How I Made Friends with Public Humiliation
Recently, I traveled to Las Vegas and stood before 1,200 people to deliver a TEDx talk. It flowed beautifully…until I suddenly went blank, my train of thought evaporating into the ether. One minute I was in communion with the audience. The next minute I was living a primal human fear — the fear of walking onto a stage and not knowing what to say. The feeling reminded me of the archetypal dream in which we suddenly realize we are in a public place having forgotten our clothes.
The awkward pause that followed morphed into timelessness; I was washed in humiliation. I recovered, but it was a bit intense. I felt like an ice skater who, deep in the flow of the moment, suddenly falls in the middle of a spin.
This had happened to me once before. I was invited to teach a master class for a group of MBAs, an easy and straightforward task. Suddenly, in the middle of speaking, my mind went blank. I recovered then, as well, but after I left the classroom I went to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, and cried. The sting of humiliation felt unbearable.
I have carried a fear of this happening again, ever since. So when I was invited to offer a TEDx talk and was told that the speech would be memorized, this old and familiar fear resurfaced.
I live in the high plains of Northern New Mexico, surrounded by stunning beauty and a vast silence. I spend a portion of every day in meditation, and the level of external stimulation in my life is quite low. So it was interesting to arrive in the cacophony of Las Vegas in a quiet, inward state.
The talk was given in a sprawling hotel/casino. As I walked through the overdressed, lobby-on-steroids I practiced holding to that inner state of quiet. I was pleased with myself, as over one hundred blinking slot machines did not disturb my state.
I was scheduled to speak the following morning and by the time I walked onto the stage I was calm, present and centered. Because this was so, I was able to observe the entire experience while simultaneously going through it. And this made all of the difference.
As the drop out occurred, and my body was washed in fear, I stayed present, connecting to the feeling of vulnerability and fear. I was fully present as I recovered, fully aware as a woman in the audience laughed. As I returned to my seat, although I still felt some residual embarrassment, I did not have an urge to hide in the bathroom.
After my speech a colleague sought me out and joined me for lunch. We were happy to see each other and to reconnect. When I mentioned the drop out, he said, “Forget about this. Do not think about it again.” One moment washed in public shame, the next moment enjoying genuine friendship.
In my TEDx talk I spoke about the way that we get jerked around by the external world because we habitually turn to it for our well being, happy when things are going well and distressed when things are difficult. I spoke of the possibility of shifting our attention from the outer world to the inner world, anchoring to a substratum within us that remains untouched by success or failure, pleasure or pain. I spoke of how this inner sanctum can be accessed only in the present moment, creating a resting place within.
I had not cultivated a relationship to this place when I forgot what I was going to say many years ago. But this time around I had, and because of this, I inadvertently transmuted a primal fear into strength. I now know that I can stand in front of 1,200 people, lose my train of thought, experience the crazy intensity of this, and land solidly on my feet. This is the power of standing directly in our experience with the potency of pure presence.
TEDx talk (edited by the conference staff) given to 1,200 Deloitte Consulting managers in Las Vegas: