News and Views

Op Ed: Zen in the art of fluency

Professor Ivan Perry  Photo: Tomás Tyner

Professor Ivan Perry Photo: Tomás Tyner

  • 23 Oct 2017

Today (Oct 22nd) is International Stammering Awareness Day and UCC's Professor of Public Health, Ivan Perry, writes about Zen and related forms of meditation as 'cures' for stammering.

"In Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel, a German philosophy professor describes his experience in Japan, studying Kyūdō, a form of Japanese archery. He spent almost five years trying to find the right way of releasing the bowstring “unintentionally” without mind, blocking or choice. In Herrigel’s words ".... the archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bulls-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill,…" This metaphor of the archer “empty of self” resonates with those of us who stammer, for whom the technical skill of fluent speech cannot be relied upon in all situations.

The self occupies a central position in stammering.  Cecily Berry, the British theatre director and voice coach has described the voice as “the outward expression of your inner self”.  It is not a coincidence that most people who stammer tend to block on their own name, the vocal badge of self. One of the central elements in the experience of stammering is the loss, in some speaking situations, of the ability to project an accurate, fluid and dynamic sense of one’s inner self. This is analogous to the variable and often unpredictable dips in form that occur in sport, taking one out of the “flow” or “zone”, that state of heightened focus and immersion in which we lose ourselves in the activity of the moment. Speaking is a fine motor skill involving input and coordination from diverse brain regions and there is now increasing evidence of neurological abnormalities in speech-producing brain networks in adults who stammer. Thus, in stammering our speech moves in and out of the “zone” often in the course of a single day depending on our attachment to what we are trying to say and a myriad of additional factors such levels of tiredness, anxiety, preparation and concentration.

Although evidence on the effectiveness of specific interventions for stammering in adults is sparse, there are impressive accounts and anecdotes of successful treatment and “cure” involving a wide range of strategies and interventions, including Zen and related forms of meditation. This is not one such account. While I have studied and practiced a form of Zen meditation for a decade, my stammer has not been “cured”. Indeed, I have no way of knowing, from an objective scientific perspective, whether or not meditation has been an effective self-improvement strategy for my stammer. However, Zen meditation has undoubtedly challenged my understanding of the notion of “improvement” and of the notion of “self”. One of the hardest lessons to learn in meditation practice is that, in the words of Barry Magid, (a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practicing in New York and the founding teacher of the Ordinary Mind Zendo), meditation is “useless”. It is not a technique or means towards a future goal - a form of mind science designed to alleviate suffering - but rather a way of life in which we learn to notice and reverence the experience of each moment as an end in itself. In this awareness of the present moment, one begins to see (as opposed to understanding intellectually) that aiming for the bull’s eye of fluency is both futile and counterproductive. Zen meditation is not about emptying our mind of thoughts or cultivating a particular state of consciousness but simply sitting and being aware of one’s experience in the moment without effort or judgment, as if looking at a mirror. In this mirror we see directly our incessant striving for a sense of progress, achievement and mastery of meditation as a self-improvement technique - our constant reaching beyond the moment to aim at a distant bull’s eye. We also begin to see more clearly our incessant desire for our experience of life in its uncertainty, impermanence and suffering to be other than it is. In striving for greater fluency in the moment, I stammer and in straining for our experience of life to be other than it is in this moment, we all suffer. The moment may or may not involve effort to change our situation - the archer is aiming at a target, but when lifting the bow or pulling on the bow string s/he is immersed in that activity and is not focused on the target.

Over time, the mirror of meditation is even more subversive of our notion of the self. It is increasingly clear to me that the self of which the archer is empty and rid, the self that I seek to project through relaxed and fluent speech, the same self that obligingly gets out of the way in the actual experience of fluent speech, is an illusion. From an intellectual and scientific perspective, the core Buddhist notion of “no-self” is not an especially difficult concept. In the western philosophical tradition it was well articulated by David Hume and in the modern era it is widely understood that neuroscience has not identified a central command structure in the brain. However, in the introspection of meditation it is seen directly that a separate, enduring self, separate from experiencing, a speaker, separate from speaking or the notion of a sufferer, separate from suffering cannot be found.

Life is process and the self is essentially a thought, a particular perspective on the world, a concept analogous to the concept of a university which draws together disparate roles and activities. To function in the world, the self as conventionally understood is, of course, useful and the very concept of a self, that of a separate subject acting on the world or in the present context, a speaker blocking on a word, is woven into the fabric of our language and thought. However, in dealing with my disfluency, I have come to see that the notion of a separate, enduring self with a stammer that needs to be fixed is unhelpful and a cause of needless suffering. It is also clear that in the face of the immeasurably greater challenges in life of loss, suffering and death, the notion of the self is an unnecessary burden. While the self is not easily shed like a worn overcoat, the loosening of its grip is a source of grace and joy that anchors one in the present moment.

Stammering is not a trivial condition and for me it continues to pose challenges. It is a significant source of disability and suffering with an estimated life-time prevalence of approximately 0.7%. While existing treatments are helpful for many there is a need for continued research to identify effective and scalable interventions for children and adults. I am fortunate that the level of my disability is at the lower end of the spectrum and perhaps blessed that, as with archery for Eugen Herrigel, fluency provides a direct and powerful reminder and metaphor for the fragility and uncertainty that are inherent to the human condition."

Ivan J Perry is Professor of Public Health, School of Public Health, University College Cork

Read more about courses and research at the School of Public Health, UCC

This Op Ed first appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm 

For more on this story contact:

Ruth Mc Donnell, Head of Media and PR, Office of Marketing and Communications, UCC Mob: 086-0468950

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