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Sat, March 23

Advice: Only When Used

Sometimes one already has the best advice.

Sometimes one already has the best advice.

Many a therapeutic session will either begin with or eventually have a person seeking help in the manner of asking this therapist's opinion on a particular issue or situation. The interaction of "asking the expert" is played out. The Internet hosts scores of websites and forums where people seeking advice can submit questions to physicians, psychologists and financial investment professionals.

The question that arises out of all this exchange is: "With all the information being disseminated, are people really internalizing it and moving into new patterns for the better?" The plethora of recommendations flow in the form of anecdotes, proverbs, collections of wisdom, radio call-in programs, TV talk shows and self-help books. What is interesting about the history of the self-help book industry is that you might be "helping yourself" to the purchase of the book, the activity of reading it, and practicing the suggestions on your own, but you are essentially engaging with the mind of another through the process of absorption. You are opening up your mind to the ideas of another. The historical spectrum of this accessing the help of another through printed media goes back to the earliest wisdom literature, poetry, and meditations of the philosophers like those of the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius. In his Meditations, Book VIII, Section 13, he writes: "For outward show is a great master of fallacies, and rises to its sublimest heights of quackery just when a man is most sure that he is engaged in something well worth his labor."

It is the substance of the content of participating with another's thoughts and reflections on thought itself that can bring both onto the philosophical plane and permit us to experience an embodied resonance with something new that is being generated together. And in order to better explore the concept of advice and its use, like the English philosopher Hobbes invites his readers to do in his work Leviathan, we must revisit basic definitions to gain a proper foothold. Advice has a threefold meaning of: (1) an opinion or recommendation, (2) any general kind of informational communication, and (3) an official notification (especially pertaining to a business agreement). In our original therapeutic sense first put forth above, we are looking at the various examples and scenarios of definitions #1 and #2.

What has been my encounter with those on their quest to hold the chalice of clinical truth is that to offer advice too quickly is to miss an opportunity for the client to figure something important out on their own. My therapeutic efforts to adjust to allow more spontaneous and creative interaction has either been the result of concerted intention or downright accident. In the first instance, I myself have followed the advice of Eugene Gendlin's development of Focusing Psychotherapy to respond to requests for my opinion by framing it as: "I can do as you wish and offer my perspective in just a moment. I am also interested in what your take on this is." This succeeds in addressing both the client's need for help and encouraging the expression of their views and feelings. In the second instance, I have found myself being asked a challenging question by the confused and desperate person sitting opposite me only to offer them nothing in return, but to be simply at a loss for words and helpless to know how to proceed. And then something remarkable happens, this lonely, insecure, and seemingly (in their words, "uncreative") individual breaks the silence to utter, "Well, I just need to . . ."

The one asking the questions immerses themselves in genuine self-help. The silence has quite accidentally and naturally allowed an interruption in the rushing and hyper-aroused rhythm of the day. The one asking the questions has chosen to sit in a space held by another keeping at bay their diagnosis or prescription to shift from the caffeinated dance of the hours into the organic undulations of the waves of discovery. And this significant moment of epiphany goes beyond just asking for advice to be "told what to do." It goes beyond hoping in the "Yes, We Can" of those in authority who fail to clean up the messes they make. There is a transcendence of the familiar eliciting of opinion to disregard it anyway or surveying of judgments that match our own.

"Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer, but wish we didn't." -- Erica Jong


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