The Hundred Kinds of Silence

Silences can deepen our experience, if we can hear them.

Posted Nov 11, 2015

In the five times I’ve moved offices over the course of my career, one decorative piece has always remained with me: a small wooden statue that I bought for who-remembers-how-few pesos from a street craftsman in Spain in 1965. The statue is of a standing monk, whose head is bowed in silent contemplation. He resides on a shelf across from where I sit in my office.

Sam Osherson
Source: Sam Osherson

As I listen to people talk about the troubles of their lives, I also contemplate my little monk. With his attitude of contemplation and receptivity, he reminds me when I am tempted to talk too much that silence is the foundation of good psychotherapy.

While visiting the graves of his parents, the poet Billy Collins writes in his poem, “Graves,” of the “one hundred kinds of silences according to Chinese belief.” He finds himself talking to his dead mother about the new glasses he is wearing and asking what she thinks of them. Lying on the grass, he presses his ear to the ground to hear her warm response. He then rolls over to his father’s adjoining grave, “but he would say nothing/ and I could not find a silence,/among the 100 Chinese silences/that would fit the one that he created…”

Is the silence of our fathers a different kind of silence than other kinds of silence in the world? The silence of our mothers? Our children? Our spouses? Our patients?

Collins goes on to admit in his poem that he “made up the business about the 100 Chinese silences.” Little matter: to the attentive listener, they exist.

Getting To Know Our Silences

I try to observe some of the silences in my life. Visiting my grown son, we take an afternoon stroll around the National Zoo and have a leisurely conversation about work, finances, the costs and rewards of hard-won career successes. Looking out at the meerkats, otters, elephants, as we talk, heartfelt matters surface, disappear, and reappear. Our conversation is not hurried; it feels as if I have all the time in the world. What more can a father ask for than to talk to his son or daughter about what really matters in life? The silences between us feel precious and delicate as we navigate the challenges entwining emotional vulnerability and maleness, compounded by the fact that we are father and son.

I want to restrain my desire to jump in with comments and questions, to “help” the conversation along, to offer advice and try to “fix things” rather than to trust that in the deep pools of silence as we move from park bench to park bench, down the zoo pathways, from one remarkable animal to another, we will each find what most needs to be said to one another.

Miraculously, moving in and out of the silences we both keep the conversation going, and it leads us to places I would never have predicted. Being a father to newly grown-up children is uncharted territory for me. Do I have sage advice to offer? Does anyone want it? Can I allow the space for my son or daughter to open up and come forward? So, the silence that day felt not just precious and delicate, but spacious as well.

A Really Powerful Three Seconds

There are silences that happen between people and then there are the silences within ourselves. When I practice meditation, I enter a different kind of silence. With my son, my silence allows an outward receptivity; meditating invites an inward receptivity.

As I sit with eyes closed, I become aware of some dread as well as some curiosity. How will I sit like this for 20 minutes? The silence is like a dark corridor. Leading where exactly? I focus on my breath, while my mind does its monkey leaps. Yet this is my silence, my time, uninterrupted by anything else. A feeling of spaciousness enters as I relax. The silence feels mysterious, beckoning me forward. Thoughts and ideas pop up, my chest tenses with anxiety and excitement. And then all dissolves as I return to the breathing, the silence like a friend who has been waiting there all along, forgiving and patient. The silence feels constant and deep, my thoughts like blowing leaves in the wind.

A colleague of mine tells me about her experiences during a 10-day silent meditation at a retreat center. “It took me five days before the noises in my head began to calm down.” Eventually she was able to find a few moments of what she called “stillness” in the meditation. She remembers a wonderful “pool of stillness. Then it was gone.” How long did it last? “About three seconds,” she says with a laugh. “Ten days of meditation for three seconds of silence!”

The Silences of Psychotherapy

In psychotherapy, I am interested in both my own silence and my patient’s silence, my internal silence and the silence between us. I’ve learned that there can be interesting intersections between the two. They are co-created, brought into being between the two of us.

I struggled to remember this as I sat recently, inexplicably tense, in silence with a patient. He’s a young lawyer. We’d worked together for several years and he now faced a big decision in his life. We’d spent a number of sessions talking about the choice, which involved moving to another city for a much-desired promotion that would alter so much in his life — including, of course, our relationship.

What did I think he should do? I reminded him that what I thought was far less important than what he thought he should do. Silence was the response to that comment. And the silence went on far longer than the three seconds my friend prized so much during her silent meditation. In the silence, I wrestled with my desire to say more, say anything, to help this man. I found lots of wise things I could say about change and transitions in life. Worse, I imagined he was angry at me for my comment. Did it sound dismissive? How ineffectual does he think I am?

The silence had weight, pressing on my chest. The air in the room seemed oppressively thick.

I looked to my contemplative monk on the shelf across the room for inspiration and of course he said nothing. And I did, too. I simply held the silence, trying to calm myself and be receptive to whatever happened while my patient stared at the floor, and I imagined him exploding in anger at me for reasons I couldn’t really explain.

Finally, he looked up at me. “Wow, this is really hard. I think I want you to tell me what to do because I am scared you are going to get angry at me.” He talked about how hard it was for him in the silence to look inside himself, to really think about what he wanted to do, which choice he wanted to make.

What was the silence like for you? I asked. “It’s a numbness. I go blank. I want to get away.” Over time, he and I realized that the emotional numbness was related to his deeper fear of making a choice that would disappoint me and that I would then withdraw into a hostile silence. The fear of this “attachment loss” made it hard for him to tolerate my silence or his own.

These concerns were also my own. I, too, feared a loss in the silence: disappointing and losing my patient. My fear mirrored his. We were both sitting in a similar silence, therapist and patient.

With my son, with myself, with my patient, the challenge of allowing silences in is the same: how to bear the anxiety so that something fruitful and worth waiting for can emerge?

Reclaiming Solitude

In her recent article in the New York Times on reclaiming face-to-face conversation in our digital, wired-in age, MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle writes: “In solitude we learn to concentrate and imagine, to listen to ourselves.” 

A walk in the woods, enjoying the silence of nature. Finding a calm place within amidst the chatter in the airport, markets, and restaurants. Turkle advises: “One start toward reclaiming conversation is to reclaim solitude. Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself.”

Silence permits us and others to come forward, to go deeper into the shared experience of being oneself and of being together with others.

And the wonderful thing is: there’s not simply one “silence." It turns out that there’s hundreds of different kinds.

Fascinating silences await us, if we can hear them.

Dr. Sam Osherson is a Professor of Psychology at the Fielding Graduate University and author of the novel, The Stethoscope Cure.