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.


A Christmas Present: the Best of 2018. Thinking Quotes to See You into the New Year, Part 2.





Further quotations from the pick of the posts in 2018:

…the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative- insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness- that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.


Blog Post:Does Positive Thinking Work?


Did something disappoint you? Did something sadden you? The school of life wanted to teach you an important lesson through that experience.

(Haemin Sunim . Zen Proverb)

Blog Post:Does Positive Thinking Work?


‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Blog Post: Thinking twice about Relationships: How Can we Learn to See the Whole Picture?


‘Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.’

(Derrida,J. and Dufourmantelle A.)

‘Ever since the first Jute, the first Saxon, the first Roman and the first Dane leaped off their boats and planted their feet on British mud, we have been a mongrel nation. Our roots are neither clean nor straight; they are impossibly tangled.’


Blog post: How Can We Learn to be Really Hospitable? Thinking Other, Becoming Other.


The next blog post will be published on Tuesday 8th January 2019:

‘Thinking, Waiting and Not Knowing Part 2 : In Psychotherapy.’



A Christmas Present: the Best of 2018. Thinking Quotes to See You into the New Year.



Here is a selection of some very pertinent and powerful quotations from this year’s blog posts on Ways of Thinking.

Please leave below any short-or long- comment that comes to mind after reading these, either about the blog in general, or specifically regarding this post. I’d love to know your thoughts!


‘In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
And in an age of constant movement nothing is more urgent than sitting still.’

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Pico Ayer

Blog post: What Thinks Can We All Think Up?


‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’

(Samuel Beckett. Adapted from a line in Waiting for Godot.)

Blog post: Thinking and Acting


‘A thought once spoken is a lie.’ Tyutchev

‘There is no truth. There is only perception.’ Flaubert.

Blog post: Thoughts and Secrecy


‘We must care to think about the unthinkable things, because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless.’ (James W. Fulbright.)

Blog Post: Unthinking, Not Thinking and the Unthinkable.


‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’  Albert Einstein.

Blog post: The Unthinkable: ‘Failed Empathy’ and Hatred of ‘the Other.’

Do you have any suggestions for subjects for next year’s posts? Please leave below and I’ll try my best to accommodate!

Do We Always Have to Know? Part 1: Thinking, Waiting and Not Knowing in Life.


Degas  ‘Waiting.’

‘For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.’

HL Mencken.


Why should anyone want not to know?

Now, in the twenty-first century, much of our social discourse is constructed around the value of the quick-fix solution and formulaic, over-confident, upbeat, ‘positive’ thinking.

There is little room, or respect, for doubt, uncertainty, ambiguity, or wondering. This rapid evolution of thinking may lead us into a precariously shallow and superficial state.

Over the last twenty years, ours has become a short-term culture, demanding immediate gratification. In this rapid-fire, financially-pressurised, digital, competitive, fast-food, push-button society, we might wonder whether there is a place for thinking at all. We are bombarded with digital images,websites, apps, icons. They are everywhere around us.



In this world of high speed information, cutting edge technologies and quick-fire solutions, not-knowing might appear highly undesirable. The urge to know, and to find out quickly, is regarded as ‘cool’.

In fact, developing a capacity not to know can be highly creative and freeing. Instead of rushing to find solutions, what if we were to allow some degree of uncertainty, wondering, curiosity? Could we take the risk of facing the unknown and give ourselves, and others, some space and time to wait and see what emerges?

Then we might engage with fresh possibilities, discover new truths. In pausing to discover what might arise from such a space, we allow for an evolving kind of self-expression:

Leap out into the air to begin
you’ll find more of a footing
there than you thought possible.

(Hilda Morley “A Lesson in Floating’ quoted in Tobin)

Such a ‘free-fall’ is chancy and ‘not knowing’ feels like a risk; however, it is often a risk worth taking, for the rewards are considerable.

This is a state of relaxed acceptance of uncertainty, something resembling Keats’ ‘negative capability,’  when one is ‘without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’

In this state, Keats was able to create poems like ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ in which the poet ‘feels into’ the object. This resembles my ‘becoming animal’ in a previous post. Both states represent an openness to an encounter with another; in this case, an object, and all it might mean to the poet:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”


This ‘not-knowing’ is akin to a mental slowing-down, curbing the tendency to jump to conclusions without thinking. It avoids the distortions that come with quick certainties, as discussed in a previous post. Keats almost becomes part of the urn, the object, going into it and addressing it and the characters upon it.

In order to do this, one needs to gaze at the object whilst suspending knowledge of boundaries. Such boundaries might be those between what is regarded as ‘real’ and ‘not real,’ between ‘person’ and ‘thing.’

In this state of ‘negative capability,’ there is the chance to open the mind, allowing confusion and doubts to simply be, free of social and conceptual constraints. Such receptivity and flexibility enable insight, empathy and awareness, without the necessity to find answers and solutions.

In his book The Object Stares Back,’  James Elkins describes being constantly in a state of feeling watched, surrounded by many ‘eyes,’ both animate and inanimate. Yet he does not regard objects as inanimate. He describes such an encounter with his surroundings and with objects as a ‘waking vision.’


However, whilst Keats see the drawings on the Grecian urn as still, fixed suspended in time, Elkins takes his seeing even further. His objects move:

‘The night has reduced a picture hanging on one wall to a gray smudge, and as I look, its outline undulates in the half-light. It moves in response to what I try to see: I think I can make out the hilly landscape that I know is there, but suddenly it assembles itself into a staring face, and then into a little mannequin chopping wood…… It performs in response to what I imagine: it knows I am here, it sees me. For a while we look at one another: he smiles at me as best he can with his stick-figure face……’

This principle of waiting, of slowing down our thinking, of not-knowing, holds true for most creative endeavours. Quietness, stillness and having space to think, differently and imaginatively, are crucial.

In this constantly moving world, in these Liquid Times, we need more than ever to find space to face uncertainties. We need time to decelerate our thinking, allowing for reflection and for a meditative journey into the deeper reaches of our thinking selves.

Sometimes it is important to create this internal relocation in order to think clearly and to develop empathic vision:

It’s the man who steps away from the world whose sleeve is wet with tears for it.

(Bill Viola, quoted in Iyer)

Thoughts and Secrecy




How important is it for us to have secret thought processes? Should we always reveal what we think? These are important questions, with powerful implications, which need thinking through.

Imagine for a moment what would be revealed to others, if there were no secrecy and no censorship of our innermost thoughts. What if all of our private our thoughts were displayed to those around us, if thought bubbles appeared above our heads? How might this affect our lives, our relationships, our world?

The philosopher Hanna Arendt felt that thought involves ‘that silent dialogue between me and myself which since Socrates and Plato we usually call thinking’ (“two-in-one”).  In an article entitled ‘Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship II ‘, Arendt underlines the importance of an inner dialogue between two parts of the self,  ‘me and myself’, in which issues can be thought through and discussed internally, The two parts need to have agreement, in order for the person to be clear and just in their dealings with others.

What is central to such thinking is the development of an integrated and ‘whole’ personality. In psychoanalytic terms, this means that aspects of the self are not split off, divided from our consciousness. If we are able to achieve this internal integration, then   the inner conversation will be an open one,  in that the inner arguments can be balanced, with thoughts and ideas freely accessed.

This internal dialogue is an important aspect of thinking with which we can all identify, but perhaps we may not have given it much of our attention. These silent whisperings are a part of everyday life. Sometimes they are not so silent; we have all sub-vocalised, or heard others whispering to themselves, as they work out their thought-processes.

This silent thinking is also powerfully explored in David Lodge’s fine novel Thinks . Lodge’s principal character, Ralph Messenger, professor of cognitive science, is studying human consciousness. Messenger records his own thoughts in a ‘stream of consciousness,’ as a way of researching into ‘the structure of thought.’


In Lodge’s novel, Messenger believes that ‘we can never know for certain what another person is thinking’. We need the secrecy. Messenger’s lover, Helen, underlines the reasons why she will not allow him access to her own secret thoughts ostensibly for his research. She emphasises the importance of privacy and of concealing thoughts to ‘maintain our self-respect’, which she views as ‘essential to civilisation.’

It is interesting to consider just how central is this secrecy of our thoughts to the maintaining of civilised behaviour in the world. Arendt also regards this private, internal reasoning process as essential to the avoidance of committing evil deeds. Without it, we would act without consideration, without standards, without internally questioning our morality.

Shakespeare has characters in two of his plays utter the phrase that ‘Thought is free’ (The Tempest and Twelfth Night.) This is true. We are free to think whatever we choose. However, freedom of thought is different from freedom of speech. Speaking our thoughts without consideration can be dangerous and hurtful.

We cannot always say what we think if our thoughts are offensive or likely to imperil others. Internal, personal editing, and sometimes censoring the expression of some thoughts is essential. In democratic societies there are often laws that prevent dangerous and criminal thoughts and ideas from being expressed publicly, such as those that involve as racism and sexism. Whilst some people may harbour such thoughts, they cannot be expressed legally in public.

The Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, in a poem entitled Silentium, implies that thinking can be dangerous and he counsels us to keep our thoughts to ourselves:

Be silent, hide away and let
your thoughts and longings rise and set
in the deep places of your heart.

We are urged to recognise the impossibility of a thought being expressed clearly and truthfully:

What heart can ever speak its mind?
How can some other understand
the hidden pole that turns your life?
A thought, once spoken, is a lie.

This last line is, indeed thought-provoking. Can we ever understand another’s thoughts, once they are spoken? Or is it better to keep silent, as the poet says?




Thinking Again About our Photographs:The Photograph as a Way of Thinking, Part 2.





‘Photography is a medium of thought; it is a means of discovery and expression, a way to decipher patterns, to work out ideas, to find and tell stories.’ Spirn


In last week’s post, we began to explore the photograph above, knowing nothing about its content or its provenance. This week we continue to examine the image and then discover the known facts about it.

Let us begin by looking at the women’s body language.

The posture of the woman on the left is relaxed, hand resting on her lap. She leans towards the other woman. She is definitely addressing her. The shape of her mouth could indicate that she is speaking in a rather strident manner.

The woman on the right looks older, although it is difficult to gauge their ages. She is not  responding. Her body language contrasts with that of the other; she is far from expansive in her gesture. Smaller in stature than the younger woman, her body language indicates a passive, self-protective, closed attitude, as if she is feeling uncomfortable.

She stares at her raised foot, right hand clamped over her mouth, chin and gaze lowered. The other hand crosses her body. This is seen as a ‘barrier signal’ by Desmond Morris. Is she stopping herself from responding? Her gesture indicates suppression of speech.

What might she be thinking? She does not appear to relish what is being said to her. She does not look pleased.

Making no eye-contact with her companion, she appears still, although we cannot know whether her foot is kicking up and down. Somehow, it just looks raised, for her perusal. Her eyes are looking down, almost closed. This is a ‘Cut-off’ gesture; it is the ‘Evasive Eye.’ (Morris) It indicates a wish to withdraw from the other. It appears as if she is visually blocking out what is happening around her, for she cannot really be that interested in her own foot.

What might she be feeling? Could it be guilt? Anger? Fear? Meekness? An urge to kick, or flee? We cannot know.

As we peruse the picture in depth, more questions emerge:

What language are they speaking and what might they be saying?

Who took the photograph?

What is the date of the photo and what was happening in the wider world at this time?

Who are the women? What is their relationship?

Are there other photographs of them?

What is the emotional effect on you, the viewer, of this photo?

Whilst Yvonne could not answer all my questions, she could furnish me with some important facts. Other facts are lost in time, for the image will keep some secrets.

The picture was taken in the back garden of a now demolished house in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, where Yvonne’s mother and her twelve siblings were born. The women are her grandmother, Rose, and her great-grandmother, both of whom died before she was born. She ‘knows’ them only through family stories. And through photographs.

She guessed the date as the beginning of the 1900’s. Yvonne continued to describe the image:

‘The women were extremely Orthodox Jews, hence the hat and Bubba’s (Yiddish for [great] grandmother) sheitle (wig worn for religious purposes). The hat belonged to Bubba… was a Russian hat, she came from Vilnius, Lithuania. I don’t know what they were talking about and they only spoke Yiddish to each other. Life was hard and they all lived together. Rose had 17 pregnancies, 13 infants survived. The children brought each other up because Rose was always pregnant. I have a photo of my mother in her wedding dress rushing up the steps of the house straight after the Chuppa(ceremony) to be with Rose who was on her deathbed. She died aged 42.’



What poignant photographs of an impossibly joyful and excruciatingly difficult moment in Yvonne’s mother’s  life! How graphically has the camera frozen the image in time, chronicling for eternity the anxious bride as she visits her Mother’s house.

Then, in the right hand image, like some ethereal , almost spectral figure, she is there, at the bedside, observing her dying mother. It is as if the camera has captured the spirituality of the moment, and we are Rose, viewing her daughter through misted and fading eyes.

How much more can we legitimately add to these photographs from our own knowledge? Dorothy Lange said that ‘The camera is a tool for seeing without a camera.’ In similar vein, Spirn perceived that ‘The image is a form of thought.’

We can thus use the photograph to discover a way of thinking based on visual clues and markers. If we add some historical and familial knowledge to these clues in the tope photograph , for example, the Russian hat, we can be fairly sure that the two women were immigrants from Eastern Europe:

Exodus from Eastern Europe
It has been estimated that some 2.7 million Jews migrated west from eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914. Many were seeking work or a better standard of living. Others sought to avoid compulsory military service or persecution. The assassination of the Russian Czar in 1881 was followed by a series of campaigns (pogroms) against Jews in the Russian empire: Jews were forbidden from settling on or owning land outside towns or moving between villages, and restrictions were placed on their entering higher education or the professions.’

Spirn has pointed out that ‘research shows that perception and cognition are intimately linked’. In terms of Yvonne’s photographs, we can add the visual clues to her own comments and our knowledge of history and human nature. All these aspects can help us reconstruct the fragments of  long lost stories, that otherwise might be forever lost in time.

Perhaps you, the reader, might be able to look at your photographs with a different eye now?



Rose and her Mother dressed for best.