My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing . . .
Supernatural power and marvelous activity –
Drawing water and carrying firewood.
—Layman Pang (740-808)
I am part of the Mexican sangha and I have been meditating for many years. I took Jukai with Nyogen Roshi in 2001 at the former Maezumi Kuroda Zen Center in Mexico City. At the time, I was about to leave the country to study for a master’s degree in applied economics, and although I was not a constant practitioner during those early years, my practice still impacted my life. I currently sit sesshin every month at the Templo del Escorpión Negro in Tepoztlán, Mexico, amid its breathtakingly beautiful surroundings and with Hosso Sensei as my guide. I also try to go to the Hazy Moon twice yearly to sit with our American sangha.
Nyogen Roshi tells us that when he used to resist giving talks, Maezumi Roshi would say: A buddha knows how to talk. My work as an assistant professor requires me to give many presentations on topics related to social development, which is a subject I feel very connected to. However, as long as I can remember, I have been terrified of speaking publicly—especially when I have to say something personal. Shortly after I graduated from college, I gave a presentation on my recent work. My mind went completely blank and I couldn’t remember anything I had planned to say. My boss at the time just stared at me in bewilderment. Luckily, PowerPoint came along, and just following the slides assured me that I wouldn’t blank out again.
But my fear went deeper. I think part of it is cultural—women in my country are not generally very confident and assertive. While attending university, I would only participate in a class if I was sure that I was saying something intelligent. Because of my negative self-image, that didn’t happen very often.
Even with preparation, I still feel a rush of nervousness before speaking to a group. Afterwards, my mind goes wild judging my performance. Usually my thoughts are negative, and I go back-and-forth identifying all the things I said that were incorrect or silly, beating myself up. Nyogen Roshi reminds us that one of the precepts is not speaking ill of the Three Treasures, and each one of us is the Three Treasures. When I spiral into self-criticism I know that I am speaking ill of the Buddha.
Recently a friend admitted to me that she has long been afraid to speak up in public, so she makes a point of always saying something in meetings. I have now adopted that intention. The more I practice, the more clearly I recognize the negative and self-deprecating thoughts that arise after speaking. When my practice is steady, these thoughts dissipate by themselves. If not, I can turn to counting my breath and negative thoughts fade away.
Not long ago I gave a presentation with a colleague. I was not nervous before I stood up to talk, but as I started to speak, I interpreted my colleague’s body language to mean that something was wrong. My heart started racing, and when I finished the presentation my mind spun with negative thoughts. I started counting my breath; it took a while, but when we left the room I was myself again. I didn’t even ask my colleague what she thought. Later, she said the presentation had gone well. All along I was misinterpreting her gestures negatively, inventing a problem for myself. I know that with my practice, I can be more present when this kind of anxiety surfaces.
As my practice has grown more consistent, I have given talks where I shared personal experiences and even made jokes! This is an almost unbelievable transformation. I am more relaxed, present and less self-conscious. Recently I was able to publicly engage with someone who was extremely angry, where before I would have avoided any confrontation. A friend told me I was brave, but I disagree. I wasn’t being brave, I just had a clearer mind that comes with practice. I spent so many years judging myself for the bodily reactions that happen when I get nervous; now I don’t fight it anymore—I go immediately to my breath.
Even more important than helping me with public speaking is how my practice has given me the space to be open and kinder to myself. This is a continuous practice, and the support of my teachers and sangha are crucial to sustaining it.