By Netanel Miles-Yépez
By the time I was thirteen, I had become deathly afraid of speaking in public. I really don’t know why I was so afraid. Before that, I'm sure I had fairly ordinary fears about it; though I was able to do it, and was even a little proud of the ability. But now, the very thought of it was enough to cause a panic attack. My heart would beat wildly in my chest. I would break out in a cold sweat and become dizzy. My anxiety was so intense, I didn’t know if I would survive it. I felt as if I might collapse or go entirely blank, which seemed equally terrible. And what would happen then? Death? Derision? I couldn’t think beyond the fear.
Looking back, I wonder if the biological changes of puberty had somehow catalyzed an earlier trauma and caused me to shy away from attention. Whatever the cause, I had a serious problem and soon began making the usual excuses about ‘forgetting’ to do my assignments at school. I skipped classes for days at a time so that it didn’t look as if I was only missing the ones when I was required to read or give a presentation. Not surprisingly, my grades dropped. I had always been quiet, and wasn’t generally considered very smart, so no one seemed to think it a cause for serious concern.
Once, in tenth grade, I had an English teacher who was kind and encouraging, and I thought I might try to face-up to the situation. Part of me really wanted someone to recognize that I wasn’t as dumb and as timid as people thought. We were asked to memorize a short passage from a book or a play and to recite it for the class. I was beginning to read Shakespeare then, so I decided to memorize a monologue from his Julius Caesar, part of which I can still recite. Looking at it now, it's interesting how often the word ‘fear’ is mentioned in that particular monologue. “I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d than what I fear.” Maybe I wished that I could speak so openly of my own fears. I certainly hoped that I would give this speech and be rid of them.
The night before, I rehearsed every word perfectly and was amazed at what I understood and how I could evoke the drama in the words. I felt a momentary sense of triumph . . . Then, almost immediately, I was seized with terror. A fear of failure gripped my heart and I knew I would never do it. In despair, I punched a hole in my bedroom wall and slumped to the floor, sobbing. The next day, I pretended that I hadn’t bothered to do the assignment and accepted the failing grade as if it were unimportant to me. Needless to say, I barely graduated high school.
Although I enrolled in community college after graduation, I quickly withdrew after just a few classes. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and there really wasn’t any money for it. So I got a job in a bookstore and began to spend all my free time reading. After a few years, it became clear that I wanted to study religion, and I now had more than one reason to go back to school. I had fallen in love, and my fiancée was about to transfer to the university. So we got married and I enrolled in a community college in the same city. But I continued to avoid public speaking. Throughout my time in community college, and later at the university, I managed to keep my head down and avoid talking. My grades were good, but I still trembled at the thought of being called upon in class, or even having to make a comment on anything. It wasn’t until grad school that things began to change.
The Naropa Process
In 1998, I applied to enter a master's program at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where I knew it wouldn’t be easy to hide my fear any longer. The program description stressed “engagement” and a “process-orientation” that let me know there would be a lot of talking. Nevertheless, I was determined to go there. I decided to take it as a challenge, though I’m pretty sure, somewhere in the back of my mind, I probably thought that I might just be wily enough to avoid any actual “processing” out loud. If I actually thought that, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
During the two-day orientation, there was a luncheon at which we introduced ourselves to the people at our table, then a support group meeting of 7-10 individuals from the incoming class to which we had to introduce ourselves at length again, and then a meeting of 20 or so new students in the major, at which we had to talk about what had brought us to Naropa. Somehow, I got through all of this tolerably well, and was just beginning to relax a little when I entered Shambhala Hall for a last session with all the incoming students. We all sat down in a large circle, perhaps a 100 or more of us. Then a microphone was brought out and handed to a student directly across from me in the circle. Immediately, I felt the panic set-in. We were asked to say a few words about what we hoped to take away from our experience at Naropa.
The long semi-circular journey of the microphone to place where I was sitting felt like an eternity in hell. Desperately, I tried to think of what I might say, but nothing came. Finally, as the microphone made its way to the person sitting immediately to my right, a voice suddenly whispered inside—Tell the truth. It was clear that personal disclosures were honored at Naropa, and although I wasn’t terribly comfortable with the idea, I decided to ‘out myself.’ The microphone was passed to me. Nervously, I took it and looked around at the blank faces staring at me. Then, somewhat tremulously, I said: “I have to admit . . . this situation terrifies me. I’ve always been afraid of speaking in public; but this is what I’ve come here for—to challenge myself, and to explore new territory. I look forward to doing that with all of you.”
Almost immediately, I felt an up-swell of support from everyone in the room. A wave of compassion rolled over me. It had worked. By admitting my fear, I had bypassed all the judgments that might be made about my obvious nervousness (especially if I had pretended it didn’t exist and stuttered my way through a lame introduction). It was my first real success and was followed by many smaller ones in the days to come. Naropa simply isn’t a place where you can avoid speaking up. In one venue or another, you are going to have to talk. Gradually, I got somewhat used to it. At first, I mentioned my problem whenever I had to speak in class; but it wasn’t long before I was able give up that particular crutch as well. It just wasn’t necessary anymore.
As graduation approached, just under two years later, I was asked to give a guest lecture in another department. It was an Art History class focusing on South Asian Art. As I was then considered a minor authority on Hindu iconography, I was asked to give a talk to the students. Immediately, the fears came up again and I hesitated. I was fairly certain I could do it, but it was a new situation for me and I was afraid. Finally, I agreed, and a week later found myself sitting on a stool and giving an hour and a half talk. The students seemed interested and I left relieved. What I didn’t know then was that just a few days later, I would face a much more difficult test. In fact, it was quite literally a test. It was my last exam at Naropa.
The Warrior Exam
Now, if you’ve never heard of Naropa, then you need to know something about its founder and how things work there. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987) was one of the earliest and most significant Tibetan Buddhist masters to teach Buddhism in America. He was also one of the most radical. Not content with simply transplanting Tibetan Buddhist cultural and religious forms in American soil, he actually wanted to create a new fusion of East and West, blending the best aspects of education in each. Thus he founded the Naropa Institute in 1974 which eventually became the first accredited Buddhist-inspired academic institution in the United States.
At Naropa, you could find a recognizable version of university academics, but often presented in a different context. Instead of sitting in rows of desks or at tables, we sat in circles—sometimes on chairs, sometimes on cushions—and began each class with a respectful bow toward the center of the circle. We also studied different academic subjects, some of them represented perhaps for the first time in the West. We studied Buddhist texts and philosophical schools, and even had a class called “Meditation Practicum.” And in some of these classes, we were required to take what were called, “warrior exams.”
The warrior exam is based on the Tibetan Buddhist debate tradition which resembles a kind of ritualized intellectual combat. In it, the ‘defender’ sits amid a circle of Buddhist monks or nuns and fields questions from an intellectual ‘challenger’ or attacker standing before him or her. Each question or 'attack' is accompanied by gestures that suggest the stringing of a bow and the shooting of an arrow. The defender only departs the field of combat when the attacker catches the defender in a contradiction, a stalemate is declared, or the attacker is sufficiently satisfied with the answer. From this tradition, Chogyam Trungpa developed the warrior exam, believing that there was something in it that might evoke the deepest ‘warrior’ qualities of the person being questioned. He also saw it as a container in which a psychological transformation might be accomplished. That is to say, it was meant to be a place for a person to face their fears.
After almost two years at Naropa, I had been through a number of warrior exams (in fairly intimate classroom settings), and no longer had much fear of them. In fact, I was becoming so comfortable with them by the time I graduated that I barely gave them a second thought. So as I entered the little cottage classroom for my final warrior exam on my last day at Naropa, I was unconcerned.
We had been given the questions to review the week before. This is usually a sheet of 10 to 15 two-part questions, some of which are fairly simple, and some quite difficult. Since you don’t know which question you will get, you have to study for all of them and prepare oral answers for each. Well, I had glanced at the questions when I got them, and seeing that I knew the answers, never thought to look at them again. It was not a particularly difficult class and I thought it would be a breeze.
During a Naropa warrior exam, the class sits on the floor in a circle, often with each individual on a Japanese meditation cushion called a zafu which is placed on a larger flat cushion called a zabuton. In the center of the circle are two sets of cushions facing one another with two bowls between them. In one bowl are folded slips of paper on which are written the names of all the students. In the other bowl are the questions. First, the name of a questioner is selected, then the questioner draws the name of a person to be examined. The examinee then selects a question from the other bowl. If he or she is happy with that question, they will then hand it to the questioner so that it may be read aloud to the class. If for some reason they would prefer to answer a different question, they may reach into the bowl again. However, this question must be answered. After it is read aloud, the examinee answers all parts of the question to the best of their ability with as much detail as possible. When they are finished, the questioner may ask a follow-up question or may signal their satisfaction with the answer. Then, the instructor or other students may ask their own questions until they too are satisfied with the examinee’s understanding. If they are, the examination is over and the two persons in the center bow to one another.
After a couple of rounds like this, my name is selected from the bowl. I step into the circle and sit down opposite my questioner. We bow to one another and I calmly reach into the bowl for my question. I pull out a little white strip of paper, unfold it, and to my surprise . . . cannot think of the answer. No matter, I simply put it aside and draw another question. I unfold the new slip of paper, and to my horror . . . find that I cannot think of the answer to this question either! I can feel the blood rushing into my face and the beginnings of moisture on my forehead. I look down for a moment and then hand the paper resignedly to my questioner who reads the question out loud. There is a moment of silence before I say, “I don’t know.” I can see the surprised looks on the faces of my classmates. By this time, I had acquired a reputation for being one of the more ‘bookish’ persons at Naropa and was commonly thought to ‘have all the answers.’ But in this moment, I have none, and I actually see my questioner’s mouth drop open a little when I say it.
Feeling the panic rising, I make a decision. Inside, I know I have the answers to these questions; I just can’t seem to access them. I think to myself, I’m not going to fail this exam just because I’m having a memory lapse! I’m determined to give some kind of an answer. Into the already tense silence, I speak up: “I honestly can’t think of the answer. I know it’s in me somewhere; I’m just drawing a complete blank. So . . . I want to ask a favor . . . If you’ll hang in there with me for a little while, I want to try and talk my way through the question until I can find the answer.” I look at my questioner. Unsure of what to do, she looks at the instructor who nods his assent.
Making myself as calm as possible, I say, “Please read me the question again.” She reads it again and I repeat the first part aloud. Then I start to take all the words apart, thinking out loud and passing through all the Buddhist concepts to which this might refer, giving brief definitions of each and dismissing them one by one. Then I begin to look at how I might answer the question without reference to Buddhism or the specific text to which the question refers. Still, I haven’t got it yet. I’m missing something. I ask my questioner to read the second part of the question. I listen intently and go through the same long process. Then, suddenly, everything I had temporarily forgotten floods back into my mind and I can feel my face lighting-up. Everyone knows I have it now. The relief in the room is palpable. I build on my earlier explorations and give the most thorough answer I can possibly give. I explore parallel concepts, give the arguments for and against the position and paraphrase the words of the text . . . For a moment, I even consider giving the exact location of the answers in the text, but figure that this would be showing off. But after faltering so badly in the beginning, I don’t want to leave even the slightest doubt that I know and understand the answer thoroughly.
When I finish, I look at my questioner. She says with a smile, “I’m satisfied.” I then look to the instructor and my classmates who all nod their satisfaction. Then someone begins to clap and the others join in. I bow to my questioner and take her place as questioner.
In that moment, I knew that a significant chapter in my life had come to a close. This was the situation I had always feared, that I would come up short, panic, go blank and prove that all my personal fears about myself were true. It had actually happened. But something else had happened that I had not anticipated. I had lived. I didn’t collapse, and the world didn’t stop. I had forgotten what I knew, certainly! But I was still there and able to make decisions about what to do next and how I felt about what was happening to me. That was the power I had left. I realized then that we don’t often look beyond the terrible moments we fear. We almost never ask ourselves, “What is on the ‘other side’ of this fear?” We tend to think that this is where the story ends. ‘Fade to black.’ But my story hadn’t ended. I was still there and could act on my own behalf. In many ways, I was now free. My fears were realized and my world had not come to an end. It isn’t pretty, but when the worst has already happened to you, what more is there to fear? So I asked myself, “What comes next?” And the only answer I wanted to give was, “No more running.”
In the years that followed, I was asked more and more frequently to give talks on particular aspects of religion to local groups or at different colleges. And in doing so, I discovered that I had something of a vocation as a teacher. Still, there were many times when the old panic got hold of me just before a talk and I would have to remember that I had already lived through the worst. On other occasions, I had to deal with different permutations of the fear; for instance, that I would give a bad talk. One night, forced to give a presentation on a subject for which I had little interest, I gave a very poor performance. The next day, I said to a dear friend who had been there, “That was pretty bad, wasn’t it?” With characteristic directness, she said, “Yes, it was.” I laughed out loud. Somehow I felt okay about it because I had now survived that fear as well.
Today, I still feel nervous before speaking to a group, especially if I am caught off guard or find myself in a new situation. But I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed of the fact. I am aware of the momentary tremor and simply accept it. I tell myself, “I belong in this moment,” and then I ask the question on the other side of the fear, “What comes next?” And there is always an answer.