Shenpa, Stuttering, and Me
This paper was presented at the 2005 International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference, October, Judith Kuster, Chair. To read the threaded discussion for this paper, see http://cahn.mnsu.edu/8silverman/ . To make comments directly to the author, email her at
Copyright Notice: This a copyright protected document. Copyright by Ellen-Marie Silverman, 2005. Neither excerpts nor the entire paper may be published in hard copy, copied to another website, or otherwise reproduced in other media without advance permission from Ellen-Marie Silverman, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org). Permission is granted to read, print out a single copy for personal use, or link to this page. --- Ellen-Marie Silverman, Ph.D., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, August 15, 2005.
SHENPA, STUTTERING, AND ME
Not very long ago, after talking with me for approximately 15 minutes, an acquaintance felt compelled to pronounce, “You need high challenges.” He was right. I do. After all, I chose to abandon a tenured university position to work full-time as a therapist, launch a business without prior business experience, and create a functional method of live theater captioning without training as a captioner. Entrepreneur-type? Well, partially. I’m as complex in my make-up and expression as anyone else, and labels are hit-and-miss as descriptors of me as they are of others. Yet, the one common element of my being throughout the past 25 years has been a dedication to self-improvement. Not that I thought I was a crusty hag needing mellowing or a timorous soul needing to successfully wind my way into society, I just needed to know who I was. Sounds strange, but I was sure I was more than what I seemed. Like many other thinking, curious adults, especially women, I felt, after years of full-time schooling, working, and relating, I had lost touch with me. Oh, I could name the roles I took on, speech therapist, researcher, professor, wife, mother, ex-wife, boss, artist, and so on, and draw out personal characteristics revealed as I carried them out, or didn’t, but that just didn’t tell me what I needed to know. So, I set out to learn.
Among the tools I found useful to excavate “me” from the strata of conditioned
attitudes, feelings, and behaviors I had piled on over the years, like layers of fine gauze encasing a mummy, is the basic meditation technique labeled mindfulness (e.g., Hahn, 2000; Kabat-Zinn, 2005, 1990; Langer, 1989). Applying this method to my quest has provided all I hoped and more. Two years ago, my commitment to the practice led to my awareness of a related one, colloquially referred to as “getting unstuck” (ChÖdrÖn, 2005; 2003). The practice, an ancient one, was developed to manage shenpa, a Tibetan word that translates as “hooked.” Shenpa refers to the experience of having an urge we feel compelled to immediately relieve, like scratching an itch. Upon being hooked, we tense, close down, and withdrawal. Then we try to quickly satisfy it. Shenpa is both the itching and the scratching. When I perceived that shenpa, its nature, the compulsion to react to it, the manner of reacting, and the personal beliefs surrounding it described the root of my stuttering pattern, I literally said, “YES!” to the practice.
This essay outlines my experience dealing with the shenpa of my stuttering problem. In the process, I describe my stuttering problem in a bit more detail than I did in a paper prepared for the 6th Annual ISAD Conference (Silverman, 2003). By sharing my experience dealing with shenpa, I am not suggesting its adoption by others with or without stuttering problems. In fact, I am not even suggesting that self-directed personal change is necessary. That is a personal decision, of course. What I do want to impart, though, is that I have found working with the shenpa of my stuttering to be very hard work, even with prior experience practicing mindfulness, and that the results unpredictably follow their own time table. Yet, I have found the changes satisfying and the process even more so.
You may not wish to take up this practice if you find self-analysis annoying and burdensome, but you may want to read this essay to satisfy yourself that stuttering, like over-eating, is “ . . . the tip of the iceberg (Sheehan, 1958, p. 123)” and that desirable, successful personal change can be, in part, self-directed.
GETTING STUCK AND GETTING UNSTUCK
The Four Steps
The first step to getting unstuck is recognizing the earliest signs of being stuck. For me, I have learned that involves a sense of being grabbed by the front of the throat and feels like what I imagine being choked by another must feel like. Each time I am surprised and frightened such that I momentarily stop the mental flow of words I intend to speak. My eyes widen. My torso recoils. I am not here. I am wondering what brought about this ambush and why. I panic wanting to get free. I want to be comfortable. Shenpa has hooked me. I'm stuck. I scratch. I squeeze my eye and facial muscles and tense my thoracic and abdominal muscles to help push out the words. Immediately, as they begin to sputter out, I feel victorious and defeated. I feel elated because I took control of the situation and escaped, but then, in a nanosecond, recognizing I stuttered, I feel sad because I lost control of my body. The shame lasts but a second or so, but the experience adds to my stockpile of perceived personal short-comings. Shenpa, 1. Ellen-Marie, 0. Sound familiar?
After Step One, I can apply Steps Two and Three to help get unstuck when I next begin to detect I am being throttled.
Step Two is renouncing the urge to force words out. That means staying with the tension, the closing down, and the withdrawing and noticing and experiencing whatever feelings and sensations arise and morph while dismissing discursive thoughts about them --- and not forcing. To appreciate what is required: The next time you feel you need to sneeze, attend to the feelings and sensations of needing to sneeze, but do not sneeze.
Staying helps break down my customary automatic response. I don't think about being strangled. I release my judgment about the tension. I simply notice all I can about it's physical nature, i.e., where it is, how it feels --- warm, cold, throbbing, etc., how it looks --- its color, size, and so on and my surroundings. My fear melts.
Step Three, involves relaxing into the urge to force. I accept, even embrace, the tension with kindness, like a mother comforting her anxious child, rather than display resistance and aversion, reactions that encourage fear. I begin or resume talking when I no longer feel afraid. I say what I want to say. I concentrate on providing information, giving minimal to no thought about making a good impression by not stuttering.
Step Four is resolving to apply Steps One through Three for as long as it takes to disrupt my habitual pattern of forcing.
Outcome To Date
You may consider the process too long to be practical. But the actual time transitioning from Step One through Step Four on any given occasion is extremely brief because I have practiced mindfulness for some time. Without that experience, applying the Four-Step Process of Getting Unstuck would be untenable.
But, like others working with shenpa, I rarely recognize the tension before I react to quell it (ChÖdrÖn, 2005, 2003). But I usually am able to relax into the need to force. One thing I do is what I have taught others by providing them a short woven grass tube then instructing them to place one index finger into one end, the other into the other, then remove their fingers from the tube. Most start pulling. Pulling stretches the tube, squeezing their fingers. Feeling caught, they pull harder. The tube tightens even more. When they stop pulling, they can extract their fingers.
Daily, I take time to reflect on my experience stuttering. I approach this time with kindness toward myself, no blame or regret. I consider this a time of learning. After all, that is what I am about, and mistakes offer opportunities to capture key insights so-called successes often do not.
The benefit I most appreciate is the feeling of greater mastery over my thoughts and thought-related behavior. If I perceive laryngeal constriction, I am no longer overwhelmed. I feel more like a flight controller who alerts a pilot to possible interference and suggests options than a pilot encountering turbulence without warning. So far, after slightly less than a year of reasonably dedicated practice, I have not observed changes in the amount or form-type of my stuttering; I still stutter by repeating words and parts of words usually in clusters (Silverman, 1973). But I struggle less.
I am not so concerned about what others think about how I talk; I am more concerned about what they think about what I say. I believe what you stand for is more important than how you stand. That substance matters more than form. So, I am not distressed that l still stutter about 3 or 4 times on any given day.
Addressing the shenpa of my stuttering has shown me that my stuttering is, as Wendell Johnson (1956, p.216-217) postulated, ". . . an anticipatory, apprehensive, hyptertonic avoidance reaction." I have become convinced I stutter to avoid the sensation being grabbed by the neck brings that leads me to fear I will be strangled if I do not contest the throttling. Sometime I may have insights into other provocateur's for my stuttering. Right now, this is what I know.
Where the tension comes from I am not always certain. But I do know that talking with certain people in person or over the telephone seems to occasion the feeling of my imminent strangulation. They are people I know fairly well and people I scarcely know at all. They are people I am talking to for the first time or people I have spoken with before. I feel fear, even terror, in association with each, often before any words are exchanged. This, too, is a form of shenpa.
Working with the shenpa of my stuttering is not about learning to apply speech controls. It is about noticing what I am experiencing and what I am thinking and doing in relation to that. It is about patience. It is about being aware of choices and selecting ones right for me at the time. It is about greater acceptance of what living brings and of myself. Basically, I envision the practice as parenting. If I want my child to behave appropriately, I need to learn to communicate with my child clearly, consistently, and kindly. Addressing the shenpa of my stuttering teaches me to consistently and respectfully send messages to my body that help me communicate with greater ease and satisfaction.
A final benefit from doing this work has been the reminder that the deepest learning comes through experience. Had I accepted this process in theory but not practiced it, I would not have made the changes in outlook and behavior I have for which I am grateful.
I have not had direct access to any teacher or mentor to help me establish and develop my practices. My knowledge of the practices of mindfulness and shenpa have come through reading and listening to lectures recorded on CD's, DVD's, and video tapes.
Actually, I have no final conclusion. I am pleased with benefits I am receiving that I feel derive, at least in part, from the practice, i.e., increased freedom from fear, self-discipline, awareness, compassion, and self-acceptance. I intend to continue this combined practice.
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Johnson, W. (1956). "Stuttering," pp. 216-217. In W. Johnson, et al. (Eds.), Speech Handicapped School Children, 2nd Edition. New York: Harper & Brothers.
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Langer, E. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing
Sheehan, J. (1958). "Conflict Theory of Stuttering, pp. 121-166." In J. Eisenson (Ed.), Stuttering: A Symposium. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
Silverman, E-M. (2003). My Personal Experience with Stuttering and Meditation.
6th Annual ISAD Online Conference. October.
Silverman, E.-M. (1973). Clustering: A characteristic of preschoolers' speech disfluency.
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ChÖdrÖn, P. (2005). Getting Unstuck. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True.
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