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Use of Language and Silence in Person-Centered Therapy



The Buddhist teachings on emptiness are apparently very philosophical and abstract to the novice.  It is not uncommon to have such questions in mind when one is first exposed to the teachings of emptiness.  What is the relevance of emptiness to our contemporary life?  How can our life have a resonance to emptiness?  If there is no relevance or implication to our life, what is the purpose of talking about emptiness?  This paper is an attempt to discuss the implication of the Buddhist teachings of emptiness in our contemporary life by looking into a disciple of psychotherapy, namely the person-centered therapy, with a special focus on the use of language.  The use of language is essential in psychotherapy but the Buddha taught that all phenomena are empty as everything is mere imputation of name and concept.  It seems to be contradictory to each other and there is an unbridgeable gap in between.  It is the purpose of this paper to investigate how emptiness can be a guiding principle in psychotherapy and how with it as a foundation ground makes therapeutic skills with the use of language effective in helping achieve the goal of healing. 


Emptiness in Name and Concept - Prajñapti


Emptiness refers to the absence of intrinsic nature (the non-existence of svabhāva).  There is a difference in the emphasis of emptiness between the early Buddhist schools and the Mahayanists.  The former conforms that the self (the person) is empty while the latter advocates that emptiness also applies to all phenomena.  The Middle Way School (Madhyamaka) goes into the subtlest and deepest essence of the true nature of reality that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence, both ultimately and conventionally.  It is explained with the law of dependent origination.  All phenomena are dependently arisen and hence there is no inherent existence.  Everything arises at a given moment because of the conglomeration of conditions and only with the true nature of emptiness that things are dependently co-arising.  In fact, there are different levels of dependent origination.


The subtlest way to see the emptiness of phenomena is through the concept of prajñapti.  Prajñapti means that all phenomena are product of conceptualization.  All conditioned phenomena are mere concepts.  Everything is denoted with words and provisional naming.  The differentiation of different phenomena is through prajñapti and thus all phenomena only exist nominally.  Things exist in mere name with no inherent existence.  Names are designated to things so as to fulfill a specific function that corresponds with the meaning of the name.  Hence, everything just exists as mere imputation from the side of the conceptual mind and not from the side of the objective condition (Khensur Jjampa Tegchok, p. 148).  In this sense, there is no objective reality to be found.  What can be called a “reality” is just something created by the perceived mind and conveyed through names, labels, words and concepts with the tool of language.


Buddhism and Phenomenology


The Buddhist concept of emptiness in terms of designation and imputation finds the echo in the contemporary Western world with the emergence of phenomenology, founded in the early twentieth century by Husserl.  Phenomenology is the study of the structures of consciousness as experienced from the first person’s point of view.  The experience, or the consciousness of the objective world, is personal, subjective and intentional.  Reality is only available through our perceptions of the reality which are only its representations in our mind.  One’s perception is conditioned by one’s physiology, emotions, thought, memory, etc.  Hence, no one objective reality can be perceived in the same way.  This school of thought is further developed by Heidegger, who suggested that one’s phenomenological experience includes temporal awareness at the moment, spatial awareness in the perceptual field, focused attention, action tendency, interpersonal awareness, and linguistic activity (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2003).  Hence, it refers to the moment-by-moment experience within the stream of ever-flowing consciousness.  There is no static, permanence, inherently existing experience.


The Study of Language - Hermeneutics


From this point of view, there is no easy task to convey one’s first-person experience to another with the means of language.  In Buddhism, the highest reality is a non-duality beyond words and thought.  The study of hermeneutics has brought us the awareness that we, human beings, are inhabited in a linguistically embedded environment.  Heidegger asserted that human being is a being housed in language (quoted in Watson, 1998).  It is only through language that we make sense of the world and at the same time we are actually defined by the language we use.  Hence, the transformation of language is a way to open up ourselves to the world and to expand the unlimited possibilities of our being.


Description of experience through language can easily lead to misunderstanding and misleading dissemination.  What language tries to convey can be illusory.  In order to share our experience to others, we have to engage in a dialogic relationship which is an on-going re-articulation of our dynamic consciousness (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2005).  This is what is called the hermeneutic circle, originally developed by Heidegger and later further elaborated by Gadamer.  The understanding of the whole is established with the reference to the individual parts and the understanding of the individual parts is made against the background of the whole.  It is through an iterative process that new understanding keeps on emerging.


Humanistic Psychotherapy


It is against the background of phenomenology and hermeneutics that comes the Third Force of Movement in psychotherapy.  It is a reaction to the then predominance of Freudian psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapies in the mid-twentieth century.  The central tenet of humanistic psychotherapy is the individual’s natural tendency towards self-actualization.  Thus, the individually experienced existence and the holistic understanding of parts in the whole are heavily emphasized.  The experiencing subject, the being, is in-relation-to the world.  The being and the world are mutually constitutive.  The being-in-the-world is constantly making meaning from his/her experience.  The cause of psychological illness, according to Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology, is the fear of knowledge of oneself.  The goal of humanistic psychotherapy is the re-discovery of the self. 


Carl Rogers (1902-1987) was the pioneer founder of the humanistic approach in psychotherapy and the founding father of psychotherapy research.  He initially called his approach a “non-directive therapy” and later replaced the term by “client-centered therapy.  As his theory developed and found applicable in different fields, such as encounter group, education, business and politics, he further renamed it as “person-centered approach”.   It is an attempt of this paper to study on how Rogers translated his philosophical thinking into therapeutic tasks by looking into how he used his language in the interaction with his clients. 


Person-Centered Psychotherapy


Carl Rogers’ person-centered psychotherapy is grounded in the phenomenological thinking.  There is a strong belief and faith in the client’s capacity for self-discovery and self-direction.  Individuals are seen as basically rational, responsible, realistic and inclined to grow.  His approach was non-directive as he paid full respect on this precious human capacity and he was disciplinary in not letting the therapist have too much leading direction on the client.  When Rogers first formulated his client-centered therapy in 1951, he emphasized that the therapist’s primary role is to enter into the client’s frame of reference.  He intended deliberately with three necessary and sufficient conditions to provide an enhancing therapeutic environment for the clients to engage in the process of self-discovery.  The three conditions are the congruence of the therapist, the unconditional positive regard, which is a non-judgmental and accepting attitude of the therapist, and the empathic understanding of the phenomenal world of the client by the therapist. 


The therapist’s congruence can help the therapist to have an emotional resonance or empathic echoing with the client so that the therapist can have an accurate understanding of the client.  With a non-judgment and non-evaluative attitude, there is a genuine acceptance and prizing of the client.  With such conditions established, the client begins to increase his/her self-awareness, to unfold a new self-understanding and to cultivate a sense of self-acceptance.  Therapeutic changes would then take place which finally resulted in the client’s self-empathy.  Self-empathy is a kind of respectful inner listening, with readiness to take seriously whatever signals arise internally.  It is a kind of experiential knowing and an inner echo of recognition.  It enables an inner communication and an integration of different selves which may be conflicting to each other before therapy.  In sum, the goal of therapy is to help the client to get as close as possible to his experiencing.  Hence, the therapist as a whole person inevitably influences the process of therapy and the therapeutic process is centered on the interaction between the client and the therapist. 


Empathic understanding is an ability to “perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as an ability if one were the person, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ condition” (Rogers, 1951, p.210).  It requires the therapist to get close to the client’s subjective experience as far as possible in order to let the client gain a true and in-depth knowledge of his experience.  In the process of interaction, language is used and exchanged in a sequential manner, hoping to come to a close match of the therapist’s understanding and the client’s subjective experience.  It is this dialogic process that this paper attempts to investigate in order to see how the emptiness nature of language in itself can contribute to the change of the clients and finally achieve the healing goal.


Not-knowing Attitude


Based on the person-centered approach to psychotherapy, it is essential for the therapist to maintain a not-knowing attitude in the process of therapy when interacting with the client.  It is being open to the perspective from the client’s point of view which he/she is going to disclose.  It is a readiness to be prepared to learn from new experiences as emerged moment-by-moment from the client. 


The capacity of the therapist to “empty” his mental state, in terms of his presumption, theoretical framework, judgment, etc., is an important preparation before entering into the therapy process.  Only with emptiness, unlimited possibilities are ready for emergence.  To use a Zen saying, we have to empty our cup of tea before any more tea can be poured into it. 


Empathic Skills through the Use of Language


Rogers was very courageous with an attitude of willingness to look into what really is.  He has once commented that the truth is always friendly.  He was the first one in the field of psychotherapy to break the secrecy in the therapy room by allowing the process of therapy to be recorded.  Hence, there are a lot of first-hand materials of his verbatim transcripts to be studied.   Based on some examples of these verbatim transcripts, Rogers’ use of language in the therapy process is discussed.


Active listening and reflection

Therapist, in the very first place, has to make sure that he/she listens to the client and get an understanding accurately.  After the client says something, the therapist would reflect to him what he has said.  This basic skill is initially called reflection; it is a re-statement of what is said without adding on anything.  However, Rogers also emphasized that it was not the content or words spoken that he would reflect.  Otherwise, this would become a kind of parroting.  When a client uses words to describe his experience, we cannot assume the conventional meaning of the words and equate those with his actual experience.  It is observed that Rogers paid very patient attention and active focus on the personal meanings of words used by the client.  Thus, checking, clarification and asking for elaboration are important.  If a client says “I am sad”, the therapist would respond by “tell me more about your sadness”.  Apart from giving space for client to explore his sadness, the personal agency of I is changed to a possessive attribute.  The client, as a person, is not the whole of sadness.  Only part of him is experiencing sadness.  The perspective of how to see the sadness is altered in a subtle way.  It is essential as this gives a boarder sense of the self and conveys the possibilities of change (Greenberg, 1996).  The therapist may also respond to the client’s sadness by adding a time dimension or by positioning it in a context, like “you feel sad now” or “you feel sad when you see her leaving you”.  Obviously, “I am sad” is connotatively different from “I feel sad”.  The sense of agency is again affirmed.


There is a reluctance of any person-centered therapist to be interpretative as this would allow the therapist’s frame of reference confining the free-flow of client’s experiencing.  What Rogers intended in his use of reflection was kind of testing understanding and checking perception (Rogers, 1986c) which he called it empathic guessing.  What Rogers reflected was much more beyond words, which included the feelings, the tone, the intention, the underlying meanings, etc.  As the dialogue went on, it brought sense and clarity to the client’s original vague and confused messages. 


Louise:  And sometimes I feel like I don’t know him [father] at all.  And, um, the sadness of that was coming out as well as feeling the sadness for his, failing at things he wants to do, and also the sadness that I don’t know him as well as I’s like to.


Rogers:  M-hm, m-hm.  So it’s sadness for him in his situation but sadness on your part that you don’t know him.


Louise:  Yeah, yeah.  (Faber, et al., 1996, p.111)


Empathic responses are very predominant in Rogers’ approach.  Brodley (1991, quoted in Raskin, 1996) tried to classify Rogers’ responses in his 34 interviews between 1940 and 1986 and found that 86% of his responses were empathic of all kinds.


Different varieties of empathic responses

Rogers’ verbatim transcripts were carefully studied over the several decades of his therapeutic practice. It was found that his responses to clients moved much beyond words.  Further studies on different empathic responses concluded that they are qualitatively varied with specific intentions and towards specific targets (Greenberg and Elliott, 1997).  Five distinctive forms of empathic response are identified, naming empathic understanding, empathic evocation, empathic exploration, empathic conjecture and empathic interpretation.  They vary along the continuum of the frame of reference between the client and the therapist, and the degree of the amount of new information being elicited. 

Empthic understanding: "I hear how sd you feel。“

Emapthic evocation: "Just wanting to cry out, but no one will hear."

Empathic exploration: "Feeling so hurt you just want to ..."

Empathic conjecture: "My hunch is you're feeling sad with some anger too."

Empathic interpretation: "Your sadness seems to belong to what you missed in the past."

Adapted from Greenberg & Elliot, 1997

As commented by Greenberg (1996), Rogers is intentional and directed in his own process and he is highly selective in what he attends to.  There is a gentle consistent pressure on the client to focus on his internal experience.  There is also a subtle guiding on the focus of particular feelings at a particular time, which mainly coming from the client’s inner core.  Despite of this, it was commented by Sylvia, one of Rogers’ clients that “it is a stimulation to better focus myself”, she learned to “be myself”, “care for myself”, “listen to myself”, and to realize that “my most important resource would be myself” (Cain, 1996).


Use of metaphor

When Rogers began to attain a deeper level of understanding on his client’s experience, there was an increasing use of metaphor.  Metaphor is powerful to convey very rich meanings at one time.  It is pictorial giving a vivid and perspective vision image to both the therapist and the client.  It is also subtly symbolic.  When the therapist has a resonance to the client’s experience, metaphor or visual images naturally emerged.  The use of metaphor to describe client’s experience is an entrance into the client’s worldview.  Sometimes, therapist may have a deeper level of understanding than what the client can articulate.  The use of metaphor may help the client aware of what is not yet recognized and to carry forward his experience.  It is like two persons painting the same picture together and it is a process of co-construction.  It also allows an ease for the client to fine-tune the therapist’s perception.  Examples on Rogers’ use of metaphor can be found in the session with Mary.


“Sounds like you cleared away a lot of the rubbish.  Now what are you going to build there?”  (Faber et al., p.96)


“You really love yourself, rooted in the earth and reaching to the sky.”  (Faber et al., p.101)


Use of first-person statements

When Rogers was deeply emerged in the client’s experience, it was not uncommon to see that he used first-person statements to echo with his client as if he was the client.  It is the merging of two persons of being and subjectivity.  The difference of the client’s world and the therapist’s experiencing of his world became minimal.  There is a gradual process in the path of getting into the core of client’s experience.  Examples on the use of “I” statements are:


Mary:  They’re real physical, they’re on a survival level.


Rogers:  M-hm.


Mary:  Um.


Rogers:  “I don’t want to be killed.”


Mary:  Yeah.  So I think they’re, you know, they’re kind of ingrained in my subconscious, and it holds me back, or, or whatever it is, wherever those patterns are that, um, I can’t consciously deal with.


Rogers:  Part of, part of the real block is, “If I let my power loose into the world, I might be killed for that.”  (Feber, et al., p.100)


Therapeutic space created by the minimal use of language

Based on the verbatim interview materials contained in Wedding and Corsini (1989, quoted in Raskin, 1996), an analysis was made on the number of lines spoken by the therapist and that spoken by the client.  The proportion of transcript lines spoken by the therapist is compared in different approaches.  The findings are 118% for psychoanalytic approach (Adlerian orientation), 191 to 219% for cognitive behavioral approach (Rational-emotive and cognitive orientation), and 37 to 41% for humanistic-experiential approach (Gestalt and client-centered orientation).  Rogers’ proportion of transcript lines is only 41% and it indicates that he deliberately created a spacious linguistic environment for the client to explore and to express his experience.


Use of silence

When we listen to Rogers’ audio tape of his therapy, it is not uncommon to encounter frequent and long silence.  In the one-hour session with Jim Brown, a silent young man, Rogers shared 25 silent episodes ranging from 18 seconds to 17.5 minutes (Faber et al., p.23).  Silence was perceived as a hard-working time for the client.  In silence, ample space is created for the client, focused attention on the client is maintained, and non-disturbance to the internal processing is respected.  In silence, Rogers demonstrated his patience, non-judgmental acceptance, respect and unfailing concern (Faber et al., pp. 231-239).  It is not surprising that client would come up with some new and important materials from his experience after long silence. 


On the other hand, Rogers broke 15 times out of the 16 silent episodes in a half-hour workshop session with Jill.  This is commented by Bowen (1996) that if the therapist is deeply empathic and well synchronized with client, more proactive and directive responses may be effective.

Beyond Language – Transpersonal Psychotherapy


As Rogers’ person-centered psychotherapy was gradually evolving, he put less emphasis on what he actually did in the therapy process.  Sometimes, what the therapist does in the therapy process can be too much interference.  The being of the therapist is much more important than his doing.  Rogers has commented in his late years that when he was “intensely focused on a client, just my presence seems to be healing” and “simply my presence is releasing and helpful” (Rogers, 1980, p.130).  He treasured much more on the immediacy of experience with his client.  His description of such therapeutic experience is considered to be mystic (Menahem, 1996):


“As a therapist, I find that when I am closest to my inner, intuitive self, when am somehow in touch with the unknown in me, when perhaps I am in a slightly altered state of consciousness in the relationship, then whatever I do seems to be full of healing.”  (Rogers, 1980, p. 130)


In Rogers’ late years, there is a potential for person-centered psychotherapy to emerge as the Fourth Force of Movement in psychology, namely transpersonal psychotherapy.  It is “a model of the human psyche that recognizes the importance of the spiritual or cosmic dimensions and the potential for consciousness evolution” (Grof, 1985, p.97 quoted in Menahem, 1996).  There is certainly a meeting point between humanistic psychotherapy and Buddhist teachings.


Conclusion - Emptiness and Skillful Means


From the above discussion, it can be seen that skillful use of language is essential and crucial in the process of therapy in order to help client engage in his/her internal process of self-discovery.  Language is, in itself, empty with no inherent existence of its own.  Language is contextual, conventional and provisional.  With this understanding, we, as therapists, realize that language is impermanent.  Through language that our experience is trying to describe is also impermanent.  Language and experience are, in fact, interdependent.  We use language to describe our experience.  While we change our language, our experience also changes accordingly.  As our experience changes moment-by-moment, we change our use of language to catch up with ever-flowing experience.


We can also see that the therapist, such as Rogers, goes in and out between language and silence.  The use of language is a means to understand the client in a conventional sense, while in silence understanding of the client is beyond words.  Hence, it can see that if we uphold the therapeutic philosophy and firm in the direction of the therapeutic goal, flexible use of therapeutic tasks or techniques with the help of language is not only possible but essential.  This is what is called, in Buddhist teachings, upāya.  Upāya is a concept which emphasizes that the practitioners may use their own specific methods or expedient techniques that fit the situation in order to attain enlightenment.  The means can be called skillful only if it is guided by wisdom and compassion.  With wisdom, specifically prajñā (the wisdom of emptiness), we know how to adjust to one’s specific needs and to adapt to one’s capacity of comprehension.  With compassion, we have the urge to bring all sentient beings away from suffering.  In the practice of skillful means in psychotherapy, we have to listen to others respectfully, understand that each individual is unique with different needs, and allow them to be benefited from different means.  This is an important reflection for any serious therapist.



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