Mirabai Starr on the Rise of the Feminine
Interview with Mirabai Starr by Phil Bolsta
Watch Mirabai Starr’s interview:
Welcome, Mirabai. Thank you for joining us today.
Thank you so much for having me. It's wonderful to be with all of you.
Allow me to introduce you. Mirabai Starr is an author, speaker, and Shift faculty member. She presents classes and workshops around the world on the teachings of the mystics and contemplative practice, and on the transformational power of grief and loss. Mirabai, you will be co-teaching one of the seven modules in Andrew Harvey's upcoming course, The Fierce Feminine: Reclaiming the Gifts of Your Radical Divinity. Why did you agree to participate in this program?
Very good question. I've asked myself the same thing. First of all, the truth is I would do anything for and with Andrew Harvey. He's been a great soul brother on my path, and has recognized for many years the relevance of the great mystics that I've been translating and teaching, particularly John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. He's always been on my team and he's done so much to support my work, and I would do anything to reciprocate. So that's a fact; he’s part of my soul tribe. And so is Caroline Myss; she has also been extremely supportive and loving in helping me share my work with the world. What a team to be part of is really the truth of that.
Also, coincidentally, this happens to be — this topic of the feminine and of the feminine in her full range from lovingkindness, mercy, compassion, to ferocity, protectiveness, and radical truth telling — that the whole energy of the feminine is permeating and pervading my life and my work in recent times. I would say in the last couple of years more and more and more. In fact, my new book that I'm working on for Sounds True is on the path of the feminine and it's called Wild Mercy. So Wild Mercy, Fierce Feminine, very much aligned. So when Andrew invited me, it just couldn't have been more perfect timing, a better fit with where my focus and attention are right now.
Great! I'm glad you are part of the team. And Wild Mercy, the book you're working on, is about the path of the feminine mystic across the spiritual traditions. Why did you choose this particular title?
The title actually originally was going to be Indwelling. And indwelling is one of the names for the Shekhinah, the indwelling feminine spirit of the Divine in the Jewish tradition. When I spoke to my publisher, Tami Simon at Sounds True, we were just having a conversation. We were talking about the book. This was when it was still in the idea stage a few months ago. She was asking me to describe the qualities of the feminine. I think more than once, I used wild and mercy in the same sentence. She said, "You know what? I think that's it: Wild Mercy. Indwelling is too quiet for what this book wants to be." This is another reason, Phil, that it feels so in keeping with Andrew's course on the Fierce Feminine, because the indwelling, the quiet feminine, her time is passing.
Indwelling for sure, because the feminine is so much about incarnation, about embodiment, about connectedness with all that is rather than transcendence and formlessness... the feminine is about form and relationship and it's a very dynamic, embodied reality. So it's not that indwelling itself was too soft, but that actually, this is a time when the feminine needs to not just be the undergirding that holds up everything, including our institutions, but actually needs to rise up like the kundalini through the energy system of the universe, and burst out through the crown and say, "I am here. What has been is dying; it's no longer working. There is a profound crucifixion that is going on in the world, and I am here," she says, "to help hold, hold up the pain of the world in my arms and help birth the resurrection and the new — not just the new paradigm, which is very much needed, but the new reality that is coming out of this time of distraction and chaos,” which in itself is a very feminine reality.
Kali, in the Hindu tradition is all about chaos and destruction, which is absolutely necessary before the arising of this new reality, a reality that I feel — and I think Andrew and many other contemporary spiritual teachers and leaders agree — this new reality is a beautiful and wondrous one that is based in beauty, in interconnectedness, and in lovingkindness. I'm not saying that the world as we know it is going to go up in flames — although Andrew might say so. I'm not seeing that, but I am seeing a radical reorientation of everything, from our politics and economics to our religious institutions to the way we treat one another (which may be called, "social justice") and our relationship to our Mother, the Earth herself (what we might call, "environmental justice"). All of it is being radically reordered and, in some ways I believe, cleansed.
And so all these times of purification throughout the history of the universe have been accompanied I think by this level and more of chaos... and distress that we see and experience all around us. Which is not to say we should just throw up our hands and let it unfold. Not at all. I think these are times that require deep and active engagement... passionate compassion to use one of Andrew's old phraseologies... passionate compassion, profound engagement... that by taking on the very qualities of wild mercy that the feminine is all about, we are able to stand up and get to work in helping to alleviate suffering in this world, right here and right now, and in whatever way we can, in what is right before us.
That's really beautiful. It's an exciting time to be alive right now. With Wild Mercy, was the idea percolating for that for a while or how did it come to be?
As it turns out, it came through The Shift Network. About three years ago or something, I'm not so good with time, Stephen Dinan approached me and said, "How about doing a class on the feminine mystics, the way of the feminine mystics?" Because that's my thing, is translating particularly the Christian mystics, which by the way is somewhat unusual in and of itself given that I'm a Jewish Sufi Buddhist with a Hindu guru, and not Christian, but I love, deeply love and connect with the Christian mystics, and have done many books on the Christian mystics.
So he said, "How about the women mystics and let's not just stick to Christianity? Let's include the women mystics from all spiritual traditions?" And that was definitely my idea too, to not be limited to a single wisdom tradition, but to draw on the great wisdom teachers, the luminaries who are women, from all spiritual traditions. And then I wove into my Shift course, which I taught for several years. I wove in other women or feminine wisdom beings, who weren't necessarily women with a history… beings like Tara in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and Quan Yin in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, and Kali, and Durga, and Shachi in the Hindu tradition, and Fatima and Rabia in the Islamic tradition, and the Shekhinah and Sophia, and other beings like that in the Jewish tradition.
So it was this beautiful tapestry of women's wisdom. And so because I developed this body of teachings through my work with The Shift Network, Sounds True got wind to that and said, "Hey, this feels like a book." And so together, with the blessing of the Shift Network, and the impetus of Sounds True, this book was born. Well, the idea of this book was born. Now I'm very busy writing it and trying to enter into the writer's cave. In my case, it's very necessary to have extended periods of silence and solitude to write. Some people can write in busy cafes, and on airplanes, but I ain't one of ’em. I am just finishing a busy season of traveling and teaching, and it's perfect, because we're getting ready for advent time in the Christian tradition, one of the traditions that's dear to my heart, when it's a time of indwelling, of turning inward, and going into that time of fertile darkness. It's a wonderful time for creating.
Well, of course, my beloved Teresa of Avila, on whom I have done three books, because I love her so much. She's my soul sister. Interestingly, I think Teresa of Avila… well, I don't think, there's a great deal of evidence to prove... I don’t like that word, it's a masculine word, "prove"... to support that Teresa of Avila was Jewish. She was from a Jewish family, a converso family that was forced to convert to Christianity by the Spanish inquisition in the 16th century, or be exiled, or be executed. She was very close to her Jewish roots, and I really identify with her as someone with a Jewish heritage who deeply, passionately loves Christ and connects with that Christ energy.
So Teresa, of course, will be involved; Julian of Norwich, who I've also translated. a medieval English mystic; Hildegard of Bingen, the Rhineland mystic; Mirabai, my namesake, who was also a 16th-century ecstatic poet in India, a devotee of Lord Krishna, the God of love; Rabia, the 10th-century Sufi mystic, a very austere, intense human being. And I will be speaking about those feminine wisdom energies that I mentioned such as Sophia, and the Shekhinah in the Jewish tradition, the indwelling feminine presence of the Divine. Sophia, being of course the embodiment of wisdom, which I think is very connected with Shekhinah also, and Tara, Quan Yin, Kali, and many of the wisdom beings that I've been visiting with and immersing myself with in my Shift courses.
It's interesting, I just I heard myself say, "visiting with." The thing about being a translator of the mystics, and then someone who teaches the wisdom of the mystics, is that I have to deeply immerse myself in the wellspring of these beings before I dare to say a word about them. And so every time that I investigate their teachings and then allow myself to be some kind of conduit for their wisdom as I'm sharing it with others, it feels like darshan. Darshan in the Hindu tradition is about sitting at the feet of the guru and receiving their wisdom and their light. And that is how privileged I feel. That's exactly what I feel is happening when I do this work with these feminine wisdom beings, is that I'm sitting at their feet and being blessed by them. I'm bathing in their light.
And the only possible response is to take that cup that has been filled by their love and offer it to the world. I don't make a lot of money doing what I'm doing, so I have to have the motivation from within, which is a passionate one. I love this stuff so much. The beauty of these teachings is transformational in and of itself. And when I share them, I watch people just light up with joy. There's something so simple about the wisdom of the mystics and the beauty of the poetry, especially the mystical poetry, that when people receive it, they just feel fed. That's very gratifying.
I imagine; it sounds wonderful. When you say you're visiting with the mystics, it does sound like it's a process, equal parts of writing a book... it's equal parts reason and faith... logic and intuition… right brain, left brain... that it's whole brain thinking and doing.
You're so right, Phil. That's very insightful actually. It really is, because anyone who knows my writing knows that I tend toward the lyrical and rhapsodic and less toward the analytical and scholarly, but it does require a tremendous amount of discursive engagements to convey these teachings in any way, written or spoken. So thank you for acknowledging that. And the third part, besides the analytical and the intuitive, another part is the embodied, that these teachings are not just about the mind. They're about the heart and also about the body. So I have to take them into the cells of my own body.
My connection with the feminine is probably standing on my connection to Mother Earth herself. That's the foundation. My connection with the natural world and with the Earth as Mother is probably the very ground I literally stand on in order to do this work with the mystics.
I wanted to inject a note here too to people listening, because we're talking about your writing. I have to say the quality of your writing is just beautiful. When I read your book, Caravan of No Despair, it was breathtakingly beautiful — the writing, the lyricism, and not only that, but the wisdom behind it. I'm looking forward to reading more of your books, and this upcoming one too.
Thank you It's going to be a year and a half before it's out, by the way. I think spring of 2019.
There's plenty of other Mirabai Starr books to read before then.
So what are some of the ways that the wisdom and teachings of these mystics from centuries past can tangibly improve our lives today?
Oh, that's a very good and very relevant question. And when I ask myself every time I engage with them and attempt to share about them... this is not esoteric, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin” knowledge. I'm not interested in esotericism; I'm interested in accessibility. So when I teach about Teresa of Avila, for instance, one of her most famous sayings is, "God lives among the pots and pans." And that really speaks to me as a woman, as a mother, and a grandmother, and someone who is very busy tending other human beings in my life. And if I were to look at the overextended, deeply engaged activities of my life as somehow a distraction from my spiritual work, I'd be screwed. I'd be lost. I would have my spiritual life over here in a tiny little corner and then the rest of my life bothering me and making demands, right?
And so Teresa of Avila, not only in that phrase, but in many, many of her teachings, helps us to integrate every aspect of our lives so that the sacred and the ordinary are intertwined, are recognized as being the reality of interconnected and mutually connected. And what's so beautiful about that teaching from Teresa — and it's echoed in all of the other women mystics I can think of — is that it sacralizes everything; the most ordinary things become imbued with the holy when we look through the eyes of the heart in the ways in which the mystics are encouraging us to do so.
And the women mystics especially are affirming embodiment. They’re also affirming our innate goodness as they say in Buddhism, but in the Christian mysticism they speak about the perfect beauty of the soul. So like Matthew Fox, when he coined that term, "original blessing," the women mystics have gotten that forever. That's not revolutionary to them. It's like, "Of course, we are blessed with exactly who we are and what is." In fact, Teresa of Avila says that union with God is not a matter of transcendence, of rising up and out of the limitations of our bodies, but that actually union with God happens in the very center of our beings. “Why?” she says. She answers her own question and says that it is because our souls are the most beautiful place in all of creation.
Our souls, each of our individual souls, are gardens of incredible beauty, and where else, she says, would the holy one choose to dwell but in the center of our own beings, because it's the most beautiful place in all of creation. And so the women mystics and the feminine wisdom beings are very life affirming, and very unconditionally loving, so that the whole business of longing for God and union with God is about love. It's not about purification. It's not about purgation, it's not about fixing something that's broken. It's not about transcending something that's ugly. It's about fully inhabiting what is, because it is beautiful and it is good.
That is beautiful. Actually, that's a good lead-in to this question: The world as we know it today is overwhelmed with chaos and crisis. What can these mystics tell us about healing ourselves and our world?
One of the messages that I've gleaned and distilled from all of the wisdom teachings of the feminine is that we are all prophets — and many of you listening who have taken classes with me before have heard me sing this song — we are all prophets and we are all being called right now. We would not be called if we weren't worthy and ready for the task. Most of us, especially women, have been conditioned to see ourselves as either not enough or too much, and simultaneously, both — ‘I’m too much and I'm not enough.” Let's put it this way: it is not a recipe for rising up as a prophet. I think we're all mystics and I think we're all prophets.
What I think the wisdom of the feminine really teaches us — especially the fierce feminine in the forms like Kali, or like Teresa of Avila in human form who was definitely a strong voice, she was not soft and mushy, she was ferocious — is that we have, and are, exactly what is needed to respond to the crises, the multiple manifold crises of our times. And Jewish wisdom tells us that we are innately designed for exactly what our particular task is. And s oI think that both as women and as men, we need to trust that what is ours to do is imprinted in our souls and that cultivating some kind of contemplative practice, some kind of meditation practice, really helps calm the monkey mind who is chattering incessantly, trying to figure out, "What is mine to do? I'm not an activist, but I'm not doing what so and so is doing, going to Standing Rock and speaking on the big stage. What is mine?"
Contemplative life helps us to soften our attachment, to the way we think things are supposed to be, and listen to what actually is. And we may find that what is our prophetic task is very different from what our preconceived notion of activism or sacred activism might have been, and that we need to take the space even though everything feels so urgent, but take a few minutes even every day to touch down into that place of stillness and quiet from which that deeper voice can emerge and be heard, and affirm what is, in fact, ours to do.
The other thing about cultivating a contemplative practice is that it comes back to what I said about, when you look through the eyes of love and when you enter into the embodiment teachings of the feminine mystics, you see everything as sacred, everything as holy. And contemplative life is not just a matter of sitting on the cushion in silence for 20 minutes a day, although it's a really great practice and no accident that we see versions of that in every spiritual tradition.
It's also about taking the fruits of that sitting practice out into the world and looking through the contemplative eyes, so that we see all that is as bathed in the spirit permeated with that interconnected love that is the impetus of the whole universe and the very nature of the whole universe. It's really hard to connect with that love when we're busy yelling about how messed up everything is and what everybody else should do about it, and then trying to do ourselves, but getting lost sometimes in the doing and forgetting about the being and the interbeing.
Is there a difference between living as a mystic and living as a feminine mystic? On a related note, how accessible is the sacred feminine to men?
Not only is the sacred feminine accessible to men, but most of the men in my life are longing for her as deeply as the women are. As strongly as women are feeling the need for the voice of the feminine, for a feminine paradigm in our spiritual arenas and in our political and social and economics fears, men too are recognizing that the patriarchy has done great harm even though the origins of these patriarchal systems I believe were rooted in goodness, and in true revelation, and in beauty, but have become terribly corrupted over the years and have violently oppressed the feminine.
Men too in my life — I'm sure you feel this too, Phil — are very much longing for an antidote to the poison of the patriarchy and looking to the feminine. The Dalai Lama has been saying for the last five years or so that I know of that the only thing that is going to mend the torn fabric of the world is the feminine, and that Western women, he keeps saying, Western women are going to save the world. And what he means by that is not that Western women are superior to non-Western women, but that Western women have the qualities of the feminine coupled with the resources of Western culture.
I mean, I look around me, I'm it. I am a Western women. I fit that description. I look around me, I'm driving a Subaru that has less than a hundred thousand miles on it. I'm white. I live in a comfortable house in the country. I have enough. I am well-resourced, and I do have what is needed to be a resource to others. Even if I feel like I live fairly close to the margins, it's nothing like the rest of the world. And I have the education; I have graduate education. I know many of you listening can relate to that, women and men.
If the men are to engage in this call of the feminine, then I think men need to do so by shifting their own conditioning and entering into the feminine consciousness and the feminine heart. What is different about it? Embodiment. It's about blessing the body as sacred and not “other than” the spirit.
What do you mean by the term radical forgiveness? And why is it so essential to individual and collective transformation?
There is a way in which the masculine — and I'm not talking about men — is quite dualistic in its consciousness. So that there are the good guys and the bad guys. There are the perpetrators and there are the victims. There are those who are harming Mother Earth and there are the earth protectors. There are those who are engaged in acts of oppression against those who live on the margins and then there are those who are fighting for those on the margins. These are all dualistic ways of looking at things and it's a great setup for being self-righteous and pissed off most of the time.
The feminine is about unconditional love and unmitigated mercy and forgiveness. So the feminine begins by embracing all that is, taking all of the world and all of its brokenness into her embrace and blessing it and listening. The feminine begins by listening and by allowing, not by analyzing and coming up with a plan for fixing and reorganizing. The feminine is non-mechanistic. The feminine response is much more of an organic response. It starts from the softness of the breast, not in the coldness of analysis, of discursive analysis.
So everything is unconditionally forgiven first. Julian of Norwich says, “Of course the holy one forgives us absolutely, because we didn't mean to do harm.” And to actually be able to look around all that's going on in the world, all of the violence and the horror, and say, "Of course he didn't mean to do that. If he understood what he was doing, he would never have caused that degree of violence and suffering.” So there's this motherly response of, “All I need to do is love him more and he will understand what he's done and never do it again.”
And she says that — this is Julian of Norwich speaking about the unconditionally loving forgiveness of the holy one; Julian calls Christ the mother — when we are received with unconditional love, our hearts open and our eyes open, and we see what we have done and then we suffer. She says, "Why with the holy one impose more suffering?" Because when we see the pain that we have caused, our suffering is so great that the Mother would never in her mercy want us to suffer Her wrath on top of our own self-loathing.
Now, this may sound very optimistic, as a perspective to slap on top of the horror that we see unfolding. It's not like — I'm really trying hard to not name names — those who are perpetrating terrible violence and oppression in our world right now should be let off the hook, because as prophets and as instruments of the Fierce Feminine, it is not only ours to engage in unconditional lovingkindness and forgiveness, it is also ours to rise up with our resounding “No!” in the face of violence, oppression, and injustice wherever we see it.
So it's a balance. It's a balance of compassion and mercy and discernment and courage to stand up and speak out. So it's both; it's everything. There’s space in the vast container of the feminine for all of it.
Referencing again, we're talking about the fierceness of the feminine and Andrew's course, which you're co-teaching, The Fierce Feminine. You already spoke a little about fierce truth telling. Can you just speak a little more to why is fierce truth telling so essential, especially in today's world?
I think that for many of us on a spiritual path — like many of you who are listening right now have been on a spiritual path for a long time... not all of you, not all of us, but many of us have spent years, maybe decades, cultivating a spiritual life and engaged in disciplines — the discipline of spiritual practice, these methodologies that have been engineered over millennia to achieve transformation of consciousness. And they are reliable and worthy vessels for that kind of transformation to unfold. However, we are endangered by our very familiarity with these spiritual methodologies in the sense that we can use them as what has so aptly been called “spiritual bypasses.”
So we can meditate our way into what Andrew would call some kind of spiritual coma, so that we don't have to feel the pain of the world. Or we can look at the suffering that we see either in our own communities or in distant lands like Africa — although some of you are probably in Africa, but I'm not — and say, "It's all perfect. Everything has its place in the universe. It's all interconnected and really, all is well," if we could just see it from a higher perspective and not get caught in the “illusion” of discord. That to me is a spiritual bypass. That's a way of abusing the treasures we've been given across the spiritual traditions in order to not be present with reality.
And so, he feminine again calls us to not transcend this world, but to fully engage with it, centered in the heart, grounded in the body, and willing to engage our faculty of discernment so that we are not tossed away as they say in zen by the surface level chatter of our minds, but are able to deeply investigate, engage the tools of inquiry, to see into the heart what is and find what is ours to do. That's the path of the spiritual warrior. The term “warrior” is a little bit more violent than I wish it was. I'm looking for... maybe some of you can help me come up with an alternative to “spiritual warrior” that is more in keeping with the unconditional love of the feminine and yet carries that courage and laser-like clarity that is being called out of all of us right now.
What you're talking about now is seeming to manifest in the world in the wake of the MeToo hashtag, it seems like a revolution is coalescing around women taking back their power and rising up to demand justice and abusive behavior. Do you think this watershed movement will lead to lasting change?
I do, Phil. I do. I'm so excited by what's happening even though terrible things are being revealed, things that just make my heart hurt so much to find just everywhere I look evidence of the oppression of women. We're not talking about something that happens in other cultures, in other eras. We're talking about a pervasive violence against the feminine that we see throughout our own culture and our own times. It's nothing like what other women in other parts of the world are experiencing and always have, but it's definitely disgusting. And yes, the response is just everywhere.
Now, interestingly, I see that there are many men supporting this MeToo hashtag, this women speaking out and telling the truth about what happened to them and saying,” No more.” And there are women who are saying, “Oh, come on girls, get over it.” So it's not like all men are oppressing all women and all women are saying, “Stop oppressing us.” There are women also who are conditioned by the patriarchal culture to say, “Stop making such a big deal,” and are actually not engaging the ripe possibilities of this awakening of consciousness and supporting each other to say, “Okay, so maybe it didn't happen to me or maybe it happened to me, and I integrated it,” or “I got over it,” but the truth is that there is a wound in the heart of the world and it's being recognized now and we are all needed to... all hands on deck.
We're all needed to engage in the healing process, the process of tikkun olam, as is said in the Jewish mystical teachings, of repairing the world. And one of the ways that the world is broken is on the level of the way the feminine has been disparaged throughout history and across cultures and affirmed by our very religious institutions that were supposed to be about lovingkindness and compassion, and community.
Mirabai, thank you so much for the work you're doing in the world. Your books are so thoughtful and, as I mentioned, beautifully written. And thank you for sharing your insights and wisdom with us today. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview.
Thank you, I did too. And it's really helping me put my thoughts together for this new book, so really it's a community effort. And I thank you. I thank all of you.
Mirabai Starr writes creative nonfiction and contemporary translations of sacred literature. She taught Philosophy and World Religions at the University of New Mexico-Taos for 20 years and now teaches and speaks internationally on contemplative practice and interspiritual dialogue. A certified bereavement counselor, Mirabai helps mourners harness the transformational power of loss.
She has received critical acclaim for her revolutionary new translations of John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul and Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. She is author of the poetry collection, Mother of God Similar to Fire, a collaboration with iconographer William Hart McNichols, and the award-winning book, God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Her recent book, Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation, received the Spirituality & Practice “Best Books of 2015” award. She lives with her extended family in the mountains of northern New Mexico.
Click here to visit Mirabai’s website.