Silent Places, Deep Reflections
It is usual to find nothing but darkness around your mind, or, as it were, a cloud of unknowing. You will know nothing and feel nothing except a simple reaching out to God in the depths of your being. No matter what you do, this darkness and cloud will remain between you and your God. You will feel frustrated, for your mind will be unable to grasp him. Learn to be at home in this darkness. Return to it as often as you can… If in this life you hope to feel and see God at all, it must be within this darkness and this cloud (chapter III)
Fourteenth- Century Christian text
The Cloud of Unknowing
I can’t recall a film I have seen recently that has moved me, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually as did “ Into Deep Silence”. Perhaps I was particularly ready for this entry into a world of reverence, prayerful solitude, ritual and tradition. I do not know this world so it was with fresh eyes and an open heart I could experience the silence, simplicity and routine without judgment or reservation. I felt a special invitation to step into a Holy place untraveled but for a few.
I sat mesmerized by the quiet I was watching and feeling as it descended on me. My focus then followed the subtle facial changes, movements and rustling sounds of the monks. I felt I was beside them sharing in their prayers and I began to tear up. Even now I don’t fully understand my tears but I think they have to do with what I sacrificed because of my business, impatience and ambition. I have been in an “unknown” but desperate rush to get somewhere, to be someone.
Meditation, prayer and reflection have been squeezed into the corners of my life; there only in time “left over.” Here before me on my TV screen was a world devoted to prayerful/thoughtful living. Fully living in prayer. As I considered what I was watching, I realized I didn’t really know how to pray or meditate. I could conceptualize both. I’m good at that, but actual heartfelt, soulful immersion is relatively new to me.
Enter Freud. He claimed, and I am stating his beliefs only broadly, that the belief and desire for God was nothing more than an infantile wish to replace one’s parents with a more powerful, protective, and ideal parent: infallible, all knowing, and all giving. God the Father. The prayers I knew reflected this view. They were the prayers of my boyhood Catholic school days. Prayers to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; “asking prayers” for family, friends, and selfishly for my own desires (Lord, help me kick the snot out of my opponent in my wrestling match. Amen.)
Slowly I have been moving beyond just praying in this fashion and not just because my wrestling years are decades behind me. I say “just” because there is for me still value in such prayers. I still want my loved ones safe and protected. And yet there is more: a Source, Presence, Mystery, unknowable and ungraspable as well. In Chapter VI of the Cloud of Unknowing there is a passage that reflects this change for me: “With a devout and a pleasing spirit of love, strive to pierce that darkness above you. You are to smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love.” In “Into Deep Silence” this “longing love” and devotion is revealed in the desire for union through supplication. Supplicate: to beseech humbly.
I originally learned of this film in a review written by Dr. Michael Eigen, a noted and respected New York psychoanalyst and author. One paragraph in his review in particular caught my attention:
“ Witnessing the priests’ supplication helped free me to meditate and pray for longer periods, following the moment on my knees, standing, sitting, head in hands, hands uplifted, head bowed, head lifted, ordinary, bored, caring. It is a wonderful thing to give oneself this time, this contact with the Deep One. Perhaps at my stage in life, moving toward the end, time is more precious and the need for the Deepest of All is pressing.”
In a letter to Mike I wrote in part:
“I thoroughly enjoyed your review of Into Deep Silence. Your writing raised anew for me questions I have been struggling with about the difference between meditation and prayer. Meditation seems to me to be an internal space of non- judgment, acceptance and unfocused reflection. Prayer seems more to me. Prayer is about surrender, letting go to Something bigger, Mysterious, Incomprehensible but Holy. This Something remains God for me not as a Being but in my being with a powerful force where I am known in ways I can’t articulate but sense. Even still it is an elusive sense not feelings really though I can experience tears, laughter, fear but in an unknowing way. I am still learning to pray as it is so different so often.”
Mike rejoined again in part:
“ I love what you say about prayer and meditation and the way you say it. There is always so much more to go, no? But what one feels, discovers, touches on the way brings us deeper into contact with the Mystery of Deepening Intimations.”
As I pen these remarks on a stifling hot, dry morning I do so from my office chair. A full day of patients lie ahead of me. I realize I live in this world, not high in the Swiss Alps, and my practice is different, but on the inside of my soul I can’t help but wonder need it be really? Anyone who knows me or has read either of my books, Theaters of Trauma or Power Games, also knows I work with trauma: single episodes or complex, life long experiences. I sit with and in personal holocausts that can be brutal, unforgiving, devastating and at times unmentionable. I sit close to consuming fires that rage within and sometimes I am singed and sometimes I am burned: branded by the madness and violence of others either lost in their own suffering or absence of guilt. I am a witness and maybe the first willing to go into the unmanageable yet true inner world of a trauma experience. I have been working this way for 30 years and while I have been burned I have never been “burned out.” Burn out to me is what is experienced when one is afraid of getting burned, so one steps away from the fires of humanity.
I could not work the way I do without faith. Winnicott, a pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, refers to a primary aloneness supported by an unknown boundless other. (Eigen 2009, Flames from the Unconscious.) This unknown infinite support speaks to holiness. My wife, Linda, refers to this faith more simply as omnipresent energy. What I know is that if I can open myself to the mystery of this support available to me and sit still, I can hear beyond the details of horror and trauma. I can hear the screaming out for life, relief and peace. In this process I am aided by something I learned from Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, called tonglen. From a faithful quiet space with God, I can breathe in the suffering I am hearing as I inhale and breathe out compassion as I exhale. Sometimes I do this with words or a simple touch but most often tonglen is communicated by gentleness in my eyes and heart. I am not afraid at these moments; the fear often also lessens with the person I am seeing as well. Wittgenstein, the philosopher and writer, described being in the presence of the Divine, as a profound safety like “the calm bottom of the sea at its deepest point, which remains calm however high the waves on the surface may be.” My experience of “Into Deep Silence” and my work with trauma tell me this is true.