Earlier this year, someone who had been a mentor to me for almost 10 years (almost 1/3 of my life) passed on very unexpectedly. She was my academic mentor, the person who nurtured me and supported me through my entire Ph.D. and beyond as I became an assistant professor seeking tenure. Despite the fact that this blog is really about spirituality and sustainable practice, I think her lessons are important, and mentoring takes many forms, spiritual mentoring being one form.
I have always tried very hard to honor my mentors, to recognize their investment in my life, and to do the best work I can do to manifest their teachings and guidance in my life in positive and productive ways. Still, looking back, I wonder if I said “thank you” enough to my mentor who passed on, or if she really understood what she meant to me and the others who she mentored. In honor of her passing, I want to spend some time discussing the role of the mentor, and honoring that role, both to honor of my mentor who recently passed on and for the mentors who are still in my life–you know who you are :).
Gardening is a good metaphor for a mentor, either in life, work, or in spiritual life. In their early roles, a mentor is someone who takes a look at the soil you plan on growing something in, and says, “oh my, you don’t have nearly enough organic matter and nitrogen in this soil for anything to grow–yet. Here’s how you might get some more.” And when you select your plants, let’s say, tomatoes, they may say, “Well, tomatoes require a lot more calcium than you currently have in your soil–what can you do about that?” Or, “You know, this garden is really shady. Tomatoes won’t do well here at all. What else might you plant?” The work of the sowing of the seeds, of fruiting and growth is, of course, your own. But a mentor might be there to help you prune away those non-producing water spouts from the tomato vines, and they are certainly there to provide trellising and support as needed. Could the plant grow without the mentor? Certainly, but it might not produce as much fruit, and it might be laying on the ground rather than standing tall for lack of support.
Mentors are the people who really help us see beyond ourselves, to open up new worlds, encourage us, and nurture us and help us grow. Mentoring is not always an easy task and it’s not always a pleasant one, however–for a good mentor is not only someone who nurtures and supports, but also is there to prune and tell us the harsh truths that we might not want to hear. And the best mentors know that both praise and constructive criticism are necessary for growth–if we are only told what we want to hear, we live in a world of delusion. Sometimes firm words to set us back on our true path are critically important. Mentors help us back on our paths with firm and gentle guidance.
I also think good mentoring is a careful process of knowing exactly how much to help, how much to let the person stumble and fall and learn on their own, and how to provide the right amount of support. Its a delicate balancing act. Mentors also recognize that different kinds of people require different kinds of mentoring–I happen to be a rather independent person who doesn’t like others to have too much control over my life. My best mentors have always realized this and have taken a hands-off approach to work with me, allowing me to come to them when support or advice was needed rather than crowding me. But others who work much differently may require much more hands-on support and guidance; a good mentor recognizes how much support to give.
I think about those who have mentored me in my spiritual path, and I realize how important spiritual mentoring is. Many druid paths are solitary ones, where we practice and learn on our own. And while this is an extremely useful practice (and something I did for many years), finding mentors who supported me, suggested resources, and opened up worlds to me really helped me develop and grow in new ways. Sometimes there is only so far one can get on one’s own, and even only a few key conversations or resources can really help one grow. This is part of why I value mentoring so highly–I’ve seen its effects in my life both from those I mentor and from those who mentor me.
As a mentor, I believe it’s important to see yourself in both the role of a teacher and that of a learner–you have to recognize that you have as much to learn as you do to teach. I also have found that the best mentoring relationships are those that are rooted in friendship and mutual respect. In the best mentoring relationships, I learn as much from those I mentor as they learn from me. As a mentor, I might know more than they do about a particular subject and have a greater amount of experience, but my mentees always have new things to say, new approaches, and unique perspectives that add to my own knowledge. This is the case in every kind of mentoring I do, whether its academic mentoring, garden mentoring or spiritual mentoring. And think this is also the case for those who mentor me.
And even though I often find myself in a mentoring role in my spiritual, professional, and personal lives, I am so grateful to those who take their time to build mentoring relationships and friendships with me. If you haven’t yet taken an opportunity to thank your mentors recently and show your appreciation, perhaps you could take a moment to do so soon. You never know how long they will be in your life–please do not take them for granted.