My first bout of stage fright, the one that inaugurated my real problems, occurred when I was sixteen years old and in English class at a boy’s private school, beginning to realize I wanted to be a writer. Our English teacher that year was a tall, vaguely handsome British man, a graduate of Cambridge, who had been a shot putter and discus thrower on the British Olympic team. He was popular around school as a soccer and track coach, an inspiring figure in general.
But as an English teacher he was a disaster. Frequently unprepared, he would sit on the edge of his desk in silence for minutes after the class bell rang, wincing at his own cigarette smoke while trying to conjure from the depths of memory whatever work we had read for the day. When this effort failed him, as it often did, his only recourse was to have us read aloud from our weekly compositions. It was an experience that I dreaded, for good reason. I was just beginning to find my voice, starting to see writing as my life’s work. I was experimenting with techniques that were beyond what I could handle. And I was surrounded by classmates who didn’t care for writing at all, had the usual adolescent scorn for pretension, were merciless with sarcasm. They were, in other words, sixteen-year-old boys, and I was desperate to avoid their reckoning. For an entire semester, I had managed to avoid being called upon. And then, on a dismal, rainy afternoon near the end of the semester, motioning to me with a wave of his cigarette, our teacher asked me to begin.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t choke out a single word.
I’d been met by a paralyzing wave of stage fright, larger than I’d ever experienced. My face began to flush. My palms began to sweat. My heart beat with such quickness that I couldn’t catch my breath; my chest wouldn’t expand. The harder I tried, the more it closed in on me: the panicky feeling fed on itself.
“Are you all right?” our teacher asked. “Are you ill?” The class itself was silent, expectant. Minutes seemed to go by in which the only sound in the room was the scrape of shoes on the wooden floorboards.
“I’m not ill,” I finally managed to say. In a halting voice I told him that I could not read my piece aloud; I was too self-conscious.
It was one of the more humiliating moments of my life, and it came at a time when my self-confidence was in short supply. That was the year my father died. And in that year, when I was carrying the knowledge of his illness around like a great weight, nothing seemed to go right. I couldn’t make the football team. I couldn’t do the work in chemistry or math. I couldn’t get a date with the girl I cared for. Now I couldn’t speak.
I had lost faith. Not some specifically religious faith, though that was happening, too. I had lost faith in the world as an essentially benign place where things would work out. They weren’t going to work out. My father was going to die.
The poet and social critic Paul Goodman once said that faith is the knowledge that the ground will be there when you take a step. A faithful person strides boldly and purposefully into the world, knowing there is a world for him. When we lose faith, we grow tentative.
We don’t believe there is a world for us.
I would guess that in many crises of stage fright—also writer’s block, another instance of losing one’s voice—some similar deep trauma is behind them, at least the first time. We fail, and then we lose faith, and the most basic activity—speaking—becomes the problem.
After that english class, I took great pains to avoid all occasions of public speaking. Later that year I was nominated for student council president, and I declined because I knew I would have to make a speech. Several years later, in Reynolds Price’s writing class at Duke University, I went through agonies when I had to read my stories aloud. And when I finally published a novel, at the age of thirty-two, I was terrified at the thought of reading from it in public. The first offer I got, I turned down.
It was at this point that I took a class in dealing with stage fright. In a room full of equally mortified people, we each stood up, wide-eyed with fear, and gave speeches under our teacher’s watchful gaze. I read from my newly published novel.
Our teacher was a superb speaker herself, a drama instructor who had worked with young actors for years. She walked us, step by step, through the physiology of stage fright.
We begin by sensing a fluttery nervousness somewhere, probably down in our belly, and we tighten up so as not to feel it. That tightening is often so automatic that we fail to notice it occurring. It moves up the body until it reaches the diaphragm, which it prevents from expanding. With our lungs constricted, we physically can’t catch our breath. Since oxygen isn’t circulating, our heart begins to pound, and a panic reaction sets in: the face and body flush, the hands and feet sweat. Unable to breathe, we tighten more, which in turn induces further panic. All this happens in a matter of seconds.
Confronted with this phenomenon, I would instinctively try to relax. But trying to relax is a contradiction in terms, and it made me shut down even more, sapping my energy. “I’m sure you know, David,” the teacher said, “that you stand up to speak and your voice goes to gravel.” I knew no such thing—I was too nervous to hear myself—but she had a tape to prove it. She taught me not to calm down, but to take that nervous energy and use it, to belt out my readings. “You’ll never get too loud, or exaggerate too much. The more you ham it up, the better.”
With her guidance, I learned how to speak loudly and forcefully before an audience. I managed, with some effort, to breathe. But as useful as her instructions were, I still felt terror every time I moved to speak in front of others. The fear—of failure, of public humiliation—remained, and I ran from it instinctively.
Trying to relax is a contradiction in terms, and it made me shut down even more.
It was not until years after my public speaking class, this time in a Buddhist context, that I was finally really able to look at my fear and to understand it, to be with it. Buddhism, which expresses much faith in experiencing what is happening, taught me that the way to change your karma is not to respond—run when you’re afraid, hit someone when you’re angry—but to feel the feeling without responding. Then it is not passed on. It does no harm.
It is that experience of deep feeling that teaches us about stage fright and, more generally, about fear.
When my wife and I returned to North Carolina nine years ago from a stay in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we had both studied Vipassana meditation, I knew I wanted to find a place to practice. After about a year, I saw an advertisement in our local weekly for a Zen center in Chapel Hill. I was hesitant, at first, about practicing in a new tradition, but my concerns were quickly allayed. Of all the forms of Buddhism, Soto Zen is probably the closest to Vipassana. There are surface differences: in Zen we sit facing the wall, keep our eyes open slightly, hold our hands in a mudra. There is somewhat more of an emphasis on the body in Zen, more concern with correct posture. But our basic practice, like that of Vipassana, is to keep letting go of thoughts and to come back to bodily feelings.
At the Zen center there is a brief service of bowing and chanting at the end of sittings. This seemed strange at first: I had never done a floor bow before, nor much chanting. But I came to appreciate the bows as expressing a devotion I already felt, and saw the chanting as a physical practice like walking meditation.
At every service, a person called the kokyo announces the name of each chant and, following the group recitation, sings elaborate dedications. After I had sat faithfully for several years at the Zen center, Taitaku Pat Phelan, the resident teacher, approached me and asked if I might like to try being the kokyo. In theory, I did—I had come to love the chants—but I was wary.
For one thing, being kokyo is very much a performance—many of the kokyos had beautiful voices. For another, when the time comes to perform, you have to do it without hesitation. There is a clunk on the bell, and you sing. When I would give a talk or reading, if I was hit by a wave of stage fright, I paused. There was no pausing for the kokyo.
I was terrible the first few times. I had strong attacks of stage fright, couldn’t get my breath. My voice cracked and wobbled. I had never shown myself up that way in front of this group. In any other context the solution would have been to find a replacement. But the world of Zen is often ass backwards. You see a problem and wade right into it. “If this is deeply humiliating,” Pat said, “if it really makes you feel miserable, you shouldn’t do it.”
I didn’t feel that bad. I was, after all, surrounded by friends.
“Then this is an ideal situation for practicing with your problem. You can see it clearly. Don’t try to change the feeling. Just observe it. See it as something interesting.”
She was right. In the crucible of my stage fright, I was afforded a superb opportunity to look at fear. These were laboratory conditions. While stage fright certainly doesn’t seem small when it comes up, it is nonetheless a limited fear, and a predictable one. You can observe it without being overwhelmed by it.
I learned some things about fear in this situation I never could have otherwise. They have become my guidelines for dealing with it.
Feel fear when it arises, not when you would like it to arise. I was sitting two periods of zazen just before I had to perform. My tendency in that situation was to think those periods were for my practice. I didn’t want to waste time worrying about performing.
In the crucible of my stage fright, I was afforded a superb opportunity to look at fear.
But we have no control over what comes up in our body and mind, and no “subject” for zazen is better than any other. To brush something aside because it arises at an inconvenient moment is to not value our life as it unfolds. And from a practical standpoint, fear will come up until it is heard. It will grow as strong as it needs to. If it is an hour before the occasion and fear comes up—or two hours, two days—feel it then. Feel it any chance you get.
The obsessive thinking that accompanies fear is useless. On occasions when I was kokyo, the thoughts were especially absurd: Drop the chant book and run from the room. Hand the book to the woman beside me and ask her to do it. Walk up to the priest—in the middle of service—and tell her I can’t go on. That kind of thinking never ends. It is an expression of fear, and its purpose is to distract you from the anxiety of the situation. But the only way to deal with fear is to allow yourself to feel it, to experience it in all of its discomfort. There is no other solurion.
Fear is most workable in its physical manifestation. There may, indeed, be a meditation master who is so adept at watching his mind that he can observe even the rapid-fire thinking that takes place during fear, bur I am certainly not that person, and most meditators I know find it difficult to watch the mind at all. The best advice in this situation is that of Zen in general: Let go of thoughts and bring your attention back to bodily sensations. As many times as you get caught in thought, come back to the body. That is the practice.
Fear demands to be felt, and it can be felt most readily in the body, as a powerful sensation. The experience may be uncomfortable, but as you watch fear manifest in the body, the truth of the Buddha’s words is revealed: It does arise because of conditions. It is not a wall of emotion, but a constantly changing process. And it finally ends. It has its say and departs.
In time, sitting and watching fear, we see its true emptiness. There are various sensations in the body, some strong, some weak, some painful, some pleasurable. Thoughts also come and go. We take a segment of that experience and call it “fear.” Bur we’re the ones who label it. We create “fear.” In the body and mind it is just more thoughts and feelings.
The more deeply you can feel fear, the easier it will be to handle. The words that Zen teacher Ed Brown once spoke at a sesshin, a seven-day practice period, still ring true to me: We feel anger up in the chest, sadness in the mid-abdomen, and fear in the deep abdomen. Fear is the deepest feeling in the body and the most basic human feeling. To feel into fear is to look deeply into ourselves.
The sensations of stage fright—the pressure at the diaphragm, for instance—are actually a tightening so as not to feel fear. This tightening begins at the sphincter (“tight-assed” is not just an expression) and proceeds up the torso until, so to speak, it has us by the throat. It can tighten the whole body. It moves very quickly.
The earlier, and further down, you catch this process, the better. If you can feel that tightness at the diaphragm—with full awareness, without trying to change it or put an end to it—it isn’t as disabling. If you can feel the tightness at the sphincter, it won’t move up into the torso. And if you can feel the sensation of fear before there is any tightening at all, you will see that it exists as a ball of energy in the pit of the stomach. It might be uncomfortable, but if you can stay with it, you will see it for what it is: just energy. The moment you become aware of it, it is your energy. You can use it.
We can never get cocky with fear. As soon as we have it licked, a wave comes along that shows us who is boss. I might go for days at the zenda with no stage fright at all. Then suddenly I’m like that sixteen-year-old kid in English class.
Nevertheless, the experience of learning to meet fear builds upon itself. It is a skill, and the more we do it, the better we get. Seeing its true symptoms, its beginning as physical energy, takes away some of its mystique. We see not necessarily that we can handle it all the time, but that it is a phenomenon of life, like any other.
So fear is not defeated, but doesn’t have to be defeating. We are never finished with it—nevertheless, we don’t have to dread its return. Being free of fear is not a matter of never feeling it, but of not being flattened when we do. We can feel it and know it is a natural phenomenon, also an impermanent one, which will have its say and be gone.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.