A Key That May Unlock the Door of the Mind:  On Being Comfortable with the Silence

by Chaplain Robert Chodo Campbell

Note:  This article was published in the April, 2005 volume of “Plain Views:  The Publication of HealthCare Chaplaincy.”  Robert Chodo Campbell is a Zen Buddhist and a Board Certified Holistic Health Counselor in New York City. He has a private practice offering counseling for individuals, groups and families using a flexible, multi-disciplinary approach. As a chaplain in training he is completing his final unit at Lenox Hill Hospital. He serves as a pastoral counselor for adolescents at Good Shepherd Services, and he facilitates meditation practice at Beth Israel Medical Center’s Robert Mapplethorpe Treatment Facility.



As I approach the nurse’s station in a psychiatric hospital in New York, Carol smiles and says, “Guess what, Chodo. We have a big surprise for you! Peter spoke this morning.”Excitedly I walk to Peter’s room, wondering what his voice will sound like. This young man has intrigued all of us. After months of medication and observation, the clinical team decided to give Peter ECT (electro convulsive therapy) to see if it could free him from his mental imprisonment. Weeks of visiting with Peter flash through my mind. Does he remember our time together?

One of the nurses informed me that Peter, a college student, hadn’t spoken to anyone in over a year –no one knew why. Because of my Buddhist practice (being used to extended periods of silence), she thought I would be comfortable sitting and talking without getting any response (an interesting, but inaccurate, assumption). Peter was lying on his bed. The nurse introduced me as the Chaplain and asked that he sit up. Very, very slowly without making eye contact, he sat up. The nurse left. There were no chairs so I sat on the bed next to him. He looked downward and made no hint of being aware of my presence.

I introduced myself, told him that I knew he had not spoken for a long time and that it was not my intention or my job to get him to speak. I said that I was used to long periods of silence as a Buddhist practicing daily meditation and extended silent retreats. I wanted Peter to know that I was comfortable with his silence. After about 15 minutes (which seemed like hours) I was getting a backache so I slid down on to the floor. Peter followed me. We sat on the hard floor staring at the wall ahead. I said that this seemed as good a time as any to meditate. We stared at the wall for another five minutes. I told him it was nice meeting him and sitting with him and that I would return the next day.

The next day Peter was again lying on his bed. I told him that I had brought some poetry to read. His eyes were open and he was looking directly at me but there was no way of knowing if he had understood anything I said. “Peter, I’ll be in the main dining room if you want to hear some poetry.”I left the room and waited for ten minutes. He did not show.

He fascinated me at this point. One minute he is in school, has a girlfriend . . . What happened to make him switch off? Something told me I was on the right track with the reading.

The following afternoon I found him again lying on his bed. I told him I had brought poetry to read and I would wait for him in the dining room. He followed me and so began my readings with this quiet man. Over several weeks I read Ted Loders’Guerillas of Grace, Yoko Ono, Lorca & Jimenez, and Calvino with no knowledge of which, if any, were getting through to him. We developed a system of communication. I would put two books on the table in front of him and talk briefly about each poet. I would ask him to point to which book I should read from. Over the course of our meetings we developed this routine, I would bring a couple of options to choose from. When he had heard enough (our visits lasted on average 15 minutes) Peter would slowly get up from the chair and walk back to his room.

I carry with me a small bell and striker which I use for my meditation sessions with the nursing staff. One day I put the bell on the table and asked Peter to strike the bell rather than end the visit by just getting up from the chair. He did so. Another piece was added to our routine.

One day the discussion around ECT had been entered into with his mother and she agreed to give it a try. It seemed like the last resort. Everyone was hoping this would be the key to unlock the door to his mind . . .

I enter his room; he is lying on his side. I look down and see he is sweating. The beds are low so I sit on the floor to see him face to face. “Hi, Peter.”He answers slowly, very slowly. “Hey, Chodo. How’s it going.”It is a surreal moment, as though we were speaking just yesterday

What a wonderful moment, to hear him speak at all. He held out his hand to me, and I held it. We spoke for just a couple of minutes. He thanked me for being there with him and told me that he wasn’t thrilled with all my choices of poetry and prayer. I laughed and said that I couldn’t wait to hear him read something to me.

This is one of the most memorable days in my Chaplaincy training; it was akin to a miracle. I wanted to talk to him about so many things –to ask him so many questions about what had happened. But, I would have to wait to find out, or maybe not. This day it was enough to here him say, “Thanks, Chodo.”