The Heart of Silence - Exploring the place of Silence in Psychotherapy, Society and our World

Last weekend I attended the Heart of Silence conference organised by the Association of Core Process Psychotherapists at Regent’s University in the heart of Regent’s Park. The website said the conference was not just for psychotherapists but for anyone wanting to explore and experience the value of Silence. “Through Silence we are able to deeply listen to ourselves, one another and our Planet and from this place we can act.”

The speakers and plenaries focused attention on two central questions: What is the nature and role of Silence in relationships and how can Silence unify us, in the midst of life today? The conference offered opportunities to explore and experience silence, integrating this with the presentations and workshops. 

The conference gave me things I yearn and long for, things that I believe should be integral to the life of the church and every congregation, but which I rarely find there – deep silence and awareness, profound integrity and wisdom, two-hundred people entering the presence together, an understanding of the inner world where love and truth are innate and infinitely, unconditionally present, confidence in the holy other met in the dimension of relationship.

All these qualities and experiences are indeed integral to my Christian life, but those within the Christian tradition know less about them than those called through other paths into deep relational stillness and silence where we meet the divine other.

Buddhist, Christian and non-theistic

The practice of many of those present is rooted in Buddhist teaching and experience but there were Christians present as well, some of them church attenders, and speakers drew on Christian and Buddhist teachings and practice. The Christians I met all despaired of the church and the quality of teaching and worship they encounter.

Through the two days of presentations, panel discussions and workshops, simple, core values and teachings became apparent. Whether people are rooted in Buddhist, Christian or non-theistic practice, there was a commonality of understanding that transformation begins with the mind/body, is non-dualistic, opens relationships with the self, others, the world and creation, and requires us to orient our lives on a societal as well as a social level (Christians call it justice).

Brian Keenan

Several of the nine speakers and workshop leaders exemplified in practice dimensions of inner silence and awareness. Brian Keenan was astonishingly powerful. He named his session “Between pandemonium and paradise – Breaking the sound barrier!” He spoke about his time as a hostage in Beirut and then about the time he spent travelling in the “fearsome” Alaskan outback, a journey through the ‘sound barrier’. He revisited his experiences and his emotions were potently present in his body and broad Northern Irish voice as he spoke, remembering painfully and sometimes quoting from his own writings.

In Alaska he came to understand what St John of the Cross meant by ‘My beloved is in the mountains, the solitary wooded valleys, strange islands ………. silent music’. He has come to no easy answers, he said, and has discerned no special way. “I only know that each of us has a special route map laid down in our central nervous systems. It is ours alone to follow or forgo”. He concluded by quoting Solzhenitsyn, who declared that “Only those who do not know where they are going will enter the promised land!” That seems the reverse of almost everything the church thinks is necessary to the journey of faith today.

Mac Macartney

Mac is the founder of Embercombe, a social enterprise located in Devon seeking to inspire people to contribute their gifts and energy towards a just, peaceful and sustainable world. He spoke about the twenty years he lived with and was mentored by a group of Native American spiritual teachers. He shared some of the wisdom and practice they taught him and created for us something of the stillness, silence, sacredness and sounds that transformed his life. He concluded by singing a Lakota song – his voice was primitive, piercing, and challenging. His work attempts to bring together an ancient world view that emphasises relationship, interdependence and reverence for life with the huge challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century.

Maura Sills and Catherine McGee

In separate addresses, Maura, founder of Core Process Psychotherapy and Director of the Karuna Institute, and Catherine, who teaches insight meditation at Gaia House, exemplified their teaching and practice, using the hour to take us into deep silence and to experience within that which they teach and practice. Both sessions showed me, looking to my own desire to teach within the Church, how to lead a workshop that, whilst using words, takes people into the experience of deep silence and presence.

Alastair McNeilage

Alastair led a forty-minute workshop. He is a Core Process psychotherapist who explores working with spiritual search and the presence of the sacred as part of the underpinning of all healing, Buddhism and Christianity being the two main strands of his personal journey. As with Maura and Catherine, Alastair allowed spacious silence, using words sparingly to take us into ‘the presence’.

This was a conference of rich wisdom, experience and practice, the like of which I long to find in the church. In a way, it’s fine – there are many people and centres of practice outside the church where seekers can find the teaching and the personal knowledge of the interior life which is so essential – and sadly under-valued in the Church of England.

The apophatic path and the lives and teaching of the Fathers and Mystics are there in the Christian tradition and were core to my initiation to ministry at Westcott House in the 1970s. They are still present, of course, written and read and lectured about, but in general, not taken seriously. I believe this tradition is essential to the needs of the planet in the 21st century. They have always been core to the wisdom tradition of Christianity. The ability to practice deep silence, meditation and contemplation now by those responsible for forming the faith of our church communities is, in my mind, a fundamental requirement. The church continues to be more interested in power, authority, right teaching and dogma, nostalgia, surface awareness, numbers, a secular business model, unimaginative, un-risky reform and renewal.

Mac said we don’t understand this thing of believing – that all life is spiritual – sunlight, food, waterfalls, soil – these are enough. There is a song streaming through eternity and seeking a home in us. Climate change is not our greatest danger. Passivity is the greatest danger. The failure to seek wholeness as a people, accepting the fullness of who we are. What matters is that we become more intimate, each day, with life.

Now there is the beginning of a programme which might, just might, begin to transform the Church of England!