Opinion: to mark International Stammering Awareness Day, a look at how the use of Zen meditation to cure one person's affliction had unexpected results  

In Zen in the Art of Archery, German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel describes his experience studying kyūdō, a form of Japanese archery. He spent almost five years trying to find the right way of releasing the bowstring "unintentionally" without mind, blocking or choice. 

In Herrigel’s words, "the archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull's-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realised only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill."

This metaphor of the archer "empty of self" resonates with those of us who stammer, for whom the technical skill of fluent speech cannot be relied upon in all situations.

The outward expression of your inner self

The self occupies a central position in stammering. British theatre director and voice coach Cicely Berry has described the voice as "the outward expression of your inner self". It is not a coincidence that most people who stammer tend to block on their own name, the vocal badge of self. 

One of the central elements in the experience of stammering is the loss of the ability to project an accurate, fluid and dynamic sense of one’s inner self in some speaking situations. This is comparable to the variable and unpredictable dips in form that occur in sport which take a player out of the "flow" or "zone", that state of heightened focus and immersion in which we lose ourselves in the activity of the moment. 

It is not a coincidence that most people who stammer tend to block on their own name, the vocal badge of self.

Speaking is a fine motor skill involving input and co-ordination from diverse brain regions and there is increasing evidence of neurological abnormalities in speech-producing brain networks in adults who stammer. When we stammer, our speech often moves in and out of the "zone" depending on our attachment to what we are trying to say and a myriad of additional factors such as tiredness, anxiety, preparation and concentration.

Although evidence on the effectiveness of specific interventions for stammering in adults is sparse, there are impressive accounts and anecdotes of successful treatment. These involve a wide range of strategies and interventions, including Zen and related forms of meditation. 

"Meditation is useless"

But this is not one such account. While I have studied and practiced a form of Zen meditation for a decade, my stammer has not been "cured". Indeed, I have no way of knowing from an objective scientific perspective whether or not meditation has been an effective self-improvement strategy for my stammer. 

However, Zen meditation has undoubtedly challenged my understanding of the notion of "improvement" and of the notion of "self". One of the hardest lessons to learn in meditation practice is that meditation is "useless", to quote Barry Magid, the psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and founding teacher of the Ordinary Mind Zendo

It is not a technique or means towards a future goal - a form of mind science designed to alleviate suffering - but rather a way of life in which we learn to notice and reverence the experience of each moment as an end in itself. In this awareness of the present moment, one begins to see that aiming for the bull’s eye of fluency is both futile and counterproductive. 

I have come to see that the notion of a separate self with a stammer that needs to be fixed is unhelpful

Zen meditation is not about emptying our mind of thoughts or cultivating a particular state of consciousness, but simply sitting and being aware of one’s experience in the moment without effort or judgment, as if looking at a mirror. We can see our striving for a sense of progress, achievement and mastery of meditation as a self-improvement technique. We also begin to see more clearly a desire for our experience of life in its uncertainty, impermanence and suffering to be other than it is. 

In striving for greater fluency in the moment, I stammer. In straining for our experience of life to be other than it is in this moment, we all suffer. The moment may or may not involve effort to change our situation The archer, after all, is aiming at a target, but when lifting the bow or pulling on the bow string, s/he is immersed in that activity and is not focused on the target.

"Zen meditation is about simply sitting and being aware of one’s experience in the moment without effort or judgment"


Over time, the mirror of meditation is even more subversive of our notion of the self. It is increasingly clear to me that the self of which the archer is empty and rid, the self that I seek to project through relaxed and fluent speech, is an illusion. From an intellectual and scientific perspective, the core Buddhist notion of "no-self" is not an especially difficult concept. In the modern era, it is widely understood that neuroscience has not identified a central command structure in the brain. However in meditation, it is seen directly that a separate, enduring self cannot be found.

Discarding the self

Life is process and the self is essentially a particular perspective on the world. It is a concept comparable to the concept of a university which draws together disparate roles and activities. To function in the world, the self as conventionally understood is useful. The very concept of a self, that of a separate subject acting on the world, is woven into the fabric of our language and thought. 

But in dealing with my disfluency, I have come to see that the notion of a separate self with a stammer that needs to be fixed is unhelpful and a cause of needless suffering. In the face of the greater challenges in life of loss, suffering and death, it is also clear that the notion of the self is an unnecessary burden. While the self is not easily shed like a worn overcoat, the loosening of its grip is a source of grace and joy that anchors one in the present moment.

Stammering is not a trivial condition. While existing treatments are helpful for many, there is a need for continued research to identify effective and scalable interventions for children and adults. It continues to pose challenges for me, though I am fortunate that the level of my disability is at the lower end of the spectrum. As with archery for Eugen Herrigel, I am blessed that fluency provides a direct and powerful reminder and metaphor for the fragility and uncertainty that are inherent to the human condition.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ