Three things happened to me when I was 17 that turned out to have a significant effect on my interest in communications, and specifically non-verbal communications, later in life. First, I read a book about the Dalai Lama, and took him on as one of my heroes immediately and forever. Second, I learned my father was gay. And third, I died.
Let me take those in order. I read a book about the Dalai Lama’s escape into India from the Communists in 1959 and immediately cast him as one of the heroes in my pantheon of heroes that included Martin Luther King, Jr, President Kennedy, and the Beatles.
I was excited, therefore, a half-dozen years later or so when I had the chance to hear him speak at the University of Virginia, where I was a graduate student, and cheerfully queued up for a seat in the small auditorium.
The room was overflowing with devotees, local Buddhists, and the merely curious, and the Dalai Lama was late.
In fact, it was an hour past his time before he finally took the stage, crossing to the middle of the space slowly, hunched over a little, and smaller than I’d imagined.
He sat on the floor in the middle, bypassing the chair that had been provided. And he said nothing. He just looked at us, for one minute, saying nothing. Two minutes went by, and he was silent. Three minutes passed, and still His Holiness said nothing.
We were transfixed. And when he finally did say something, it was an anticlimax, though it was a perfectly good speech about Buddhism and happiness. There was something about the way he looked at us in silence, each person in turn, for those 3 minutes, that made a deep impression on everyone in the room.
Comparing notes afterward with other attendees, we all shared the feeling that he had touched us in some profound way. I wanted to know: what was it that passed between us? What was it about the Dalai Lama’s silent gaze that was more profound than the histrionics of every other speaker I’d ever heard?
More broadly, how did non-verbal communication work? And how could one person transfix me with a look?