Encouragement in spiritual life

Frequently asked Questions on Mentoring

(A Booklet prepared by Kripamoya Das in October 2016)

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When I was initiated in 1975, Srila Prabhupada wrote a letter to my temple president at the Bhaktivedanta Manor, asking him to make sure I followed all the rules. He wrote:

13th November, 1975

My dear Prabhavisnu das,

Please accept my blessings. I am in due receipt of your letter undated and accept upon your recommendation the following as my initiated disciples….I also accept the following as twice-born brahmanas and their threads and mantra sheets are enclosed: Kripamoya das…You should have a fire sacrifice and the second initiates should hear through the right ear the mantra on my recorded tape….It is your responsibility to see that these devotees that you have recommended strictly follow the rules and regulations, chanting 16 rounds, attending the classes and the mangala aroti and refraining from the four prohibitions. You should lecture on these points at the initiation ceremony so that everyone understands fully. And by your own example you should teach.

I hope this meets you in good health.

Your ever well wisher,

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami

ACBS/BS/mdd Encs.

It was quite a common style of letter, and many temple presidents received one like this at some time. The reason was simple. Travelling the world fourteen times in a dozen years, Srila Prabhupada tended to spend only three or four days at each of his centres, perhaps once a year. There was insufficient time for meeting every disciple, so he spoke to them in groups. He eventually initiated 4,800 disciples and almost always asked the responsible senior devotees to look after them for him.

This was nothing new in the ancient Vaishnava tradition, although Srila Prabhupada’s single-handed pioneering of a world-wide movement was unique in history, and called for unprecedented arrangements. He grouped his disciples – the majority of them – in communal living arrangements and, during the 1970s, this was the standard way of life for most devotees of Krishna. “Strictly following the rules and regulations,” as he wrote in the above letter, therefore involved living in a ‘temple’ under the supervision of a ‘temple president.’

The average size of one of the temples of ISKCON, outside a few larger ones in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, London and Bombay, was between 8 – 20 residents. Keeping an eye on young devotees, freshly initiated and newly committed to their vows, was relatively easy in such small groups. It also contributed to what members fondly remember as a ‘family feeling.’

Today

Forty years on and the movement has grown and changed. The philosophy and practises remain the same, but most of the members do not live in small communal clusters. There is still communal living – in around 600 locations internationally – but the majority of ISKCON’s members now live in their own homes, visiting a nearby temple or group if there is one.

Preserving Srila Prabhupada’s request for his responsible senior disciples to provide spiritual leadership and to ‘teach by example’ has needed some careful re-designing for a new and vastly expanded situation. The rapid growth in the movement’s membership is proof of the success of Srila Prabhupada’s messages, but with size often comes greater complexity, and so it has with the challenge of helping others on the spiritual path. Because helping others to grow in spiritual life is as important as initiating them into it, for ISKCON simply to hang on to its membership required a slightly more developed approach.

The beginning was the formation of small groups for kirtan, Gita discussion and prasadam. Wherever devotees lived, they wanted to come together with others for the essential practises of spiritual life. And in doing so they supported each other. As relationships between them developed, a loving community of Vaishnavas grew, as affectionate a community as there ever was in the ‘good old days.’ When new people joined these groups, attracted by what they found there, the senior members helped them along their newly-chosen path; teaching them what they knew and offering words of inspiration, encouragement and guidance whenever they could.

When it came time for initiation, the aspiring disciples found that they needed to be ‘recommended’ by ‘an ISKCON temple president’ according to Srila Prabhupada’s orders. Because the local temple president might look after a temple many miles away, and would often not know the candidate well, if at all, the onus was upon the small group leader to provide an account of the suitability of the prospective disciple.

Although initiation is a matter of the heart, it is also a matter of the head as well. Clear thinking is required on the part of the candidate, as well as knowledge of all that the guru-disciple relationship requires. Adequate preparation for lifetime vows is essential, and the disciple must be conversant with the beliefs and practises of a devotee of Krishna. He or she must have also successfully developed some level of relationship with the prospective guru. For his part, the guru had also to get to know his prospective disciple.

But even with all that in place, the guru would only see his disciple once or twice a year. It still remained that there be a responsible person caring for the spiritual needs of the disciple. In Srila Prabhupada’s words: “It is your responsibility to see that these devotees that you have recommended strictly follow the rules and regulations, chanting 16 rounds, attending the classes and the mangala aroti and refraining from the four prohibitions.”

So the group leader, or other senior member in whom the young devotee had faith, began to take the role of pastoral supervision seriously. Regular meetings were held, and a list of pre-initiation requirements prepared. The role of the senior devotee was still one of spiritual friendship rather than spiritual director or supervisor, but elements of counselling, direction and supervision were increasingly needed as devotees became more serious about their formal spiritual commitment. Having adequately prepared the aspirant disciple, sometimes over the course of two years, the senior devotee would then submit his or her letter of suitability on behalf of the candidate, to be ratified by the temple president in the formal letter of recommendation.

Hiccups

There were a few hiccups along the way; some gurus suggested that it was all becoming a bit too formal and somewhat restrictive for their prospective disciples. That was particularly the case when the candidate did not receive a resounding recommendation. But there were other occasions when, somewhat brow-beaten by a no doubt well-intended guru, the senior devotee gave in to pressure and relented, voicing approval of the candidate against their better judgement. Months later, when the newly-initiated disciple was no longer following his vows, and when everyone involved had been thoroughly embarrassed, both guru and local group leader could understand that there was indeed value in a formal system.

Getting it right has taken time, but after five years the result is that even more devotees are becoming initiated. They are better trained and prepared, and there is a growing network of senior devotees who are very successfully guiding new members towards a progressive life in Krishna consciousness. In Britain, there are some four hundred new devotees being guided at the moment.

Somewhere along the way the generic term ‘mentor’ was chosen in preference to anything more traditional or Sanskrit. There are many such ancient words describing the teacher-guide, but the word had already come into use with our university clubs, youth groups, and was used extensively in the corporate world. It was a legitimate English word of almost universal application. Mentor is originally a Greek word now meaning ‘a wise and trusted counsellor or teacher,’ and this seemed to fit exactly. From this came the expression ‘the mentorship system’ and the rather unfortunate American back-formation ‘mentee.’

Over the four years, some experienced mentors have been compiling and sharing their successes and mistakes, and as a consequence there is a growing body of material on mentorship as it applies to ISKCON. What follows is a description of some key elements – in Q&A format. A more formal booklet on mentorship, particular as it applies to preparing a candidate for initiation, is also available.

What is Mentorship?

In his correspondence and conversations with his disciples Srila Prabhupada often used such terms as senior devotees and junior devotees, implying that a natural relationship of education, inspiration and guidance should exist between them. Mentorship is nothing more than an extension of the natural, spiritual guidance offered by Vaishnavas in a modern, non-temple setting.

What does it involve?

In mentorship there are elements of the following: Empathy; Compassion; Listening; Appreciation; Encouragement; Friendship; Care; Guidance; Advice; Inspiration; Spiritual nourishment and Teaching. A mentor gives Confidence, helps to remove Doubts, offers Empowerment and Direction; provides Continuity in the life of the devotee and teaches by Example.

What is it, exactly?

Friendship from a more experienced Vaishnava can help a devotee progress in spiritual life. Good mentorship is a form of encouragement that serves to inspire the devotee to set goals in spiritual life and to move towards them. A mentor can help to provide knowledge from scripture and guidance from their own experience; reassurance and freedom from doubts; and to cultivate devotion by providing an example.

What aspects of life is mentorship for?

Krishna consciousness is our original consciousness and can be developed or reduced according to how we live every other aspect of our lives. A good spiritual guide takes everything into consideration, because everything has an effect on our consciousness.

You might say that our life is like a tree: we have roots, a trunk and a leafy, fruit-bearing crown. The roots are our spiritual connection with Krishna through strong devotional practises; the trunk is our physical and emotional life; and the crown is what we give back to others.  Since the crown is the result of healthy growth of both roots and trunk, it makes sense to look after them both.

You’re saying that a mentor must be a physical coach as well as a spiritual guide?

Not really, but a mentor would, for instance, guide someone to keep themselves and their surroundings clean and ordered, to sleep well, to get up earlier rather than later, eat healthy meals rather than junk food, get fresh air and exercise, and to use their body in service to Krishna. If physical health is weakened then spiritual practise becomes more of a challenge.

But how can a mentor really be involved in someone’s emotional life?

A mentor might offer some counsel based on scripture. There’s a lot of Yoga texts that describe how our emotions can be affected by how we live, and how that can have a helpful or adverse effect on our spiritual focus. For instance, tranquil surroundings and deep breathing can help us to be peaceful, and getting up early can help us to meditate. A spiritual adviser might teach how to keep one’s consciousness in the mode of goodness through regulation, and the need to be aware of the bad effects created by rajasic and tamasic foods, music, movies and mundane books, late nights and so on.

The Vedas – particularly the Ayurveda and the Yoga Sutras – have a lot to say about ethics and how to act so that we cultivate a wide range of human virtues. The word prakriti means ‘nature’ and samskriti means when we use our bodies and the environment wisely so that everything we do purifies our existence and leads us to a higher level of awareness, an awakened consciousness. It’s where we get the word samskrit from, indicating the ‘purified language that leads the soul upwards.’ Vikriti means the exact opposite, when our thoughts, speech and actions bring us down to a lower level of consciousness. A mentor is someone who would teach their spiritual friends how to follow the codes of samskriti and how to avoid vikriti. A mentor would teach how to cultivate such qualities as forgiveness, for instance, or compassion. These virtues affect every other relationship in our lives, and when we act on them, when we show compassion in our actions or forgive others, this enhances our sense of emotional well-being.

So a mentor would encourage positive emotions, the cultivation of virtuous behaviour, and the actions towards others that spring from positivity and virtue. Kindness towards others, tolerance and understanding, and sharing Krishna consciousness in different ways, are all the crown of the tree of life. It’s the part that gives, the part that everyone sees – but it can only give when the other two parts are healthy. There has to be a healthy balance between roots, trunk and crown.

In a practical mentoring situation, how can you remember to check all three parts?

Well, you’re dealing with a person, and a person is an integrated package of all three parts. Sometimes all three parts are in harmony, sometimes not. You can ask the main question: “How are you?” but in three different ways, by having a simple mental checklist for all three parts. For the ‘roots’ you would ask certain questions such as “How is your chanting – did anything come up for you this month? What have you discovered from reading Srila Prabhupada’s books this month – anything helpful or interesting? Anything you found hard to understand or that gave you doubts?

If there is some doubt about some aspect, or if there has been some negligence in some area, you can talk about that.

Regarding the ‘trunk,’ you want to ask if they are physically well and emotionally nourished. This area includes their friendship circle, their family, work situation and their social progress. There are times in life when even deeply committed devotees find it hard to continue: bereavement or divorce; job loss or moving home; sickness or anxiety about the future – all these times are when a mentor needs to be concerned, listen empathically, and offer words of support.

The third area is all about what they are doing for the support and upliftment of others. Krishna consciousness is meant for sharing, is easy to share, and contributes so much to their own spiritual progress that it’s a very important question to ask.

So many questions! Isn’t it all a bit taxing for people?

Well, you don’t sit down with a list of 50 questions and ask them one after another. That would be an imposition and it would be impersonal, too. But if you internalise those questions, and then bring them up in a natural conversation, in your own words, you’ll be able to cover everything.

It sounds as if you are asking mentors to be psychotherapists as well!

A mentor is not a physical trainer, a health consultant, a qualified doctor, an astrologer, a psychotherapist or a nutritionist (unless they do happen to be professionally qualified in those capacities) but to the extent that Srila Prabhupada offered us all life guidance on how to have a good health/life/work balance so that we could serve Krishna, we should comfortable in doing that, too.

In fact, it is a long-standing tradition in Vaishnava circles to offer guidance in the areas known as gauna-vidhi-bhakti – life choices that are not in themselves bhakti, but which have a direct bearing on how we perform bhakti. Bhaktivinode Thakur was a great advocate of a physically and emotionally balanced life so that we could serve the ultimate purpose of life: God realisation. But if someone we’re mentoring requires expert advice in any of these areas, it is the mentor’s job to re-direct them to someone more qualified.

What should be the attitude of a mentor?

A mentor is a compassionate Vaishnava. As we grow and mature in our spiritual lives, the desire to help others increases. It’s a natural by-product of loving Krishna. When we understand the Lord’s love for us, and our gradually increasing love for Him, we actually feel ourselves wanting to help others. If you encounter someone who is new to Krishna consciousness you’ll want to answer their questions, to share what you know with them. You will want to help them get over their doubts and fears about spiritual life, and you’ll reassure them that Krishna consciousness is actually a noble path on which they’ll experience inner peace and joy.

But to do it properly you’ll need empathy, compassion and kindness. You’ll need to put yourself in another’s position and help them with sensitivity, always encouraging them and empowering them to see their way ahead. You can help them in goal-setting, but the choice of goal should be theirs. As a senior devotee you have authority and a certain amount of spiritual power, and they will respond to that, but the main thing is always to give them power – just as Srila Prabhupada empowered his disciples.

It sounds like the role of a mentor could actually be an egotistical one?

Yes, there’s always a danger when in a role of spiritual guide that you can enjoy the role in the wrong way. That’s why you always have to remember that it’s a service for your guru; and that it’s not actually about you – it’s about them and Krishna. And you are simply the one who is helping to form and keep their relationship with Krishna strong and healthy. You are a midwife helping to bring to bring out the beautiful child of Krishna consciousness. You have a facilitation role, a serving role, not an enjoying role. Just as a midwife never imagines that the baby belongs to her, so you should understand that you can’t take credit for the spirituality developed under your mentorship. If Krishna wants to, He will give you the credit – but you can’t take it for yourself. Indeed, after all your mentoring work is done you may even be forgotten by your devotee friends, but you’ll do it anyway, praise or none, remembered or not.

But how can I be compassionate – when I don’t feel compassion?

Like anything else, compassion is something that must be cultivated, and that takes time. We can develop it through abhyasa, or practise. That means to do compassionate things out of duty until we feel it naturally. Besides, if you show compassion to others, even though you might feel artificial at times, you’ll help yourself to become self-realised. In the ancient Srimad Bhagavatam there’s a nice instruction from an incarnation of God named Kapila to his father Kardama Muni. He says: “You should show compassion to all living entities. Then you will attain self-realisation. You should give assurance of safety to all. And by doing so you will perceive your own self as well as all the universes in Me, and Myself in you.” (SB 3.21.31)

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu said that the Vaishnava movement is made of three things:

  1. Jiva Daya – compassion to all living beings
  2. Nama Ruchi – a taste for chanting the holy name of Krishna
  3. Vaishnava Seva – service to the Vaishnavas

Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, the great-grandfather of the Krishna consciousness movement said: “Shri Krishna is very quickly satisfied with persons who have compassion towards all others, and do not cause them any pain and anxieties. Compassion is the foremost quality of the Vaishnavas. Compassion is their main dharma.” (Jaiva Dharma, Chapter 20)

He explained further: “Compassion and compassionate actions help us to forget our ego-centred world. Compassionate actions therefore give rise to self-realisation and then God realisation.”  The Thakur then gives three meditations to help us develop compassion:

  1. All living beings are equal.
  2. All experience misery in the same way that I do.
  3. If I want to help them I will have to make a determined effort and take concrete measures to help others and eradicate their misery.

To help ourselves develop compassion, and to help others, we need a strong spiritual foundation; to see the pain of others, or their confusion or problems; to become free from judging them or envying them. We cannot remain stuck in our small-mindedness but must see ourselves and others from Krishna’s point of view, as spiritual beings on a journey of many lifetimes. Our business, now that our path has crossed that of others, is to help wherever we can.

That’s all very well, but a mentor is a kind of spiritual director, and I feel uncomfortable in giving direction to others.

It’s important to remember that spiritual direction can only be given to someone who first asks for it, and if someone has asked you for help, why would you not give it? If a stranger asks you to guide them to a place in your town, you would carefully tell them which turnings to take, which landmarks to look out for, and so on. Guidance in spiritual life is the same. There is a road map and you help people reach their destination. You’re not directing them to go somewhere of your choice; you’re giving them directions to a destination they’ve chosen for themselves.

Because you have walked the path of Krishna consciousness for several years more than those you are guiding, you are expected to point out to them the obstacles, the wrong turnings and the dead-ends along the path. Perhaps you’ve made some mistakes in your spiritual life, and now it’s your turn to share the wisdom of personal experience.

But apart from that, you’ll be empowering others by giving them their own map and allowing them to make their own choices. A mentor – or a guru – should never be in the position of giving such detailed guidance that the devotee feels he cannot make the next step without their input. A good spiritual director teaches broad principles, is sometimes consulted on detailed questions, but encourages those in their care to be self-reliant.

So how would you describe spiritual direction?

Any spiritual direction is meant to guide the person to re-establish their broken relationship with Krishna. To use Lord Chaitanya’s example: the beginning of spiritual life is like planting a seed, and practising spiritual life is like cultivating the small seedling. To be a gardener of that plant of devotion you must do two things – watering and weeding. Watering is to provide what is needed in spiritual life, and weeding is to remove those things that are not needed.

We water every day and we weed every week. Watering is the drip-drip-drip of the hearing of Krishna’s names in the form of daily japa meditation and hearing about Krishna from scripture such as the Srimad Bhagavatam. Wherever there are devotees of Krishna there will also be these two elements, so keeping association with devotees is also watering the seed.

Weeding is done periodically by pulling out any little weeds that have taken root along with the main seed. The main weeds are desires for material enjoyment and the desire for liberation, both of which have nothing to do with cultivation of love for Krishna, and both of which can strangle the delicate little seedling.

So a good spiritual director – a good mentor – teaches what weeds are, helps the mentee identify them in his own thoughts or actions, and assists with their uprooting. When caught early enough, the weeding will not be painful.

So if I do give spiritual direction to others, how can I do it successfully?

You have to be a trustworthy person. Unless someone trusts you, they won’t listen to your direction anyway. You must first get to know Krishna yourself – perhaps more than you already do. When you’re making a determined effort to know Krishna then you’ll find that your spiritual direction has strength from your conviction. You can do this by reading about Krishna more – we can always read the Srimad Bhagavatam more – and by your attentive chanting. You must be conscious of Krishna and firmly rooted in your own sacred relationship with Him.

Then you need to make yourself accessible. Make yourself available. Be there with them in person, not just through emails or on the phone. Being a mentor means having a personal relationship with people – where they are, not where you are. You may have to adjust your schedule to fit theirs for instance. Don’t expect that they can always adjust their life to meet up with you.

Third thing is to be willing to help. Your willingness to help them will radiate out from you if its real, but you’ll only confuse them if you’re not actually willing to help, but you say that you are.

It seems like being a mentor is a position of great responsibility. How do I know if I’m up to the mark?

Don’t confuse position with role. Being a mentor is not an organisational position; it’s all about becoming a spiritual friend and helping someone move forward in their life. Yes, you occupy a greatly responsible position in their life, but if you don’t succeed in being a helpful spiritual friend to them they will quickly let you know! They will move on, and so will you. Don’t be too worried or nothing will be achieved.

You said trustworthiness is the first quality of being a mentor. How can I be fully worthy of someone’s trust – or know that they trust me?

No-one will listen to you if they don’t trust you. The first sign that someone trusts you is that they’re listening. Trust is first established during the time of personal exchanges, and it is strengthened when you live up to your promises and assurances.

One way to be trusted, in a spiritual exchange, is to be joyful as a result of deep spiritual practise. Your spiritual connection will shine through your external appearance; you’ll show your spirituality in your smile or in your eyes. You can’t fake it.

Trustworthiness is created when the other person can feel that you’re connected with shastra and your own guru. You can demonstrate that connection by references to guru and Krishna in the conversation. But don’t try to show off your scriptural scholarship; if you do the trust will be lost because the conversation has become all about you.

If you create trust, they’ll be comfortable to follow your advice.

How can I make myself ‘more accessible?’

Accessible means that you find the time to be with those you’re mentoring, physically and mentally. It will mean that you pick up the phone when they call you, or it means making yourself available at a pre-designated time for a call. You can’t say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have time right now.” It means making the time to meet up physically, and spending enough time with them to discuss things in depth – if they want to.

Accessible also means that the person must feel: “My voice is heard with real interest by this devotee. My mentor wants to listen to me, and is making time for me.”

There is an art to listening and letting the other person know they’re being heard. Sitting with an open posture, leaning forward, maintaining eye contact, listening without interrupting and asking relevant questions at the right time, all increase your accessibility.

Sometimes I try to help others, but then afterwards I wonder if I’ve been of much help at all. What advice can you give me?

A willingness to help is essential. Provided you have some enthusiasm, God will do the rest! You would be surprised what Krishna can do if you just let Him talk through you – you just have to get out of the way! But seriously, the first thing is to accept that you are meant to give spiritual direction. Krishna wants you to, the guru wants you to, and you know you want to!

An aeroplane is as much as 90% off-course throughout the journey, did you know that? There is so much wind up there. All the pilot does is to perform a series of course corrections throughout the journey, and make sure the plane lands safely. When people first come to Krishna consciousness they are up in the air and headed in the right direction, but they could be doing something wrong almost 90% of the time. Your service to them is to perform a series of micro-corrections so that they can stay on track and ultimately reach their destination.

People expect guidance from someone older and more knowledgeable than them, and secretly they crave correction. They may not always ask you to correct them – but you shouldn’t always wait until they ask! A modern idea is that everyone should be allowed to find out everything by themselves, but that is not the ancient way. We like to empower people, yes, but we’d much rather they didn’t have to make every possible mistake before they discover what best spiritual practise is. Life is short.

When correcting someone, you can do it in an encouraging way, not dwelling on their mistakes or fears, but being positive and pointing out the way forward. Offering guidance or correction also involves being courageous at times. You can’t hold back on something they need to hear about themselves. You need to be brave enough to be confrontational, but kind enough that your words don’t threaten the relationship.

The way you describe mentorship, it seems like there’s a lot in it for them, but nothing for me…

Please don’t think like that! If you do it correctly, you’ll have deep feelings of reciprocation from Krishna. Yes, it’s true, you’ll have to put yourself out a bit, listening to people and their problems, having philosophical discussions at all times of day or night, always being willing to help. I’m sorry if I’ve made it sound more daunting than it is!

The rewards are great, though. People will love you if you just listen to them and try to help them. A spiritual guide is more valuable than even a doctor, and is treated with even greater affection. You are representing Krishna, after all, and by repeating His words, your conversation will be taken very seriously. And the Lord Himself always helps His teachers and preachers, especially those who help other devotees by enlightening them and talking about Him.

So you will be loved by Krishna, famous in the world – and you’ll even be materially cared for by those who you’ve cared for. Is that alright?

I’m not so sure…it all sounds as if I could get big-headed from being a mentor!

That’s true, you could. But you have to remember one very important rule:

No-one comes to you…because of you.

It’s not about you at all. They want Krishna, not you. He has sent them and has entrusted them to you, that’s all. All that matters is their well-being, not the love they give you – or don’t give you. It’s always them first, then Krishna, then you.

You shouldn’t become a mentor because your ego needs it, or you need affection, or you need to be a teacher, or because you have some other kind of need. It’s not about your neediness, it’s about theirs.

Just like if you’re a pujari on the altar. The curtains open, and you simply stand there, expecting the congregation to adore you. What a fool you’d look. They didn’t come to see you. They’re not there for you at all; they’re there for the Lord. Being a mentor is like being a pujari – you’re just facilitating their darshan.

So you need to check your motivations. It’s not that you’ll have no ulterior motives, naturally, but you’ll need to be aware of them and be prepared accordingly. If you want to be loved by those you help, that’s exactly how you’ll be tested. One day, not one of your mentees will love you, or even like you. You have to be able to cope with that. It will pass, of course, but the difficult feelings you’ll endure will arise because of your particular attachment to being loved, or respected.

Being a mentor will be good for me spiritually, then?

Absolutely. You’ll get to know your limitations – of knowledge, of guiding capability, of tolerance, and that’s always helpful. Being a mentor is hard, sometimes, but it will do you good!

Incidentally, when you feel you’ve reached your limits with a person, please do pass them on to another mentor. Don’t bind them to you because you need them.

As a spiritual director, you must practise being invisible. Srila Prabhupada’s expression – which he took from his own guru – was ‘a transparent via media.’ One time in London he was asked what a guru was. He replied by taking off his spectacles: “Now I can see you, (then he replaced his glasses) now I can see you better. Guru is transparent via media.”

Transparent means, of course, ‘see-through,’ and that the guru is not opaque. You see through him to Krishna. Srila Prabhupada said that this was the mystery of the disciplic succession: the guru stands between you and Krishna but your relationship with Krishna is direct.

As a mentor you’ll also need to cultivate gratitude, which is always a good thing. Gratitude that: “I have a precious opportunity to help this person on their spiritual journey. Krishna has placed His trust in me. I am very grateful for this.”

Are there different types of mentoring for different stages of spiritual growth?

Yes. Some say there are five basic stages:

  1. Sravana dasa or hearing, learning, asking questions, discussion. Developing faith and eagerness.
  2. Varana dasa or accepting the knowledge and values internally. Taking up a formal commitment to practise under the guidance of an authority.
  3. Smarana dasa or remembering and putting it all into practise. Performing sadhana (‘the means’ to achieve something) and removing obstacles.
  4. Apanna dasa or achieving the results of practise. Assimilation and realisation.
  5. Prapanna / Sampati dasa or full surrender. Fully entering the ‘house of bhakti.’

At each of these stages there will be mentoring appropriate to the stage. Sometimes the guru will do the detailed work, but often the mentor will help at all steps in between.

In each different stage it is helpful if the mentor gives assignments which help to move the devotee to the next stage.

How would you describe an ‘obstacle’ in spiritual life, and how is it removed?

An obstacle is anything that prevents a devotee from making progress. Many of them have been described in detail by Srila Jiva Goswami in his Sandarbha books, and Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakur in his Madhurya Kadambini.

One important obstacle – a complete ‘road-block,’ it seems, for newcomers – is that they expect everything on their spiritual journey to be easy and fast. They become surprised when obstacles come along at all, and often become despondent. Just as making ghee from hot butter involves sifting out the impurities that bubble to the surface, so spiritual life involves identifying the impurities that act as obstacles and removing them.

The technique of dealing with an obstacle is to identify them but not dwell on them. By dwelling on them excessively they become unnecessarily fed and such negative thinking creates anxiety and a form of mental paralysis.

Mentors are not meant to provide material solutions to material problems, but spiritual solutions to all problems. A change of attitude to a perceived problem is often all that is required to see your way around it, or through it.

What role does the devotee community play in all this?

An absolutely essential role. Although there is regular care being provided by the mentor, when the devotee joins a spiritual small group or large community there is a continuity of care. By interacting with many other devotees, the person you are helping receives confirmation of everything you’ve said. But the mentee must rise above what might be termed a ‘passive spiritual consumerism’ and actually engage in relationships with other devotees. Physical devotional service takes the philosophy to a different level and provides an individual with purpose, acceptance and a feeling of belonging.

Is mentoring like other types of counselling?

Well, that’s an interesting question. Historically, in Europe, the priest was the counsellor and therapist for the community, and his guidance always included relevant spiritual direction. His advice included reminding the individual of their relationship with God and how that should be re-established through prayer. This gradually changed around 1920 with the advent of psychology and other forms of therapy being developed as separate disciplines. Nowadays, no-one would consider going to a priest for counselling unless they were members of a church congregation. Indeed, in order to be considered a truly professional counsellor, there must be no mention of God or any specific spiritual undertones to the counselling exchange. The soul must never be mentioned, only the ‘mind.’

But the processes, you could say, are very similar:

  1. An awareness by both parties of obstacles being signposts pointing to a lesson that has to be learned. That everything that happens to them in life is to help them progress. That the mentor/counsellor is there to help them see things from a spiritual perspective.
  2. The mentor/counsellor takes on the observer role and stays in it, not getting lost in the counselee’s ‘story.’
  3. The mentor/priest prays for permission to help the individual; to be an instrument in God’s hands, through which divine blessings will flow.
  4. To recognise the unexpressed and unfulfilled needs of the client. To see things from the other’s perspective.
  5. To identify the ‘story behind the story’ and to encourage the client/devotee to see the inner story behind their story or life-script.

You’ve mentioned ‘unfulfilled needs’ – you mean the inner, spiritual needs, right?

Perhaps you’ll be surprised, but no. We all have legitimate needs that are physical or emotional. These needs should not be ruled out of the life of a devotee, simply because the devotee is on a spiritual path. Such real needs are legitimate and need to be taken care of. If not, they can develop into great obstacles in our life.

In his book, Caitanya Siksamrita, Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur engages us in this discussion by describing both physical and mental needs. He writes that keeping the body properly nourished through eating and drinking, sleeping and exercise and in times of sickness, adequate medicines, are the fulfilment of physical needs.

Mental needs include elevation of the mind through art and literature, music, charity, social position and so on. He writes as follows:

“If a person does not follow these rules he cannot pass through life smoothly. By not taking care of these needs the mind will be dominated by sinful thoughts and atheistic attitudes. Finally, men will become no better than a beast. Therefore, these bodily and mental rules are very necessary for success in human life.”

So a mentor is able to help the devotee identify his/her needs and a practical way to deal with them and stay on the spiritual path.

So is any material desire a ‘legitimate need?’

Unfortunately not; if that was the case, Krishna consciousness would be very popular indeed!  A ‘legitimate need’ is something that we need to sustain our existence, peace and basic happiness – and a stable family, neighbourhood and community.

Several thinkers have created ‘hierarchies of needs’ but they have a tendency to resemble each other. The following are normally included:

Physiological – Everything needed for physical survival: air, food, water, sex, sleep.

Safety – the feeling of being ‘safe,’ or being out of harm’s way, both physically and mentally: security of body, employment, resources, morality, family, health and property.

Love/Belonging – Friendship, family, intimacy.

Esteem – Confidence, achievement, respect.

Self Actualisation – Morality, creativity, problem-solving, authenticity.

All of these desires, though material, are legitimate in the sense that the Vedas prescribe ways in which they can be satisfied in a regulated and moral manner, and still be part of our journey towards our ultimate goal. However, the very same material desires can also be transcended when one develops a higher taste.

A mentor is charged with the responsibility of helping the devotee discern what are his legitimate and unfulfilled needs that are being inappropriately denied in the name of transcendence, and what needs have already been factually transcended, and can thereby no longer be considered ‘needs.’ Getting it right may take some time, and there are many mistakes made along the way, but it is all-important for happy and peaceful progress in spiritual life.

How is encouragement used in mentoring?

When a devotee reaches an obstacle in spiritual life it can be a challenging time for them. Quite often an obstacle is the result of some deep-seated attachment. An attachment causes a person to become fearful of giving up the attachment and taking the next step. Fear must be dealt with by courage. The very word encouragement means ‘to give courage’ and involves reassurance that taking the next step will be a positive move, that they will receive much more than they leave behind, and that the fear they feel is not an unnatural response. Courage implies not that the fear has been removed, but that the person takes the next step even in the presence of fear. Therefore encouragement is a large part of mentoring!

How long does mentoring continue?

The process of mentoring, or offering teaching, spiritual guidance and encouragement, is a natural and permanent part of being a Vaishnava. As one progresses in one’s own spiritual life it is expected that one will be sought out by those coming fresh to bhakti. Even if you don’t particularly seek them out, they will find you – or Krishna will send them to you!

But in practise we have found that mentoring lasts for as long as it proves helpful to the person concerned. There is something of a tendency for a person to ‘float’ for some time until they find a mentor who suits them. There is also a tendency for them to leave that same mentor when difficult challenges and tests of spiritual life come along. The reason for this is that the difficult-to-follow guidance comes from the mentor, and sometimes the individual will think: “Perhaps if I have another mentor the advice will be easier.”

It’s not that the mentor is being deliberately ‘difficult,’ merely that the devotee is in the middle of a turbulent and irresolvable dilemma. Their strong desire for spiritual advancement has now clashed with their lingering desire for some form of material advancement, and in their confusion they excuse themselves from the relationship, find another mentor, only to discover that their new spiritual guide also gives the same advice.

A mentor’s task is to help the devotee through phases of turbulence like this, and to do it again and again as long as they are happy. Yet it is not appropriate for a mentor to allow the devotees in their care to become so comfortable they become casual. A mentor is not meant to be a clucking ‘mother-hen’ looking after baby chicks – sometimes strong words or an uncomfortable confrontation is required. Yet neither is it proper for the mentor to be a ‘sergeant-major,’ constantly ordering the devotee with commanding words and gestures. The mentor must be balanced, and the mentee must understand that when difficulty comes, as it must, it is not caused by the mentor but by himself.

So for greater stability, our general advice to a devotee is to stay as long as possible with a mentor, even if there is some difficulty, at least for six months. And of course, that is the minimum period for a mentor also. Otherwise, if all is working well in their relationship, they can continue without interruption. That will be good training for initiation, a permanent student-teacher relationship.

I’m glad you mentioned initiation; how does that fit into mentoring?

Mentoring fits into initiation! Actually, mentorship is an indispensable part of the initiation process. In one form or another, mentorship has always been a part of a prospective disciple’s path.

Mentoring currently begins – at least ‘officially’ shall we say – when a devotee agrees to chant four rounds of the maha-mantra every day. It can begin much earlier, but because this level indicates a serious commitment it is one that our senior devotees like to have in place before taking someone on as a mentee.

There is a road-map for initiation – stages of progress along the path – and the mentor simply helps the prospective disciple move from one to the next. When the mentor sees that his mentee has satisfied all the criteria for becoming initiated he or she will meet with the local temple president and a letter of recommendation can be written to the guru.

You make it sound very simple, but I have read that there are now so many details to the process of initiation. Why is it so complex?

It’s actually quite simple, but appears complex because of the way the path has been broken down into a number of stages. The main principle is to see that the same rules that Srila Prabhupada put in place for disciples living in a temple are followed by every candidate for initiation, no matter who they are, or where they live. Of course, it has also been taken into consideration that their living situation may be different because most disciples in the formative years of the movement did not commute to their places of work, nor did many of them have young children. And though it would be wonderful if every home had a large shrine room with a resident pujari, we know that is impossible for most people. So certain things have been adjusted.

But there seems to be a lot of paperwork these days – why is that necessary?

There’s more to read when new devotees don’t learn things by living communally with other Vaishnavas. So we’ve produced a booklet on basic Vaishnava etiquette and a booklet on the stages towards initiation. There’s also a handy progress chart to fill in with a simple tick report of daily sadhana.

You know, back in the ‘good old days’ we used to have hundreds of new devotees coming and going in our communities; they’d stay for some time, sometimes years, then they’d leave. There were no records kept of the service they gave to the movement while they stayed with us. That’s a great shame, because they gave so much. Srila Prabhupada always kept a book into which he wrote the names of his initiated disciples, so these days we keep track of everyone who’s initiated – and everyone who’s on the path to becoming initiated. That’s a little bit of extra paperwork, but we think it’s worth it.

There is a Disciple Course that the candidates go on now; it gives them all the information they’ll need before initiation, and a short exam that everyone takes. So I suppose if you add it all up there’s more paper, but the result is that new devotees are better prepared, better informed – and better connected!