hello silence my old friend, i've come to talk with you again
Updated: Jan 22
It's been a busy year, what with everything. And yet, fortunate man I am, I've more or less been working solidly through the pandemic and its aftermath. The great - for therapists at least - debate over this period of pain and purging in our lives has been: online or face-to-face therapy? Which is better? For myself face-to-face please, though it means more work for me - hoovering the carpet, cleaning the room, trimming my beard with more care, wearing trousers long enough to actually cover my ankles etc. But that's all a flea in comparison to the joys of being before a person. The crackle of electricity and excitement that another body gives off, the rise and fall of voices without a tech filter, tones and timbres fully accessible. Still, I have now around 30% of my client work online so I'm not going to exclude myself from work if a client can only present virtually. Invariably, the musings over face-to-face v online therapy for me open a doorway into a much bigger and more fundamental question: what does one-to-one, face-to-face therapy really mean in our noisy, hyper-distracted world? Before making a raid on possible answers to that question, I want to keep the focus for now on our 24/7 culture of connectivity. One of the great interpreter's of our age - an age he summed up as 'liquid' where everything moves and changes shape all the time - was the late Zygmunt Bauman. The following was penned by him in 2010:
'There is no longer any need, ever again, to be alone. Every minute ... it takes just one push of a button to conjure up company ... So paradise on earth? Dream coming true, at long last? The admittedly haunting ambivalence of human interaction - comforting and exhilarating, yet cumbersome and full of pitfalls - finally resolved? There is a price to be paid: once you are 'always on', you may never be fully and truly alone ... and if you're never alone you're less likely to read a book for pleasure, to draw a picture, to stare out the window and imagine worlds other than your own. You're less likely to communicate with the real people in your immediate surroundings. Who wants to talk to family members when your friends are just a click away? Running away from loneliness, you drop your chance of solitude on the way: of that sublime condition in which one can gather thoughts, ponder, reflect, create - and so, in the last account, give meaning and substance to communication. But then, having never savoured its taste, you may never know what you have forfeited, dropped and lost.'
(44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World, 2010, Polity)
So, the question again - what is the real meaning of therapy in the 21st century? With help from Prof Bauman, a tantalising paradox starts to emerge: we come to therapy to be alone, to hear and meet ourselves anew because we find no other space brings this possibility to the fore in quite the same way. Often clients will apologise at the start of session and say something like - 'I've not had a chance to reflect on the last session, or what it brought up; so where were we?' I'm not intending to push this paradox too far - clearly, therapy is obviously a dyad, a twoness, and that is, as countless studies show, in itself healing and revitalising for most clients no matter the cleverness or modality of the therapist. But it is the essential loneliness and separateness of we humans, our hidden internal spaces that only we have the possibility of accessing, that at some unthought depth clients come into the room seeking to know. For all the benefits of talking and good communication, its those silent moments of self-soothing and self-critique that perhaps matter most in the end. For no dyad, whether cosy or frosty, can truly save us.
The word noise is related to nausea; too much noise and we can start to feel physically ill. My garden room where I see clients is not as silent as I would like it; I am all-too aware of this. The traffic, the supposedly silent clock on the wall that is anything but, the pat-pat-pat of rain on the roof, crows, blackbirds and squirrels getting up to their business ... but still, there is just enough silence and stillness in here for people to meet themselves afresh. Mark C. Taylor - that now aged and venerable figure of postmodern theology - has turned his attention to silence in his latest book Seeing Silence (2020). He is doing so because, at 78, he knows he will soon be entering that Greater Silence which he wants to prepare for and be less anxious in his greeting of it when it comes for him.
In this work he quotes the the French philosopher Michel Serres:
'Countless illnesses come from not knowing when to be silent or how to live anywhere but inside a hard shell of words that chaff and scratch. Language kills time, silence is more golden than a golden tongue, giving us back duration, our only real treasure, causing our shocked senses, sealed tight by the thundering of language and the intimidation of sense to bloom. Taste, listen, sniff, caress, examine - silently.'
Therapy often begins with an avalanche of words and then reduces down to a much more fragile, less volatile, and ultimately purer stream of words. But this is not an easy or quick process: to have your words voluntary flushed out of you and then to have them taken back in, but this time with a great deal more care and self-knowledge. If we need to regain a knowledge of silence I suspect it can only come about when we've regained a true knowledge of our speech, its power and the control of that power. Perhaps this is the difference between chatting and talking, between reflective talk and that anxious evacuation of words that tend to set the agenda for the first 6-10 sessions of therapy (and is it therefore a surprise that some clients leave at this point, horrified and fearful at this unbroken tumbling narrative that lies strewn around them?) Serres is also getting at the importance of allowing ourselves to return to our bodies; to listen to its chatter and communication for a change. Embodiment, coming home to all our senses; so much talked about but so hard to do! Narrative, story, reportage, gossip - I love them all and so do most people. What else is Netflix but a great magic hat that produces stories without number for us to get lost in? But will Ozark season 4 really bring me back to my own story, my fragile embodied life? I doubt it. If only someone would make a Netflix series about the poetry of Edmund Jabes, a French-Egyptian mystic poet who knew a thing or two about words and the silences between them.
Silence is no weakness of
It is, on the contrary, its strength.
It is the weakness of language not
to know this.