The Tragic and the Transcendent
Nate Koser, MA
Saybrook University, San Francisco, CA
Horizons Counseling and Consultation, Harrisonburg, VA
In this account I will discuss the importance of emphasizing tragedy and the human potentiality of transcendence in an understanding of our existential experience. I will use the process of my grandfather’s recent death to illuminate the tragic implications of human life as well as the ubiquitous freedom of transcendence. I will also suggest that the tragic and transcendent dimensions of human life create an experiential tension and give rise to the human potentiality for creation.
The Tragic and the Transcendent
“The more he seeks to rise into the height and light, the more vigorously do his roots struggle earthward, downward, into the dark, the deep – into evil” (Nietzsche, 2005 p. 39; italics added).
It is not difficult to understand that human life involves tragedy. Tragedy is a prominent thread in the tapestry of our existence. We are always already engaged in a confrontation with the tragic dimensions of our lives; however, these are what we most readily strive to eradicate.
A few months ago I was sitting in my consulting office awaiting the arrival of a client when I received a phone call from my mother. “Grandpa was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer” she said. I was shocked. This news struck some dormant chord within me – tears came, my stomach caved in, and my lips began to quiver. The phone call ended and I continued to reel from the news. I collapsed into my chair, cried, and looked out my window -- the world took on a grayish hue.
After that phone call there were many more with news of my grandfather’s rapid deterioration. There were hurried trips to and from my family’s home. Extended family would travel from all over the country and congregate in small, dank hospital rooms. They would pray, tell stories, laugh, and cry -- there were pangs and pining, messages of hope and redemption, fear and denial. Each time I would arrive, the stench would increasingly sting my nose, the ambivalence with which I embraced my grandfather would heighten, and the farther from him I would feel. The threshold to his room became a haunting gauntlet.
The cancer raged and gorged itself fat on my grandfather’s body. Within three months he was dead. In that time he was taken from a seemingly healthy, active man, to no more than a vapid spirit clinging onto green, haunting flesh draped around brittle bones. There were tubes, a bed, a catheter, and the body of a man always straining outward, upward, and inward.
The process of my grandfather’s death was an archetypal tragedy, and through his confrontation with his situation he not only affirmed his life, but all life. Through the tragic, and amidst its sway, my grandfather was also able to exemplify the human experience of transcendence. He will be my impetus for this account.
“I beseech you, my brothers, remain true to the earth” (Nietzsche, 2005, p. 10; italics added).
The tragic aspects of human life seem to be rooted in a titanic struggle present as both our ontological ground and our impetus for development (Heidegger, 1962; Nietzsche, 2000). Existential writers have poignantly highlighted the tragic implications of life and our plight to address them (Becker, 1973; Liechty, 1995; Heidegger, 1962; May, 1981, 1975, 1967; Yalom, 1980). It is with the sharpness of their analysis we are made aware of the drama which is paradoxically individual and collective. We are asked: “does not every human conflict reveal universal characteristics of man [and woman] as well as the idiosyncratic problems of the individual” (May, 1969, p. 19)?
These existential authors proclaim that we as humans exist in multiplicity, and as a result of this our lives are infused with vibrancy and limitation (Becker, 1973; Liechty, 1995; Heidegger, 1962; May, 1981, 1975, 1967; Nietzsche, 2000; Yalom, 1980). It is this paradox which gives rise to the tragic. We are shown to be beings who are aware of and experience our existential predicament in all of its freedom and limitation (May, 1981; Nietzsche, 2000; Becker, 1973; Yalom, 1980).
These thinkers also express that we are organisms bound by our desire to survive, by instinct, and all manner of biological limitation and vicissitudes. Existing in a social, interdependent context with those around us, our reality is shown to be in relationship (Buber, 1970). Further, we exist in an intimate relationship with our own experience and consciousness (May, Angel, & Ellenberger, 1958); relating to ourselves as “both subject and object” (May, 1967, p. 8). We are “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 65).
Each dimension of our experience creates new limitations. With this dimensionality we battle -- we strive to remedy the experiential understanding of our embeddedness (May, 1981; Becker, 1973, 1975; Liechty, 1995; Stolorow, 2007). Our consciousness appears as both a boon and a curse.
Life is shown to be tragic in the sense that we exist in a world, a universe, and a cosmos indifferent to us; yet, we are beings gripped by conviction -- we are impelled to answer the challenge of life (Yalom, 1980; May, 1981, 1975; Nietzsche, 2000). At the same time “humanity sees itself confronted by an unanswerable problem, by the ultimate collapse of every effort to realize its promise” (Jaspers, 1969, p. 30).
Bearing witness to my grandfather’s death enlivened these dimensions of my experience in poignant ways. Watching my grandfather rub up against the brutality of his limitations offered a detailed vivification of his existential situation. In resonant accord, I felt as if my existence refused to be silent: my care was paired with throttling anger; I tried to hold onto my grandfather but equally to escape; I wanted answers but there was nothing other than brutally haranguing nothingness. The cancer invaded every dimension of my grandfather’s being, and destroyed my feelings of stability.
The cancer ravaged his body, limiting his mobility to a wheelchair and hospital gurney. He lost the control of his most basic bodily functions. The cancer infused his relationships with pain and loss, love and hate -- he reached out and pushed away, both options failing to save him. The sting of his isolation could not be assuaged. The cancer gripped his consciousness and his relationship toward his experience. He had moments of sage-like clarity bestowing wisdom to anyone who would hear. I tried to attend, but with each statement realized these were the final thoughts of someone who I loved so much. How could I absorb this? He also dove headlong into epic hallucinogenic struggles which seemed to allow him the solace of an abyss between his spirit and body -- some futile respite which became a blessing.
All his responses reeked of desperation, longing, and the oscillation between the acceptance and refusal of death. By all accounts my grandfather’s limitations were heightened. He was tethered to the earth. The world and his disease offered no consideration toward his experience of the situation.
He felt the hot breath of death and could offer no remedy; yet, he offered a response regardless of its saving power, and it is for this that his death was tragic. My grandfather knew that he could not escape his limitations and his impending death. However, in the final moments, my grandfather, still gripping onto life, chose his rejoinder. It was my grandfather’s conviction -- his faith in the answer he chose to give -- which made him the hero of this tragedy (Nietzsche, 2000; May, 1953).
Our existence can be seen to be a tragic one. It is our “destiny” (May, 1981, p. 88) to encounter life and be forced to fold in our limitations with every freedom. However, it is tragedy which seems to illuminate the dignity and value of the human struggle. “For the sense of tragedy is simply the other side of one’s belief in the importance of the human individual. Tragedy implies a profound respect for the human being and a devotion to [their] rights and destiny…” (May, 1953, p. 50-51). The process of my grandfather’s death was at times unbearable for me. I would drift in and out of grief. The pain would bubble over from smells, from sights and sounds -- small utterances and songs became strong enough to tear at my flesh. Yet, amidst such brutality there was dignity in it. There was integrity. There was honesty.
To existential authors the capacity to choose, to commit, to answer the “call of conscience” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 314) and face our inherent limitations in spite of our impotence, is to enliven our greatest potentialities -- freedom, authenticity, courage, responsibility, and creativity (May, 1981, 1953, 1975; Yalom, 1980; Nietzsche, 2000, 2005; Becker, 1973). It can be seen that an attempt to view life without also incorporating the necessity of tragedy results in a derivative, stale, and superficial monotony. In neglecting tragedy, human existence loses its vibrancy, its potency, and its depth.
Tragedy is also a poignant impetus for those who witness its impact in others. In my experience it has changed everything about the way I relate to the world. Tragedy seems to bridge the experiential chasm we feel between ourselves and those around us. In honoring the tragic, and refusing to strip it of its brutality, we affirm life (Nietzsche, 2000; May, 1953; Stolorow, 2007).
If we resist shrinking back from the tragic and we see its necessity, we not only affirm the lives of others but we already affirm our own. Honoring and affirming the abject turmoil and tragedy of my grandfather’s death -- allowing the pain to linger and to “learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things” (Nietzsche, 1887/1974, p. 223) -- is for me to honor all human life.
“And life itself spoke to me. ‘Behold’, it said, ‘I am that which must ever overcome itself’” (Nietzsche, 2005, p. 101; italics added).
The tragic aspects of our lives seem to be easily acknowledged; despite our feelings about them, it does not take much to notice they are there. Perhaps what is less apparent is that within our tragic limitations we also have the capacity for transcendence. In discussing the tragic aspects of human life, our capacities for transcendence become illuminated.
To speak of transcendence welcomes a multitude of interpretations. Here transcendence should be understood not “in an other-worldly sense, but rather in the potential to see oneself as continually emerging…beyond the immediate context” (Hoffman, Yang, Kaklauskas, & Chan, 2009, p. 22). Along with our tragic limitations, we can be seen to embody potentialities which allow us to pulse, to stretch, and to move from our current position.
Thus, incorporated within an understanding of human existence as “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 65), there is a tremendously important capacity of human beings to transcend their immediate situation (May et al., 1958; May, 1983; Heidegger, 1962). Being to existential writers always already connotes the process of becoming or transcending. To exist is to be in process -- to emerge and to bubble up out of our embeddedness (May et al., 1958; May, 1983; Heidegger, 1962; Nietzsche, 2005, 1962; Whitehead, 1966; Bergson, 1946).
To “[climb] over or go beyond” (May, 1983, p. 143) is shown to occur in every dimension of our existential contextuality (May et al., 1958) -- organically, relationally, and symbolically. Transcendence is suggested to occur most noticeably as the result of our human consciousness.
According to May (1969):
The act and experience of consciousness itself is a continuous molding and remolding of our world, self related to objects and objects to self in inseparable ways, self participating in the world as well as observing it, neither pole of self or world being conceivable without the other (p. 227).
Consciousness, as shown by James (1890/1918), is experienced as “always changing [and] continuous” (p. 225) -- as a “stream” (p. 224). As Heraclitus (2001) articulated: “Just as the river where I step is not the same, and is, so I am as I am not” (p. 51).
Through remaining present to my grandfather’s death, I was able to experience how in the very last moments of life we maintain the freedom of transcendence. I watched as my grandfather slowly began to sink back into the dust from which he came; yet, I watched him claw his way toward freedom. He was able to experience his transcendence in all dimensions of his being. His biological becoming was as evident as the symbolic.
Through the stages of my grandfather’s demise, his “intentionality [or] the structure which gives meaning to experience” (May, 1969, p. 223) was always dynamic. At times I would notice him tumble into his past, unearthing forgotten memories, dissolving old resentments, and embracing what was lost. At other times he would project himself into the future, despairing over what will be missed, anticipating what his death will bring, and hoping for sweet reunion with those who had died before him. This oscillation was difficult for me to watch, and even more so to feel; this shifting was as experiential as it was reminiscent.
My grandfather would request that we serenade him with his favorite hymns, and he would drift into some tear-filled distance -- certain lyrics always wrenching him away. He would reach out for his children and grandchildren and often reminisce about the old times. Even in the direst moments, his ability to heave himself away from his limitations remained his freedom.
As with tragedy, standing witness to the transcendence of my grandfather became a maieutic process of transcendence within myself. Watching the spread of my grandfather’s transcendent potentialities enlivened my own. As he and I engaged, I was with him as he talked about my childhood antics, I was with him as he dreamed of holding my future children, and I was even with him as he embraced those lost loved ones in some divine destination. We ducked into the crevasses of our past, we lurched into the future; we were at once being and becoming.
The human capacity to transcend the immediate situation can be shown to cleave open one of our most unique capacities. Existential authors illuminate that not only are we limited in tremendous ways, we are also always already free (May, 1981, 1983; Yalom, 1980). In understanding the human experience, the potential for transcendence is beneficial to acknowledge.
At times, it could be said that our capacities for transcendence go unnoticed because they are such a prominent aspect of our experience. However, to attempt to understand human experience without also understanding that our very existence is a fluid process can be seen to neglect one of our most basic potentialities (May et al., 1958; May, 1981; James, 1890/1918; Heidegger, 1962; Nietzsche, 2005; Whitehead, 1966; Bergson, 1946; Heraclitus, 2001).
The Experiential Tension and Creative Response
“Summit and abyss – these are now united together” (Nietzsche, 2005, p. 131; italics added)!
Therefore, it can be said that human existence is an embodied paradox -- an experiential tension. We can experience solidity and fluidity, a sense of being and becoming, emergence and embeddedness -- sometimes simultaneously, sometimes individually, but mostly in dynamic process (May, 1967, 1981, 1953; Becker, 1973; Rank, 1932; James, 1890/1918).This allows human existence to be viewed as both tragic and transcendent. As May (1985) articulated: “Being both finite and infinite…our human imagination soars among the planets in the heavens but at the same time our feet are in the dust of the earth” (p. 32). We experience going beyond (May, 1983; May et al., 1958) and going under (Nietzsche, 2005).
These tragic aspects of life can give birth to our transcendent potentialities, as do the transcendent aspects contribute to the possibility of the tragic. These two existential processes could be considered primordially as two sides of the same coin. Tragedy and the affirmation of life through committed struggle and conviction could be seen as a transcendent response. Our transcendent potentialities can be seen as the sine qua non for our tragic Sisyphean struggle.
How then are we to address such a paradox? If “yearning hurts, and what release may come of it feels much like death” (Heraclitus, 2001, p. 69), how are we to affirm life through tragedy and transcendence? It could be as Nietzsche (2000) illuminated:
Here, at this point of extreme danger for the will, art draws near as the enchantress who comes to rescue and heal; only she can reshape that disgust at the thought of the horrific or absurd aspects of life into notions with which it is possible to live: these are the sublime, the artistic taming of the horrific, and the comic, the artistic discharge of disgust at the absurd (p. 46-47).
From an existential perspective, what lies at the very heart of our response to such a predicament is the human capacity for creation (May, 1975, 1985; Becker, 1973; Rank, 1932; Diamond, 1996; Nietzsche, 2000, 2005, 1974). Our creative potentialities remain our “daimonic” (May, 1969, p. 31) means of attending to our existential situation.
When we have fully glimpsed our tragic limitations but have also seen that we are always over-coming our immediate context, and we see both as foundational to our existence, we will have reached “tragic knowledge, which in order to be tolerated, needs art as a protection and remedy (Nietzsche, 2000, p. 84; italics added). To attend to our existence in both tragedy and transcendence seems to require a creative resolve (Rank, 1932; Diamond, 1996; May, 1975; Becker, 1973; Nietzsche, 2000, 2005, 1974).
I have expressed how my grandfather was both tethered to the earth with all of the limitations this provides, and always free in some way to transcendently seep out from his situation. I have shown how his death was tragic. I have also shown how the process of his death highlighted his transcendent capacities. But because of the tension between these experiential polarities, my grandfather was also forced to call upon his creative potentialities.
During those moments when my grandfather maintained his strength, he busied himself in preparations for his death. This process took many forms, all of which were creative. He had lived a life revolving around family, business, and his religious foundation. It was in these realms his creative impulses took shape. He began to prune and distill all meaningless pretenses from daily activities and attend to his life with true passion -- engaging with his business affairs, his family, and his religious faith in new ways.
Such as with tragedy and transcendence, being with my grandfather also spurred the creative response in the other members of the family. My grandfather and my other family members created a blog which gave daily updates on his dying process. Through this blog my grandfather would disseminate his feelings and his insights, and at times when he could not, my family stepped in and continued to report.
When my grandfather died, the family decided to take what had been written on this blog along with pictures of the process, and form it into a book. Thus, the family gazed upon the tragedy of his death, elucidated the process through words and picture images, illuminated my grandfather’s means of transcending his situation, and in the end allowed such an experience to be creatively symbolized.
Both tragedy and transcendence seem to be ontological components of our existence (Heidegger, 1962; May, 1981, 1953, 1975, 1983; May et al., 1958; Becker, 1973; Liechty, 1995; Nietzsche, 2000, 2005; Yalom, 1980). We encounter a life which requires an answer; yet our answers will not save us from our “destiny” (May, 1981, p. 88). We know these limitations experientially, but may also recognize that we maintain the freedom to transcend our immediate situation -- allowing us to go beyond our contextuality. And in between these experiential poles, we engage our creative potentialities as both “protection and remedy” (Nietzsche, 2000, p. 84). This account was the creative initiative I used to work through the extreme experiential tension which was vivified in the death of my grandfather. My grandfather’s death appeared to me as an example which could give experiential flesh to the tension between tragedy and transcendence. He committed to his life and died a tragic death, but through this commitment he exemplified the transcendent and creative means by which we address the human condition.
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Mentorship: A Relationship Forgotten?
One Student’s Personal Journey and Tips for How to Choose a Good Mentor
Cheryl Fracasso, MS, PhD (in progress)
Saybrook University, San Francisco, CA
A karate master once said, “there is no such thing as a bad student, only a bad teacher (quoted from character Mr. Miyagi in the movie The Karate Kid)”. Of course, this parable was referring to the larger context of life, meaning that in every waking moment we are teaching others - rather beacons – shining forth either a positive or negative example. It is perhaps in this way that each of our finite actions multiply, merely reflecting back to us the message we send out into the world. So how does this apply to teaching? Well, let me begin by saying that it begins with a good mentor – a must have for every graduate student, but a relationship that seems to be under-valued, and perhaps forgotten in the full sense of its meaning and potential. So what is this sacred dance? What is this relationship that occurs which is akin to taking a little seedling, nourishing it, and watching it grow professionally? The following is a snap shot of my personal journey, and some of the outstanding scholars I have met along the way to which I owe the highest gratitude.
As a second year PhD student (on a journey that took almost 13 years to reach, I might add), I have had the opportunity of working with some amazing professors, some average, and well, let’s just say some that had lost their passion for teaching. Each of these encounters taught me something…some role-modeled the type of teacher I would like to be, others had no lasting effect, while one particularly memorable experience role-modeled exactly how I will never be. I will never forget this research design class which was preparing me for my thesis – in fact, the final project entailed putting together a proposal for the thesis, which was my next class and final project for obtaining my masters degree. Well, this particular professor thought that my research was a waste of time (I am a near-death experience researcher), and made it adamantly clear that he/she didn’t believe a word of it. Imagine that while trying to put together a sound research design which is confusing enough! I remember thinking to myself in that moment though - and in a weird way thanking this professor - for preparing me for critiques I may face if I ever chose to write for publication (although I will add that I would not use this approach with any of my students, ever!). Thank goodness I did not let this be my beacon of shining light, as I am now a published near-death experience researcher some years later and am just getting started! Anyway, point in case made – “there is no such thing as a bad student, only a bad teacher”. Well, here’s where the story turns into a marvelous journey which is still unfolding to this day, three years later, and it began right here on one of the APA listservs.
However, before I go into this story, I’d like to point out that this interaction all took place in an online environment. While this article is not meant to publicize any one particular university (I have been involved with two as a student and one as a teacher), I must say that it is with great reservation that I initially walked into the online environment. I say this because I originally attended a highly credentialed brick and mortar institution, graduating from the University of Washington with a bachelors degree, and was originally accepted into Seattle University’s masters degree program in existential psychology in 2006. However, my father became very ill the quarter before I was scheduled to begin at Seattle U., which led me to look into some of these online universities to balance work and family time (my father eventually passed away in January 2009, and I am thankful for every moment spent with him in the end due to the flexibility of the online environment). With all that said, the story does have a good ending.
It was the beginning of my second year working towards my master’s degree and I had really bonded with this one professor, Dr. Zaynab D’Elia (Dr. D for short). I met her during my first quarter in graduate school, and she was always urging me to get involved in various professional activities. “Network, network, network…”, Dr. D would say. Upon her recommendation, I joined APAGS and Division 32, in which she helped sign me up for the listserv. As I was preparing to start my thesis in one more quarter, she kept encouraging me to introduce myself and my line of research on the listserv to network and build connections with other professionals in the field. I’ll be honest, at first I was intimidated to no end after observing the professional discussions going on within this listserv and didn’t know what me, as a second year grad student, could possibly offer. But, all that aside, one day I finally got the courage up and introduced myself. To my amazement, I was flooded with warm welcomes.
That was the day I first met Dr. Harris Friedman. We connected almost immediately due to our common interests in near-death experiences, and he happened to be the clinical director of the university I was attending at the time (which I did not know prior to this). Before I knew it I was signing a contract with him as my new thesis supervisor (I had already signed a preliminary contract with another professor to supervise my thesis, but literally did not know her and had randomly chose her from a list of online professors – something I suspect many online students end up doing). At any rate, he sent me over some of his research on near-death experiences, and here is where our journey began.
Almost immediately I consulted with Dr. D, who informed me that Dr. Friedman was a hard teacher and that I’d better be prepared because he is going to have high expectations, but that his professionalism would probably lead me into or prepare me for publication. Dr. D did not mince words, which I really liked about her – and she was right! Dr. Friedman is a hard teacher and it did lead into publication. In fact, I remember feeling panicked the first time one of my papers came back edited from him…now, I cherish it, as I can rest assured that every “i” is dotted and every “t” crossed with astute attention to APA style and academic rigor of scholarship.
Well, after obtaining my masters degree in 2008, I thought our relationship had come to a close, but to my amazement, Dr. Friedman suggested that we actually do the study and publish the results. My thesis contained a proposal to do a study on psychologists’ knowledge and attitudes towards near-death experiences, and the psychological implications of treatment (knowledge and training desperately needed in our field, which has been our main line of research). So there I was, conducting my first research study!
During this time (in 2008), I also struggled with the big decision every graduate student must make – do I continue further to get the PhD? Can I afford it? Is the debt worth the potential job I may or may not get? What kind of jobs can I get? Do I really need a PhD? However, after one month of being out of graduate school, I knew my answer loud and clear. As I was researching potential PhD programs, I consulted with Dr. Friedman for feedback, who had highly recommended Saybrook University so that we could continue expanding our research together, with him as chair of my dissertation. I was honored! Here is this amazing scholar, published hundreds of times, editor on a number of scholarly journals, and president of the International Transpersonal Association (to name only a few of his accomplishments) offering to continue working with me…a student who was essentially still a little seedling at the very beginning of my professional career. Well, we finished that study, which has been submitted for publication, then were later contracted to create a training module on the clinical implications of treatment in working with the near-death experience population, which is published with an APA approved online continuing education provider.
But the journey doesn’t stop there. During my past two years at Saybrook, Dr. Friedman also introduced me to Dr. Stanley Krippner, who in many ways was Dr. Friedman’s mentor. In this sense, there is a beautiful lineage of mentorships going on here, starting with Dr. Krippner, to Dr. Friedman, down to me, which I plan to “pay forward” to my students as a current faculty member myself. This introduction to Dr. Krippner blossomed into working with him as a Research Assistant, and he has also agreed to be a member of my dissertation team. Anyone familiar with the field of transpersonal/existential/humanistic psychology knows the pioneering work of Dr. Krippner, which is much too vast to adequately touch in this brief article. In short, Dr. Krippner is also a hard teacher, a scholar who demands the utmost professionalism, detail, and accuracy in his professional presentation and scholarship. In fact, I remember editing a book chapter with Dr. Krippner, who verified himself whether a direct quote was stated from this particular author or not. Consequently it wasn’t quoted correctly and we deleted it out of the chapter! Words cannot describe the immense respect I have for this outstanding scholar, which I too will pass onto my students.
But the journey continues from there, as I continue working with Dr. Krippner as a Research Assistant, he has referred me for two other jobs in the field: one as a Research Assistant with one of his long-time colleagues; and another job as a faculty member with another online university, which I am currently in the hiring process of obtaining. Likewise, my alliance with Dr. Friedman continues and we are in the process of doing projects in preparation for my dissertation, such as our current article we are writing on the review of the past 34 years of research in the field of near-death experiences, which we plan to submit for publication soon.
In short, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the student/teacher mentorship relationship, which is above and beyond one’s duty of supervising or chairing a thesis or dissertation. In my view, the true mentorship relationship goes far beyond this and provides students with real live opportunities while in graduate school to help prepare them for professional scholarship in the field. This can entail conducting studies, writing articles for publication, helping edit articles for publication, working with students to develop their professional publication skills, introducing them to other colleagues in the field, and helping them develop in any other myriad of infinite options. In this sense, the mentorship relationship is also in the best interest of our field, since it is preparing our future scholars to carry forth attributes of what it means to be a scholar practitioner, who can then go on to contribute amazing scholarship to our field. In this sense, I am one student who is honored to be guided by such amazing scholars – scholars who have high expectations and have role-modeled for me the type of teacher I strive to be. Are these scholars/mentors becoming the rare exception to the rule – or are they just merely doing an outstanding job of maintaining the tradition of what true teaching is all about? I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide.
In closing, here are some tips for choosing a good mentor…a sacred relationship that could last throughout your career:
1) Choose someone who is hard: Do not expect to skate by easy in graduate school. A good mentor is someone who is going to comb through your work in detail ensuring it is up to par with both APA standards and well-rounded scholarship of research and presentation.
2) Choose someone who is well-rounded in their perspectives: A good mentor should point out to you if your research is biased, leaning too far towards one perspective without giving a well-balanced approach to any and all sides to the research. Even if this means publishing conflicting results that do not support your initial hypothesis, it is important to embrace many and all sides to an argument, finding, or view-point. After all, it’s how we as scholars challenge and learn from one another, while embracing diverse viewpoints.
3) Choose someone who is open to realize the strengths and weaknesses of all types of research: I am mainly referring here to the old qualitative/quantitative debate. In my view, a mixed methods approach to gathering data is becoming the new cutting edge technique of gathering data that embraces strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. Likewise, it is becoming more common to blend many research approaches together, and hopefully a good mentor will encourage as creative approach as is needed to accomplish your research goal and answer your research question(s), even if that means creating a whole new research approach yourself.
4) Choose someone who is a quick responder: I know this may sound a little unrealistic since many professionals are so busy balancing a million demands; however, in my experience, the most successful scholars I have worked with have all been very quick responders in their communication (whether verbally or via email). In fact, this would be an interesting study to conduct to see if it is a trait of highly successful people, since I have consistently observed it in highly successful scholars such as Dr. Friedman, Krippner, and many others along the way. This will also greatly impact the quality of your mentorship relationship…as I have also worked with many professors who may or may not respond within a month. In cases like this, let that be a red-flag which could deter you from getting your dissertation or thesis completed on time.
5) Choose someone who’s going to push your further: A good mentor is going to be pushing you to expand your research, while continuing to suggest ways that can contribute new and original knowledge to the field.
6) Choose someone who will help open doors for you: A good mentor will have your best professional interests in mind and will be seeking for ways to help you develop professionally. This can include helping recommend you for jobs, speaking engagements, articles for publication, or any other myriad of options outlined above.
7) Flexible communicator: A good mentor will be flexible and open to new ideas, but will keep it within reason while helping you focus on a realistic, succinct, research topic. As a new scholar, I know there are times when my passion for the topic took me over and I wanted to do everything at once. In fact, I remember approaching Dr. Friedman about creating a whole new class on near-death experiences for my dissertation, and he had to humbly guide me back to a realistic approach to research. Thanks Dr. Friedman…I still chuckle about that, as my passion get the better of me sometimes!
8) Choose someone who’s scholarship in the field speaks for itself: This one speaks for itself.
9) Choose someone who is passionate about teaching and being your mentor: This is probably another obvious one, but engaging with a teacher who is burned out or who has lost their passion for teaching can trickle down and have a negative impact on you. So, choose people who are passionate, outstanding scholars who are involved with expanding the field in many arena.
A Special Thanks:
This article has been inspired by many great teachers I have had the honor of working with. Specifically, this journey began with you Dr. D, and continues to expand with Dr. Friedman and Dr. Krippner. Thank you all kindly for your compassion, and for truly embracing values set forth by our fathers of the transpersonal/existential/humanistic field…and that is love towards all mankind!