Thomas Moore, the monk, musician, professor, psychotherapist, and author of a series of “soul” books, tells the story of a Zen master on his deathbed. His monks are all gathered around him, and the senior monk asks for any final words of wisdom.
The old master weakly says, “Tell them life is like a river.”
The senior monk relays this message to the other monks. The youngest is confused and asks, “What does he mean, life is like a river?”
The senior monk relays this question to the master, who replies, “Okay, life is not like a river.”
When I bought my Diamond DA-40, a sleek single-engine, four-seat airplane, back in 2008, I was rightly required to take a transition course to help me adjust to my new steed. Transition courses have saved many lives, and I was grateful to do it. Although there were many new, sophisticated features in my airplane, the most difficult part of flying nearly any airplane is, of course, landing them.
I was proud of my landings in the Cessna 150s I trained in, so much so that I could dare you to throw a quarter on a runway and bet that I could land on it. But landing an airplane with long wings close to the ground and double the horsepower that seemed to just wait around eagerly wanting to fly was a steed of a different color. My initial landings were acceptable, but the transition course focused mostly on other things, so I took additional lessons afterward.
That next instructor gave me very clear, specific advice on how to land my new airplane properly. Airplanes have certain landing attitudes, which in this context means the lateral angle of the fuselage to the ground, that seem to work best. My instructor wanted my final approach to be as flat as possible all the way to the runway, so although I was descending at a certain rate and moving forward at another rate, my nose would be level with my tail. This was somewhat different from how I landed the Cessnas I had flown before, but eventually I was able to do it fairly well.
Then along came my instrument instructor, who saw my landings and immediately reprimanded me for doing it all wrong. The best way to land my low-wing airplane was to point the nose at the runway, and keep my tail in the air behind me. I was confused.
Then, a few years later, on an oversold commercial flight, I was lucky enough to sit next to an airline pilot whose job it was to fly regional jets. In fact, she was flying the jet we happened to be in at the time, and was sitting next to me in a curtained-off section of the cabin to get some rest while she was temporarily relieved in the cockpit. Before she closed her eyes, I explained the conundrum, and she told me: there’s several ways to land an airplane. I usually land one way for 10 times, then I rotate and land another the next 10 times so I don’t get stale.
Perhaps, life is not like a river after all.
In some psychotherapy circles, advice is seen as a mark of an inexperienced or ill-trained psychotherapist. I don’t entirely agree, thinking instead that advice is akin to having a rudder, and inexperienced therapists, like inexperienced pilots, just don’t know how to use their rudder well.
Many clients become rightfully angry with their therapists for withholding advice. After all, many people see therapists because they think that therapists know the recipe to the secret sauce that makes life tolerable, or that they know the route out of the maze of each client’s suffering. And, to some extent, good therapists do know these things and more, so it is a reasonable request for clients to simply ask and then receive, especially given the fare.
But in the hands of a lesser skilled therapist, advice can become problematic because it can be based on the therapist’s worldview rather than the client’s. And, at the same time, advice-giving in some contexts can obscure the part of the therapeutic process that instills self-reliance. I would often deal with this dilemma when clients sought parenting advice by saying: “I’ll make a deal with you. I promise I will answer your question if you will first reach into the deepest part of you and tell me how you think it should be done.” While this gambit often irritated my clients, after some cajoling they played along, and I would always make good on my promise. Inevitably, after telling me their own answers to their own questions, my sincere response would start with “Wow. I love that answer, because as I expected, it turns out it’s much better than mine. I was going to say (fill in the blank), but I like your idea much better. Clearly, no one knows your child as well as you do.”
There is another story, one that I read many years ago and liked so much that I jotted it down. I don’t remember where I got it, but it might have been from that font of profundity, Reader’s Digest. The story goes that a reporter asked then president Harry S. Truman if he ever gave his grown daughter Margaret advice. Truman allowed that he did on occasion.
“What kind of advice do you give her?” the reporter asked.
“Well, I usually ask her what it is she wants to do. She tells me. And then I advise her to do it.”
Maybe that bespectacled Southern democrat, responsible both for authorizing the dropping of atomic bombs and the Marshall plan, integrating the military and helping to found the United Nations and without whose support there would be no Israel, was a Zen master himself. Or maybe not.