Speaking Your Truth
By Keith Varnum
Everyone wishes to have truth on his side,
But it is not everyone who sincerely wishes to be
on the side of truth.
– Archbishop Richard Whately
I should have been enjoying the soothing caress of the playful breeze as it wafted its way through my hair on this balmy evening in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles. Instead, I was too self-absorbed to notice the sweet, spicy fragrance of spring blossoms in the wind. I was brooding over what I should say in my speaking engagement due to commence in about ten minutes inside the East-West Institute meditation center. In a muted voice, I was practicing my speech aloud when I was startled by a shadow invading my private corner of the porch. The sudden appearance of a tall, swarthy stranger looming over my anxious figure temporarily seduced me out of my self-indulgence. Obviously sensing my mood and malady, the lanky, dark-skinned man tried to coax me out of my funk in a soft, gentle, yet assured tone, “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue? Didn’t I hear you rehearsing some lines?”
“Yes, I’m preparing my presentation for this evening. I can’t decide what to talk about. I don’t know if people really want to hear what I have to say about the subject. Maybe I should just quote from the published research on the topic and let it go at that,” I replied despondently.
“It’s none of my business, but why don’t you just speak from your heart what you’ve encountered personally?”
“Oh, that would be too easy!” I laughed. This bold, mysterious advisor had shifted me out of my doom and gloom. I was grateful for that. “Besides, people don’t care what a twenty-year-old knows about healing. I’d better adhere to what the experts and professionals have to say.”
“Suit yourself, but I’ve fared much better sticking to what I’ve discovered firsthand. May I tell you a story?”
I nodded agreement. I was thankful for any distraction at this point. A tale sounded like the perfect antidote to the seriousness that had overtaken me. Through a personal story, my candid friend offered the most precise and useful advice regarding communication I have ever received.
“Most of my early life growing up in Morocco, I was sickly,” Michael began soberly. “After years of searching and experimenting in my quest for health, I came across a book by George Osawa, the originator of a philosophy of healthy living called macrobiotics. Encouraged by my discovery, I devoured all the books by Osawa I could find. By eating, thinking and living the macrobiotic way of life, I transformed the ailing youth I once was.”
“I felt robust and alive again,” Michael enthused. “My recovery was so miraculous and complete, I decided to devote my life to helping others in the same way George Osawa helped me. With great exuberance, I began to give public presentations about the macrobiotic system of eating and living. I described in detail how sickly I’d been. I expounded upon the vitality I now enjoy and how blessed I am. Hundreds of desperate North Africans were attracted to my talks-people seeking the restoration of fitness that I achieved.”
Michael’s poise and sincerity in recounting his tale to me explained his immediate popularity on the lecture circuit. His compassion and dedication was palpable in the cool night air.
“But as more and more people came to my talks and my reputation grew throughout the Arab world, I began to develop a severe throat problem,” Michael continued. “At first, my throat would just itch. I coughed a lot during my speeches. As I continued to address larger and larger crowds, the tickle in my throat became an acute ache. My voice gradually became harsh and grating. I was stubborn and intent upon my holy mission to help others. I insisted on keeping up my hectic speaking schedule. Finally, in the middle of the evening lecturing to the largest audience I’d ever assembled, my throat started to bleed. Of course, in my arrogance, I attempted to keep going. Eventually I was coughing up so much blood, I had to stop talking for the evening.”
As the tenacious stranger paused, I drew a quick, halting breath. I felt the need to bolster myself before he resumed. I was visibly rattled by the focus of his story. I was about to lecture on the same topic of macrobiotics to several hundred anguished souls also searching for help. The similarities were remarkable; the coincidence unnerving. My hands and legs were trembling. I grabbed the wooden railing of the stairs to stabilize myself. Why was I reacting so strongly to his story? I asked myself. I was afraid to know.
“After a frustrating week of saving my voice and waiting for my throat to heal, I began lecturing again,” Michael carried on with his cautionary tale. “The same problem appeared after just ten minutes at the podium. This became a pattern for the next few months. I’d reluctantly take time off for my throat to heal. Then I’d return to my speaking schedule. Shortly into my next talk, I’d begin coughing up blood again and be forced to stop. It was extremely frustrating, to say the least!
“I consulted many medical doctors. No practitioner could find anything medically or physiologically abnormal with my throat. I saw I must look elsewhere for relief. Needing to gain my own insight into the problem, I’d have to heal it myself.
“I became the lead detective on my own case. I noticed when I quit lecturing, my throat stopped bleeding and healed overnight. I also observed that my throat only acted up when I was giving a speech about macrobiotics. My throat functioned perfectly in everyday life. Since the only time my throat bled was during my lectures, I determined my soul and God must be trying to tell me something about my public speaking. After all, the problem brought my public talks to an abrupt and embarrassing halt every time! So, I began listening to myself in order to hear what I was saying up to the point at which my throat would begin bleeding.”
At this juncture in Michael’s biography, I was sweating profusely and about to faint. His tale was hitting much too close to home. I blurted out, “Please, Michael, tell me what happens-quickly! I can’t take the suspense!” My sudden outburst made me feel acutely embarrassed, but since the moral of his story was truthfulness, I was, at least, following the spirit of his sharing!
Sensing my distress, the lanky stranger reached over to gently, but firmly, grip my forearm with his right hand. It was a sensitive and reassuring gesture on his part. I was grateful for any assistance I could get at this point. I wanted to hear the rest of his adventure, but part of me was afraid to absorb any more of his lesson. I implored Michael to pick up where he left off and ignore my emotional reactions.
“The results of my self-observation didn’t reveal any helpful clues,” Michael admitted sheepishly. “I saw only that my talks consisted mostly of me quoting George Osawa and fervently admonishing people to eat and live according to Osawa’s theories if they wanted to regain and retain their health.
“Confused and bewildered, I prayed to God, ‘What’s wrong with what I say? I’m just trying to help people.’ God’s answer was swift and explicit. That very night I was awakened from my sleep by two vivid visions. In the first, I saw myself in the present, stridently pointing my finger at a large audience, telling them how they needed to change the way they ate and lived. And then suddenly, I began to spew blood from my mouth. A crimson fountain gushed forth from my throat, soaking my lecture notes in bright red liquid.
“In the second tableau, I saw myself in the past when I first started to speak publicly. I was sharing calmly, compassionately-in my own words-how I’d healed myself by changing the way I ate, thought and lived. The group was small. The format was informal. My throat didn’t bleed. My voice was strong and distinct. The audience was listening with rapt attention.
“Startled and shaken, I knew instantly the import of the two visions. When I spoke from my heart, my message was my own and it got delivered. I was sharing observations based solely on my own personal experience. And I wasn’t trying to force my point of view down people’s throats. When I taught borrowed wisdom from George Osawa-and bludgeoned the audience with warnings and admonitions-my own speaking mechanism rebelled. My throat bled, silencing my tirade. I realized that God was directing me to simply offer my own personal truth. If I stick to sharing my direct experience, I’ll be heard. But when I preach secondhand information, I won’t be heard.”
Michael placed his arm around my shoulder as he exclaimed with the unbridled joy of a child, “From that day on, my throat has never bled again.”
I was jolted back to the present by the sight of the watch on Michael’s wrist in front of my face. It was time for my lecture inside the meditation hall. Despite the fears and resistance the story had triggered, I felt grateful for the co-conspiracy of Michael and my inner coach. This explicit and valuable guidance came just when I needed it. What timing!
Drawing strength from Michael’s example of honesty and compassion, I spoke my own truth in my own words that evening. I didn’t have to clear my throat once during the talk. I exposed my heart and soul to the audience that night and received profuse acknowledgement and appreciation in return.
During my long career as a public lecturer, my throat has never bled like Michael’s did in his youth. But I have periodically encountered minor throat problems while speaking. Whenever my voice starts to become hoarse, raspy or blocked in any way, I remember Michael’s story. I stop to reflect upon what I’m saying. Each time I find that I’ve strayed from my personal experience into quoting someone else’s words or experience. Or, I discover I have shifted from simply sharing what I know into preaching to others what they should do. Then, as I return to sharing my own truth, my throat clears and I reconnect with the hearts of the audience.
I’ve learned for myself, what Michael discovered in his youth. When I speak what I know from direct experience, my body—and spirit—support me fully!