Who are your mentors? Who have you mentored? These intriguing questions are the topic for today’s Men’s Group and as always, I find it useful to begin with a working definition of "mentor." Like so many words in our current language, this one has been bandied about too casually, the depth of its meaning reduced to something quite different.
For example, in my field of Orff Schulwerk music education, people were asked to name their mentors in a newsletter article and someone named someone he had taken one workshop with. The person he named would not know who his alleged mentee was. In another program, people sign up for a mentor and are assigned someone. Both these examples do disservice to the word.
The original word comes from the Odyssey. With his father Odysseus gone for ten years fighting in the Trojan War and another ten years trying to get back home, a young Telemachus is struggling to come into his adulthood without the model or counsel of his father. Suitors vying for the hand of his mother have taken over his house and it is beyond his capacity to effectively stand up to them. This is the moment when an old friend of Odysseus' and seasoned sailor enters the story and serves to guide and counsel the disoriented youth. His name? Mentor. As a sailor, he knows how to navigate stormy seas and helps the young man captain the vessel of his own soul. And the plot thickens further when the Goddess Athena uses Mentor as the vehicle for her own voice of wisdom. As described by Michael Meade in his book The Genius Myth:
“Mentor acts as a vessel through which a divine intelligence speaks and stirs the life spirit of young people, but he also seeks to respond to the historical and cultural issues of the day. Mentoring is a creative work in the sense that something is being born or fashioned that can alter the world. Mentoring is an art that brings otherworldly knowledge and inspiration to a situation that otherwise seems overwhelming, unjust or hopeless.” (pp 129-130)
In this root story of mentoring, an elder is instructing a youth in the art of life. As the term grew to be understood in the centuries that followed, it is mostly associated with learning the details of a particular craft or field of study. The apprenticeship model of learning has qualities of mentoring, but some distinctions as well. In most cases, the apprentice can choose a teacher to study with, but mentoring in its full dimension is less about choice or more about being chosen. Some qualities of true mentorship include:
• It begins as a mutual recognition of a shared passion, be it mathematics, metalworking, music or meditation.
• It arises when the elder (often ten to twenty years older) sees with the eyes of the heart the promise of the youth.
• The youth cannot choose the elder or be assigned to her.
• The initial meeting, the moment of recognition, can neither be planned nor scheduled.
• There is a felt presence of something larger than the details of the craft, Athena’s divine intelligence speaking through the relationship.
• Mentorship is not a one-time meeting, but an ongoing relationship. It sometimes moves from student to colleague and sometimes the student surpasses the teacher. Sometimes breaks from the teacher to go off on her own, sometimes breaks with the teacher to follow a new road (as Jung broke from Freud). But mostly it is a constant checking-in, even when separated by time, distance or even death, the mentor’s imagined words coming in times of need. “What would he do? What would she say in this situation?”
In James Hillman’s superb book The Soul’s Code, he devotes an entire chapter to describing the moments in which famous people were first seen —and their lives changed forever. The bullfighter Manolete, Gertrude Stein, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Darwin, Truman Capote, Golda Meir, James Baldwin and more were all misfits who didn’t quite fit into the social norms, were dismissed and disparaged by their parents or ministers or teachers until someone saw their true genius and gave them their full attention. Once we are perceived in the essence of our Soul’s purpose, our life can begin to bloom.
Once the relationship begins, the Soul’s unfolding is set in motion. The “ment” in mentor is also in “mental” and refers to the thinking reflective mind which the mentor is trying to awaken in the mentee. The mentor will teach the specialized knowledge, but also tell the stories that are part of the lore of a particular tradition. He or she will work side-by-side with the student, bent together under the hood of the car, sharing the piano bench, sitting next to each other on the meditation platform. There is a vibration-to-vibration quality of transmission beyond the words or physical techniques. The two will share meals together, meet each other’s friends and families, go out and do things in the world. There is no curriculum or written rubric or tests to be taken beyond their mutual presence and styles of thought, action and imaginative creations.
A mentor can have qualities of a teacher, coach, counselor, adviser, friend and each of those can have some qualities of a mentor. But a true mentor is a thing apart, a rarity, a blessing. We will have many teachers, friends, coaches and such, but we can count ourselves lucky if we have one in our lifetime.
And I do. When asked who is my mentor, there is not a moment’s pause before I answer Avon Gillespie. He was some 13 years older, a teacher of Orff Schulwerk who recognized the way I might fit in that calling, called me over with his beckoning finger and began working through my raw, uncooked promise, with his living example, his words, his frowns and smiles as he sat to the side to watch my teach. When he first invited me to teach with him, I lived at his house with Rick Layton, another promising young teacher Avon had tapped on the shoulder. We cooked together, drove to the course together, laughed together, hosted a party or two, went to the 4th of July firework display. In short, lived a bit of the whole life far larger than the instruction in a classroom. He died in 1989, but to this day, his voice is in my ear and I feel his presence in my workshops.
When reflecting on my mentors, I thought about my Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi, about my jazz piano teacher Art Lande, about another Orff teacher Richard Gill. They all were influential in my life, but they were not mentors. They did not recognize in me that capacity to represent the field or move anything further down the field. And they were right. I often longed for more recognition than I got, but the chemistry wasn’t there, the stylistic similarities, the talent. My contribution was to be in Orff music education, not Zen or jazz, and a particular style of that interpretation of the Schulwerk more aligned with Avon than Richard Gill.
When reflecting on the people who I feel I’ve mentored— James Harding, Susan Kennedy, Estevao Marquez, Joshi Marshall, Tom Pierre and now my ongoing work with Yari Mander— almost all the qualities above feel present. I’ve taught thousands of teachers, but these are some of those who I felt both the connection with and the opportunity to continue the conversation.
With all this in mind, let’s return to the original question. Who are your mentors? Who have you mentored?