Stage Fright? How To Tackle Public Speaking Through Buddhism

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Before I started studying Buddhist philosophy at the Interdependence Project, I had the misconception that to do so would be a melancholy endeavor. Not necessarily something that a person trying to pursue comedy should try to tackle.
I mean, the Buddha’s very first "Noble Truth" is the truth of suffering. What could be more serious than silently pondering the existence of suffering and nothingness? I would come to learn that there is much more in common between mindfulness and a sense of humor than I had let myself believe. As Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “it is impossible to overcome passion, aggression, and ignorance with a long face.” He was not talking about the nervous jokes I make at the doctor’s office because I’m a hypochondriac. He was teaching us about a total shift in perspective from trying to protect ourselves out of fear toward an openness to the possibility that we are more resilient than we may ever have expected.
Being on stage is a huge source of anxiety and fear for many people. Some people spend their whole lives trying to avoid the discomfort of being the center of attention. I didn’t start experiencing traditional stage-fright until I made the decision that I wanted to pursue comedy past it just being something I did for fun sometimes. I’ve been doing stand-up off and on for three years now, and recently started taking improv comedy classes at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater. Once I committed to really caring about what I was doing, the pre-show jitters set in. The way I confront this has become a practice that I think prepares me for all sorts of daily interactions, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to work on myself in this way. I have to become comfortable with silence and empty space. I have had to accept the inevitability of discomfort and embrace it as part of my work. I have learned that a little embarrassment is a good motivator to practice as long as I can drop the story-line that a moment of mortification is evidence that I am a failure.
I have learned to work with self-consciousness as an interesting paradox. When I am the center of attention with lights baring down and my voice amplified, I seem to disappear. if I can get comfortable with this and not try to locate my ‘self,’ I can just allow for the performance to flow through. If I am really nervous, I can try to think about how others feel. I have learned that trying to be funny can kill the comedy. If I can relax and allow the connections to bubble up organically, the laughter will be there. People connect as much with a comfortable body language as they do with the actual content of the jokes. A lot of the time what I think will be funny isn’t what’s actually funny, so I don’t chase the laughs or try to cater to the audience. If I can get genuinely curious about this process and not praise or blame myself according to each laugh or misstep, I might be able to just friggin’ relax and, through the process of trial and error, come up with some genuinely funny material that connects me to the audience.
The comedian and the Buddhist practitioner share a curiosity about why people do the things we do. There is so much suffering in this world, and a comedian points out the absurdity of the way we behave and the ways we often create our suffering. We laugh because we recognize the collective folly involved in being a human. This correlates to the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, the causes of suffering. Pain is not bad. If not for pain, we wouldn’t notice if we’d burned our hand until it was too late. Suffering is the story we tell ourselves about the pain. Like “I’m such an idiot for putting my hand there,” or “what moron left this oven on?” We do everything we can to avoid pain and chase comfort. But if we could look at the pain and notice the stories we tell ourselves about it, confront it head on, and even embrace it, we might transform it. Buddhism seeks to make us aware of our delusions. But we shouldn’t be mad at ourselves about our ignorance. We can laugh, because we are all in this together.
Comedy, like Buddhism, is a lens through which we can view the world. As a comedian, I can choose to see any frustrating, annoying, tragic or ugly thing in the world as potential material, and I can process it that way. It is a sort of alchemy, transforming the seemingly negative into a potential positive. The solution to our suffering in Buddhist practice is the Noble Eightfold Path, which begins with the idea of Right View. It’s not right as an opposition to wrong or bad, but right as in a view that acknowledges that suffering exists, and that it is also the source of our liberation. This isn’t to say that there aren’t matters in this world that are truly heartbreaking. But, if we can take a view that they are ultimately not "good" or "bad," we can begin to hold more of this suffering, to accommodate its existence, which very naturally begins to transform it. My friend and comedian Jim has a saying: "Horrible now, hilarious forever." Through the impermanence of existence, pain can be transformed into a lightness, and even a joy.
I used to think that my desire to make people laugh was the result of my neurotic need for approval. But, laughter heals people. These are not mutually exclusive concepts. I may have developed a sense of humor as a reaction to painful situations in my life. But, I can now use that to connect with people, if I am open to that possibility. Emptiness is crackling with possibility. Suffering is something we can all share and as such can be a point of connection. Life is absurd and heartbreaking and beautiful and weird and hilarious. In many shamanistic traditions, it is said that you can’t heal the wound by going around it or over it. You must go through the wound. And if you can do that laughing, you might even enjoy it.
This post was authored by Caroline Contillo.

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