When Offering Advice Yield to Restraint

When I was growing up there was a lot of time spent around the kitchen table with my Mom. People would come over and sit and talk because my Mom was a really good listener. But maybe even better than a listener, she was an advice-giver, and people loved her for all those reasons, and a lot more reasons. I think it was at that kitchen table that I ate up the idea that giving advice is giving love.

I even said to my therapist once that my love language is making helpful suggestions. But here’s the thing. It’s not true, because at its core, making helpful suggestions is a form of trying to control a situation or my own anxiety when people speak to me about their troubles or their pain. Or, I’m trying to feel helpful or powerful if I have the answers for people.

I needed a mindful reminder to help me hold back on offering up advice to my family, friends, the mothers I meet at the park, and the guy I stood in line with at Ideal Market. That reminder came this week as I was making my way through the 7-week journey of Counting the Omer, a Jewish practice of focusing on our G-d like qualities during the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. This week’s focus is on the aspect of Gevurah, loosely translated as boundary setting, and it allowed me to examine my unhealthy habit of advice giving.

In the book,The 50th Gate: Tracking our Growth Through the Counting of the Omerby Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder, the week of Gevurah, he says, is marked by self-control and restraint.

“We know this from a classic line in Pirkei Avot: “who is gibbur (same root as gevurah)? The one who controls their yetzer— inclination/tendency. Rebbe Nachman connects the word for inclination/tendency – yetzer – with the word yetzirah – formation. Yetzirah connotes forming something specific out of a raw material. Controlling the yetzer, then ,implies holding back from manipulating what is before us — maybe for our own purposes, maybe because we thing we know best, maybe out of impatience. Gevurah, then is the capacity to not create — to wait, to allow,” writes Rabbi Goldfeder.

I’m trying, while tapping in to my internal Gevurah, to wait, and not to reflexively offer up my suggestions whenever someone tells me about their pain or challenges. You know what? Another word for loving suggestions is unsolicited advice, and it turns out it can even sometimes be construed as criticism. I realize, problem-solver personalities like me might try to repair things for their own satisfaction, not only because they want the other person to feel better. A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that giving advice can enhance the adviser’s “sense of power.”

If heightened awareness of Gevurah can help us notice our immediate reaction to hearing a loved one or friend in distress, what could be another response other than immediately moving into advice mode?

I found an alternative possibility in a recent New York Times article entitled, “When Someone you love is upset, ask this one question,” written by a kindergarten teacher who offers a very simple technology she uses with when her students come to her with scraped knees and hurt feelings. Whatever the pain of the day might be, she asks her little ones 3 things. “Do you want to be helped? Do you wanna be heard? Or, do you want to be hugged?” She goes on to say she’s found these question to be really helpful for her long-term marriage, and thinks they could be useful to all of us, at any age. And truthfully, when we are in pain as adults, isn’t there a hurting, fragile part of us that taps into our much younger selves.

One way to grow our access to Gevurah , and having more restraint in our lives, is to become more mindful through meditation. When we sit in meditation and open our awareness to what arrises we may replay experiences that are painful, self-critical and uncomfortable, and others that are  joyful, delightful or neutral. We notice and include each experience as it rises up and falls away. We can include them without needing to spin stories and judgments about them.

I find that whenever I practice meditation, moments come up that I want to pass quickly or change, and it may be a thought or something just as simple as my position in the chair, or an itch I want to scratch. By paying attention to the arising of the desire to change what is showing up at any given moment during my meditation, and not acting on the desire, I am making a connection to other unskillful desires I have when I am moving about in my day to day life. Meditation is an opportunity to build my restraint muscle, my Gevurah.

Here’s another mindful way to do Gevurah muscle training. In author Tara Brach’s guided reflection, “Not Doing When We Feel Driven by Wanting,” she suggests reflecting on an area of your life when you feel compelled by the wanting mind. Examples might include: food, sex, social media, voicing critical remarks, buying things, smoking, work, or in my case, offering advice. Let your intention be to practice pausing when you feel the desire to act on this urge. When you pause, become physically still and pay close attention to the nature of wanting. What does your body feel like when desire is strong. Ask yourself, where do you experience the sensation of wanting most fully?

Only through a growing awareness of what desire feels like in our bodies and in our minds as it arrises can we begin to choose and practice restraint. May these words in the Torah provide guidance: V’lo Taturu — And you shall not follow after (Num 15:39).

Exploring the value of restraint — in our words and actions —  by focusing on Gevurah during the Counting of the Omer and beyond, we have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to others and the world.

Amen.

About Lori Dube

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