The Role of the Mindfulness Teacher
I believe society needs to develop a whole army of wise mentors to deal with the stress, confusion and conflict in society. Parents may not have the mentoring skills to handle their children. Bosses may not have the mentoring skills to handle their staff.
Mentors have an important role to play in every area of life to address personal issues, family dynamics, education, culture, sports and spiritual life. We need many more mentors in the public and private sector.
Many businesses and institutions in the public and private sector have the roles of the mentor for mentorees, namely those who work lower down in the hierarchy.
Bosses, managers, leaders and others charged with responsibility can also act as mentors for those who are not in such a position of authority. As a mentor, the boss or the manager or senior in experience:
highlights areas for development
offers guidance and wise counsel
gives appreciation and nourishment to the staff to develop their sense of self-worth
proposes a range of strategies to reach particular goals
and remembers to make personal time for those under their wing
People find it hard to warm to a boss who comes across as controlling and lacking in empathy. Bosses and managers experience pressure in their daily life and can find it hard dealing with yet one more demand from an employee. The employee may have to ask himself or herself whether he or she comes across in a similar way. If so, these two people will not connect but be like ‘ships passing in the night’.
Bosses always claim they are open to feedback from employees. Employees only have the confidence to give feedback, to make suggestions for change, if they experience wise support and much kindness from the bosses. Staff will not speak up if there is any fear of authority. Those who give feedback to employers need to trust their employers to listen to their voice. If employees feel they will be judged, rejected or retribution, they will keep quiet and mutter among themselves about working conditions, errors of judgement from the bosses and keep wise advice about the products or services to themselves.
At times, the mentor must listen with compassion to the frustrations, disappointments and various issues of the staff or individuals. The power of respectful listening is always important, especially when there is a loss of personal trust and confidence in management. People need to feel confidence in their leaders, otherwise staff will find ways, consciously or unconsciously, to sabotage the vision of the bosses and managers.
It is not unusual for staff to return home to deal with family issues, personal problems, financial hardship and much more. Such issues inadvertently spill-over into the workplace and get mixed up with work issues. It takes a genuine interest and equanimity in the painful dynamics of another to resolve such issues. There are two important priorities in these circumstances:
A person wishes to feel loved.
A person wishes to feel understood.
The mentor needs to keep these two points in the foreground and background of the communication. It may require all the sensitivity and skills of the mentor to communicate those two priorities.
Co-operation, trust, support and fresh initiatives vitalise working life in the public and private sector. The staff need support when they question the ethics, values and methodologies of the organisation. They have the right to question the impact of a strict regime that makes life hard for them. Employees have the right to question the pay differential, the plight of low paid workers, rules, micro-management and any social or environmental impact of products.
A busy day, full of lists of things to do, generates stress. A person may write down on a scale of one to 10 how busy he or she is. It may require willingness to make changes if sensitive communication is to take place between management and staff. The imposition of rules (often the jargon of micro-management) contributes to the dissatisfaction of staff, a lowering of interest in the work and doubts about whether the job is the one that the person wants to do.
It can be useful for a manager to track, for himself or herself, the timetable of their day. It would be useful to note the amount of time given to meetings, to clients and to the rest of their workload. The manager may need to explore a balance between supporting the needs of others and getting on with their own work. Small changes in attitude and behaviour can make an important difference to the culture of people working together. Change require the co-operation of numerous people in the working environment. That means the voices of the employers, manages and staff co-operate together to form a meaningful connection. Rather than threats to the staff, the wise employers and managers offer mentoring so that the staff really feel heard and understood. Relationships take priority over the pressure to achieve targets
The Mentor and Student
Leaders, facilitators, lecturers, teachers, trainers, educators and instructors serve as mentors in a variety of different environments. I have written the following for 25 online mentors in our Mindfulness Training Course. Many of the points apply to mentors working in the public and private sector. A Dharma student (practitioner, yogi) is one who engages in practices that contribute to an enlightened way of living. Many of the points below apply in the workplace as well. For example, readers can replace the word ‘mentors’’ with ‘managers’ and ‘Dharma students’ with ‘’staff’’ or replaced mentors with ‘bosses’ and ‘students’ with ‘employees.’ Many of the same principles in communication apply.
What is a Mentor?
The mentor engages with the Dharma student to help establish the student in a process of development that leads towards mindful living, wisdom and the heart’s awakening. The mentor provides knowledge, skills and techniques to enable the student to develop the way towards these goals.
Mentoring can suggest a range of beneficial practices that can lead towards desirable and beneficial results for the practitioner. The methods, techniques and practices employed have credibility to them due to the long tradition dating back some 2600 years to the time of the Buddha. This process requires a reliable commitment to the practice, mutual sharing, along with a consistent punctuality to give support to the process.
The mentor offers advice, knowledge and practical skills to assist the student to move towards the development of mindful and wise living amidst the events of daily life. The mentor and student can explore a supportive direction. The Buddha emphasised the value of the kalyana mitta (good friend) who offers wise counsel without placing pressure on the Dharma student. This may require some discussion on shared feedback so that both the mentor and the student know the general direction of the practice. It is not always an easy process, particularly when both the mentor and the student rely upon a relatively short weekly contact, generally through email.
Both mentor and practitioner can experience difficulties in the process:
A mentor or the student may find themselves busy with other matters. The person then lacks the time and motivation to respond to the immediate needs.
A mentor or the student may find themselves bemused or baffled by the communications from the other.
A mentor can place pressure on a student to do daily homework when the student has many tasks already in daily life.
A mentor or student may feel that the communication takes up far too much time.
A mentor may feel that the student offers too little time or irregular contact. It is not easy to find the balance that is agreeable to both the mentor and the student.
A mentor and the student may develop a warm and somewhat intimate communication, which is misinterpreted and subsequently leads to a misunderstanding.
A mentor shares his or her personal difficulties in daily life. The student can then start to feel some doubt in the capacity of the mentor to offer guidance.
It is important for the mentor to realise that he or she has a certain role of leadership within the context of the shared communication. The mentor needs to remember that the relationship does not consist of an equal sharing of needs. If the mentor wishes to address certain personal issues, then he or she needs to communicate with a Dharma teacher or senior mentor rather than the student.
Shortly before his death, the Buddha reminded practitioners that he did not have a ‘clenched fist’ around his teachings. One has to be careful that one does not offer a clenched fist around the concept mindfulness. There are already signs of the grasping onto mindfulness in its secular version and elevating its status far beyond its significance at the expense of the body of the Buddha’s teachings. This is an example of the closed fist. Like a limb in the human body, mindfulness makes a contribution towards calm and clear comprehension. It is not, and never has been, the centre of the teachings.
The same principle applies in the public and private sector. The closed fist of management shows itself when there is a rigid conviction there is only one ‘right’ way to do things.
The full expanse of the Dharma teachings makes a vast and enlightening exploration accessible to all.
It is not easy to handle the blocked view of the student but, equally, it is not easy for the student to handle the blocked view of a mentor. In the three years or more of the Mindfulness Training Course (MTC), there have been a small number of occasions when a student has told me of their concerns about a mentor. Students found it difficult when their mentor was:
holding to a view
writing judgemental views about what the student wrote
pressuring for more correspondence from the student
waiting for a reply outside of the agreed time span
If the mentor does not hear from the student for more than a week, the mentor can send a reminder to the student. The mentor can send a further reminder once a week for the next two weeks. I would suggest that the mentor does not pursue the student further.
Mentors have five options for communication. The latter two work for mentors and students living in relatively close proximity:
meeting with a group of Dharma students
The mentor empathises as much as possible with the student, not through relating similar personal stories, but through showing kindness and understanding.
At times, the mentor may wish to give some feedback to the student. The mentor needs to ask themselves “Would I like to receive such an email from a mentor?” If one has even the slightest doubt about sending an email, then it is certainly better to ‘sleep on it’ overnight before making a decision to send. If there is still doubt in the morning, then is better to delete the proposed message.
It is very hard to know the sensitivity of the student. The mentor does not know the circumstances of when the student will actually read the email. This is part of the challenge of sustaining a warm and supportive connection with the student.
One of the functions of mindfulness includes allowing the inner life to manifest clearly in consciousness. This means the mentor offers support to any changing attitudes and changes in behaviour of the student. It has occurred in the past that not all Dharma students were suitable for the MTC. The mentor informed me that the student had mental health problems, or the student was struggling with a crisis in their life. Such a student needed wise counsel, face to face, rather than a weekly email.
The mentor may have to deal with a reaction to themselves as an authority figure. Transference from the student to the mentor may challenge the mentor. It is easy for the mentor to react. It is the task of the mentor to find skilful ways to work with such transference.
Positive and Negative
The mentor takes notice of expressions of what is positive and what is negative from the student. A positive student develops their practices, shares their experience and comes to further insight and understanding. They are willing to work with challenging environments and have the capacity to acknowledge changes that need to be made.
A negative student may engage in self-blame, have the tendency to keep making excuses, find fault with others or the course. The student may blame the mentor and express self-doubt about completing the process.
The mentor needs the capacity to stay open to the positive and negative expressions of the student.
It can be worthwhile writing down the qualities of a positive and skilful mentor:
What way can you be helpful to another?
What helps to develop good communication between the mentor and the student?
What is your response if you receive some critical feedback?
What is your response if the student fails to contact you?
Different types of mentors can express different kind of attitudes that students find difficult. It is important for mentors to be mindful of their attitude and any possible reverberations. For example:
A mentor might put pressure on the student to reach goals within a certain period of time.
A mentor may have a very laid-back approach and not set any guidelines for development and reaching goals.
A mentor may tend to argue (the argue-mentor!) The student may also argue back.
A mentor may value friendship above the mentoring exchange.
A mentor may have a detached view that seems cold to the student.
A mentor may want the whole experience to be enjoyable, but that may not reflect the needs of the student.
A mentor may impose knowledge rather than share it.
What are the skilful ways and means to communicate in a sensitive and clear minded way? The argumentor tends to find fault and often only offers a negative perspective.
With skilful language and empathy, the mentor can offer the student a positive way forward at a difficult time. There is a genuine power in loving kindness when considering the words to send to the student. Communications from the mentor that show appreciation and acknowledge the responses of the student will mean a lot to the student. The student will know that he or she is on the right track.
Both co-ordinator and myself encourage mentors and students to contact us to inform us of their responses to the benefits and challenges in the mentor/student process.
We have to look within if we are to communicate in a mindful and caring way to the student. If the mentor always remembers that we are all students of the Dharma, then there is less chance of the ego inflaming the self of the mentor with notions of superiority over the student. Notions of superiority, equality and inferiority are not helpful. It is clear comprehension and skilful communication that matters – not the comparing or identifying of oneself with another.
It is worthwhile to repeat that the mentor:
helps to develop the skills of the student,
offers suggestions to any areas that the student can address,
explains in short thoughtful sentences, the tasks ahead.
It is also worthwhile to remember that there may be differences in age, gender culture and skill level. A generational gap between the mentor and the student can challenge both. The age of students ranges from teens to retired citizens.
The mentor will highlight the priorities of strengths and successes of the student with a sensitive approach to detailing concerns.
It is valuable to bear in mind that the MTC manual serves as a broad structure, giving support to a general process over a period of weeks and months. There is no expectation that the mentor should have to keep strictly to every theme in the MTC each week.
There is a middle way between strictly keeping to the guidelines and a formless approach. The desire to keep to the book, so to speak, can generate pressure upon the student. If the mentor swings to the other extreme, namely a formless approach, this attitude can seem confusing to the student.
The mentor has an important role to play in the inner development of the Dharma student. The MTC addresses a wide range of issues so that mindfulness includes ethics, lifestyle, livelihood and action in the world. It is through the sharing of small supportive details and practices that a difference can be made to the life of the Dharma student.