry for me, that I clearly had a lot of sadness in my life. I was embarrassed, yet there was something pleasurable about it too, being the outcast in a room of connectors. The relief of having your worst fear come true and surviving.
“I could tell from the start that you weren’t really participating, you were just watching us,” said the rageful man, his eyes narrowed. “You can’t be sort of in and sort of out. You’re either in or you’re out. You’re writing about connection, but you’re not really connecting.” This hit soft flesh, that my contemplation of love superseded my practice of it. I thought that putting on my writer’s hat allowed me to engage more deeply with my humanity and my interest in others; the group saw it as a buffer, a retreat.
In my interview with Professor Aron, of the 36 Questions, he insisted that if I want to understand closeness, I need to understand the concept of responsiveness; in studying intimacy, psychologists are finding that what is disclosed matters less than how it is received. He suggested I talk to Dr. Harry Reis, a professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester. “We like to be close and responsive to each other, so we tend to share hotel rooms at conferences,” Dr. Aron said, as an endorsement.
When I spoke to Dr. Reis, I asked what his research showed to be the ideal response to another’s disclosure. He emphasized that there is no right way, no one-size-fits-all method. Rather, a good response shows that you understand where someone is coming from, it validates what they are going through, and, most importantly, it demonstrates that you care. (Taking notes for a story, I recognized, does not have this effect.) Communication skills like those taught in the Connection movement are “the easy ways of doing it,” he says, but hardly the best or only ones. Far better would be to do something specific unto that person—to demonstrate that you care for them because you actually do. “There’s the old joke: ‘Sincerity is the most important thing in socializing and, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’ The best way to do it—the most important part—is to really feel it.”
Yet the forces behind sincere affection are hard to pinpoint, let alone to manufacture. “Chemistry is, to me, one of the most fascinating concepts we have. We can’t define it, but when it happens, you know,” Reis said. “Our entire field is nowhere in understanding what that sense is or where it comes from. And it’s not for neglecting the idea. There are a lot of really smart people who would like to figure out what that is, and we just don’t have a good handle on it yet.”
After the circle ended, Amy gave a postmortem. “That was intense,” she said, with a yogic sigh. She assured everyone that she had thought long and hard about how to bring me into the room and had decided that the way she had handled it was the best way. The fact that the session proceeded as it did—that the group had figured me out—had only reaffirmed her faith in the practice: it was proof that circling had the power to unearth anything going on in a room. And what had gone on in this room was me.
Then people began approaching, apologizing, suddenly courteous. The redhead told me that she was a psychologist, that she thought it was so important that people write more about connection. She asked if she could hug me. “I’m a writer too, you know,” said the rageful man, and started to tell me about his books. Others asked for my email address, told me they were eager to read my work. They hoped I would come back. They were sorry for what took place. “That’s just what happens when people get real,” they said, beaming at each other.