Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love, Present

My favorite scene in Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat, Pray, Love takes place in India, where Gilbert manages to meditate while surrounded by mosquitoes.

In an interview on NPR's All Things Considered, Gilbert reflects on the experience:

So that evening I found a quiet bench in a garden and decided to just sit for an hour, Vipassana style. No movement, no agitation, just pure regarding of whatever comes up. Unfortunately I'd forgotten what comes up at dusk in India, mosquitoes. As soon as I sat down the mosquitoes started dive-bombing me. I thought, this is a bad time of day to practice Vipassana meditation.

On the other hand, when is it a good time to sit in detached stillness? When isn't something stinging and biting? Therefore I decided not to move. In a beginners attempt at self-mastery I just watched the mosquitoes eat me. The itch was maddening at first but eventually melted into a general heat of pure sensation, neither good nor bad, just intense. And that intensity lifted me out of myself and into perfect meditation where I sat in real stillness for the first time in my life.

Two hours later I stood up and assessed the damage.I counted 20 mosquito bites, but not much later all the bites had diminished because truly it all does pass away in the end, and truly there is peace to be learned from this.

While I have never tried to meditate while being bitten by a swarm of mosquitoes, I do live in Washington, DC and know the anxiety that comes from being eaten alive in your own backyard.

Gilbert made me realize that my mosquito anxiety may have less to do with the present discomfort of being bitten - and more to do with the future - the dread of itchy mosquito bites the next day.

So much of our anxiety about speaking has to do with two things:

1. The past. (Did I prepare? Do I know enough? Remember that awful presentation I gave last time?)

2. The future. (Will I mess up? Will something go wrong? Will they like me?)

You can overcome much of this anxiety by learning to focus on the present.

The key to having stage presence is the ability to be fully present with the audience.

And when you make mistakes (which you will), it is far easier to bounce back if you don't have the added anxiety of thinking about the impact of those mistakes on your future.

From the Green Room: Want to have stage presence? Focus on being fully present with your audience. This is a skill each of us can learn to cultivate.


Anonymous said...

Much to think about -- thanks for this challenging concept!

Anonymous said...


I very much enjoyed this post and your creative use of Gilbert's book to send a message to presenters. Bravo!

As you like Gilbert, you might enjoy the analysis of her TED Talk that I did. You can get to it here: http://wp.me/pwfa1-1hN



Sarah Gershman said...

Thank you so much for your comment, John. I thoroughly enjoyed both the TED video and your analysis of it. It would be terrific to have an opportunity to watch you teach at some point!