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Trials are war, and require reducing fear and stagefright

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Photo from website of U.S. District Court (W.D. Mi.).

A Japanese warrior was captured by his enemies and thrown into a prison. That night, he was unable to sleep because he feared that the next day he would be interrogated, tortured, and executed. Then the words of his Zen master came to him, “Tomorrow is not real. It is an illusion. The only reality is now.” Heeding these words, the warrior became peaceful and fell asleep.

Stagefright is so rampant in society that it is a wonder that so many televised person-on-the street interviews do not reveal people who are a heap of nervousness. Or, perhaps television producers simply de-select such interviewees. Whether it is more from stagefright or feelings of being slimy to do cold calls, a recent study showed plenty of people willing to give up sex for a month to avoid a week of making cold sales calls.

So many people will do anything to be out of the spotlight and in obscurity. Perhaps many people seek out jobs that do not require dealing with too many people so that they may remain as obscure as possible while earning a living. Being on stage makes people aware that others are fully aware of them, and makes them all the more aware of themselves, and about things about themselves that they would prefer to will away, whether it be something as small as a bald head or flabby stomach, to stuttering, to reliving memories of being ridiculed by parents, teachers, and by classmates when required to speak in class.

Even though my own stagefright level by now is at a deep minimum, I still need to understand stagefright and ways to minimize it for my own ongoing journey, and for the sake of the witnesses that I present in court; and in relating with the judges, jurors, opposing lawyer and opposing witnesses with whom I deal.  Trials are war, and require reducing fear and stagefright.

Working in imperfect chronology, I reached my present level of low stagefright through having been on stage countless times as a trumpeter with school bands and other bands for ten years; through having performed magic shows for children’s birthday parties for several years, and now performing again for my son and his classmates; through presenting a few hundred trials to completion, including several dozen before juries; through having been on the radio every week for nearly two years with my former law partner ; and through having appeared many times before television and radio audiences ranging as high as the hundreds of thousands and possibly millions. Also of help are the jobs I have had that have required me to deal with a wide range of new people, including retail sales work, auditing internal commercial bank operations for a year before law school (of course, auditors’ presence unnerved plenty of employees in my midst), and, ultimately, my nearly two decades of trial work, and appellate oral arguments.

My low stagefright level also is thanks to my daily t’ai chi practice, which focuses its practitioners on being in the moment, and about the risks of weakness, severe injury and death from letting fear, nervousness, and worry make one unfocused on the task at hand and to miss sensing important opportunities to neutralize and gain advantage over the opponent, to harmonize an imbalanced situation, and to maintain balance when balance already exists. The ultimate boundary to cross in becoming fearless and strong before an audience is to shed all fear of death and physical harm, which I discuss in my blog entries here.

Looking at it another way, it is critical to be calm in the eye of the storm , which I have written about several times here. Of course, one is less likely to have stagefright when one is in good spirits, self-confident, and in good physical and spiritual health.

Also important for losing stagefright is to find a way to be comfortable in one’s surroundings at all times, including with the people around you and the physical environment, even in very unpleasant, stuffy, and lifeless-seeming environments. It is important to reach the level of non-duality where one’s feelings of well-being are internal rather than relying on external factors. To bridge one’s entry from duality to non-duality, it helps to make oneself feel at home anywhere. It would be nice, for instance, if my clients could put a family photo or other soothing picture at the trial table, but even if that is not possible, I want my clients to visualize that instead of being in a courtroom, they are in their living room, and that the judge and everyone else are my client’s guests there, even if uninvited guests.

Of further benefit is to be able to find a way to like something in most every person. By the magic mirror effect, Will Rogers “- who said he never met a person he did not like “- probable garnered infinitely more people who liked and listened to him than the angry ghost in Ghost who knocked newspapers out of people’s hands and, in a paranoid rage screamed at Patrick Swayze’s character asking who he was. (And, through persuasion, Swayze’s character empathized with the paranoid ghost and ultimately won him over). I certainly spent too many years obsessing over how many people out there seemed to be out to get me, including shyster businesspeople, bigots, the late chief justice William Rehnquist and like-minded judges, torturers, and a whole host of other human rights violators, including those who seemingly took delight in it. My obsession over people being out to get me, and to get others, was overblown but not entirely farfetched when considering that I was born just eighteen years after Hitler’s holocaust, during the ongoing deep fires of Jim Crow in the South, just a few years before the Vietnam War raged its deepest rage, and when dictators and others in power seemed to take deep delight in massacring, torturing, executing, and imprisoning opponents real and imagined. In persuading others, it of course is critical to know that many people have been at the bullseye of trauma, including physical, sexual and verbal abuse of the most horrifying depths and breadths.

Two of my most influential inspirations for dissipating anger and suspicion of others are the Dalai Lama and Bodhisattva Never Despise. As with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., it is remarkable that the Dalai Lama sets forth with boundless non-violent optimism for the present and future, despite the decades of severe violence and repression by the Chinese government against his fellow Tibetans. The Dalai Lama has said: “Tolerance can be learned only from an enemy; it cannot be learned from your guru.”

On my path towards eliminating anger, I try following the Dalai Lama’s approach of talking to everyone the same (as, apparently, did my hero Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who “treated the Court’s janitors with as much respect as he did his fellow justices”), ideally to do it as kindly as I talk to my son or my most valued teachers. How often do we say and do things that hurt the ones we love the most? If I have trouble doing this all at once, I start doing my best to apply this approach of the Dalai Lama with my loved ones and friends; then with the people with whom I work; then with those who are not my opponents; then with strangers; then with judges; and then with opponents. By taking this gradual approach, it is easier to feel natural talking kindly to opponents when I am already talking kindly with everyone else. I am much closer than ever to feeling that we are all interconnected, and that any harm I unnecessarily inflict on others (as opposed to sometimes needing to inflict harm on litigation opponents to harmonize my clients’ situation) ultimately harms me.

All of the foregoing discussion will be of no help until putting it into practice, fully engaging the people with whom you deal, and remembering that a huge percentage of people are consciously trying to harmonize their own lives. However, nothing is more persuasive than being persuaded by example.

Eliminating stagefright and all fear, then, is not just about eliminating your own fears, but also about reaching the level of helping others feel comfortable and reduce their fears, in large part by being empathetic towards them. Trying solely to eliminate one’s own fears is a self-centered approach, and being self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-conscious feeds fearfulness. Part of not being fearful is to be less self-centered. Getting back to death, which is the ultimate fear of so many people: Would people be fearful of death if they were not self-centered and if they were to recognize that they play a very small  role in the scheme of life overall?

Anger is rooted in fear, so I still have much to work on every time, for instance, that I get angry at a driver who cuts me off, at a prosecutor/judge/cop/opposing witness who seems to urinate on the Constitution, or at a person who keeps probing where are you from, not satisfied until I tell them I am Jewish, which ain’t going to happen in response to such a question, because although I am Jewish, I am not from Jewish and am not an alien.

In managing my anger, it also helps for me to draw inspiration from those devoted to calm who still struggle with anger. The concept of being mindful of anger is underscored by Claude AnShin Thomas, who became a mendicant Buddhist monk years after killing hundreds of people in Vietnam. I met Mr. Thomas five years ago during his speaking tour, and was taken by his dual approach of not denying or suppressing the anger that he still lives with, but also doing his best to dissipate and reduce the pain and anger. When he is about to get angry, he accepts the feeling, but tries to dissipate it by focusing on his breath and on the sound of a bell, which helps get him back to concentrating on his breath and calm rather than on anger. For me, sometimes I silently repeat the odaimoku, Na-Mu-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo, which is the Nichiren Buddhist prayer for peace, and I relax and sink, as with t’ai chi. I put that acronym, NMMHRGK, on my license plate, to inspire my ongoing calmness as I travel the roads.

If Claude AnShin Thomas, who experienced and caused so much pain, death and misery can find a way to dissipate his anger, his message is that just about everyone else has the capacity to do it.

Compassion is a critical part of dissipating anger, as is finding a way to feel connected with others, even those seeming to act like hemorrhoids. Most people do not intentionally act like hemorrhoids. They often act like pains and cause pain to others because they are in pain, or else are so wrapped up in their own world that they have trouble considering others.

Fearlessness is not reached merely by ignoring or sweeping fears under the rug. To eliminate and dissipate our fears, we must first acknowledge, understand, embrace, confront head-on, and send away our fears. It might help to get to the point of looking at our fears — and all our other problems — as a dispassionate observer who acknowledges the fear but gets to the point of detachment and non-duality from the fear.

Consequently, keys to overcoming stagefright are being in the moment, enhancing one’s compassion, reducing self-centeredness, confronting fears head-on, feeling at home everywhere, feeling interconnected with everyone and everything around the person, finding happiness in one’s own life, learning to like something in most everyone else, and looking internally rather than externally for a feeling of well being. Jon Katz

Jon Katz – Criminal defense and DWI defense lawyer practicing in Fairfax County, Virginia, Montgomery County, Maryland and beyond. 301-495-7755. https://katzjustice.com.