I’ve been interested in mindfulness for a long while. Not just as a way to help with stuttering but as an approach to life. It’s the kind of practice which can be applied to many problems we encounter because it goes to the source – seeking to change how we react to our experiences rather than change those experiences.
Within the last few years speech and language therapists/pathologists have started to publish books and articles on mindfulness as an approach to stuttering. An interesting example, published late last year, is Ellen-Marie Silverman’s ‘Mindfulness and Stuttering: Using Eastern Strategies to Speak with Greater Ease‘.
Silverman, herself a speech and language pathologist and a person who stutters, has written a straightforward, relatively short and deeply personal account of how mindfulness has brought about a change in her speech and how she relates to her own stuttering. She describes how mindfulness, supported by a meditation practice, allowed her to pick apart her stuttering behaviour – separating the stutter from how she had come to habitually feel about stuttering (separating the raw experience from the narrative we weave about ourselves and our speech).
Many of us have strategies to help with our stuttering (e.g. soft-contacts, prolonged speech, slowed speech) but often it can be next to impossible to remember these approaches when we are in the midst of a stressful speaking situation. For me, stuttering arises and the world slows down – a little like experiencing a car crash. At this point remembering to modify my speech in a particular way is the furthest thing from my mind.
Silverman suggests that, if we can learn to be mindful (a skill which we can cultivate through meditation), we will be better able to understand the behaviours, thoughts and sensations which surround our stuttering. One exercise which I found interesting was her suggestion that you imagine yourself speaking in difficult situations and notice the effect this has on the body (e.g. how does your body feel when you imagine asking someone to dance or ordering in a restaurant?). In her own experience, such situations are accompanied by the following physical sensations:
‘my throat constricts, the lower part of my stomach contracts, I squint, my heart rate increases, and the muscles at the base of my head tense.’
Through exercises such as this and meditation we learn to watch how the mind and body react to stuttering. By understanding our stutter we become aware of the physical behaviours we have developed that exacerbate it – and are therefore able to begin changing these. By accepting and mindfully experiencing our stutter in the short-term we move to a situation where stuttering no longer affects our speech and lives to such an extent in the long term. As Silverman observes, welcoming stuttering into our lives is, paradoxically, the ‘surer way to dissolve it’.
All of this rings true for me – but I’ve yet to put it into practice in my own life. This will be the subject of some later posts.