TLDR: As religious or spiritual people, we can sometimes get unknowingly self-righteous, giving unsolicited advice. It’s much more skillful to respond to the needs of the person we are speaking to with equanimity, mindfulness and a sense of “right timing”.
A type of question I often hear during Q&A sessions with Dhamma teachers goes like this:
“How should I advise this person about this thing they are doing that seems problematic?”
“How should I advise my friend /family member to be more [insert good quality]?”
This is interesting because from how the question is framed, it sounds like the asker is less concerned about what their friend/ family member should do about their situation than how to advise (or persuade) them in a way that makes them want to take up their advice.
This can seem like it comes from a good place – but actually, what is the intention here?
Are you collaboratively helping that person to work out their issue, or are you trying to “correct” them based on your opinion of what they should be doing?
Sometimes the desire to fix other people’s problems can come from righteousness and judgement – aka the ego. But in fact, they might not need (or want) your advice.
Am I doing this for them or for me?
Something I’ve noticed in myself and other Buddhists is that we can sometimes become quite deluded, clinging to a “Buddhist identity” that we’ve fabricated over time.
We can be quite self-righteous, thinking we have all the answers and if only they knew better, if only they did this thing that the Buddha said, they would be so much happier. So, we go around advising our friends and family, trying to “fix” everyone’s suffering.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we may find that this is less about them and more about us, compelled by a neurotic desire to fix someone’s problem as a projection of our own ideals. A telltale sign is when we feel a strong desire for the other person to take up our suggestion and a sense of agitation when they are not willing – that disappointment comes from an expectation.
Probably another defining quality of unsolicited advice is when it is given at the wrong time. You could very well be right about what the other person needs to do about their situation, but they might not be ready to receive it just yet.
I love this saying by Ajahn Chah:
“True but not right, right but not true!”
What you are saying might be true, but if you say it at the wrong time or in the wrong circumstances, it becomes “wrong”. This is because we are not being receptive to the needs of the other person; our words are not in line with the way things are right now.
Instead, we are strongly attached to our views about the situation and are more concerned about getting them across and validated.
We want our thoughts and speech to be thought of as right and true.
That validation gives us a nice ego boost, making us feel that our opinions are right and true – which is a very nice and lofty way to perceive ourselves.
I am a wholesome and good Buddhist.
I am someone who helps improve the lives of those around me.
This sounds wonderful, of course. Better than being a murderer.
But if we begin to cling to that image of ourselves, then our actions become less about generosity and goodness for their own sake and more about egoistic self-interest. More importantly, we may not be not truly serving the other person at all.
Drop the preacher mentality
I used to have a strong tendency to go around preaching about Buddhism until I met people like my Ajahn – a very unsuspecting monk of the Thai forest tradition.
He always keeps a low profile but sometimes drops these mind-blowing nuggets of wisdom when the situation calls for it. Even though he’s in robes, he doesn’t go around preaching to every person he speaks to – which is ironic because he’s probably one of the most qualified people to do so.
He mainly just listens and only gives advice when asked or makes comments at the appropriate time.
I think this is a sign of true humility (and Right Speech) – as opposed to when you feel like you have the right to “teach” or “correct” others, which automatically comes from a place of superiority.
You’re trying to fix others, change them, make the world a better place – all according to your ideals, which are really just ego projections. Again – true but not right, right but not true.
Observing Ajahn’s behaviour, it’s apparent that despite his many years of diligent practice, experience and knowledge, he never really views himself as a “teacher” and therefore never puts himself in that position. He’s not on a profound mission to create world peace or save humanity or spread Buddhism.
He just wants to live out his life as a simple monk practising the Dhamma.
The irony of that is that turning inwards and focusing on ourselves is often the most impactful or inspiring thing for other people. Watching the skillful conduct of Dhamma friends like Ajahn has been the most effective thing for me in changing my behaviour and views for the better – they didn’t have to push or persuade me.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t lend our support to our friends and family when they need it – it would definitely be good if we did. But there’s a difference between supporting someone appropriate to their needs, and being generous for our benefit.
It’s the same principle behind donating tons of food to an established food bank that has an oversupply of food, rather than donating to a lesser-known one that is really in need. The former may make us feel good for being generous, while the latter is generosity with attentiveness to the recipient and their needs, which is more beneficial and truly “self”-less.
I think another important lesson to learn is that we can’t change people (and it’s not our business to anyway) – we can only support or encourage them. I believe people change on their own accord when they have their insights, and those definitely cannot be rushed or forced.
When we understand this, we realise that trying to fix others is a waste of time and energy. We become more equanimous and in turn focus more on ourselves – which is where we can truly bring about change.
- Focus on yourself. Most of what the Buddha taught was aimed at going inwards and cultivating wholesome qualities and abandoning unwholesome qualities within. If we realise this, there would be fewer problems to “fix” in the world.
- If you’re not sure what your friend or family member needs, ask how you can best support them. Do they need advice, encouragement, or just empathy, etc.?
- Be supportive, not compulsive. If you feel the impulse to give advice, ask yourself if it is appropriate for the other person right now and check if you’re just doing this to satisfy your ego. Agitation is a sign that the ego is at play.