By Rohan Narine
Some of the most frightening moments in my childhood occurred right in front of the Gods and Goddesses I worship. Between the ages of 8 to 14, my Guru, a Hindu Priest, would schlep me to the homes of his congregants to perform their annual pujas with him. As we sat across from each other, I would watch him as he would instruct those sitting between us to perform rituals to smiling earthen statues, bathing them in milk and breathing them into life. Then he would glance at my eyes, pointing me to pour ghee into a square metal kund filled with wood, cotton balls, and flames, while reciting the mantras necessary for his devotees to receive their blessings. We impatiently waited as the fire turned to smoke and then to ash as he delivered his sermon to a packed living room audience. Once everyone's minds were opened by my Guru's simple contemporary explanations of complex Hindu philosophy, he would peer through the Gods and Goddesses sitting between us, look at me and announce to everyone, "And now we will hear from my Godson, Rohan." Silent, I would not say anything until he gave me yet another glance followed by the stern word, "Speak."
Feeling trapped in a bad dream, I would smile, turn my head left then right while saying Namaste to everyone, and attempt to imitate my Guru as best as I could. With an American accent on my side, I summoned the courage to speak sensibly about the importance of God in the world. Taking no more than five minutes, I would close by saying Namaste, deflate myself in the applause from those in attendance, and then nervously twitch my entire body until I stopped sweating in angst. Each time I spoke, my Guru would never tell me how well or how poorly I did. He would just continuously call on me each and every time, caring not for my nervousness or my fear of speaking in public.
Glossophobia, from the Greek words glossa, meaning tongue, and phobos, meaning dread, is the fear of speaking in public. According to Barbara Fish, a counselor at the University of Toronto, glossophobia "Can lead to dryness in the mouth, increased anxiety, high blood pressure, as well as stiffening of the neck and back muscles." Jerry Seinfeld, the world famous comedian, (and fellow Queens College alum) and star of the most syndicated sitcom of all time said, "According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 74% of adults suffer from speech anxiety, a synonym for glossophobia. With approximately three quarters of adults in America alive today harboring a fear of speaking in public, it's no surprise that the some elected officials and members of the media have become entirely dependent on the teleprompter. Couple this with our present day self-absorbed, social media-based consciousness, and it's easy to see why 74% of us aren't confident enough to deliver a heartfelt toast at a wedding reception, much less nail a presentation without the help of a visual aide. I posit that the connection that's needed in today's society to return confidence to speaking in public is what we enjoyed most as children: stories.
Remember when we sat around our kindergarten teacher in a semicircle listening to the timeless stories of Aesop's fables? Or how about the time you first heard the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments? Alas, who can forget first hearing the story of Lord Rama? A tall, handsome man surpassing all suitors by walking up to a large bow, stringing it, and then breaking it in half to win the hand of his beautiful wife, Sita. All these stories are timeless classics, but whom besides faith leaders or kindergarten teachers are we supposed to turn to when we want to be taken into a blissful world far, far away?
According to the National Storytelling Network, storytelling is defined as “The interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s participation.” Some of the best storytellers in the world, from the late Steve Jobs to NBC Nightly News host John Stewart (yep) all believe that telling stories is an essential tool necessary for the evolution of the human species. Stories are what form the basis for bestselling books and film scripts, and the basis for hit movies, some that we remember for life (i.e. James Cameron’sTitanic or Bollywood’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge). Storytellers are musicians like Jon Hopkins, whose work includes the soundtrack to the 2010 film Monsters, who according to reviewer Alan Ranta, “draw[s] you into the story that each instrumental tells.” Akin to musicians, comedians spend months honing their work set to a range of stories, or sometimes one long story. Former King of Comedy Bernie Mac was one of the best at crafting his entire stand-up routine into one long story over the course of an hour.
Even elected officials advocating for the passage of legislation must incorporate factual stories from constituent experiences, lending credibility to their bills. The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, would not have become the law it is today without the many stories of Americans who attempted to receive healthcare coverage but were denied for various reasons. Oh, and who can forget trial attorneys? They who craft their opening and closing arguments into dramatic stories have swayed juries for over two thousand years, leading to some of the most electrifying court cases in history. Clearly, all around us, there are stories being told. It’s time we foster this most important art form that’s desperately needed in some of the most underserved communities here in New York City. It’s time to cement this thinking in the youth of today. With complete confidence in an individual’s oratory skills, it becomes possible for our future generations to grow up in a world that can heal through the power of inspiring stories. This art, most ancient and immortal, is what’s needed to connect oratory and confidence.
Envision a world where the fear of public speaking is as extinct as the cassette tape. See in your mind’s eye a society comprising of storytelling children who without a teleprompter can tell stories from different secular and faith-based traditions, compete with poise, confidence, and a warm smile. Not possible you say? I say be patient, because all good things come to those who wait.
At present, on a personal note, I’ve been expanding my musical horizons to help transform my consciousness. Within that expanse, there can be found a gifted Israeli music producer called Guy J, who is the captain of an electronic music spaceship, taking the listener on journeys into parallel universes (minus the mind-altering substances). In an hour-long mix he released this past October titled Once In, the second track has a repeating line that says, “We’re living in a circle. Life is in a circle.” These two lines repeat for a number of minutes until Guy seamlessly mixes in the next track. While listening to his mix on my commute to school, things in fact did come full circle.
Returning from a visit to a former Professor on campus, I noticed down the hall there was a recessed wing of faculty offices. One of the two office doors was open, and upon glancing in I could see an image of Amma, who coincidentally visited my Guru’s Mandir upon its completion over a decade ago. Walking in, I introduced myself to this faculty member who would later tell me that on the first full moon night of the month he performs the full moon puja. Astonished, I was hit with a wave of flashbacks of my former self - that shy young boy sitting across from my Guru, performing puja, barely understanding it, coupled with the fear of speaking to an anxious audience shortly thereafter. Returning from my flashback, I stared at this faculty member who reintroduced me to the one constant force in my life that I have been suppressing until now - the force of the puja ritual.
After practicing my oratory skills for decades at the Shri Trimurti Bhavan, Queens College, Ernst & Young, Re/Max, Douglas Elliman, theNational Parks Service, the School for Public Affairs at Baruch College, and now as a Community Liaison for Assemblymember Dan Quart, I could have never dreamed that fate would circle me right back into contact with what started it all: puja. In meditation I reflect on this, and recall the words of the thirtieth verse in the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. It says, “Those who have tasted nectar as the result of performing sacrifice reach the eternal, Ultimate Truth.” Therefore I now begin the performance of a new sacrifice. A puja if you will, to the weekly act of training young leaders in the art of storytelling, linking the gap between oratory and confidence, and helping to create a new society of leaders for the 21st century.
The Sadhana Storytelling Workshop is held on Sundays at 1:30pm at the Shri Trimurti Bhavan Mandir. Ages X – Z. For further details, contact Rohan Narine at firstname.lastname@example.org.