About the presenter: Dr Satyendra Srivastava is a Community Health consultant, managing SAMAGRA trust in Indian Himalayas, near Dehradun. He is coordinating a Speech Support group and working with children and adolescents facing speech issues. He is a recovering stammerer. See http://samagraindia.blogspot.com/ for more details on the unfolding activities of SAMAGRA.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2008.

self vs. Self

by Satyendra Srivastava
from India

I am a male Indian PWS, born in 1958. Trained as a General medical practitioner, I currently work with voluntary agencies as a freelance Community health consultant. I also manage a public charitable trust in north India, which is working with children facing speech and hearing issues.

I have two close relatives who stutter. As a child, my first brush with stammering was when I would be talking normally and suddenly a word would refuse to come forth, while my mind would be clear and I would know what the word was. A sense of frustration and bewilderment would soon follow. My mind began turning inwards to solve this riddle. I studied my thoughts, my reactions, motives, hesitations, likes-dislikes and later, elaborate systems of avoidance and denial, which I had developed without realizing.

I remember easily the effect my facial spasms used to have on my listeners in childhood. I struggled to suppress it with all the ingenuity at the command of an intelligent imaginative child. This often led to other equally disconcerting problems. I hadn't heard of Schwarz's air flow method then; I invented it on my own! But when I would try this, I would discover that I had totally emptied my lungs and the word was still not coming out. A little girl, in my class (4th) would explain very helpfully to the confused teacher: Madam, how can he speak? All his air is finished! Can't you see?!

In my youth, I managed to develop a near normal fluency - so convincing that few people realized that I was scanning my speech ahead, switching words, re-organizing syntax, 'pre-fetching' responses etc. I also used a lot of humor, as it helped me to ease down. But I was always worried about being 'found out' and felt exhausted at the end of the day. I felt like a conman- a trickster.

Early in the childhood, I learned that English and Hindi (my mother tongue) had many synonyms for the 'troublesome' words. This encouraged me to learn the language with greater interest. My writing improved. Wider reading opened a vast world of fantasy, inner adventure and knowledge which helped to keep me afloat against frequent emotional setbacks, caused by my 'unreliable' speech and its social repercussions.

One of the things which truly hurt me, and goaded me for a long time was the dismissive attitude of some people around me: A sibling once said: Mother, what will he do in life? He can't even talk! This drove me to strive to excel in anything and everything I came across. An undercurrent of sadness pervaded my adolescence and early adult life; it reflected in my paintings and stories I wrote. In my youth, a fear often assailed me that no woman would ever want to love me because of my stutter. Of course I discovered later that I was wrong, but by then focus of my search in life had moved on. To something more enduring.

One of the difficulties of people learning from each other is - many of our experiences are complex and unique. For example, I was initiated by a monk when I was in Medical school. My subsequent search for a deeper experience led me to vaguely believe in some kind of system in the chaos, apparent in the world around me and within me. Yet, I was not able to see beyond the thick wall of denial and private suffering.

In my 46th year of life, I consulted a speech therapist for the 'end of the day exhaustion' - not so much for my internalized stutter. He gave me a quite believable explanation about the juggling my mind had to do every time I opened my mouth to speak. This was just one consultation. But it set me to find more about 'covert stuttering'. I learned a lot from Internet but could not shake off the deep-seated sense of shame associated in my mind with my stuttering, however invisible. I passed through a suffering which could be termed only as 'Loss of Self'. These words penned around this time, capture my thoughts well:

"...I am tired of living as someone else. I realize that I am denying my natural stammering self; I am trying to pass off for a fluent self. Day after day, I feel I am living someone else's life. However well I do it, it is still some one else's - not mine. The fact that everyone around me is doing something similar, doesn't bring any solace..."

In 48th year of my life, I came across 'the silent saint of Yamuna valley'. One day I found him alone and blurted out my question: When I sit down to meditate, I don't see any light here - I pointed to my chest - I see only darkness; I have s-s-stammered all my life.. What shall I do? There was calm acceptance in his face, as he responded with a hand gesture which, I knew, meant - Just carry on. Everything will be fine.

I felt lighter. I had never been able to say this to anyone. A huge load was off my chest in a flash. I felt as if an invisible barrier was removed from my mind. All the sense of shame melted away. Thereafter, I found it easy to talk about my stutter with almost anyone, strangers or friends! Soon after, I published a booklet on stammering, in Hindi and English; started a Speech support group near my home; Began writing two blogs on the same theme.

Some of my friends felt a little uncomfortable with my 'self-disclosure': Sachin, you talk fine. No, you don't stutter! This was an image I had worked too hard to create over the years; I was reminded of a Zen saying: what is your strength, is your weakness too! But there were other friends, who intuitively knew the demon I was grappling with. Their support was invaluable at this time. One of them presented me a set of books from the 'Stuttering Association' (America). These books gave me further insights into my own mind, emotions and attitudes - and also techniques for self-therapy.

I had studied gender issues and participatory approaches to social development while working in the voluntary sector. I realized that stammering was in one sense, a 'social problem' and therefore had to be managed in social settings; When Dr Pradeep (Ontario, Canada) and I started a charitable trust in India, choice of our social program was easy for me: Speech support groups for PWS!

In India this is a new movement. Society does not accept stammering as a disability or a source of significant suffering. It is considered a 'funny/ puzzling habit'. The state and the society are preoccupied with visible, major and fixed disabilities. Since social attitudes are negative, families and individuals deny it, hide it. Advertisements for stammering therapy are often put in public toilets! Trained SLPs do not get clients easily and often migrate elsewhere. Appropriate therapy for PWS will be costly and is available only in large urban centers. Schools do not have speech therapists on their staff or board. In this scenario, recovering PWS helping other PWS appears to be one viable solution. This is the premise we are working on.

For last 7-8 months I have been practicing bouncing and prolonging difficult sounds besides self disclosure. I have also explored belly breathing and timing it with speech. All this was helpful but the greatest insights came to me during meditation. Denial of and dissociation from our disfluent self is so insidious, persistent, ingrained and relentless that an ordinary mind, however well-trained in external observation, would never be able to catch it. But meditation teaches one to turn one's awareness inwards: suddenly dark nooks and corners of our minds get lit up and we see ourselves as others do. Along with increased awareness, meditation brings a sense of acceptance too. I still get stuck on words but I no more punish myself for it. I accept my fluent and disfluent self as the two sides of the same coin. I also accept my Self which is beyond both.

Stammering begins with a sudden fear as we are talking: where does it come from? Where does all fear come from? I was taught to believe that all fears are based on an ignorance: Ignorance of our true nature, of our inner perfection. Next comes, a psycho-physiological reaction. Then, we become aware of the audience reaction. This brings in the major element of shame. If a PWS could be set free of shame, his speech will improve dramatically.

Good psychology and good religion have one and same purpose: putting us in touch with the inner resources, inner perfection. But the therapist or the saint need not always be outside. A mystic saint said- 'pure mind' is the inner teacher. Follow it. By pure mind, he meant a mind which is not attached to the world: In the world but not of it. This inner resource is available to everyone of us- no matter which cultural tradition we have been raised in.

As a covert stutterer, I was more solicitous of others' discomfort (hence I would hide my stutter) but dismissive of my own pain, day after day. This is what I had learned from the world. My self concept was based on the reactions of the world around me. In deep meditation, I found another way of looking at myself; A definition of 'self' independent of the world opinion. I discovered that when I accepted myself, wart and all, the world too accepted me - and I too accepted the world better in return. Still later, I realized that the world after all, was a projection of my own mind.

A zen master was asked: where does the cloud come from? By way of an answer, he counter-questioned: where does the question come from? Not only PWS, but many others have to discover that answer is to be found right there where the 'problem' is coming from. Years ago, I went out on a search for the answer to my stutter; I dived within and found so much more. What natural scientists do in the outside world, I tried to do in the inner world. The scientist observes falling of an apple, I studied the movement of my thoughts and tried to understand them in universal terms.

An ancient sage said: This Self is to be liberated by the Self alone. Others can point out the path to us - but we have to walk it ourselves. No one can 'gift' us the knowledge of who we truly are. I accept responsibility for everything that happened to me. I also decided to be an actor in my destiny - rather than a 'victim'. I walk my own path - with hope and joy.

Let me conclude with a thought from a modern sage of the west : People, who are identified with their minds, and, therefore, disconnected from their true power, will have fear as their constant companion. (From The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle.)

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2008.

March 7, 2008
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