Speech-Language Pathology/Stuttering/Speech Motor Learning and Control/Zen in the Art of Stuttering

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Zen in the Art of Stuttering

Eugen Herrigel taught philosophy at the University of Tokyo in the 1920s and 1930s. To learn the Japanese philosophy of Zen Buddhism he studied archery for six years with a Zen master. In 1953 he wrote Zen in the Art of Archery about his experiences.

Daisetz T. Suzuki wrote in the introduction to Herrigel's book:

Zen is the "everyday mind," as was proclaimed by Baso (died 788); this "everyday mind" is no more than "sleeping when tired, eating when hungry." As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes. We no longer eat while eating, we no longer sleep while sleeping. The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target…Calculation which is miscalculation sets in…The archer's confused mind betrays itself in every direction and every field of activity.

Wendell Johnson said, "Stuttering is what you do trying not to stutter again."

Malcolm Fraser (founder of NAPA Auto Parts and the Stuttering Foundation of America said, "Stuttering is largely what the stutterer does trying not to stutter."

The goal of stuttering therapy is spontaneous fluent speech. The goal of Zen is to do life activities without self-conscious calculating and thinking.

Non-stutterers usually talk without self-conscious calculating and thinking. But sometimes they are self-conscious about their speech. Fear of public speaking is common. And non-stutterers are self-conscious about asking the boss for a raise, or asking someone out on a date, or when discussing a difficult subject. Speech pathologists call this pragmatics—the mental effort of calculating the listener's reaction to your speech. In the Zen framework, pragmatics is the calculation that is miscalculation.

The goal of stuttering therapy should be to become a "Zen master of speech," just as other Zen masters are archers or swordsmen or calligraphers. To make an analogy to Baso, you sleep when tired, eat when hungry, and talk when you need to communicate. You don't worry about the listener's reaction. You don't fear embarrassment. If the listener doesn't do what you want or expect, you don't get upset.

You also talk fluently—but let's define fluency as if we're learning a foreign language. You need vocabulary to express your thoughts, grammar so your meaning isn't misconstrued, and accent and articulation to be understood. Mild stuttering may be OK, if your listener understands you, and you don't fear or avoid speaking. Van Riper called this "fluent stuttering," and a Zen master might call it "fluency which is not fluency."

Like speech, archery is a combination of motor skills. You tense and relax certain muscles, with split-second timing. Like fluency for a stutterer, these motor skills are not easy or obvious. Like many stutterers working on their speech, Herrigel worked six years before he considered himself an archer.

Why did Herrigel study archery to learn Zen philosophy? Most Zen students read books, take classes, and talk with Zen masters. How could learning a set of motor skills teach you a philosophy? Herrigel was told that to learn Zen he must begin "by learning one of the Japanese arts associated with Zen."

Master Kenzo Awa's first lesson was drawing the bow, letting "only your two hands do the work, while your arm and shoulder muscles remain relaxed, as though they looked on impassively."

This step is like stuttering therapy, with the goal of speaking while keeping your speech-production muscles relaxed.

Herrigel couldn't do this first step. He would "start trembling after a few moments, and my breathing became more and more labored." Sounds like stuttering!

He was trying to draw a six-foot bow held above his head, which requires great strength. But somehow the Master did this effortlessly.

…he called out to me to "Relax! Relax!"…the day came when…I lost patience and brought myself to admit that I absolutely could not draw the bow in the manner prescribed.

"You cannot do it," explained the Master, "because you do not breathe right."

Sounds like stuttering therapy! The Master continued,

"Press your breath down gently after breathing in, so that the abdominal wall is tightly stretched, and hold it there for a while. Then breathe out as slowly and evenly as possible, and after a short pause, draw a quick breath of air again—out and in continually, in a rhythm, that will gradually settle itself. If it is done properly, you will feel the shooting becoming easier every day. For through this breathing you will not only discover the source of all spiritual strength but will also cause this source to flow more abundantly, and to pour more easily through your limbs the more relaxed you are."

And as if to prove it, he drew his strong bow and invited me to step behind him and feel his arm muscles. They were indeed quite relaxed, as though they were doing no work at all.

The new way of breathing was practiced, without bow and arrow at first, until it came naturally. The slight feeling of discomfort noticeable in the beginning was quickly overcome. The Master attached so much importance to breathing out as slowly and steadily as possible to the very end, that, for better practice and control, he made us combine it with a humming note.

First relaxed breathing, and now vocal fold vibration!

I cannot think back to those days without recalling, over and over again, how difficult I found it, in the beginning, to get my breathing to work out right…

When, to excuse myself, I once remarked that I was conscientiously making an effort to keep relaxed, he replied: "That's just the trouble, you make an effort to think about it. Concentrate entirely on your breathing, as if you had nothing else to do!"

I've heard stuttering therapists say the same thing…

It took me considerable time before I succeeded in doing what the Master wanted. But—I succeeded. I learned to lose myself so effortlessly in the breathing that I sometimes had the feeling that I myself was not breathing but—strange as this may sound—being breathed. And even when, in hours of thoughtful reflection, I struggled against this bold idea, I could no longer doubt that the breathing held out all that the Master had promised.

Learning to draw the bow took a year. Perhaps stuttering therapies are unsuccessful because we expect results too quickly. Stuttering therapy could start with a year of breathing exercises.

Then Herrigel learned to loose the arrow. This was even more difficult than drawing the bow. Herrigel kept jerking his hand at the moment of release, resulting in "visible shaking of my whole body and affected the bow and arrow as well." This caused the arrow to "wobble."

The Master told Herrigel, "Don't think of what you have to do, don't consider how to carry it out! You mustn't open the right hand on purpose."

Herrigel told the Master that after drawing the bow, "unless the shot comes at once I shan't be able to endure the tension…I can't wait any longer."

The Master replied that Herrigel's inability to wait was because, "You do not wait for fulfillment, but brace yourself for failure."

Herrigel spent three years learning to release the arrow. The Master kept saying to release the arrow without tension, like a bamboo leaf holding snow, bending lower and lower until the snow slips off. The bamboo leaf waits without effort until the snow falls off.

In stuttering therapy, the first word of a phrase should be without effort, rolling off your vocal folds like the snow sliding off the bamboo leaf. You shouldn't intend to say the first word, as the archer doesn't open his hand on purpose. The word should say itself, without your planning or calculating or trying.

Herrigel's three years practice releasing the arrow suggests that learning to release the first word of a phrase may also take three years, and be the hardest part of stuttering therapy.

Herrigel was dedicated to his practice, but he couldn't release the arrow smoothly. The Master kept telling Herrigel to become "truly egoless." Herrigel became dejected, and planned to discontinue the archery lessons, concluding that, "all my efforts of the last few years had become meaningless."

Then, one day, after a shot, the Master made a deep bow and broke off the lesson. "Just then 'It' shot!" he cried.

"It" meant that Herrigel had loosed a shot without loosing the shot. "It" had loosed the shot, not Herrigel. The Master could not say anymore what "It" was, just that "It" can only be known through experience.

Only after considerable time did more right shots occasionally come off, which the Master signalized by a deep bow. How it happened that they loosed themselves without my doing anything, how it came about that my tightly closed right hand suddenly flew back wide open, I could not explain then and I cannot explain today…I got to the point of being able to distinguish, on my own, the right shots from the failures. The qualitative difference is so great that it cannot be overlooked once it has been experienced.

In stuttering therapy, the difference between your relaxed, fluent voice and your tense, stuttering voice is as obvious as night and day—after you learn relaxed, fluent speech. Until then it seems impossible.

The Master then began training Herrigel to shoot at a target, adding, "He who has a hundred miles to walk should reckon ninety as half the journey."

The Master refused to teach Herrigel to aim, insisting that the target was not the goal, and the goal cannot be aimed at, and that the goal doesn't have a name, except maybe "enlightenment".

But even though the Master did not aim, all of his shots lodged in the black center of the target, from sixty feet away.

At first Herrigel tried to shoot without caring if the arrows hit the target. But he couldn't do this, and "I confessed to him that I was at the end of my tether."

The Master replied:

You worry yourself unnecessarily. Put the thought of hitting right out of your mind! You can be a Master even if every shot does not hit.

You can be a Zen master of speech even if you still stutter. Mild disfluencies don't matter, if you communicate well.

When the Master said he sees "the goal as though I don't see it," Herrigel replied that the Master should then be able to shoot blindfolded. The Master then had Herrigel set up the target in darkness, except for one candle. Herrigel could not see the target at all, but the Master shot two arrows. When Herrigel turned on the lights, he saw that not only had both arrows hit the bulls-eye, but the second arrow had hit the first and splintered it!

Herrigel describes the following months as the hardest yet, of trying to hit the target yet not trying to hit the target. He gradually came to see the value of this training:

It destroyed the last traces of any preoccupation with myself and the fluctuations of my mood.

Finally, the Master had Herrigel shoot in front of spectators, and awarded him a diploma, "inscribed with the degree of mastery." Before Herrigel returned to Europe, the Master added,

I must only warn you of one thing. You have become a different person in the course of these years. For this is what the art of archery means: a profound and far-reaching contest of the archer with himself. Perhaps you have hardly noticed it yet, but you will feel it very strongly when you meet your friends and acquaintances again…You will see with other eyes and measure with other measures.