by Ursula Somerville
Be silent in your mind, silent in your senses,
and also silent in your body,
Then, when all these are silent, don’t do anything.
In that state truth will reveal itself to you.
It will appear in front of you and ask
“What do you want?”
(Kabir, cited in Sardello, 2008: 35)
I want to speak up for Silence. In this brief paper I want to highlight in some small way how we darken out the “Companion Presence” (Sardello, 2008: 7) which is Silence. This Silence is always there and exists while we are living our daily lives. I will shine a light on some areas in our life that are enhanced by Silence and I will shine a slightly brighter light on how we need to welcome Silence in, in more detail, in our work as psychotherapists. Here, in this paper, I am concentrating on a session that is silent rather than on some parts of a session which are silent. Silence is the Mother of Possibilities if we just allow it to do its work of creating and facilitating change.
This paper has been ruminating in me for such a long time and I did not realise how long until I found a quote which I saved into my computer in 2010: “…we need Silence to be able to touch souls” (Mother Teresa, 2010: 24). Not long after this quote found me I was serving as a volunteer on a committee holding the position of Honorary Secretary and during a meeting a discussion was taking place around the table. My style of being is one of quiet and in this quiet space I am working. All of a sudden one member of the group declared while touching their abdomen, ‘…I feel uncomfortable, we have not heard from the Hon Sec….’ And in that moment of projection of one’s ‘uncomfortableness’ some members of the group turned and shaming and shameful behaviour ensued, while other members were silent! Sitting quietly in a group can provoke negative contact by others as they say, ‘you’re very quiet – what’s wrong with you?’ Sardello (2008) states: “When we project we are unaware of our participation in what we experience” (14). Noise is the enemy of Silence and keeps us away from the Soul. Noise infiltrates everything. Words are part of noise while Listening and Silence belong together. Picard (2002) states:
Instead of truly speaking to others today we are all waiting merely to unload on to others the words that have collected inside us. Speech has become a purely animal excretive function.
The collecting of so many words is noise which is constantly fighting against Silence appearing. How can we honour Silence as a form of communication in this busy, noisy world?
Silence is always there, we often cover it up with so much noise. I recently experienced an intrusion of noise while taking a bus journey. There was a young mother with her baby in a buggy and the mum was talking on the phone about her difficulties of living with her mother. She claimed loudly that her mother is not taking her medications and is making life very difficult for this young mum. She talked also, among other things, about her visit to the housing agency and her difficulty in securing social housing. In the past (before mobile telephones) we travelled in relative Silence. We had a place to transition from perhaps one noise filled part of our world to another. Remember when we would be on the bus and a group of school children would bring their energy and chatter on board with them? Once they collectively left the bus, perhaps we looked around at other passengers knowingly and in Silence and were grateful for the Silence which returned.
Recently, while I was at a concert by a world famous balladeer, on more than one occasion the singer remarked on how ‘church like’ it was in the hall as he sang. To listen to good music you need Silence to fully hear it. Likewise when we read poetry we must experience this in Silence to allow each word to access the “Interiority of Heart” (Sardello, 2008: 99) as we go from word to word and then through from stanza to stanza.
We enter a Silence when we visit an Art Gallery or a library and we stand with trance-like attendance to absorb the nuances which are always present but get covered up. When we stand before a piece of art we must allow for Silence, if not we are just giving the work surface attention. We should be careful not to respond from our projections whether we like or don’t like what we are viewing but instead, in Silence, we must access the meaningful response and access a rich appreciation and not just a flat unfelt reaction. If this is happening in our art and cultural experience then what is happening in our world of relating – are we surface relaters?
Early relational styles require that we rely on our Silence to listen to infants; we attune ourselves with the infant, not with words but with a ‘locking on’ to the infant and examining him/her closely for signs and signals in non- verbal communication. This ‘locking on’ is, I believe, necessary when it comes to experiencing Silence in psychotherapy. Winnicott maintains that “there is room for the idea that significant relating and communicating is silent” (Winnicott, 1965: 184). Quite often in analytical work Silence has been seen as regressive, withholding, resistance, etc. Oh, but don’t be too quick to decide ‒ something really golden can happen in Silence ‒ rather wait it out for other energy to arrive.
It was in the place of countertransference that I recognised the presence of the mother/infant gaze, which had not happened in a client’s early life because of the ‘busyness’ of the client’s mother, and now presents in the silent session for the very experience through which reparation can occur. Coltart (1996) agrees with this when she states: “The best work with a silent patient is done within the transference, by means of the finely tuned instrument of the countertransference” (86). Other happenings with clients in Silence or with the client sleeping in the session are the ‘regulating’ of a client who welcomed the “space to emerge”. Coltart (1996) refers to the sleeping client as needing, “…recuperation, healing and renewal…” (93). Meeting our client in Silence requires a benevolence/compassion and Coltart (1996) tells us:
…it is so important in learning to be silent to practise benevolent, neutral patience…if one is truly at home with oneself, then Silence will not usually feel provocative: if one is peacefully observing, one is in a far better state to pick up and recognize the patient’s projection into oneself…It is thus that one of the main uses of the countertransference comes into its own.
Sitting in my rooms expectantly waiting for my client to arrive. The client comes in and we exchange our greeting and sit down. Silence descends. There follows a sort of ‘locking on’ to each of our unconscious, both the client connecting with his or her unconscious and me locking on to my own and the client’s unconscious, much like the infant attendance described above, thereby allowing the space for Silence to enter.
Sitting in my rooms expectantly waiting for my client to arrive. Time moves on and no client attends. I sit in the Silence in the room and lock on to part of my client as they choose not to attend in person. I consider a session with a client who does not attend as a Silent session. Occasionally, I will simply sit and check into myself from my own chair and then at times I will sit in the client’s chair to enter into the other’s world. I have experienced that through ‘parallel process’ change can happen vicariously for our client even when they are not physically present.
In my work as a sand therapist much of this work is non-verbal and therefore done in Silence and this offers a wonderful opportunity to welcome Silence into the space. As we sit over the sand and the symbols and just allow the symbols to find their place in the tray we welcome together the opportunity to connect unconsciously in perfect quiet. The session can end without either of us uttering a word but a whole lot of knowing and peace has taken place. Perhaps my client has even experienced a new way of being in their greater outer world.
We rest and pause and the seconds of Silence extend. Initially there is a tension with questions like: ‘should I talk?’, ‘should I wait….?’ Heady intrusions like colleagues telling me they ‘could not do a whole session in Silence because they are concerned about taking their clients’ money and giving value for it’. However, as a therapist you never work as hard as you do in a completely silent session. Coltart (1996) further explains “…one’s skills are taxed to the uttermost…this work [in Silence] brings its own great rewards and pleasures” (85).
Before my formal training as a psychotherapist I volunteered to answer phones in a centre for humans feeling desolate and suicidal. There were times when I would answer a call of Silence termed in the centre as a Silent Caller. One such call comes to mind as I write this paper. I remember the intensity of energy on the phone between us as the call continued for some 45 minutes. Of course this was a one-sided Silence but that is the case when the client is present as we take our lead from them in our work. With this silent caller, I occasionally acknowledge the presence of him/her as the call unfolds. I remember well how difficult it was to terminate this call. After about 35 minutes of Silence and a change of shift of the volunteers, I very tentatively announce that I would be finishing the call in 10 minutes. I wait, intensely listening for any noise, breathing, movement, internally questioning ‘is there anyone there?’ ‘The phone line is still open,’ I tell myself. More minutes go by in a countdown of minutes being announced to end the call. ‘In seven minutes…’ More intense listening after each announcement of time disappearing from our contact. ‘In five minutes…’ I press my ear to the phone and hold my breath so I can hear the faintest sound. My body starts to shake…I take in support from a team member who has their hand on my back…they sit by my side. ‘In two minutes…’ Silence continues. ‘In one minute…’ I have heavy breathing inside my chest. My heart is aching and I finally take my leave of the Silent Caller. The hardest thing was to put the phone back on the receiver. I recall being offered sweetened tea and much support but it was a sleepless night for me and I never knew the impact or outcome the silent call had on the Silent Caller.
I understand that I do not need to know why the client is silent because I will be able to access a deep unconscious calling and I can work also in the unknowing in the moment which leaves room for possibilities – Silence is the Mother of Possibilities (Sardello, 2008: 66). Silence does not only facilitate change it actually creates a new way because of the work of reparation within a psychotherapeutic relationship. Essentially I invite how the client wishes to use their space at any given time. There is no urgency in talking about not talking. I accept totally a client who is silent because, I believe, they are communicating (dare I say) loudly.
Sardello (2008) describes our felt experience of Silence as “Currents” (40) and these currents “being touched by a spiritual presence” (40). He explains:
The whole nature of currents of Silence is that of a presence of interiority. It’s like knowing someone in the most intimate way. As if that someone has poured his/her heart out to us, not in a sentimental way, but in a way that reveals the very essence of the being.
(Sardello, 2008: 40)
Where else do we meet the other with these qualities but in a therapeutic relationship? If we rush in to relieve the others’ discomfort and not hold the tension which becomes present we effectively don’t give Silence a chance to work in that space. We kind of talk over the Silence which can bring with it such a gift of capacity to transform and heal. It does not cost anything to be silent and yet the rewards are enormous to both the client and the therapist and their relationship together and ultimately collectively also. If we can enter and meld with Silence we can extend this melding into the unconscious of our clients.
Entering into our interiority of being we access Silence through our heart. The heart is an organ of necessity for life itself by pumping blood through our body. But within this organ is a deeper cavity which holds our feeling self. Sardello (2008) tells us:
The way of Silence is the way of feeling, and the heart is the centre of feeling. When we are able to place our attention into the center of the heart, we develop the cognition of Silence because feeling is the mode of knowing.
(Sardello, 2008: 95)
So, as we experience the functioning part of our heart organ altering our body temperature as a result of physiological reactions, we check in deeply to the silent message our feeling self has connected with. When we feel through our heart it has the capacity to heat us up or cool us down – warm-hearted – cold-hearted!
Sometimes for me it is quite painful to interrupt the Silence. I prepare to end the session with words which literally break into what feels like a glass-like presence. Noise fills the room and seems to reach every part of it. I experience an awakening of my throat muscles as I engage them to prepare to talk.
In person-centred (humanistic) psychotherapy we sit before our client, unlike classic analytical therapy where typically we may be behind the head of the client. It can be quite a challenge to sit in front of a client – so undefended and present in the moment. And it calls on all of our being to heartfully check into the layers of messages which we can hear and feel if we are courageous enough to be Silent and still. Kenny (2011) explains that a therapist’s theoretical orientation is related to how they use Silence, further explaining that “…Psychodynamic therapists…used it to facilitate reflection…While humanistic therapists more often used it to convey empathy, respect and support” (187). So, whatever theoretical orientation you follow do allow for heartfelt Silence to be part of your work.
In our work of facilitating our clients to self-actualise what better way than allowing each of us to connect with the interiority of our heart. This is the place where our feelings reside. We can and should, as psychotherapists, work from the heart. As we work we look for ‘the other’ presence (Silence) to allow for, what Jung described as the “transcendent function” (cited in Stevens, 2001: 108). This Silence allows a transition from one attitude to another within the unconscious and if we can allow this Silence to enter then transformation will take place. I believe that if we can hold/allow the Silence this can then be ‘the third’ or ‘other’ element needed to help effect change. Silences are different at different stages of the therapeutic relationship and so we lean in and listen with our third ear and allow the Silence to support us in authentic attention.
We must pause and disengage from all the noise and chatter. We must use fewer words in both the spoken way and, perhaps more importantly, in our use of social media. This will include email communication and the excessive use of words which, when received, can harm the essence of the soul reading them. This subversive way of communicating provokes, in some, a felt need to offer instant answers when in fact a considered response is called for. The ‘considered response’ can gain so much quality of content if the presence of Silence is allowed to be part of the response.
I invite you to welcome Silence in as a way of being to bring to relationships a warm and fully integrated meeting of the other. Here in this paper there is a focus on the therapeutic relationship but it is also possible to be this way in the world. Max Ehrnmann (1986) has wisely advised us in his 1927 prose poem Desiderata to “…avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit…” (12). His referred to ‘persons’ now present themselves in the guise of written communication that invades our world, ever busy every day. Challenge yourself to seek out where Silence is being drowned out in your world today.
As I finish my paper I offer some blank space to allow us transition in Silence to our exit with precious words from Kabir (2016), the Indian mystic, poet and Saint.
If you want the truth,
I’ll tell you the truth:
Listen to the secret sound,
the real sound,
which is inside you.
Ursula Somerville (MIAHIP) is a Psychotherapist, Supervisor, Trainer and Conversationalist in the Art of Silence.
Coltart, N. (1996). Slouching towards Bethlehem…and Further Psychoanalytic Explorations. London: Free Association Books.
Erhnmann, M. (1986). Desiderata of Happiness. London: Souvenir Press.
Kabir (2016). Accessed 7 April 2016 at https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/96714.Kabir.
Kenny, C. (2011). The Power of Silence: Silent Communication in Daily Life. London: Karnac Books.
Mother Teresa & Benenate, B. (2010). In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers. Novato, California: New World Library.
Picard, M. (2002). The World of Silence. Wichiti, Kansas: Eighth Day Press.
Sardello, R. (2008). Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books
Stevens, A. (2001). Jung: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Winnicott, D. (1965). The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. London: Karnac Books.