Healing Silence

Michael Cornwall, PhD
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I remember that over 30 years ago, when I visited several Quaker meetings, often the extended silences between people speaking would create a warm, benevolent communion — an almost tangible energetic communication that softly vibrated between all who were present.

The richly shared silence was sometimes as moving and inspiring as what was experienced when a member of the group rose to speak, sharing words guided by their heart, from inside the sanctuary of silence.

I was back in touch with the warm silence of those meetings, recently, when I found myself gratefully sharing time on Skype with a young person who hadn’t spoken a complete sentence for almost 3 months.

They were living at home with family and, tragically, had become very lost in an inner dreamscape of sadness and emotional withdrawal.

When the family left the room and we were alone on Skype I said, “Hello, it’s very nice to meet you,” and told the young person my name.

I then silently waited for a response, looking into the skype screen as the young person came and went from view for almost an hour.

Sometimes ten minutes would go by before they would return to look at me.

When they would pause again and look into the screen I found myself feeling very glad to see them, and my facial expression must have showed it.

Out of that feeling of happiness to see the young person I found that, unbidden, words came into my awareness that matched the happy emotion I was feeling.

They were words I’ve said to myself before, spontaneously, when I’ve been with very sad and lonely children that I knew had an unmet need to have someone really rejoice to see them and be present with them.

The words I found myself silently saying were:

“You are the apple of my eye!”

I found myself repeating that phrase to myself as I smiled happily whenever the young person returned again after several minutes away, still finding me there, looking back at them on Skype. The young person began to stop longer and would spend a couple of minutes very intently studying my facial expression, for a few seconds looking deeply into my eyes, then away, and then deeply into my eyes again, closely searching them.

After about an hour of me not saying anything out loud, but still finding myself saying “you are the apple of my eye!” to myself whenever they came back to look at me, the young person stopped and spoke the first sentence that they had spoken in almost 3 months.

They smiled and asked me:

“So, what kinds of things do you really like to do?”

I happily replied. “I really love to be outside in nature, so almost every day I walk down to the river by my house where I always see something new, where I see the trees, the birds, the clouds, and I love the smells and the sound of the river. And I love to spend time with friends and with new people that I meet!”

I then asked the young person what they really liked to do, and they haltingly answered.

Since that new conversation began we’ve met many times on Skype and we talk about the things the young person is interested in — like movies and music — and I get to see their drawings and hear their new writings.

But in addition to seeing how silence sometimes may have a very helpful value during counseling, there are other ways that we may recognize the value of silence when we are together.

We’ve all been with a friend or loved one and realized that we both have stopped talking, and that a sweet and sometimes even profound silence emerges between us.

How precious that can be.

When we are suffering emotionally, when feeling any of our human emotions that may be especially painfully present, we often appreciate our friends and loved ones silently waiting for our words and emotions to surface and come out — and to be received.

At those times of suffering emotionally, a caring, receptive silence is a wonderful gift we can receive or give to each other.

I was thankfully given that merciful gift in a time of great need 50 years ago, when I was in the grip of an unbidden madness that felt to me like a never-ending torment of hateful hallucinatory voices, and intense, uncontrollable terror.

When I was gripped in ongoing waves of such madness that became at times almost unbearable, I would sit on the floor in front of my very aged grandmother and ask her, please, to put her hand on the top of my head as she used to do when I was sick as a little boy.

During those months of madness she always lovingly placed her hand as I asked her to. We would sit like that for long silent periods as I sometimes quaked and shuddered and cried out.

The only thing she ever said to me as she reached out and placed her hand on my head was:

“There, there Michael, you must have the flu, but you’ll feel better soon.”

She would never take her hand away from my head until I felt a little better, and got up from sitting at her feet.

It helped so much to not be questioned or lectured, but for me to just receive her silent caring touch and unconditional love.

Remembering that time with my grandmother now, I believe her dear look of concern for me — combined with her unmistakable look of happiness at simply seeing her beloved grandson — just naturally appeared on her face and spoke through her eyes as she looked down at me sitting there with her hand on my head.

Her loving eyes and gentle smile seemed to communicate these kinds of silent, merciful words:

“Dear Michael, you always are and always will be the apple of my eye.”

Love often speaks out loud but sometimes love silently speaks through a merciful touch and through eyes filled with compassion.

In our busy world the value of such silence can easily be forgotten, but I believe the healing balm of silence always waits for us to claim it, especially when it may be filled with needed love for ourselves and love for others.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. And this triumph of healing and humanity is denigrated as “new-agey” “pop psychology” by the cold and toxic mainstream psychiatric system. Mr. Cornwall, thanks for working to provide your clients with the care that WE ALL desperately need, yet aren’t allowed to speak about, ask for, or obtain.

  2. I get so tired of suggestions. Try this medication, that technique, this vitamin supplement. I don’t say to cancer patients, “why haven’t you had surgery yet? did you take vitamins when you were a child?”. I treasure the people who can just sit with me when I hurt, when the voices are too loud in my head. This is a valuable piece for me. I wish I could send it to everyone without offending.

  3. Another wonderful story, Michael, demonstrating the profound effectiveness, yet simplicity, of being still enough inside one’s self to enable space for others to feel safe enough to communicate in their pain and confusion. The Open Dialogue approach operates by the same healing principles. Also, the Native American healer/psychiatrist/doctor Lewis Mehl-Madrona relates many stories, in his books, of effectively using this human and empathic approach for people in both physical and mental suffering. Ideally, the global mental health system needs to use a similar approach because the present system, in my view, does more harm than good. Thank you Michael for your life and all you give. 🙂

  4. Michael,

    This is such an excellent article. I like to think of myself as a tough guy with a hard edge, but couldn’t help being moved when I read this.

    Regarding this section, “We’ve all been with a friend or loved one and realized that we both have stopped talking, and that a sweet and sometimes even profound silence emerges between us.
    How precious that can be.”

    This reminds me of descriptions from the great therapist of people in extreme states, Harold Searles, wrote when he talked about how a “therapeutic symbiotic” relationship with a formerly psychotic person could involve pleasurably experiences of simply being comfortably together, with no need to do or say anything to the other person. He felt this “emotional oneness” existed frequently in the childhood of healthy young children and their parents, but rarely or never in the childhoods of those who went on to be labeled borderline or psychotic. Having felt this being with another myself in a therapy I did, if it can be reached this experience tends to soothe and provide a great confidence and security to the formerly psychotic person, and to greatly reduce the effect of remaining rage/terror/confusion.

    It occurs to me that this “healing silence” must very rarely occur in mainstream mental health settings between psychiatrists and their clients. Under the disease model, the focus is all on doing something to fix, control, or reduce the symptoms of the person in front of you. There is no understanding of the need to be with another person – and no awareness that if you can reach beyond the antidependent defenses and be with the regressed person for long enough, this may lead such a person to be cured of their psychotic “disease”.

    And mental health workers usually do not realize how intuitive and perceptive even the most regressed people are – they tend to have very long emotional antenna due to all the difficult experiences they’ve been through. In my experience, they sense quickly whether others are labeling or objectifying them as a “person with a lifelong illness to be managed”, or conversely, whether they have a genuine interest in them as a person and think they can fully recover.

    • “And mental health workers usually do not realize how intuitive and perceptive even the most regressed people are – they tend to have very long emotional antenna due to all the difficult experiences they’ve been through. In my experience, they sense quickly whether others are labeling or objectifying them as a ‘person with a lifelong illness to be managed,’ or conversely, whether they have a genuine interest in them as a person and think they can fully recover.”

      Yep, very true. People can tell when they’re being stigmatized and patronized, or being jerked around because they are perceived as “not aware,” which of course is about as far away from the truth as one can get. People going through the system are extremely aware, they just feel powerless to do anything about it, that’s the problem. That belief can be challenged in order to find freedom through self-empowerment.

      Feeling powerless so common in the mental health world, and the more one fights it the worse it gets. Personally, I think it’s best to walk away from that and instead be encouraging to others, to start creating change. People need authenticity and encouragement, not duplicity and doom.

  5. I think what’s interesting are the multiple levels of communication that occur between people, whether speaking, touching, reacting, or simply being. There is energy in silence that we can hardly, if at all, perceive if we are speaking, acting, or even thinking. Personally, I feel truth in silence, which is probably why people have trouble sitting in silence and quieting their minds. Sitting in silence is an art, because we are often in our highest creative movement when we are at this level of non-resistance, and simply allowing ourselves and others to be.

  6. I absolutely agree, love heals all wounds. It is a shame this wisdom “is denigrated as ‘new-agey’ ‘pop psychology’ by the cold and toxic mainstream psychiatric system,” who believes terrifying a woman by having six giant men strap her to a bed and chemically rape, aka “snow” her, and God knows what else, is something that will help a person. Today’s psychiatric system has it 100% incorrect. Glad you were able to help the child in a caring and compassionate manner, Michael.

  7. Hi Michael,

    I was abroad in Europe last week and I called in at an ‘independent selfhelp meeting’ that I wasn’t that interested in attending (but wouldn’t do me any harm).

    They had a ten minute silent meditation within the meeting and afterwards I left glowing. Attending the group completely transformed the day for me.

  8. Hi Michael, thank you for this. What you say is so vitally important and you talk from having experienced the beauty of silence in the presence of the Quaker group, and its healing powers when you sat with your loving grandmother when you were in such pain and confusion; I am very moved and delighted by your words. “The apple of my eye”… I haven’t heard that beautiful phrase for a long time but it sums up so much. I am very glad you do what you do, having had the experiences you have and the wisdom gained from that…and I am happy to know that you and your grandmother had each other to love, and be loved by. I am a grandmother myself now so I know just what she felt when she looked in your eyes. Thank you 🙂

  9. Beautiful story about the Quakers. I knew you were going to say that “apple of your eye” thing. I don’t remember where I recently read that all kids want to be the apple of their parents’ eye. It stuck with me. Though I don’t have kids, I try to make sure my wife knows she’s the apple of my eye.