A Path to What the Soul Knows

I’m thinking about advice-giving; I’m thinking about “should.” Yes, I’ve received good ideas, in conversation, when I’ve mentioned some dilemma I’m wrestling with. Also, ever since reading Parker Palmer’s book, A Hidden Wholeness, about a year ago, I’ve been acutely aware of the violence lurking beneath attempts at swift dispatch of someone else’s problem.

Palmer says that giving advice generates separation. If you share a difficulty with me, and I tell you what you should do to get rid of it, then 1) we needn’t sit with your trouble, or listen for its message, and 2) if you don’t do as I say, and your difficulty persists, I can wash my hands of it – hey, I tried my best. He further explains that our own inner teacher is our surest source of beneficial counsel; friends and others can help us most by asking open, honest questions (questions that can’t be answered yes or no, questions to which the asker truly doesn’t know the answer) that elicit the soul’s wisdom.

It used to be that when my husband spilled his business difficulties, I’d whir through the knowledge I’d accrued over five years working for him (and more years living with him), and spit out a solution – usually in the form of, “Why don’t you do x?” Mostly, this approach shut down his process, which made him angry (and cut him off from his own knowing). Partly I wanted to “help”; partly I wanted to prove I was smart, experienced, useful. Now, I (often) pause to ask if he wants my ideas, before offering them.

Last summer, when I was out picking berries with a friend, he uncoiled a tale of romantic woe, culminating in the raw gash of a recent breakup. When he finished, he asked for my advice. I said I had none – but I could tell him a story.

I recounted how devastated I’d been when I’d lost Zendik, how it had seemed I’d never be whole again, but gradually, as I’d opened to the world, it had opened to me, until, without planning for or even believing in the possibility, I’d burst upon a new horizon far richer in hue, far wider and more forgiving, than the one I’d mourned. My one regret, I said, was that I’d failed to embrace this in-between time, failed to luxuriate in the excruciating joy of shedding my skin. If I could, I’d invite my twenty-seven, twenty-eight-year-old self to revel in everything – even her pain.

So: When you ask how I am, and I don’t say, “Fine,” please don’t tell me how to fix myself. Instead, if you’re willing, explore with me. Tell me a story.

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.

One thought on “A Path to What the Soul Knows

  1. Yes, “show, don’t tell.” My guidelines on giving unsolicited advice are “is there a good chance that the other person is not aware of something I am?” This can be just some informational detail or some actual danger, but basically, if it’s likely the other person already knows about what you have to say, whether it’s suggesting a possibility or urging them in a given direction, it will quite possibly be seen as meddlesome to say it. And you’re right, people often process things by talking them out, they are not automatically asking for advice just by expressing a problem.

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