About the presenter: Andreas Starke was born 1944 in Germany. With a university diploma in mathematics and physics he spent the first ten years of his professional life as a software developer and computing consultant. At the age of 36 he decided to go into the field of speech-language pathology and received a master's degree from Western Michigan University in 1982. After three years as a lecturer in logopedics (as the field of speech-language pathology is called in most of Europe) he returned to the computing field working as software developer for Deutsche Airbus in Hamburg until 1996. Starting 1987 he has conducted group therapy program in an intensive interval format. Today he runs up to six such groups per year in Germany and Austria and is the most active continuing education lecturer in the field of stuttering in German speaking countries. His website is www.adreasstarke.de.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to Andreas Starke before October 22, 2002.

Zen and the Art of Stuttering Therapy

by Andreas Starke
from Germany

Adapted from a transcript of a lecture at the 28th DBL Congress (German Federal Association for Logopedics), May 13-15 1999

Perhaps you will be surprised that I even attempt to write about: Zen and the Art of Stuttering Therapy. Don't expect too much from the title. Although I do claim to understand something about stuttering therapy I don't understand a whole lot about Zen. This may be because of the very nature of Zen.

What Zen actually "is" is harder to describe than what Zen "is not." Zen is not, in my view, a religion, and Zen is not esoteric in the everyday sense of the word. Perhaps Zen is esoteric in the actual sense of word, because a master usually guides Zen followers and "enlightenment" (satori) can be seen as a kind of initiation.

In my opinion, Zen is above all a school of thought and in as much as thinking affects our whole life, a "school of life." Perhaps the word "path of enlightenment" is best suited to characterize Zen.

The reason I wish to write about Zen and its relationships to stuttering therapy came as a consequence of my reading more and more about Zen. (The books that were most important to me are THICH NHAT HANH: Keys to Zen and RADCLIFF/RADCLIFF: Understanding Zen.) As it turned out, quite unexpectedly, I encountered hints and elements that were quite familiar to me from stuttering therapy. I found parallels to and applications for basic ideas, ideas that play a role in Zen as well.


One of the most important aims of the path of enlightenment in Zen is for the student to be vigilant not to consider his conception about things to be more real than the things are themselves. "The map is not the territory". This reminder of ALFREDS KORZYBSKI (1879-1950), the Polish-American father of "General Semantics", highlights this aspect very clearly. General semantics is a philosophical/ linguistic/ psychotherapeutical school, which can be considered to be a linguistic branch of Zen. Some people regard it as one of the sources for the development of Fritz Perls' Gestalt therapy. Similarities abound.

What are the implications for stuttering therapy?

  1. I have always been very distrustful about various associations triggered by the phenomenon of stuttering in many specialists and laymen. I don't like to talk at length about the rather vulgar theories saying that stuttering indicates a kind of weakness of character. Somewhat more serious theories say that humans stutter because they can evade communication this way or because they are, in principle, unable to communicate and that this inability manifests itself in stuttering (see WESTRICH). The entire stuttering literature is full of allegedly profound ideas about the meaning of stuttering regarding the family, the personality, or the way of life of the stutterer. My distrust developed due to observations, which suggested to me that there are actually very few similarities among people who stutter. The few similarities that are found can be understood more simply as consequences rather than as conditions or causes of stuttering.

    Nevertheless, I always observe in myself and in others the temptation to allow conceptions that I have about stuttering and about people who stutter to affect the picture that results from direct observation. Recently I heard a lecture about "Stuttering and The Family" in which the speaker quoted a statement of the father of a child who stuttered. He then said to the audience, "You may well imagine what it means, if the father of a child who stutters says such a thing." Naturally one can think something and you can imagine something, but this can never be safe. No "insight" that one can have about stuttering can lead to "safe" judgments, if one applies those insights to a real person who stutters and to one of his relatives.

    What I want to say is this: Stuttering does not prove ANYTHING. To paraphrase the famous poem of GERTRUDE STEIN (1874 - 1946): Stuttering is Stuttering is Stuttering.

  2. I consider it to be a grave mistake in many training programs, especially in stuttering, that students are primarily asked to observe and experience what stuttering (in another person, e.g. a client) "does to them" or "how they deal with it." These observation exercises are important and perhaps even essential, but they should never stop us from practicing direct observation of the client.

    Allow me to suggest the following: The observations of a listener's own reactions to the disturbed speaking of a person who stutters provides, at best, an access to assumptions about reactions of other listeners (which the person who stutters has to deal with in his life). This then gives some clues about overt and covert feedback from listeners that the person who stutters has to deal with and how he deals with it.

    At worst, however, and this is very probable, the observation of his own feelings obstructs the observer's view of the client's speech behavior. At the risk of making a lame comparison: The tennis player will not play any better simply because the coach observes how he (the coach) feels about a lost match point.

  3. I would like to explain the phenomenological approach with another beautiful example from stuttering therapy.

    To me it is an important concern that at the beginning of therapy the client receives a detailed introduction to phonetics including the breathing and voicing process for approximately six hours. I find that this time is well invested. The client learns something about speech production, knowledge we can use later, and he acquires a vocabulary, so that we can communicate about these things more easily. Here a cornerstone is laid for a skill from which the stutterer will benefit much: The execution of the speech movement as volitional movement with a maximum of tactile, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic perception. This is one of the most important procedures in our therapy.

    Since the beginning of our group therapy in 1987 I have been asked numerous times by clients and by my co-therapists to hand out a written compendium to the clients, such as the sound chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet, so that they can check again in case they forget some details. And I do not do this.

    It has turned out to be much more beneficial, if the client uses the "laboratory", i.e. his "speech apparatus" that he always carries with him, to come to the necessary conclusions "using the living object" instead of looking at a chart. This has also the advantage that the client is forced to rely on tactile proprioceptive kinesthetic feedback rather than on a piece of paper. Of course he has to succeed in ignoring acoustic feedback but that's another matter.

    I hope you understand my point. The phonetic chart would do exactly what the Zen disciple seeks to avoid. The client would run the risk of understanding the chart, but not understanding his own speech production. Worse still, the client is possibly subjected to the illusion that he understands his speech production when, in fact, he understands only abstract concepts about it or, even worse, about speech production in general. Even the most precise refinement of the phonetic system is already a high abstraction in relation to the reality of the speech production of a real person who really speaks.


I would like to turn your attention to "mindfulness." It concerns the principle "here and now". One must watch out, however, that the expression "here and now" doesn't degenerate to a buzzword, which only means that one may forget the past and not think too much about the future. That would be something like a negative definition: What remains is the "Here and Now". (We know other catch-phrases like "positive thinking" and "the way is the goal" / "the journey is the reward" which are easily misunderstood in a similar way.)

In Zen the term "mindfulness" has developed for the "here and now". The Zen disciple tries to do everything mindfully. By this is meant that one aims to do everything in a mind-state in which the senses are "open", so to speak. This has the result that one notices in each moment everything which happens including that which one does. This state can be reached with each everyday activity and, with continued practice, can be held for a longer period of time. Thus, it concerns something that could be called everyday-meditation. The German expression for this state is "Achtsamkeit" derived from "achtsam" which means both "attentive" and "careful".

What does all of this have to do with the stuttering therapy? Our approach in stuttering therapy represents a detour. This detour is necessary, since we aim for the result to appear without conscious effort, namely spontaneous normally-fluent speech. One cannot force his to happen, it either happens or is doesn't. The detour consists of a conscious effort to bring about a state in which "it happens". We call this condition "being fluent". A stutterer "is fluent" when he is in this state. [For the American reader this may not be very impressive, because the expressions "to be fluent" and "to become fluent" have been used for a long time. However, I'm not sure that the fact that this refers to a particular mind-body state is always appreciated.]

As it turns out, the most effective means to bring about the state of "being fluent" is practicing a slow, strong and smooth movement that resembles normal speech movement but is not. We call this "slow motion speech." It is abnormal because the mind-body state in performing slow motion speech is abnormal. When speaking spontaneously all the attention is on communicating, and no attention is paid to speaking. Contrary to that, slow motion speaking happens in a state of mindfulness, similar to the intention of an athlete who performs an athletic skill by himself only to advance in his training program. It is not intended that slow motion speech be used for communication.

The aspect of "mindfulness" in our form of stuttering therapy may not be perfectly in line with Zen. Above all, we do not intend to have the client always speak in a mindful way. We don't want to confine the client to an abnormal way of speaking, and we would not do that even if this were beneficial to the client in terms of the "path of enlightenment" (the Zen way.) In the end, most of us are not Zen teachers and our clients don't come to us as Zen disciples. I'm convinced, though, that we use something here that has been considered as being beneficial in Zen for a long time.

Recently I have read the highly interesting book "The Inner Game of Tennis" by Timothy Gallwey. I became aware that our work is also compatible with the most advanced training principles of world-class athletes. This in particular applies to the principle of "mindfulness".

In the movement sciences (sports science, motor learning and control, motology) there is the interesting distinction between focusing on the result (Knowledge of Results) and focusing on the process (Knowledge of Performance) (SHEA/SHEBILSKE/WORCHEL). Focusing on the result means concentrating on whether or not stuttering occurs as well as its frequency and the form it takes. Focusing on the process on the other hand means perceiving and analyzing the movement(s) during the course of a stuttering event. It is obvious that a profound change in the client's attitude will come about when one succeeds in redirecting his orientation from "result" to "process".


The next point which I want explain further has been addressed already. It concerns making a detour in therapy. In the entire modification phase of Van Riper's therapy we do something -- not for the purpose of communication, but as an exercise -- that is not at all the goal of therapy: slow motion speech, cancellations and pullouts. Our primary goal is to bring the client to a state in which he speaks spontaneously normally fluent.

For some time now I have been repeatedly confronted with material that deals with special states of consciousness. It began with the book "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" by ROBERT PIRSIG up to the research of MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI who uses the term "flow" for these "states of optimal experience" (book title: "Flow -- The Psychology of Optimal Experience"). Interestingly enough these things play a growingly important role in sports psychology. The great conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912 - 1996) repeatedly spoke about states, in which the orchestra does not play, but in which "it" plays the orchestra. Many software developers are also aware of these special states of consciousness. I call one the "state of farsightedness". This is a condition, in which the developer has a comprehensive or nearly comprehensive overview of a complex software system. In this state one does not feel either hunger or thirst or tiredness. This state is difficult to attain and must carefully be guarded, so that it is not lost.

In therapy we experience with great regularity that stutterers "become fluent." That requires some explanation, because as therapists you certainly know that frequency and severity of stuttering can vary considerably, and that most people who stutter know situations in which they don't stutter at all or stutter infrequently and only mildly. "To become fluent" here means that the stutterer experiences states more and more frequently, in which he normally (according to his experience) would expect himself to stutter, but actually doesn't stutter or stutters much less frequently and much less severely than expected. A client of mine once said when I asked him about his fluency, "I notice that I am in kind of a flow."

Now we are faced with the big question: What does a motorcycle technician, musician, athlete, software developer do to manipulate these states of consciousness and how can we apply this to stuttering therapy? There is also the question whether we "only" deal with states of consciousness or whether we also deal with states of the motor and sensory systems. That the states of mind and motor-sensory systems are working together is easily observable in musicians and athletes. The English expression "set" appears to be quite fitting here. Acquiring a set means both setting focuses and filters for the sensory input and loading of motor programs. [The German word "Einstellung" which means "set" in this sense can also mean "attitude" or "opinion", so I use the term "motor set" (motorische Einstellung) when I talk about this in German in the context of stuttering.]

The reference to Zen results from the fact that "unintentional perfection" is realized here. In the Zen literature I found very little on how one reaches this "unintentional perfection". In particular HERRIGEL's (1884 - 1955) "Zen in the art of archery" is not very illuminating here, but refers to rather esoteric connections.

In sports sciences more is known. It is a consistent observation that besides the physical fitness of the athlete, the activities he performs shortly before the performance of the task play a substantial role.

Musicians probably must gain the condition of the optimal experience in a different way. How they do it, I don't know. Everybody says that practicing helps.

For me, in stuttering therapy this results in the following concept. Ultimately, with the use of fluency skills I don't find it important whether the stutterer can avoid stuttering or can shorten or simplify his stuttering. The really interesting point is whether the use of fluency skills has the consequence that the stutterer reaches a state in which he "is fluent", i.e. in which he doesn't stutter, and which fluency skills have the power to accomplish this.

Please distinguish this very clearly from the concept of automation of a speech technique. This concept means that a stutter-free and at first artificial (i.e. prosodically distorted) way of speaking is practiced and used for a longer period of time until it doesn't require any conscious control effort (and the distortion of prosody is not perceived anymore). You may call this a "global approach."

Contrary to this concept, the concern here is whether there are fluency aids that can effect (or at least facilitate) a change of the motor set with the result that the stutterer "becomes fluent" without effort.

My opinion, the best speech aid which accomplishes this is clear without any ambiguity, at least as long as I don't have anything better: the perfect pullout. The pullout has the following crucial advantages: the motor parameters which affect the probability of subsequent stuttering are set to an optimum, subglottal air pressure becomes more stable, voice production is improved and the correct coarticulatory performance is practiced with every pullout.

Additionally, the pullout functions as a local speech aid, i.e. it helps the person who stutters to inhibit imminent stuttering or to terminate stuttering while it occurs. The term "local" means here that this speech aid is supposed to be used only at the moment of stuttering.

This leads to a paradoxical realization, i.e. that the spontaneous (i.e. uncontrolled) speech fluency benefits from the ability of the person who stutters to stutter well, i.e. to handle his stuttering events efficiently.


In the previous section, which dealt mostly with these sets, I have made only few references to Zen.

In order to do a little more justice to the title of this presentation let me spend some time on the topic of paradoxical statements.

For a long time Zen was considered to be inaccessible for Western minds. Something that mystical could open itself only to the Eastern mind. In this context it is symptomatic that when studying Zen one is frequently confronted with paradoxes.

The so-called "koans" have become well-known. These are enigmatic pieces of text, very often in the form of a dialogue. They constitute an insurmountable obstacle for abstract thinking and are used to inhibit thinking in rational terms, or at least to question it.

The paradoxes, which I want to quote, are all solvable. Thus, they are no real "koans". Nevertheless they have, at least formally, a certain Zen flavor.

"Stutterers who want to speak fluently should learn to stutter well." That is the heart of the paradigm change in stuttering therapy, from CHARLES VAN RIPER and his companions.

"The hard way to find the easy way out." (ANDERS LUNDBERG about stuttering therapy)

"I stopped stuttering a long time before I stopped stuttering." (JOHN C. HARRISON) This statement means that the author overcame his self-concept as stutterer much earlier than he stopped stuttering.

"Zen ... does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes." ALAN of WATT (1915-1973). This sentence does not have anything to do with stuttering therapy; however, it has very much to do with Zen.

"He was a master in arranging lucky coincidences." This last quote which I received from a traveler to Asia is especially for me an inexhaustible source of inspiration. This is the most important question in the treatment of stuttering: What can I do as the therapist and what can the client who stutters do in order to make normally-fluent speech happen like a lucky coincidence?


  • CSIKSZENTMIHALYI, M.: Flow - The Psychology of Optimally Experience. New York: HarperCollins 1991
  • GALLWEY, T.: The Inner Game of Tennis. Revised edition. New York: Random House 1997
  • HARRISON, J.: How to Conquer Your Fears of Speaking before People. Anaheim, Ca.: National Stuttering Project 1996
  • HERRIGEL, E.: Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschiessens (original edition 1951). English: Zen in the Art of Archery. Various publishers, first edition New York: Pantheon 1953
  • KORZYBSKI, ALFRED: Science and Sanity - an Introduction to Non Aristotelian System and General Semantics. (First edition 1933) Englewood, N.J.: Institute of General Semantics 1995
  • LUNDBERG, A. und B. OLSSON: Behandlung stotternder Kinder in Göteborg - "Der schwere Weg, den leichten Ausweg zu finden" (Treatment of children who stutter in Gothenburg -- "The hard way to find the easy way out"). Berlin: VEB Verlag Volk und Gesundheit 1980
  • PIRSIG, R.: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Morrow 1974
  • RADCLIFF, B. AND A. RADCLIFF: Understanding Zen. Rutland, VT: Tuttle 1993
  • SHEA, C.H., W.L. SHEBILSKE AND S. WORCHEL: Motor Learning and Control. Boston: Allyn and Bacon 1993
  • THICH NHAT HANH: Zen Keys -- A Guide to Zen Practice. New York: Doubleday 1995
  • VAN RIPER, C: The Treatment of Stuttering. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall 1973
  • WESTRICH, E.: Der Stotterer (The Stutterer). Bonn-Bad Godesberg 1971

    You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to Andreas Starke before October 22, 2002.

    September 5, 2002