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.


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)