The Experience of Silence
In Voices: Journal of the American Academy of Psychotherapists, 32, (2), pp. 42-47.

In order to understand the effective use of silence in the therapeutic process I suggest that we speak of the silence in the same manner as we speak of the self. It is easier in written form to discriminate between the personal sense of self and the image of the Self, the archetype of all that is. If I draw a circle that is an image of the entirety of human consciousness, the Self is depicted as being the circumference of that circle and the dot at the very center. So, too, is the Silence an archetypal image that allows me to comprehend that which can't be described in words, but that I can know, or at least taste, through experience. It is of that Silence that I must speak if I am to intelligently use silence as a transformative experience for the seeker of healing and psychospiritual evolution.

It is also important for my purposes for the reader to know the difference between a phenomenal experience and a numinous one. In operational terms the phenomenal experience is that which is a sensory one. Such an experience is tasted, heard, seen, smelled, or touched. A numinous experience is just as substantive but it first comes as a pre-sensory knowing. This knowing will often elicit a sensory experience. I believe the research of the psychologist Dr. E.T. Gendlin is useful as a bridge between these two separate but related experiences. His term, felt sense (Gendlin, 1972), captures that initial sensation that emerges from a numinous encounter, or, in other terms, the encounter with Mystery. It is this moment that can produce the insight and behavioral change that is needed for the client seeking help to experience the healing and transformation which leads to more authentic living. It is this moment that is necessary for effective therapy. A statement by Jung that I long ago lost the reference for has often served me well, "Effective psychology is applied philosophy." Effective therapy is living into wisdom.

It is rare that many of us are aware of the Silence that exists all around us in every moment. In the words of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1956):

Every moment, and every event, of every man's life on earth, plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish, and are lost because men are not prepared to receive them. For such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love (p. 78).

If it is rare that this most amazing world of winged seeds is perceived, it is normal for most of us to live most of our lives in a dull sleep, as pointed out by Maslow thirty years ago with his reference to the "psychopathology of the normal" that he witnessed all around (Maslow, 1971). This can be attributed to the very fact of being unconscious, ignorant, asleep, that experience of not being aware and internally quiet enough to listen. The Buddhist premise is that most of us are ignorant most of the time. Ignorance is defined as to ignore that which our deepest soul knows (Wolf, 1994). I recently heard a description of the limits of human perception by comparing the full range of the electromagnetic spectrum to the length of a football field. That which humans typically perceive with our senses is much less than the width of a blade of grass in that field (Petersen & Brandt, 1995). I propose that numinous, or mystical, experience enhances perceptual ability. Is it possible that the mystical experience is a phenomenal reflection of encounter with the Silence? If it is possible to create a space that invites this experience, transformation is inevitable. The experience of psychotherapy, as I understand and attempt to practice it, is the creation of such a space in a ritualistic hour that transforms the participants, ideally working the therapist out of a job as the client alters her or his daily ritual to include increasing encounters with Silence, and experiencing increased joy, purpose, and surrender.

I remember my first conscious encounter with the Silence as a young Marine, newly stationed in Southern California in 1970. An old desert rat named Kris took me to Trabuco Canyon and, through the use of hallucinogenic drugs, introduced me to Deer, Hawk, and the Earth Herself. Who would have thought that dying rabbit call of his would actually bring Hawk? I became enchanted with this new vista. My doors of perception would never close again. Raised in Amish country in Pennsylvania farmland, I had never been taught to listen to nature. I loved Her, but no one in my circle knew to cultivate perception. In the years following Trabuco Canyon I threw myself into encounters with nature, always gaining in love for what we now know is Gaia, the living Earth (Lovelock, 1987) that all peoples have known as Mother. My work as an aerial navigator took me to amazing places around the world, all under the auspices of being at war. A few experiences with the Roshi at the Cimarron Zen Center provided a taste of one who lived in the Silence. It wasn't until my encounter with horror in Southeast Asia that I really was doing any kind of serious spiritual practice. The practice of yoga, zen meditation, and immersing myself in wisdom literature all were preparing me to hear, see, and ultimately touch enhanced states of consciousness without the use of psychotropic aids. However, at that time, that which had opened the doors of perception had now become an addiction, a distraction from the pain of keeping the horror of war at bay. We lived as if we were invincible. When we would hear of the deaths, especially of those we had known, we found our respective group to commiserate. Most of the young men were dopers. The lifers were alcoholics. The missions would not fly at 2:00 AM if the junkies couldn't go shoot up at midnight. I remember sitting in meditation on the runway at Da Nang where there was no silence ever. Mostly it was just escape.

I became more consciously aware of the Silence when I was imprisoned by the Japanese for the transfer of LSD, the day before my release from active duty and scheduled return stateside. Joe Campbell wrote about seeing these transitional nodal points decades later when he perceived the synchronicity of events that led to the present moment.

"There's a wonderful paper by Schopenhauer, called "An Apparent Intention of the Fate of an Individual," in which he points out that when you are at a certain age-the age I am now-and look back over your life, it seems to be almost as orderly as a composed novel. And just as in Dicken's novels, little accidental meetings and so forth turn out to be the main features in the plot, so in your life. And what seems to have been mistakes at the time, turn out to be directive crises. And then he asks: "'Who wrote this novel?"
(Maher & Briggs,1989, p. 24).

What was an event that occurred in the span of one minute in a 22 year-old young man's life became the catalyst for me to hear the Silence and to now seek it as one whose head is on fire seeks the water (Campbell, 1942). The Japanese saw imprisonment as punishment, not rehabilitation. We could not talk amongst ourselves and were immersed in silence. Occasionally, the guards would play music, either Japanese or the repetition of the same five American albums they possessed. In the first nine months of pretrial confinement, most of it in solitary, I could not lie on my bed during the day in a cell that was the length of a bed and a toilet and the width of my arms not fully outstretched. Fortunately, for myself and a few others, we had experienced the fruits of meditation and knew there was no better way to use our time. Hatha yoga could be done on the floor of this small space. Journaling, nurturing spirit through the reading of wisdom literature, and meditation all became the tools of using this time as it was given. I learned Tai Chi Ch'uan through Cheng Man Cheng's pictorial book. I reflected on who I was, writing primitive poetry and prose. Once I accepted my conviction I worked a tool-and-die machine until I was released, nineteen months after this dream began. That was the hard part where there seemed to be no Silence.

Returning to my rural hometown in Pennsylvania the only others I encountered who knew of the Silence were Christians. During the next seven years I immersed myself in the Christian mythos and practice. In seminary I was introduced to the psychology of Carl Jung. My doctoral training in psychology revolved around the science of the body/mind, always with the ability to use silence as a component of therapeutic intervention. Perhaps it is selective attention that shapes the theoretical foundations of each practitioner. I know that I resonated to certain theories and not others. I meditated on the words of Strupp (1984), "If you are not sure of your ground for saying something, keep silent. Recall an old Maine proverb: "'One can seldom listen his way into trouble,'" (p. 44) and:

If you feel there is nothing to say, say nothing. This is true particularly at times when you feel under pressure from the client to respond to a question that may be designed to sidetrack or derail the interpersonal process of therapy. If the client persists, silence can be taken as rudeness, and it is preferable to examine together possible reasons for the client's persistence (p. 48).

I heard the anecdotal story of Ernest Jones, Freud's biographer, that the only words he spoke to a patient were "Hello" and "I'll see you next week." I struggled with finding the balance between maintaining silence as a therapeutic intervention and allowing for the natural dialogue that needs to occur in a relationship. The stilted efforts of a novice therapist matured into a skill at helping the seeker of healing feel safe enough to experience and explore her own Silence. As the experience of that deeper reality emerged, the seeker would hear the guidance from the only one that could tell her how to live, what risks to take, what changes needed to occur. All of the answers to life's important questions lie within the soul. As I immersed myself in my own analysis I began to experience the Dream Maker who also could show the way through the madness of my neuroses and the illusion of security. With the support of a caring guide I learned to listen to the Silence. What I heard was my truth and I began to live my myth with all the fruit of being on the path that had been waiting for me all along. In this experience I was given the tools to enable those who came for therapy the same gift. I became free of the notion that I had to "do" anything to the client. I understood Von Franz's words,

"The great danger of all psychological helping professions is the potential to interfere with the other person's life. Think, for instance, of the idea of what is normal. A therapist may have an idea of normality, and think the other person should become normal. That's interference, that's a power attitude. Perhaps destiny, or God, or whatever you want to call the greater powers in the world, don't want this person to be normal. So how does he know that the patient ought to be normal? On top of that, what he thinks is normal? A therapist's bourgeois ideas of normality should not be forced upon a poor human being who is destined to be very different" (Von Franz, 1988, 52f.).

The experience of providing psychotherapy can no longer be simplified as a mechanical model of tinkering with someone's car. We have learned much about psychological processes in the last century. Now it is time to integrate the fruit of that labor and move on to the next collective level of professional development. It is not a luxury for the therapist to do his or her own inner work. It is not a luxury to learn and teach client's how to meditate. It is certainly not a luxury to realize that the inappropriate use of power inherent in the role of the therapist is the risk of remaining unconscious, ignorant, of using therapy to strengthen one's own ego identity, whether it is that of doctor or healer (Guggenbuhl-Craig, 1971). Now is the time for the profession of therapy to accept the greater demand of becoming real. Roger's provocative thesis in 1957 suggested that to be congruent was one of the "necessary and sufficient" qualities of effective therapy (Rogers, 1959). To be congruent, or authentic, is not a luxury. Congruence, often referred to as genuineness, describes the degree to which one person is functionally integrated "... such that there is the absence of conflict or inconsistency between his total experience, his awareness, and his overt communication" (Barrett-Lennard, 1962, p. 4). Finally, in the emerging field of ecopsychology there is a recognition that it is the split between the inner and outer worlds of each of us that is the source of our neuroses. Healing this split, to whatever degree, in ourselves and those who seek help is healing the pain of the Earth herself. It is not a luxury.

How this is done requires using all that we have learned from the efforts of both scientists and shamans. Learning to live with paradox is a good beginning. Learning to suspend judgement is essential. Meditation, by whatever name you call it, teaches the seeker how to focus the mind and gain confidence in the ability to experience silence. Creating sacred space in order to facilitate this process is a ritualistic counter to the sensory bombardment and rapid pace most of us live with in the "normal" world of our lives. I propose that what most of our clients need is training in how to establish, first of all, an awareness that the discipline of creating silence throughout one's day will bear fruit with an increase of clarity and direction. The individual can, and will, begin to hear from the one I refer to as "She That Is Within" or Sophia and the split between inner nature and outer nature will begin to heal. There is an experiential component of that which is not phenomenal, but, in the world of the mystics, is even more real and enriching than these elusive goals so many of us strive for and seek to grasp. To the one who knows of this source of wisdom then fear, anxiety, shame, all the plethora of modern neuroses, have no hold any longer. The beauty of this experience is that the individual then sees her or his place as an integral and valuable part of the whole. Rather than some separatist egotism, the fruit of this labor is to become a Warrior for the Open Heart and for the Sacred Earth. It is inevitable (J. Milton, personal communication, July 12, 2000).

The ability to create silence in the therapeutic experience is essential, necessary but not sufficient. It is clear that simply not speaking does not inevitably lead to increased awareness and healing for the client. In fact, such an emphasis can set up a false understanding of living in silence, as if the goal were to never encounter the vibrant noise of the marketplace. If the ritual of creating sacred space for an individual to truly begin to reflect and listen inwardly leads to encounter with the Silence, the source of all wisdom, than each of us can remain connected to that Silence in the midst of a room filled with singing after the death of a young man who suffered from AIDS. One can hear the Silence in the local county home amidst the groans of patients who yearn for someone to sit with them and hear their story. The Silence can be found in the locked ward of the local psychiatric hospital and in the cry of a child who feels so alone. Equally, one can go into the deepest part of the woods and hear only the spinning wheel of the mind. It is this numinous experience of the Silence that the one who would be therapist must have if he or she is to effectively guide clients into their own truth. One cannot take another on a path where he or she has not gone. It is incumbent for each of us to draw from the richness of the last century of the science of psychotherapy and to leave behind that which simply makes the suffering bearable. Freedom from shame, from pain, from separation is not a luxury. I agree with those who declare this period of history as pregnant with the potential for dramatic evolution in our ability to care for one another and the planet that supports us, or to see ourselves devolve into the dark ages anew. This is not melodrama. This is our Call to become who we are in relation to the Silence. A psychology without spirituality can no longer serve the genuine needs of people who want more than the surface trappings of happiness. We all want happiness and we all deserve the chance to be happy with these lives we are given. To be used as a vehicle for another to experience that freedom is a privilege. I invite any who enjoy such privilege to learn to listen to the Silence as the greatest gift you can give to those who trust you with their hopes and fears.

Silence is the Mother of Speech.
When you are silent you preserve Prana.
By practicing meditation and silence the mind begins to obey.
When this occurs the mind becomes peaceful and at ease.
One can then hear God in the deepest part of their being.
Somehow, in the silence, when the mind slows down the ego cannot be heard.
The silent heart is the full heart.
The silent heart is the heart of the Mother.
This day try to be a little more silent than usual.
I ask the Mother Saraswati to give you the wisdom to be silent
(Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, 2000).



Barrett-Lennard, G. (1962).Dimensions of therapist response as causal factors in therapeutic change. Psychological Monographs, 76, (43, Whole No. 562).

Campbell, J. (Ed.). (1942). Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. (S. Nikhilananda, Trans.). NY: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center.

Gendlin, E.T. (1972). Focusing. NY: Bantam.

Guggenbuhl-Craig, A. (1971). Power in the Helping Professions. Woodstock, CT: Spring.

Lovelock, J. (1987). Gaia: A Model for Planetary and Cellular Dynamics. In W.I. Thompson (Ed.), Gaia: A Way of Knowing. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press.

J.M. Maher & D. Briggs (Eds.). (1989). An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms. NY: Perennial Library.

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, (January 7, 2000). Daily Prayer Archives,

Maslow, A. (1971). Farther Reaches of Human Nature. NY: Viking Press.

Merton, T. (1956). Thoughts in Solitude. NY: New Directions.

Milton, J. cf.

Petersen, C. & Brandt, J.C. (1995). Hubble Vision: Astronomy with the Hubble Space Telescope. Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, C. R. (1959). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21, 95-103.

Strupp, H. & Binder, J.L. (1984). Psychotherapy in a new key: A guide to time-limited dynamic psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

Von Franz, M. & Boa, F. (1988). The Way of the Dream. Toronto: Windrose.

Wolf, F. A. (1994). The Dreaming Universe. NY: Touchstone.

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