Can We Ever Understand Another’s Thoughts?

“The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.”
Willa Cather


‘The Nut Gatherers (1882) W.A. Bougereau


A previous post  mentioned the poet Tyutchev’s words: ‘A thought once spoken is a lie.’ Today’s post will develop this theme.

It would appear that the poet is saying that there is absolutely no way in which we can ever speak the truth of our thoughts; it is as though there is some mechanism in the uttering process which automatically gives the lie to our words.

Can this really be so? Should we resist sharing our thoughts because they can never really be communicated in their true and honest form? Is disclosing our thoughts, then, a futile act? Furthermore, if we were able to share our thoughts truthfully, would another person be able to really understand them?

This last question brings to mind the views of the writer Janet Malcolm in a book entitled Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

‘…we cannot know each other.  We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others. We cannot see each other plain.’

Malcolm categorically states that there is no hope of ever achieving a clear view of others, whilst the poet has warned us of the impossibility of ever sharing our thoughts in a real and true way, and of them being understood by others. These opinions leave us with an impossibility, for they abandon us, trapping us within a universal, self-created tragedy that condemns us to eternal solitude. Are we really so confined within our own minds, so isolated with our thoughts?

The answer is yes and no. These writers may ultimately be right in their assertions. Obviously, it is impossible to understand totally another’s thoughts and to speak the truth unconditionally. However, these gloomy outlooks might be mitigated a little if we accept that we cannot achieve absolute understanding of self and other. We can only try express our thoughts honestly, with due consideration and discretion. We can only attempt to understand another’s thoughts and being.

With open and flexible thinking, challenging our assumptions and our subjectivities, it is likely that we will move in the direction of perceiving reality about self and other. We can then value this extraordinary journey, whilst being fully aware that we will never reach its endpoint. (Although, in another, more spiritual dimension, it is possible to experience a sense of ‘becoming other.’ This intimate encounter with ‘the other’ will be further explored in a future blog post.)

In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie supports this more optimistic attitude through his character Jumpi Joshi, the poet. These views contrast strikingly with those of the afore-mentioned writers:

‘Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.’

Is  Jumpi Joshi, then, saying that the thoughts we give words to are the truth, not lies? I think that he is; however, in order to understand and interpret his comment, we need to examine what is meant by ‘truth’.

In an essay intriguingly entitled ‘“It was so it was not so:” The Clash of Language in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses,’ Terri Beth Miller highlights the fact that there are many kinds of truth reflected in the book:

‘What emerges from this cacophony of cultural discourses–theological, nationalistic, sociological–is a theory of humanity, and of language, that embodies no singular attribute, neither purity nor evil, neither God nor Satan, neither truth nor lie, but rather contains all such attributes, all of the time. ‘

Truth is complex, not simple and this complexity is a part of the human condition. It differs from person to person. There is no absolute truth, there is a rich tapestry of many different truths. Perhaps understanding another’s thoughts involves being able to hold several different truths in mind at the same time.

Julian Baggini’s book A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World details the many different kinds of truth that exist. In this illuminating quotation, he speaks of ‘relative truth’ :

‘The relativist impulse is by and large a noble one. It is opposed to the ownership of truth by one, usually privileged group; the crowding out of alternative perspectives; the simplification of complex reality. But none of this requires us to give up on truth. Indeed, it should require us to treasure it even more, because if none of these different ways of seeing and knowing is true in anything more than a personal or parochial way, why care about any of them? If what is true for me is not true for you then either one of us is wrong, or both of us have only one hand on the truth and need each other’s help to see the whole of it. The panoply of legitimate perspectives should not therefore lead to the fragmentation of truth. Rather we should bring as many of these perspectives together as possible to create a fuller vision of reality.’


How might this ‘fuller version of reality’ be created? Perhaps through a combination of common sense, some judgement, intuition and clear vision?

There is definitely need, as Baggini says, to be open to the existence of many different kinds of truths : ‘One of the problems we face is not the absence of truth, but its overabundance. Competing eternal truths underpin many conflicts and divisions.’

William James supports this opinion when he says that ‘The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.’

Additionally, the statement of Marcus Aurelius provides considerable clarity: ‘Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.’ This view is echoed by Gustave Flaubert who said: ‘There is no truth. There is only perception.’

These views alert us to the fact that the concept of truth is complex and our understanding of others need to be informed by this. It surely provides us with a creative antidote to the view that we could never understand another’s thoughts. We might not, as Malcolm says, be able to ‘see each other plain.’ But what actually is ‘plain’?

In spite of the fact that we might never be able to completely experience another’s way of thinking and seeing the world, we may still strive to understand their thoughts in an empathic way. Speaking one’s thoughts and having their true meanings, in all their multifarious forms, understood by another, can be a creative and collaborative experience, leading to a real meeting of minds.

Can we ever know another person? Do leave your thoughts on this below. I’d love to hear what you think. Thanks!

Letting in The Other: What does Hospitality Have in Common with Poetry? Part 2: Thinking, Difference and Empathy.

‘I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become
the wounded person.’

Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass.


The Good Samaritan. Ronald Rae. Wikimedia Commons

This second post of three represents a temporary focus on hospitality and poetry; however, these concepts are also highly relevant to psychotherapy. In therapy, allowing another person in to one’s inner world and showing empathy are crucial.


How can a person let another into their world if they feel no empathy towards them? This holds true for both poetry and hospitality, It would be difficult to offer hospitality to another without having empathy for that person.

The poet also needs empathy in order to describe the spectrum of the human condition with which the reader can identify. The poet needs to see the self in the other, to recognise human commonalities.

At this point we can fruitfully refer back to a previous post; here, we have seen that the poet can contain and express difficult feelings for us.

In his book The Poetry Pharmacy  , William Sieghart takes this concept of poetry as containment even further; he actually prescribes certain poems for a variety of problems. What a delightful concept!




He comments in the book:

‘Suffering is the access point to poetry for a lot of people: that’s when they open their ears, hearts and minds. Being there with the right words for someone in that moment- when something’s happened, when they’re in need- is a great comfort…..’


This quotation highlights graphically the theme of this post: the hospitality of the poetic endeavour. The words ‘access’ and ‘open’ emphasise the act of entering into another’s world. The quote continues to bear witness to the fact that poetry, like hospitality,  is about giving and receiving. In this case, poetry is seen as a balm, a comforter, very like the offer of succour or a room for the night when in dire need of accommodation.

Both poetry and hospitality involve feelings and emotions.  I think this is what Derrida was referring to when he spoke of hospitality being poetic.

In the poetry extract below, see how Wordsworth becomes a kind of host, offering hospitality and kinship in terms of openness to other voices and into thoughts and feelings.

Through verse, the poet allows an emotional bonding, a connection, a kind of interaction with the ‘guest’, the reader. It is also a prime example of the poet’s recognition of the universality human experience, his knowledge of the ‘self in the other,’ mentioned above:

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.




Van Gogh. Enclosed field with setting sun.

Thus the meaning of hospitality can be extended, to describe the poet’s attitude, as well as that of the hospitable host. By means of emotional and linguistic fluency, poetry can demonstrate a willingness to be vulnerable and let others into that vulnerability, allowing the poet to be seen and recognised, sharing perspectives.

Both poetry and hospitality are reflective, thoughtful. The invitation is to share in something inner. Poetry offers us a special kind of nourishment, it gives us ‘food for thought.’

Hospitality has connections with both poetry and with thought. Without a particular kind of thinking, we will not be able to host others into our own physical, psychic or poetic space. We will be unable to think in terms of the other, to think ourselves into the other’s skin. This might be called empathy, but it might involve more than that.

It entails something more poetic, a transcendent quality that is related to the idea of becoming other. It is a celebration of difference.

‘1. Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.’ Hebrews 13:1-3

Acknowledging this and identifying the fact that the ‘stranger’ is not only outside of ourselves, but also within is crucial. The process of trying to becoming one with all aspects of the self, rather than scapegoating others, is surely the most creative way of thinking:

‘If this elephant of mind is held on all sides
by the cord of mindfulness,
All fear disappears and happiness comes.
All enemies: all the tigers, lions, bears,
serpents, elephants…
and all the keepers of hell; the demons and the horrors,
All of these are contained by the attention of your mind,
and by the calming of that mind are calmed,
Because from the mind are derived all fears and unmeasurable





Image: Peter Clarkson. Unsplash.

The Importance of Early Experience and Social Relationships in the Development of Thinking



‘The Bee sucks the sweets from wild thyme & marjoram; now it is honey & neither marjoram nor thyme.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The metaphor of the bee producing honey expresses much in relation to how human beings absorb and take in what they need from others. What we have learned from other people becomes our own through a psychological process called internalisation. It involves a kind of transformation of others’ ways of being, taken into the very fabric of ourselves. From our earliest beginnings, we have introjected, assimilated into our personalities, aspects of those around us. From this process we come to produce for ourselves authentic thoughts; these originate from the stimulation of others as we learn from their incentives and encouragement.

The psychoanalytic theory of object relations suggests that our early experiences of those who look after us are paramount in terms of future development. The term ‘object’ is a little misleading, as it actually refers to a person. For example, a parent is usually a ‘primary object.’ The perceptions we have of these early relationships and their internal representations, will colour and shape our future lives and relationships.

Ways of thinking about ourselves develop from early experience with our primary caregivers. The responsiveness of the other person to the child, the way in which the child’s image is mirrored and reflected in the mother’s eyes, crucially influence the child’s self image. A significant other who is not empathic, who cannot attune to the child’s needs, will not be able to help that child develop a sense of self that is cohesive and sustaining. The way the mother thinks about her child will form and affect the manner in which the child thinks about herself:

‘The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein… provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.’
D.W. Winnicott

Thoughts do not evolve out of seclusion; interaction with others is essential in relation to the formation of thoughts.  In Thinking in Literature, Anthony Uhlmann points that, according to Spinoza:

‘Thought itself involves, or is, the relation between elements; the ratios which measure and identify things as networks of relations.’

Thus the thinking process itself involves making links and connections; in etymological terms, the words relation, ratio, rationale, reckoning, reason, reasoning and thought are all connected, all come from the same root.

In his book The Cradle of Thought, Peter Hobson suggests that it was ‘social engagement’ that originally produced thought in early human beings and that the development of thought in the infant mirrors the beginnings of thought in the history of the human being:

‘Before language , there was something else – more basic, in a way more primitive, and with unequalled power in its formative potential, that propelled us into language. Something that could evolve in tiny steps, but suddenly gave rise to the thinking processes that revolutionised mental life. Something that (unfortunately) no fossil remains can show us. That something else was social engagement with each other. The links that can join one person’s mind with the mind of someone else – especially, to begin with emotional links – are the very links that draw us into thought. To put it crudely: the foundations of thinking were laid at the point when ancestral primates began to connect with each other emotionally in the same way that human babies connect with their caregivers.’


The importance of social relationships in relation to thinking is thus paramount; Hobson also describes how infants develop their thinking processes in response to others and he emphasizes the importance of what occurs ‘between people’:

‘The roots of thought are embedded here, in what happens by virtue of one individual’s experience of someone else.’

This connectedness with others is significant throughout our lives. As adults, we continue to be influenced by the thoughts and feelings of those around us. Indeed it is important that we are affected by other people, in terms of our own self-development.

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut developed the model of self-psychology, seeing significant others in early life as self-objects, who could provide empathic sustainment for the development of the self. Although the need to depend on others for one’s sense of self does decrease during adulthood , in his work The Restoration Of The Self, Kohut emphasised that fact that adults do continue to use others as self-objects throughout their lives.

As adults, we can continue our psychological development, then, through interactions with others who inspire us. Hopefully having internalised some good-enough self objects during childhood, we can continue to make new connections which stimulate and motivate us.

We can develop our thinking and continue to gain self-esteem from others in adulthood, such as our spouse, partner, therapist, work colleagues, friends, educators. What we need, throughout the life cycle, is other people who can respond to us with understanding and care:

‘Man can no more survive psychologically in a psychological milieu that does not respond empathetically to him, than he can survive physically in an atmosphere that contains no oxygen.’

Heinz Kohut.


Letting in The Other: What does Hospitality Have in Common with Poetry? Part 1.

‘An act of hospitality can only be poetic.’ Jacques Derrida.


Image: Unsplash. Artem Bali.

Do you have a special poem that seems to invite you in and stays with you? If you do, please tell us about it in the comments at the end of this post. Thank you, Linda.


How does hospitality connect with poetry and what can we learn from this connection?

They may at first seem quite different ideas and we might wonder what Derrida, in the quotation above, meant by linking them.


The statement ‘An act of hospitality can only be poetic’ might initially seem to be a conundrum; it can have many interpretations. Derrida makes us work hard as readers, grasping at meaning and trying to understand.

However, when you really think about it, there are many links between the two concepts. What are these links?

First, both poetry and hospitality invite you in to their world. They do so in an emotional way. Poems attract you in through the power and beauty of their language, their offer of a story, word-pictures, their creativity. Hospitality involves an invitation, a loving offer to enter into, to share, to experience.

Hospitality and poetry offer a kind of service to others and aim to meet some of their needs. They are giving a gift to another, of their time, their consideration, their feelings.

Both take us, the stranger, into their world, one that it different from our own. Both ask us to see that world from their point of view and open themselves up to us, to show us who they are. There is a way in revealed to us; the one shows us a place unlatched, unbarred, maybe a country allowing entry, passage. The other is a poetic path to disclosure, a letting drop of boundaries, a release, a declaration of the poet’s inner feelings, impressions and thoughts.

This representation of an opening of things might perhaps take the form of a door, a perimeter, a soup kitchen, an opinion, an idea.


Old door of secret room in Church of

Saint Martin in Třebíč.

By Jiří Sedláček – Frettie – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,




Both hospitality and poetry necessitate an understanding of another’s needs and we can feel grateful for both. They involve an offering of the self, and reflect our personality and our world view. Sometimes it might seem as though that world view goes against reason and possibility; it might come across as implausible and unrealistic to us.

Poets and those offering their hospitality allow another person into the depths of their soul, their inner world, no matter how eccentric, unconventional or bizarre that might appear to the other.

Both are involved in a relationship with the other. Hospitality signifies a considered letting in of the other, a beckoning, a reflective, generous, non-hierarchical act of admittance, perhaps to a home or country. That home might be very odd to the incoming stranger, yet it has been offered without regard for the manner in which it is received.

Poetry represents an opening up through words, a welcoming in of the other to one’s world, of other voices, other ideas.

Poetry and hospitality each need another person to receive and accept the offer to ‘enter’ into their world.

These are the first lines of two beautiful poems and they, quite literately invite us in.

‘Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky’  (T.S. Eliot)


‘Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove,’ (Marlowe)

What wonderful invitations!

Poetry can still be inviting even when the hospitality is not quite so evident:

What draws us in is the identification with the poet, the descriptions, the lyricism, the beauty of the lines.  This still applies even when the subject is trivial:


This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


The poet is making a confession. He has eaten the plums. We are very much invited into his private world. We can identify with his desire to devour them, even though they were not his. We can almost taste them, so vivid is his description.

We can also identify with the guilt of being unable to resist what was not his to eat. Along with the guilt is a modicum of humour, of mischief, to which we can all relate. The tone- and the title – of the poem imply that the poet knows he will be forgiven for his transgression.

Our attention is captured by the unusual, and perhaps eccentric nature of the subject matter; snaffling someone’s plums from the fridge! The boundaries of the poetic are stretched here into a rather eccentric subject for a poem. Yet the poem is still strikingly effective.

We are offered hospitality by the poet in two ways: he invites us into his kitchen, into the trivia of his life. Simultaneously we witness his rather embarrassed state of mind.

This post continues next week, with a further look at hospitality in the light of empathy, poetic thinking and the celebration of difference.

Don’t forget, if  you have a special poem that seems to invite you in and stays with you, please tell us about it in the comments below.


(Alan Sheffield. Chilean Black Plums. Flickr.)



How to Handle Silent Spaces: Being in the Present Moment for Others. Part 3


Silent Spaces.

Imagine: You are having dinner with friends. There is a much talking, laughing, sharing of stories. Then there is a sudden lull in the conversation, a temporary quiet. How many of us rush to fill this space, even though we do not have much to say? 

8008653072_17840de3cc_zImage: SD Europe. Flickr.

Silent spaces often occur in social situations. How often are we unable to tolerate the silence? It would be really helpful if you, the reader, could leave a comment at the end of this post about how you feel when there is silence, in any situation. And ways you might deal with this…….

In Psychotherapy 

In psychotherapy, many times, people are afraid of silence and not-knowing. They feel uncomfortable. The therapist can help the patient here by demonstrating a relaxed tolerance of the silent space.

The therapist is trained to wait without frustration for something to emerge, rather than rushing to fill the valuable reflective time with superficialities. This is a way of being present for another person, and very much experiencing the present moment.



     (Quote by Thich Nhat Hanh Picture Quotes on In the Moment

      Original photo credit:Symphony of Love. Flickr.)

Living in the present is not easy. It is difficult to stay with the now, without allowing the mind to wander or to worry and be distracted into the past or into an imagined future. Yet silent spaces can be so creative and productive, in our lives and in therapy.

Such quiet intervals in psychotherapy allow the patient room to feel free of therapist intrusion and over-activity. If the therapist rushes into interpretation and quick ‘understandings,’ without waiting with the patient to see what might emerge, something valuable may be lost and the therapeutic process compromised.

Timing and pace are crucial in every psychotherapy session. Waiting with someone in an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion is crucial in this regard. It involves creative listening, feeling with that person, and thinking in a way that is based on the intuitive, rather than the purely cognitive. Psychodynamic thinking enables this ‘stepping away’ from the fast pace of life outside. 

Not Knowing

The state of mind needed for such encounters and  the ‘not knowing’ state is described by several therapists, across the spectrum of therapeutic approaches. For example, Gestalt Therapy emphasises the therapeutic value of staying with the ‘now,’ focussing on what is happening in the present moment.

Many religions also value silence and not-knowing:

‘Then seeing and experiencing over and over again in Gestalt groups, that ‘trusting the process’ and staying with the void of the ‘not-knowing’ allowed the space and time for something new and amazing to emerge. It linked to the Buddhist notion of emptiness or nothing-ness from which springs a new awakening and creative energy.

On becoming a Quaker, I discovered the Fertile Void in the richness of shared silence. The meeting for worship is a space where nothing was overtly happening yet there was a strong feeling of connection and communion in ‘silent ministry’.

John Leary-Joyce

In relation to psychodynamic psychotherapy, this approach is highly relevant; it is closely related to Bion’s recommendation that each therapy session should be started ‘without memory, desire or understanding’ on the part of the therapist.

In reality, there are not answers to everything. Rushing into false certainties is pure folly. Our society is expecting the impossible of us, and therapy should not replicate this false expectation, but challenge it by example.

As Stephen Hawking has said:

‘The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.’

What do you feel about silence and not-knowing- in any situation -and how do you handle it? Do let me know in the comments below.

Do We Always Have to Know? Thinking, Waiting and Not Knowing Part 2 : In Psychotherapy.

‘It is important to recognise that we must live with uncertainty, with the unknown, the unknowable. Even if we eventually manage to produce a theory which describes the way the universe works, we will never know that there isn’t another chapter in the story, waiting for us to discover it. We can never know whether we have come to the end of the story.’

Du Sautoy



To all readers: Please don’t forget to leave any  comments on this post at the bottom of this page. It would be really helpful to me to have feedback and know your thoughts!



The desire for instant cures and speedy solutions, which we discussed in Part 1 of this post, also precludes the techniques of analytic psychotherapy, which involve a slowing down, a not-knowing.

The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott asserted that

 ‘acceptance of not-knowing produces tremendous relief.’


What does this mean? Why does not knowing bring such comfort?

Well, think again about the world outside the therapy room. Think of the pressure to perform, to achieve, to be socially adept, to hurry up, to provide instant answers. Often, if we do not know the answer, some of us may pretend to know, or spout something cliched, just to appear knowledgeable.


In therapy there is an opportunity to escape such societal demands to perform. There is a chance to stay with feelings, to pause, to wait and not have to rush into superficial activity or easy formulaic responses. Although there are time limits to the session, there are generally further sessions;  there should be no pressure to hurry through the process of therapy.

Not knowing also allows the therapist to be fully there for the patient, a quiet and strong presence, listening and attending to the patient’s needs, rather than to her own theoretical formulations. How often does one experience such authentic support?

Attentive, empathic listening is a skill, one which does not come easily to many people. How frequently do we find that others in our lives do not listen, become distracted, look at their mobile phones, or divert their gaze as we speak?

How often do people hear an initial statement from a friend and then proceed to use this as a ‘prompt’ to manipulate the subject round to themselves and their own experience? Have you, the reader of this post, found this happening?

Yet in the therapeutic space, the therapist is there for the patient, focussed on the patient’s needs, listening empathically. In this accepting atmosphere, it is likely that the patient will be more able to free associate; that is, to speak whatever comes into her mind. She will feel more able to ‘play.’ In a therapeutic sense, this means that patient and therapist can be creative, in an atmosphere of acceptance and relatively free from social anxiety.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott regarded ‘playing’ in therapy as a way of discovering more about the self. This is achieved through ‘playing’ with and ideas, words, metaphors, thoughts and feelings, in a kind of absorbed, involved state, without self- consciousness. This is a state of mind described by Winnicott as ‘desultory formless functioning.’ (Playing and Reality)

‘Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together.’



Of course, the therapist has knowledge and skill. It is not this which is withheld during the ‘not knowing’ and the ‘playing.’ What happens is that all is in temporary suspension, so that the therapist is free to be open. Then there is less chance of prematurely seeking conclusions and certainties, before all has been explored creatively in terms of ‘negative capability.’



                  Lee Bul’s “After Bruno Taut (Negative Capability)” Craig Saila. Flickr.


The therapist knows that this kind of un-knowing is an essential part of the psychotherapeutic process. The therapist herself becomes immersed in the mystery, the perplexing nature of what might be unconsciously happening in the room. All of this occurs within the safe boundaries of the therapy session. 

Perhaps the patient might learn from the therapist’s experience of feeling safe and contained in the face of creative uncertainty, so that the patient, also, might explore in this more open and flexible way. The  patient will, in time, come to realise that she does not have to please the therapist with ‘clever’ responses, that she will be acceptable just as she is.

Next week’s post continues this theme. (To make things easier, you can receive a personal email reminder and details about the next post, if you become a follower of this blog, by pressing the ‘follow’ sign.)

If you have any thoughts about this post, please leave a comment below. It would be good for me to get feedback! Thankyou. Linda.