In the opening moments of a session my client sits back in the chair and lets out a long breath, staring out through the window at the tops of the trees in the warm morning sunshine. She tells me it feels good just to sit. The surprise which rises in us when we realise how good nothingness can feel is often apparent.
When there is a space it can make us feel uncomfortable, and so we put something in the space to distract ourselves from that feeling. But putting something into the space, into the silence robs us of the opportunity to experience whatever it was which would have naturally landed there, when it was ready.
In therapy years ago my therapist would always begin sessions in the same way. I would sit and she would position herself to face me but avert her eyes a little, waiting. At the time I often felt anxious, not realising what was expected of me. Only later did I understand that nothing was. She was respecting the silence, and giving me the chance to respect it too, until a thought came which we could examine together.
Learning not to panic in space was perhaps the hardest thing of all. Coming to terms with “not knowing” is a relinquishing of control, a trust in something greater within us, an instinct.
In supervision once I spoke about a client I was struggling with. I couldn’t express why or how or what it was, so I waited through the silence. A picture emerged. I was on the bank and she was in the water, far away from me. I had no rope or life buoy to throw, and she refused to move her body in order to stay afloat. My professional skills felt impotent in the face of no attempt to save herself. It was as if she wanted to drown but needed me with her while she did so.
In silence we are able to emotionally hold ourselves or others in a way that noise prevents us from doing.
Silence cannot always provide a neat solution but it will frequently bring us clarity and truth, if we are willing to hear it.
Countless people tell me they don’t like silence, that they have to keep the radio or TV on if they at home alone. Many say they cannot listen to the ticking of the clock. I pass people in the heart of the woods with headphones in, resisting the gentle intermittent chirrup of the birds in favour of something more structured and permanent. What are we running from? What is it in our own heads which we would prefer not to hear?
Ending, a client thanks me for my part in the clarity and subsequent change she has experienced. I tell her that it is her victory because all I have done is offer her the space to hear the silence from which the clarity emerged. It was she who decided to courageously step into it.