I was recently asked by a former neighbor, and current student, to write down some of my thoughts on mentoring.  In truth, her request reflected back to me more eloquently than I can accomplish here: “[The] kind of mentor that I am talking about; [is one] that is totally cool being yourself and being really present with folks and doing you OWN work and modeling your own process, and not giving advice but asking great questions that help guide, and engaging where someone is, and connecting deeply…”.  In response to her request to unpack my approach, I’ve made a “this’ll du” attempt.  The bottom line is that mentoring is a way of being in the world for me and it isn’t one I’ve tried to put into words before.

“Love is round.” - Hallmark card

“It’s name shall be everything.” - Ancient Greek saying

Wholeness: I’ve always been drawn to both of the above sentiments because of the wholeness they reflect.  Life, and the humans within it, is full of ups and downs, ebbs and flows, joy and grief, brilliance and mundanity, beauty and ugliness….   The intertwining of these dimensions, not getting too caught in one ebb or denying the flow of another, is the trick. 

Presence: Remaining present to this wholeness, bearing witness to all of it, is our job and duty as a fellow human.  I always know when I’m losing presence, losing ground – it is when beautiful and poignant moments are passing me by, I sense their fleeting nature more than their preciousness.  Doing what I need to do to reground myself – yoga, mountain air, bike riding, unplugging, calling on my own righteous allies – is necessary and is in service to my being present once again with others.  “Work-life balance” is not a platitude – it is a lived necessity, and is really in itself a statement of integrated wholeness (one in service to the other) rather than a dualistic or oppositional tension. 

Ally-ship: When I meet others who are struggling to find their path, or a way forward, I try to listen deeply to what they are saying.  Listening with discernment but without judgment. My style is, in fact, pretty directive.  I work to function as an ally, sometimes reflecting back a truth the person is already tapped into but just hasn’t put into words or full consciousness yet.  We work together to name barriers or blockages or fears, and in the naming, reduce their power and regain connection to intuition. Recognizing when intuition is fear speaking or habit and when it is truth often takes an ally to be curious, open, gently direct. I know this because it is my own lifelong journey and a gift my allies have given me on many occasions. 

Seeing and Being Seen: Knowing when a person’s story is telling me something about myself, and using that insight in ways that are in service to the person, not self-indulgent, is another lifelong process.  Cheryl Strayed, writing an advice column under the pen name Sugar (collection published as Tiny Beautiful Things) is one of my role models in this.  Her original editor called her style “radical empathy”, in which she could get right to the heart of the person’s dilemma through telling a story of her own.  She was sharing and being vulnerable herself in the telling, but it wasn’t about her.  It was ultimately about the writer asking for help.  Her stories revealed she could see what was happening and in that, offered up an invitation to see their stuckness from a different place. 

Permission to shine: I focus on strengths, passions, and contributions.  Every one of us has our own contribution to make and we can make it if we tap into or free our best selves.  This will come at the intersection of strengths and capacities we have (and coming to know what those are, owning them), our passions and core commitments, and creative thinking and openness about where and how we can make our best contribution.  Our best selves reflect – and rely upon – our whole selves.  I’m continually amazed at the power of simply giving permission to tap these gifts, as so much of our society and our institutions create cultures of expectation and performance, all driven by others’ judgment and definitions of what counts as success. 

Invest in the whole person. Your own, and that of others. That perhaps is the true secret.

“People will forget what you say. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou

Conversational credit: Katie Querna (thank you for asking!), Kemp Battle (always), Kathleen Farrell, Glenna Chang, Claire Fraicek, and Jaye Sablan.

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