I have been thinking a lot recently about the title of Thomas Merton’s book “Raids on the Unspeakable”. It strikes me as a very good description of counselling work. As a counsellors words are part of our tool kit. We hear words, we use words to clarify something to give a sense that our patient has been understood, to ask for more details. And we often listen to the unspoken words in a session. The spaces, the silences, the reveries. And we try to understand these as communications that are as important as the spoken word. I am learning to ask my patients about these silences. To invite them to tell me where they were for those few moments. The answers are often revealing. Often the silent journey has taken them to somewhere very different from the public place they have been talking about in the worded session.
This happened recently. A patient who is good with their choice of words went off into a reverie for a few moments. They then returned and continued our conversation in a quite easy manner-which seemed at odds with the expression on their face. I let them talk for a few minutes but returned to the silence. “Where were you just now?” “I was thinking what an awful mess I’ve made of everything” came the reply. This allowed us to talk about the mess they were in and how desperate they felt.
All of us who counsel know this experience. But I wanted to reflect on the impact on me. Not to be narcissistic but because it gives a sense of what goes on in a counselling session. And the price we pay as counsellors for the work we choose to do. Merton writes about the contemplative life. It must not, he says, “… be construed as an escape from time and matter ,from social responsibility and from the life of sense, but rather, as an advance into solitude and the desert, a confrontation with poverty and the void, a renunciation of the empirical self, in the presence of death, and nothingness, in order to overcome the ignorance and error that spring from the fear of ‘ being nothing’ ”
There are patients who bring the void into to the counselling room unconsciously. Much of their work is spent avoiding this knowledge-for fear of “being nothing”- or having no “being”. My task as their counsellor is to bear that void with them and to look into myself. I have one patient who , when he has left, leaves me almost unable to get up and walk. I need to sit quietly for a few minutes in order to orient myself to the word outside. I am often left wanting to cry and feel quite despairing. We have been raiding the unspeakable which is far from voiceless.