Cameron Conaway on the best way to give, receive and respond to advice.
My toes were beyond that tingling phase of falling asleep. I wiggled them into the fabric of my sweatpants to see if I could feel something but my eyes were closed and… nope. They were straight numb. And the throb had already worked its way into my calves. My body was completely breaking down and as I opened my eyes to adjust my positioning I saw the closed eyes of all the other meditators in the room. My days as an athlete bubbled to the surface, traveled with me all the way to my new home here in Thailand: I will meditate better and harder than them, I thought. Then I began to feel immense annoyance at the words that were being spoken by the senior monk.
“Breathe in gently, deeply. Exhale and feel your connectedness to the ground. You are here. You are you and you are your ancestors and you are parts of everyone who has influenced you in this lifetime.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I thought. Enough with this nonsense. I know I am here. I know. But I’m freaking uncomfort—
“Breathe in gently, deeply to your discomfort. Move your toes and feel their awakening.”
Ugh. Are you kidding me? Are you seriously only watching me here?
“Just as your small toes contribute to your walking, your small interactions with people are contributions to humanity.”
This process only lasted an hour, but for that entire hour I carried anger and that “I know” attitude. It wasn’t until months later, and then again upon reflecting on Kendall Ruth’s brilliant article about re-learning titled Nothing to Prove: On Being a 40-Year-Old Man that the monk’s lessons sunk in. That I made a conscious effort to couple the “I know” with action. That the following 6 pieces of advice about advice rose up within me:
(1) When somebody gives you advice you already know, do not say “I know.” Instead, say “thank you.” Life is a practice. We all need reminders.
(2) Do not eliminate the “I know” from your train of thought. If you know it then know it more. And if you know it and fully believe in it then ask yourself: Am I living what I know? Often the greatest advice you’ll ever receive isn’t some new world-revealing insight. It’s something you already know handed to you in a new shape.
(3) Ask for consent. You know the person who seems to interrupt any personal situation you present with their unsolicited advice? Don’t be that person. Listening is its own form of advice. If you really feel strongly about giving then there’s no shame in simply saying something like: I’ve been thinking about this an awful lot. Do you want my advice?
(4) Advice is not hierarchical. There is giving in the receiving and there is receiving in the giving. Advice is often wielded in an attempt to exhibit power. An older sibling, though the younger may be wiser, might give advice as a way to make clear their maturity status. Motive matters.
(5) Advice can follow the writing maxim of “Show don’t tell.” Some of the best information I’ve ever received came through observing the way mentors and role models truly lived their recommendation. They didn’t have to tell me. They showed me.
(6) Past advice need not live in history. Carve out some time to reflect back on the best advice you’ve ever given or received. The advice you need now may very well be the advice you received then.
Last month I found myself Googling in a mad panic to find when or if there would be a mindfulness meditation retreat somewhere nearby. I had five tabs open, all with different places and prices, styles and dates. Then the monk’s voice washed over me: “You are here.”
The stillness I wanted. The discomfort I wanted. The quiet place to sit that I so badly wanted. It was all right here. In this small room. The construction workers and their jackhammers outside. No matter. The ringing phone and the flushing toilets and the barking dogs. No matter.
Photo: Kevin Labianco/Flickr