“How to Become Less Uptight in Two Minutes”
by David Cain
“The classic advice for public speaking nerves is to picture the crowd in their underwear. I wonder if the person who invented that ever tried it. I find it immediately increases the tension of a speaking situation. It makes you more aware of what’s at stake—the possibility of embarrassment, for the audience too.
What does work is to picture the room around you as it was at 4 am. Empty and silent. Nobody there to need any particular thing to happen, or not happen. This simple thought makes it clear that the room itself is harmless, and so is speaking into it. Filling it with people changes that sense a little, but not so much that it feels dangerous.
The mental image of an inert room shrinks the prospect of speaking from a frantic story in your mind down to its bare bones again- people in a room, one of them talking. It becomes obvious that however the talk goes, life will continue afterward. The room will be quiet again, with no trace of your forgotten lines or botched intro, if they even happened.
Even if you never speak to a roomful of people, this ability to shift your view of a particular scene in this way is quite useful. You can reduce the stressful effect of queues, crowds, busy subway platforms and family gatherings just by imagining that same space as it might feel with no people in it- either the previous night at 4am, or a century from now, when it’s a dusty ruin. Back in the present, suddenly the place isn’t so threatening or intolerable. It’s just what it is to the senses alone- a space with people in it- and the mind is only adding commentary.
This remarkable little exercise works because our feelings towards the moment we’re in typically have little to do with the scene itself. Instead, we’re wrapped up in our own internal narrative around it. You round the corner to see a queue in the food court, and the mind immediately begins calculating what it means for your own interests: your schedule, your caloric intake today, your chances of getting a table. Your feelings respond to all of this commentary.
The sight of the office floor immediately summons to mind your responsibilities to your boss, your rung on the ladder, how close it currently is to Friday at four-thirty, and all the existential weight of your story as an almost-middle-aged project manager unsure of how well he’s really doing at all this.
All this symbolism obscures what is actually being experienced: fluorescent lights, the hum of copiers, idle chatter, the grey patterned carpeting, people looking at electronic screens. The bare facts of the moment- what life actually looks and sounds like right now- are drowned out and missed.
By the time we’re adults, we tend to experience most moments in terms of their apparent value to our story. We barely get a second of seeing a moment unfold before the mind has stamped it “Good- more of this please” or “Bad– avoid” or “Who cares- this does nothing for me.” And this tendency is painful, because it means we always have our emotional well-being tied off to dozens of moving parts, and we control so few of them. Anything topples the wrong way, or threatens to, and it hurts the heart.
That’s why it is hugely liberating to imagine that “stressful” room as it might have looked in the dead of night with nobody around. Seeing that version of the same moment creates relief, because the scene is now stripped of your story, and our stress is tied to the story, not the scene.
The ultimate in stripping your story from your experience is to view a present moment scene as though your story has ended- you have passed on, yet you still get to see the world unfold, right now. Just take two minutes and watch the people going by, the traffic noises, the falling leaves, as though it’s all happening on its own, a year or so after your life has ended. Suddenly you can see it as it would be without any need for it to happen a certain way. It can just be like it is. (Which it is anyway.)
This reflection is best done in a public place, like a park, a square, or an airport terminal. Anywhere you can see the human world carrying on. When you can view the world, even for a moment, as it will be when you have no story left to fret over, nothing left to control, you discover something interesting: aside from the story in your head, life is okay as it is.
Don’t be alarmed, but when you die, the world will continue on just fine without you. A few people will be sad- some of the tiny proportion of people who were aware you were even alive- but beyond that the ripples will disappear into the pond pretty quickly. So if that’s the only certainty in life, maybe we don’t need to be so uptight about having everything just so in the mean time.
Just sit there, and really look at it go. The people, the wind, the clouds, carrying on forever. With or without you.
After just a minute or two of this kind of uninvolved observation, it becomes clear that your story was never an essential part of the whole world. It was merely incidental, even if it was pretty interesting. It’s not that it doesn’t matter at all, but it’s not the only thing that matters, as it so often seems to be.
As you watch the world carry on around you, it’s quite easy to imagine you’re not really there because, as you’ll notice, nobody is paying attention to you anyway. There’s so much human energy being expended out there, and so little of it has anything to do with your seemingly all-important story. You’ll get a healthy sense of the spectacular indifference the world has towards your personal needs.
Oddly, this is a great relief. In life, you’ll do your best, or maybe just do your best to do your best, and in any case it’s fundamentally okay. The world can, and eventually will, exist entirely without your story- without you there to ache for things to always be falling your way.
This exercise is humbling in all the right ways. It can even be a bit embarrassing, to realize that you may have, for decades now, never looked at the world as anything other than “the place where my life happens”.
You don’t need to pretend you’ve died in order to let a moment unfold just as it is. But it helps you get used to what that kind of freedom might be like. Then when you go back to being in the world normally, it might feel more exhilarating than difficult, and more interesting than alarming. It won’t feel so important to control every little corner of it. You can let it be what it is, a lot of the time, while gently trying to make things go your way without ever quite needing them to. In every moment you experience without that neediness, you are free.”