Language and Silence: equally powerful agents in alternative healing

The following essay examines two different approaches to personal empowerment in alternative healing contrasting the function of language and silence. In many rituals, language and the power of words play a major role in reducing suffering. Prayers, blessings, mantras and many more are examples of verbal expressions that are supposed to bring about healing. In contrast, meditation and retreat into silence has become a popular form to find peace and relief from suffering and stress in western society. These two different approaches will be analyzed from the personal empowerment perspective based on McGuire´s (1983) assumption that personal empowerment and the balancing of power to establish order is at the center of healing processes. The essay will take as examples the ethnographic research on religious rallies of Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak by Asaf Sharabi (2014) and the ethnographic study of Michael Pagis (2010) in vipassana meditation centers. While the research of Sharabi (2014) focuses on a deep healing ritual which is conducted by language and verbal communication between the participants, namely the audience and the Rabbi, Pagis´ (2010) study puts silence in the center of its attention. Both events have a participating audience, an expert as reference point and follow a strictly defined procedure. Even though they might be different in nature, I argue that in both rituals language and silence function in the same way, bringing the participants to experience a sense of personal empowerment.

Personal Empowerment

According to McGuire (1983), one of the central factors in ritual healing is the empowerment of the individual. This empowerment may be understood as a sense of regaining control over specific life circumstances. Depending on the healing system, power can be understood as transcendent and external to the individual or as internal power within the person (McGuire, 1983). Ritual healing consists of reconstituting the alignment of disrupted power and thereby evoking a sense of personal empowerment in the individual.

“Believing oneself to be in touch with a greater power may very well literally empower the individual believer to be more effective in daily life or at least to cope more adequately.” (McGuire, 1983, p. 230)

The transmission of power helps the individual to access own personal resources and to overcome suffering by gaining a feeling of control. McGuire (1983) argues that one of the vehicles to transmit power is the use of ritual language being a representation and objectification of power.


Indeed, as the research of Sharabi (2014) illustrates, language plays a major role in the rallies of Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak. During these events the focus is put on the receiving of blessings which are bestowed onto a person, if she or he is willing to undertake certain measures which generally consist of religious actions. The negotiation over the terms of a blessing may already be interpreted as a reordering of power, as the Rabbi decides which religious actions must be taken according to the severity of an illness. The blessing being endowed with transcendent power is transmitted to the individual. However, personal empowerment does not only result from the blessing. The request from the Rabbi to undertake religious actions hands over the responsibility for healing to the individual, giving him or her a sense of control. Moreover, Sharabi illustrates the importance of the “amen” utterance by the audience by the end of the blessing. One important aspect of the “amen” utterance is the creative power that lies within it, namely the belief of the audience that this performative act will bring change to the individual´s state. Thus, the utterance reassures the individual in the personal belief of the greater power that the ritual holds. Therefore, language during the rallies functions on three different levels. Firstly, it appears as dialogue between the Rabbi and the person seeking healing. In that form it takes the function of restoring order, by embedding the problem in the group´s belief system (McGuire, 1983, p.234). Secondly, language functions as objectification of power in form of the blessing (McGuire, 1983, p.229). Lastly, in the form of the “amen” utterance by the audience it takes a performative aspect supporting the individual´s belief in the power of the blessing (McGuire, 1983, p.232). Through this active participation of all those present in the ritual a sense of social togetherness is created which Sharabi names “Communitas” referring to Turner (1969). Thus, language is central to the ritual of Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak at a performative level as well as at an interpersonal level, and it is the medium through which personal empowerment is elicited in the individual.


In contrast, in Pagis (2010) study of vipassana meditation silence is the shared medium of communication between the practitioners. Vipassana meditation centers offer a 10-day vipassana course during which participants retreat into silence and practice meditation throughout the day. The goal of meditation is to observe the inner state by calming down mind and body to overcome suffering and find peace. Therefore, during the meditations in the meditation hall non-movement and silence of practitioners are interpreted as a sign of good meditation (Pagis, 2010, p. 318). Thus, silence turns into manifestation of power; the power of control over oneself. Moreover, Pagis notices that movement and non-movement is used as a form of communication between the meditators, meaning that the action of one person will eventually lead to a reaction of another person while the constant silence of others will call the community back to order.

“They read silence just as they would read speech, turning silence into a form of communication.” (Pagis, 2010, p. 320)

An exception is made during designated hours when participants have the opportunity to approach the teacher with questions. Pagis shows how the interaction between the students and the teachers occurs when students are faced with problems in meditation. This may be regarded as the restoring of order, as the teacher helps the student to put in context the problems emerging, comforting the student to pursue meditation and thus giving him or her a sense of personal empowerment. Personal empowerment in vipassana meditation does not come from an external source of power. It is not handed over through certain means such as language, instead it is the exercise of the internal power over oneself by controlling the body and mind. Even though meditation is a highly subjective practice Pagis argues that through the shared experience participants develop a feeling of intersubjectivity creating a sense of communality between the meditators. Thus, silence in vipassana meditation functions at a performative level by expressing the degree of power over oneself in controlling one’s body and mind, at an interpersonal level by being a mean of communication and as manifestation of personal empowerment.


As seen in the rallies of Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak language is a powerful performative mean used to transmit transcendent power to the individual by blessing him. At the same time, it is the medium through which communication occurs and through which interpersonal relations are created. At the end of Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak rallies the individual feels in touch with heavenly power and comforted by the believing community. However, the absence of language holds similar functions as seen in the ethnographic study of Pagis in vipassana meditation centers. Personal empowerment occurs through the actively practicing of silence. During meditation silence is turned into a medium of communication. Moreover, the mutual goal of seeking silence creates an intersubjective space between the meditators. At the end of the meditation the meditator has experienced a form of personal empowerment through personal control being in touch with one´s internal power. While the experience of personal empowerment in meditation is subjective and private, during the rallies of Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak it is a public and joint experience. The rallies of Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak focus on the connection to the transcendent power, while meditation focuses on the connection to the internal power. Thus, it seems almost obvious that the rallies of Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak use language while meditation uses the absence of language to create a personal empowerment experience. Despite being opposite of each other language and silence in alternative healing share the same functions and are equally powerful agents in bringing about transcendental experience.


McGuire, M. B. (1983). Words of Power: Personal Empowerment and Healing. Culture, Med-icine and Psychiatry, 7, 221-240.

Pagis, M. (2010). Producing intersubjectivity in silence: An ethnographic study of meditation practice. Ethnography, 11 (2), 309-328.

Sharabi, A. (2014). Deep healing: ritual healing in the teshuvah movement. Anthropology & Medicine, 21 (3), 277-289.