My Tribe of Mentors
We are lucky. It’s pure luck that sometimes we stumble upon someone who helps us become better human beings. They boost our confidence, they believe in our abilities, they assist us, they hold a vision for us, seeing beyond what’s there in the present. I feel blessed that I’ve had a few of them in my life. As early as elementary school I had a language teacher Pani Maslowska who prized me for my writing, even when I felt it wasn’t good enough. She was there to guide me and point to my strengths and work with my weaknesses. She installed a strong belief in me that I could be a writer, which was insane considering my family situation and our position in society. Poor children did not become writers, it was almost vanity to consider it. Jobs had to be tangible. You had to make something or be useful, serve others in a concrete way: bake bread, sew a dress, sell goods in a store.
How do we know when we’re in the presence of someone who will be important to us? Mentors aren’t a one-size-fits-all garment. If you’re sensitive enough you can seize the moment and recognize the connection.
I felt that connection right away with my theater mentor. Barbara Bienkowska was a retired actress whose passion for the theatre was an incentive for me to help her start a local theater for teens in my hometown. She would expose us to great playwriting, poetry and other forms of writing. Her enthusiasm was infectious. Together we would put on plays and shows for children and adults, altering the parts we felt were outdated or changing the endings to fit our own vision. The best part was the rehearsal—we anticipated it because she would rent costumes for us from the “real” theater. The clothes smelled of perfume, powder and mothballs, telling us stories about the previous actors who wore them. The final touch of putting the wigs and the makeup on would transform us into the characters we had practiced for months. It was a magical moment when the stage was all decorated. It made it all worth it—the months of memorizing lines, time spent with the group and the frustrations of getting it right. And, of course, after the shows—the elevation, the pride and satisfaction we felt kept us going. It wasn’t for just the applause but the whole process of it. She wasn’t paid, she would do all of it for the pure love of it.
There’s a synergy. If the pupil is involved it inspires the teacher, and you both have a great experience. You are evolving together in a sacred relationship. Students inspire teachers to dig deeper with their curiosity; teachers extend themselves when they see that the student is curious.
Good teachers know how to work with a being that’s always changing. You have to know when to push and when to spend time on integration. There’s a magic in knowing “when,” an intuitive understanding. Clients usually know whether to work with me or Jerzy, they can sense what they need. We also have the advantage of being able to switch when the client decides that they need a different focus and energy in their work. Individuals can do this too—my poetry teacher (also a Zen Master), Peter Leavitt, knew when I was strong enough for the tough love of more difficult work. He never challenged me when I was down; in those moments he boosted my energy, uplifting me with a poem and giving me wings. Reminding me of my strength when I’d lost it.
Here’s a story from my work with him: one day I told Jerzy that I didn’t want to go to our session because I hadn’t written anything to show him. Jerzy said “We’re going. I didn’t write either.” I felt terrible when I arrived; I’d let him down. But Peter didn’t make a big deal out of it. I understood then that you don’t just learn from your own writing. He read us some beautiful work and we had the best discussion. He showed us the world; we fell in love with poetry again that day through his guidance. I learned that you need to show up no matter what and trust your mentor. Good ones won’t judge you, they’ll help you transition to the next place and can improvise on the spot, adapting to what you bring (or don’t) that day.
It’s important to be humble. When students show their fragility and deep humanity, good teachers can meet them, joining them in that place of human vulnerability and authenticity. There was a time when Jerzy and I were both going through internal changes and it looked like we couldn’t solve our problems by ourselves. We needed help. My first attempt at finding it came through a visit to a marriage counselor. I went only once. She analyzed me and summed me up with a list of stereotypes as if she knew everything about me based on the boxes she could place me in. She didn’t see me in any kind of complexity and wasn’t interested in doing so. I felt not only disconnection, I also felt the need to run away or else I would suffocate. I was afraid she would close the lid on me!
Then, by coincidence, we found Bob Klein: a Jewish shaman, a psychotherapist and a wonderful singer. Unlike the other therapist, he was versatile, warm and open. He had a wide range of experience and would incorporate different modalities including artwork and physical experiences. At that time I felt like I was on a quest, and I met many others who were as well—vulnerable, passionate, fascinating people. We had incredible meditation sessions together. We would follow whatever he told us to do and we had total trust in his guidance. Even when he suggested that we fly to Park City, UT for an initiation. He had a vision that Jerzy would become a mentor himself. When we returned, he told us that his work was done—it was time for us to teach others. In this way he not only saved our relationship, he helped us find our path forward together. And he knew when we were ready to be on our own.
During the time of my spiritual pursuit, I also met a very special woman, Nadia Eagles. I was often distrustful and felt like the world was not a good place. I couldn’t connect with people due to my judgment; I was too afraid that I would be hurt or cheated or abandoned. The first time I attended her weekend workshop I brought all this baggage with me: I was guarded and afraid that she would manipulate me or force ideas on me I didn’t want. But I went anyway. And what I saw was a gentle, soulful, passionate woman helping others overcome their emotional barriers and unlock their prisons. I saw her physical weakness after sessions where she invested so much energy she was left with nothing. I realized then for the first time that this can be the danger of healing or mentoring on a deep level. The physical body has to be robust to carry the work; it’s not enough just to be spiritually sound or mentally strong. In my work with her, after many long hours of meditation, I finally broke something. It only came when I was so exhausted that I softened and became playful and open to experience. I trusted myself at that point, I had dropped my rigid defenses. I finally understood that the world is neither good nor bad, and people neither crooks nor saints. I knew that I could rely on my own judgment to find the right way through any relationship or situation.
What is your definition of mentor? Can you think of anyone who in some way has helped you to become a better person and what in area of your life? Did you realize the role of that person right away, or later in your life? Can you share your story?
Leave your response below in the comments.