Cover Story

Often, a mentor focuses students on goals and achievement, pushing--or at least prompting--them to study harder and publish more.

Not Nirbhay Singh, PhD, a professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University who researches wellness models of mental health, among other topics. As a mentor, Singh believes that students must first care for themselves before they can publish and work effectively.

He urges students to cultivate their minds, bodies and spirits through exercise, meditation, a balanced diet and self-directed thinking, instead of reacting to outward pressures to publish or advance professionally. Singh derives his unique approach from Buddhism. He believes that people benefit personally and professionally when they become centered in themselves--internally self-aware--instead of self-centered and externally motivated.

Well aware of Singh's unorthodox approach, mentees only choose him if they're open to his philosophy. For those who worry that he infringes too much on the personal, Singh assures them that mentees set the pace and limits of the relationship. Students share information and ask for his help according to their own comfort levels.

This requires a major shift in a mentor's thinking, Singh says. Traditionally, a mentor imparts what he or she believes the mentee ought to know--the leader/follower model. But Singh prefers to think of mentor and mentee as partners who learn from each other and move together, as in a dance. "I make a move, you make a move, and we move around," he explains.

Singh bases his approach on various aspects of Buddhism, including:

  • Nonjudging. Get beyond thinking of people and situations as good or bad. Achieve a more neutral, observant state, often with the help of meditation.

  • Patience. Set a steady pace. Think before acting. Avoid quick or automatic reactions.

  • A beginner's mind. Open your mind. Listen to and learn from others.

  • Trust. Start by trusting people. Only distrust them when you have valid reason to.

  • Acceptance. Recognize that some people and things will be as they are.

  • Letting go. Know when to rest, to withdraw or to stop, and allow yourself to do so.

  • Nonstriving. Focus less on the future and more on the present moment and the job at hand.

"The idea is that everything you want will come to you as long as you don't strive," Singh explains. "With this approach you don't set publishing goals, and you're not publishing for fame and fortune in the traditional Western sense. The reward is in the doing, in the total immersion in the research, not in the outcome."

To help students immerse themselves, Singh urges them to reconceptualize research in much the same way that he has reconceptualized mentoring. Instead of writing to tell others something, "we should rather write when the spirit moves us--to inform ourselves who we are....Research is really finding out how nature functions, what the universe is all about, and how we fit in. This isn't a new-agey idea. It's just a different way of looking at the world."

And it appears to be a world-view that benefits Singh's students. According to Singh, their research production is, if anything, higher than that of their more traditional peers.

--B. MURRAY