My father used to try to pass some “tricks of the trade” onto me as I watched him in his work shop. He was always careful to observe a situation, to size it up, sketch a plan, find the right tools, then to give sufficient time to make a repair or complete a project. I used to wish he would pay more attention to me and my feelings, not to the things around him. Now I realize that I soaked up more than what I thought was missing. I learned, albeit mostly unconsciously, a lot about his attention, his care for detail, and his willingness to learn about a problem in order to address it. He was, I think, more comfortable with wood and tools and gadgets than with sadness, joy, and shame, but, nevertheless, I see things through his eyes in new ways now, and it makes me feel good to fix a gate or gutter, to find that my curiosity has a grip on the material world as well as psychic reality.
Jim Grotstein has said that we never internalize an object. What we internalize is “the legacy of the influence of the relationship”.
Here is a list of some of the things that might block someone from making use of the generosity of mentors. 1. possessiveness of knowledge 2. a frantic need to know 3. a tendency to concretize experience 4. envy 5. corrosive self doubt 6. omniscience 6. radical disappointment 7. tenacious idealization 8. intolerance of frustration 9. shame over intense emotion 10. confusion between love and hate 11. insufficient courage in the face of emotional turbulence 12. laziness 13. entitlement 14. insincerity 15. the inability to differentiate truth from lies 16. too much curiosity 17. too little curiosity 18. the inability to sustain focus 19. insufficient endurance 20. blindness
Despite all these potential obstacles, I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors who have deeply enriched my life through sustained contact.
Different people create different possibilities for emotional contact. Each intimate couple creates an atmosphere of their own that unfolds over time. Just like there are erotic couples and friendly couples there are learning couples where passion is expressed through curiosity and discovery and an instinct toward expanding truthfulness.
One of my first mentors was a man just a dozen years older than me. He helped me learn how to read and write and think critically. As a young man I spent hours in discussion with him. Crossing paths with him shaped my intellectual trajectory and helped me value thinking seriously and passionately. I was in my twenties and he was in his early thirties. He was like the big brother I never had. Our relationship grew competitive and we drifted apart. But I still think of him fondly and with gratitude for what we shared and how we shared it. We both grew stronger in our own ways.
Some years later I met my Buddhist teacher, a woman who has become another important mentor. She opened up a whole different way of seeing myself and the world. Her kind of mentoring is radical, calling everything into question, yet doing so with enormous compassion and integrity. Her style is to cut through everything you cling to to make yourself feel safe and special. She looks at “mind” at a whole new level. I feel enormous gratitude toward her and her teacher and his teacher. Mentoring in Buddhism is a very special relationship to goes to the heart of experience.
Winnicott talks about “potential space”. Learning couples and groups that can learn together create multiple kinds of spaces. There is the space within a person (the inner space), the space between two or more people (a play space, or potential space), and the spaciousness without location, the intuition of what Bion named O unfolding. The learning couple organizes around a shared desire to symbolize experience, to find words and expressions for the private movements of consciousness that cry out for recognition and elaboration from another. You learn to observe, to focus attention, to name and note, to inquire, to describe, to question and test and build up workable models of experience in the world. All this is very personal and yet meant, in the long run, to be useful too.
Mentors who freely play in the potential space of creativity can make moving realizations possible that in turn sponsor new preconceptions. The most important teaching a mentor can share is the freedom of his or her own mind in action. Such generosity is, I think, a gift precious beyond measure. Sharing your mind with another is one of the most intimate forms of intercourse.
I was in a group for many years where the task that evolved was an experiment in honesty. It was hard sometimes but rich. I learned a lot. If we can take our own experience as the soil for learning, then with the help of others, we grow a mentoring function of our own, a way of looking at ourselves honestly, with compassion, and even encouragement. The gains don’t have to be big or impressive. Little bits of insight can build over time. You can catch the scent of an evolving idea and stick with the trail. Hope comes from inside and outside and is always in need of renewal. Growth is often invisible, nonetheless active, moving, coming to fruition.
I feel some writers have been mentors to me. Though I never met him I feel close to Bion. Bion’s work is a living wilderness for me. I feel close to Winnicott too. I even feel somewhat of a kinship to Freud. But much more living are the voices of the teachers I’ve been lucky enough to know who have freely shared their enthusiasm for psychoanalysis and life with me. One mentor in New York City has been deeply important to me because of his enormous capacity for both dealing with destructiveness head on and also for affirming the human heart, however wounded. Another man in Los Angeles taught me by example, a way of feeling into a situation, with the heart and mind as a creative couple working together to triangulate O. A mentor in Oxford continues to encourage me to find out what I really care about. Here in Seattle, I’ve learned from many generous teachers. One mentor has become a cherished friend and has taught me many valuable lessons simply by being himself and telling me stories. Growing as a clinician turns into growing as a person. How patients can be mentors is a complex untold story but I think most of us recognize how much we learn from deep evolving work as a therapeutic couple.
As a young man I struggled with openness much more so than I do today. Mentors helped to create generative fields that sponsored inspiration, aspiration, and transformation. I fortunately stumbled into situations where emotional intimacy could grow rather than just information being gathered or gleaned. I began to get hints about the “sensibility” of other minds and to see how the conditions for creativity can be glimpsed. Learning took on a certain luminous beauty that keeps pulling me forward.
My mentors have been mostly men. I sometimes think about writing a book called “describing my muses” about the several important women in my life. Muses are different from mentors, but both can be transformational objects. They each provide deep encouragement and background emotional support. It is impossible to imagine working, living, and growing without this kind of influence as part of my changing sense of identity.
The cumulative impact of mentors has helped me to believe in my own experience, to be more at-one with it, and to listen to myself listening to others. I think people need a lot of encouragement to risk feeling deeply and opening their hearts. Sometimes there is so much pain to face and come through. It is not too strong to say that I love my mentors for their impact, influence, and encouragement. We need to have contact with people willing to be themselves precisely because it is not easy.
One of the sustained and detailed literary records of mentoring is found in Seneca’s Epistles. For example, in letter number six, titled “On Sharing Knowledge” Seneca writes: I have begun to be a friend to myself. That was indeed a great benefit…such a man is a friend to all mankind. This is what I think a mentor helps one to do, to befriend yourself, and so to open yourself to the adventure, with all its pleasures and pains, of learning to learn from experience.