Mirabai Starr on Wild Mercy
Interview with Mirabai Starr by Phil Bolsta
Watch Mirabai Starr’s interview:
Welcome, Mirabai. Thank you for joining us today.
Delighted to be with you, Phil.
Allow me to introduce you. Mirabai Starr is an author, speaker, and Shift Network 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. Her newest book is Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics.
Mirabai, tell us about WIld Mercy. Why did you choose that particular title?
Well, actually, the title that I came up with originally was Indwelling. Indwelling describes to me one of the most essential qualities of the feminine. Actually, it's the word for the Shekinah in the Jewish tradition, the Jewish mystical tradition anyway, which is the indwelling feminine presence of the Divine. I felt like this Shekinah in many ways — although I'm talking about mystics and goddesses across the spiritual traditions — I felt that Shekinah in many ways represents what I was looking for and looking at, which is the way in which the sacred feminine infuses every particle of creation.
When I was speaking with my publisher about the book and she was asking me questions about, "Well, what is the feminine? What is the divine feminine? What is the sacred feminine? What is this aggregate of attributes that you're after in this book?" I was using words like wild and merciful and compassionate. I was using them together, and she said, "You know, I think there's something in this combination." That was it, wild mercy. Indwelling was too quiet a title for the magnitude and energy and the ferocity in many ways of this rising feminine reality.
Who did you write this book for and how did it come about?
It was born right here in the soil of The Shift Network. For quite a few years, I've taught courses on the Shift on feminine mystics, women who embodied that intimate relationship with the Beloved in every aspect of their lives, and again, across the spiritual traditions, across the spectrum of the world's great religions and the Indigenous wisdom ways. That sort of bled in naturally to an exploration not only of historical women mystics, visionaries, poets, ecstatic poets, and so on, but the goddesses and the archetypal wisdom beings and the various world religions such as Tara in the Tibetan tradition, and Quan Yin in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, and Sophia in the Judeo Christian traditions, and so on, and the Greco-Roman goddesses as well.
There are so many, many goddesses in the Indigenous wisdom paths that really resonate with those of us who are women on a contemporary path of awakening or people of all genders. Really, I should say this book is not only for women. It definitely celebrates and illumines the wisdom of the feminine, but it is a book that speaks to people of all genders, and men are especially, I am finding, resonating with this book. They're saying, "This is the clear message. This is the cup brimming with feminine wisdom that we've been looking for." So I've been really gratified to feel and receive the response, the positive response from men.
So, while women are definitely going to find themselves in the pages of these stories... in this book, there are many, many stories; I'm a storyteller... men also are finding something here, and I am appreciating very much, Phil, people like you, men like you and Stephen Dinan and so many others who are stepping up… stepping aside, I should say, and making way for the feminine and upholding her and serving her reemergence into the landscape of the human family where she’s so desperately needed. I really bow to men who have the inherited privilege and power who are voluntarily abdicating that advantage and calling on women to step up in the ways that we are only too happy to do right now.
I do want to ask you more about that a bit later, but first, who are some of the other women whose stories are in the book and why did you choose them?
So many, my team. Well, one of the women that I'm really happy to be introducing to the world in a fuller way — I've written about her before but not as much as I would have liked until now — is my namesake, Mirabai, the 16th-century Bhakti poet from India. Bhakti means devotion, right? Mirabai was an ecstatic poet devoted to Lord Krishna, the God of love. Her poetry is very much like the poetry of Rumi or Hafez or some of the Sufi poets that we know of. It was ecstatic; it was drenched in metaphor, very much embodied in the human experience and the experience of nature. She speaks a lot about rain and fire and thunder and the peacocks, and all creatures are not only honored but activated in Mirabai's poetry as portals to this communion with the Beloved.
She's one of the people that I write about in this book. It seems to me...I kind of had this epiphany the other day that the mystics, at least the ones that I know and love, fall into two sociopolitical camps. One is those, not just women mystics but male mystics as well, who are born into wealth and privilege and inherited power and advantage in their society, who voluntarily relinquish those inherited goodies to live among the poor, to engage a life of voluntary simplicity and compassion and connectedness to those on the margins.
On the other side of this merry band of mystics I adore are those who were exceedingly poor, maybe even slaves like Rabia Basri, the ninth-century Arabian, Sufi mystic woman who was in fact... her family was so poor that they sold her as a slave, and she was tortured before she was recognized as a saint by her master, actually, the man who bought her, who found her praying on a rooftop after working all day, working, working, working like 15-hour days. When it was time for her to sleep, instead of sleeping, she climbed to the roof and prayed. He found her there, just on her knees with her arms lifted up, calling out to her beloved, "Allah, Allah," and there were flames coming out of the top of her head.
She was completely resplendent. He knew that his slave was a saint, and he of course freed her. She insisted that he free all the other slaves in the household. Then he said, "You can stay here, and we will serve you or you can do whatever you want." She chose to have her freedom, but she went into the desert and lived a life of incredible simplicity and austerity with one chipped bowl for both her water and her food, and a brick that she used as her pillow, and she too uttered spontaneously these love songs to God.
Wow, those are incredible stories. How can the wisdom and teachings of these mystics from centuries past tangibly improve our lives today?
That's a hese women, that these mystics, that these great, ecstatic beings who also suffered deeply inform my life every day. I mean, even just before I got on with you today, I call on my circle of wild and merciful women. I feel surrounded by this kind of council of elders, even if some of them died when they were young. In fact, my own daughter, Jenny, who was killed in a car accident when she was 14, is part of that circle of ancestors that are actively available to me in my everyday life.
When I cannot do something on my own, which is just about anything and everything that I think about or look at or I'm faced with, I feel that I call upon the the very specific particular attributes of all of these different wisdom beings, these mystics and these goddesses and archetypal beings, and ask them to do it, to do it with me, to do it for me, to be together as we step up to the call of this world. In this book, Wild Mercy, you can see that it's all marked up because I'm just getting ready to go on my first book tour. This book is a celebration of the various women mystics, yes, but it's also a very practical guide to navigating our contemporary lives, especially as women.
There are topics. Each chapter is a topic, not a goddess, not a mystic, not a spiritual tradition, but I draw in the goddesses and the mystics and the spiritual traditions in each chapter, so things like cultivating a contemplative life, the arts, living a creative life, sexuality, parenting, stewardship of the earth, forgiveness and reconciliation, dying. — the-second-to-the-last chapter is called “Dying: The Ultimate Spiritual Practice” — building community, and those kinds of very real, practical, engaged realities of being a human being, but especially a female version of the human being right now.
Well, that leads into my next question. You referred to this, but my understanding is that, yes, you strive to attune with these mystics so you can more accurately convey their wisdom so that the insights that ended up on the page come not from you, but through you. Is that a fair assessment?
Wow, that's beautifully said. Beautifully. Beautifully. That's what it feels like. I'm not a kind of woo-woo person. I mean, I can't think of the word, but I'm not spacey. I'm not claiming to be a channel, not that there's anything necessarily spaced out or just connected about that, but I'm a very grounded, embodied woman. I'm trained as a philosopher. I come from a family of agnostics, a Jewish family that really rejected religion. I'm very wary of such claims, and yet I believe this is the birthright of all human beings — to make ourselves available as hollow reeds for the divine music, as conduits for her wisdom, for Sophia, as vessels that can receive the divine presence and be a source of nourishment for others.
This is not some rarefied state available only to the elite who are worthy of being channels of these great wisdom beings. We are all meant to be available for the sacred to pour through and do her work through us in the world.
Is there a difference between living as a mystic and living as a feminine mystic?
Yes. I believe that there is, Phil, and I think that the difference has something to do… okay, has everything to do with embodiment. The world's great religions who have given us beautiful treasures that we should not squander just because they don't fit our curves, so to speak, and even because even though they have become and probably always were exceedingly patriarchal and excluded the wisdom of the feminine, but they have many beautiful gifts, and those gifts are intertwined with the shadow as they are in all of us, in us as individuals, but both the gifts and the shadows of the patriarchal religions, the male-dominated paradigms, spiritual paradigms, is that they have encouraged us to move up and out of our bodies, of this relative world.
Worldliness is considered to be a problem. The body must be purified through all of these methodologies that are meant to cleanse that which is unclean — the body, the personality, the appetites, the desires. With its emphasis on purification and perfection and beating ourselves into spiritual submission and this vertical ascension up and out of this relative reality, I think we have done great damage to the feminine wisdom that is available to us, and as a result have harmed our mother, the earth, because we have considered the earth itself to be a veil of illusion in some ways. The feminine mystic is the one who finds the holy in every aspect of the world, of nature, of human community, of the animal family, and of Mother Earth herself.
She's all about immanence versus transcendence. She's about embodiment. She's about blessing every particle of creation as imbued with the essence of the holy one. That is the incarnational experience, is spirit pouring into matter so that everything is rendered absolutely and unequivocally holy. The feminine mystic knows this. I guess, one more distinction here, maybe this will speak to it, mysticism is about having union with the One. It's about having direct experience of the Divine. The masculine mystic or the masculine mystical traditions, which women also inherit and experience, is about dissolving into the transcendent formless holy.
The feminine mystic is just as much about union, direct experience of the sacred and oneness between lover and beloved, but she experiences it as communion with all that is, as finding her place as a jewel in the net, the vast, boundless web of interbeing, and taking her place there among all the other waking-up beings. It's not a solitary project of salvation. It's a communal reality of awakening to love.
When I think of the lives of mystics and saints, the first word that comes to mind is integrity, a quality that so many people these days, both in public and in private, seem to sacrifice on the altar of self-interest. Can you share your thoughts on how we can restore integrity to its rightful place as a foundational, cultural, and personal principle?
Beautiful question. Well, one thing is that I think we need to surrender any notion that we know what that looks like, and to trust our deep inner guidance about what integrity feels like in our bodies and in our relationships. One of the things, I think, we've inherited from the patriarchy is this image of piety, of the pious person, both men and women. When that pious image was slapped onto the feminine, it smothered her. Mary, meek, and mild, is a perfect example. Mother Mary, the mother of Jesus, the vessel for the Christ, for the presence of love to be born in this world was anything but meek and mild.
She was ferociously strong and brave and unconditionally loving and willing to speak truth, and willing to be quiet in the face of the banter, the meaningless banter around her. She was also contemplative, who knew how to hold a space of quiet pondering. I'm not saying that the feminine is… When I say wild, I'm not saying loud. I'm not saying obnoxious, but there is a quality of the feminine that is ungovernable, uncontrollable, not legislated, not appropriate, where she's going to storm the gates and speak truth to power, and behave in ways that are going to rock the patriarchal boat.
Integrity to me is a matter of being true to that power, true to that wild creativity and that deep sensitivity to feeling, to the reality of feelings that the masculine paradigm has made every effort to repress as being untrue, that there's the truth of rational thought and argumentation and ritual and adhering to the rules. Then there is the falsity of emotions and feelings and the messy terrain of relationship. The feminine is back. She has returned from exile. She is reclaiming the landscape of feeling and emotion and relationship as being holy ground and being the place where our true integrity flowers right here in the body, right here in community, in the midst of all of our messy, perfect imperfection.
You've already noted that men are equally thirsty for feminine wisdom. Can you elaborate a bit more on the hallmarks of feminine wisdom and why it's so appealing to men?
Yes. I feel like men realize that the male half of the human family has done great damage, perhaps irreparable harm in some arenas such as the environmental catastrophe. I mean, I'm not blaming it all on men. Women have bought into the compulsion to overconsume, which is a big part of the problem of course, but many of the structures that have been built throughout society were designed and built by and for men, lacking in fundamental principles of mercy and compassion and forgiveness and tenderness. So men look around at this beautiful broken world and see all the places where this harm has been done and know that because they can see that this has been tried, that every effort to fix the brokenness with more logic and more argumentation is not working.
But that the feminine is imbued wherever she exists inside of women and inside of men with these qualities of connectedness, of recognizing the interdependence of all that is and that that access that the feminine seems to have to relationship and interconnectedness contains the seeds of the solution to these problems, that the feminine actually, instead of rushing forth to fix things, first, takes the pain of the world into her arms and holds the broken, and listens to what hurts, and pours her loving compassion first into that brokenness. Then and only then, and only in community, finding what everybody's good at and getting them to do it, does she step up to mend that brokenness.
That there is a way in which the feminine can hold space first for the pain instead of pushing it away or immediately trying to fill the emptiness with some kind of mechanistic solution. She's equally comfortable, the feminine, with not knowing. The masculine wants to know, have the answers, and impose them on any particular situation. The feminine is okay hanging out in radical unknowingness, abiding in the mystery. She is comfortable with ambiguity, and that ambiguity is vital right now as a portal to healing, I feel.
In many of the stories in Wild Mercy, you say there is a subversive element of feminine wisdom. What exactly do you mean by that?
Well, it's very much what I've been speaking about. The feminine shakes it up. She doesn't necessarily go play by the boys' rules in religion, in politics, in the arts, in science. In many ways, she's going to be continuously questioning the dominant paradigm and doing it in such a way that she's going to be making those who are in positions of power and privilege very uncomfortable. She's going to be challenging the existing rules, whether it's a question of women being ordained as priests in the various religious institutions from which they have been traditionally barred as leaders, or whether the questions that are facing us on the political landscape can be best addressed by referring to the way things have always been done or introducing new elements that turn everything upside down, and reveal new landscapes that potentially hold the answers to our deepest, most seemingly intractable problems.
The feminine is going to come in, and like the Dakini in the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, is going to pull the rug out from under the prevailing power structures and see what happens. She's a troublemaker.
The last couple of years have seen a tidal wave of women taking back their power and rising up to demand justice and the end of abusive behavior. Do you think this movement has the traction and staying power to effect lasting change?
I mean, there's no way the genie can go back in the bottle at this point. I think that we like to think that thousands of years ago, women were dominant and that cultures were more matriarchal, and society recognized the importance of women as leaders, but I am not sure that there's ever been a time, certainly not like there is now when women are finally taking back our voice, when we're calling each other from all corners of the earth and every pocket of the human experience, calling upon each other to stand up, and we're holding each other up.
We're supporting each other in speaking our truth. It's like the landscape has cracked open, and the feminine is pouring out, spilling out everywhere, and she has a lot to say. There's no way that she's going to unsay it or go back to being subservient in any sense. This is just the beginning of, I think, what is emerging. I bow to The Shift Network for asking me however many years ago, five, six, something, to start teaching about the women mystics in all the spiritual traditions, knowing that the wisdom of the feminine is vitally needed right now.
It's because of that invitation that I received to teach on The Shift Network that I was approached by a publisher saying, "We see that you're teaching about this stuff. How would you like to write a book?" For me, it all comes together and it's all very much a response to the reality of the moment, where together holding hands, women are rising and saying, "Okay, it's our time. And we're confident that we can effect radical healing at a time that we're on the verge of global annihilation."
Brother Wayne Teasdale and His Holiness the Dalai Lama
It certainly is time. It's past time, so that's wonderful. You've earned a reputation... speaking of which, you explained how you came to write books... you've earned a reputation for writing about Christian mystics, but your approach is actually interspiritual, as evidenced by the fact that you're a Jewish Sufi Buddhist with a Hindu guru. Can you explain what interspiritual means, where the term came from, and how it informs your writing and your life?
Interspiritual is a term that was coined by Brother Wayne Teasdale, a beautiful 20th-century Benedictine monk who wrote a book called The Mystic something. Oh my God. The Mystic Heart, I believe. That's a book I love, but for some reason, I'm going blank on the title, The Mystic Heart, I think. Many of us have taken up that term because it comes closest, although still is not quite accurate, to describing many of our lived experience, which is that we find great resources and treasures and medicine in all of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions.
Neem Karoli Baba
We may be rooted in one. I am not, but many people are, rooted in a single tradition, but our hearts are open to all religions. We see them all as being equally valid and equally true. I actually have… my spiritual life is very much a tapestry of a number of spiritual traditions. You mentioned them. I was born Jewish. I've reclaimed my Jewish roots. I have this deep love of Christ through the many Christian mystics that I've translated and written about. I have initiation in multiple Sufi orders. I have a lifelong Buddhist sitting practice, a daily meditation practice that I've been doing since I was 15, and since I was 12 or 13, I've had this very profound devotion, connectedness to Neem Karoli Baba, an Indian saint.
All of these traditions inform my daily life, my spiritual practice, the way that I relate to people, the work that I do, and so I am an example of interspirituality in action. Action is a key word because underlying this impulse to gather the nectar from the flowers of the world's great spiritual garden is this very strong prophetic calling that is the call to step up in service to the world. It's not enough to just collect our spiritual treasures and hoard them. They're meant to be shared. They're actually meant to be integrated, metabolized, alchemized in the crucible of our own being so that what emerges is something that is of value to everyone, not just for our own personal private, spiritual awakening project.
I've said this in previous interviews, Mirabai, but it bears repeating. Not only are your books imbued with authentic wisdom and eternal truths, but the quality of your writing is extraordinary. 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. Where and how did you learn to write like that?
What a beautiful question. Hardly anyone ever asks me about my writing, Phil, so I so appreciate that because in many ways, don't tell anyone I said so, it'll be just our little secret... I am a writer first and a spiritual teacher second or third. In other words, the beauty of language is the most important thing to me. I'm an artist. Like any artist, beauty is what drives me. I guess I shouldn't say that. There are some artists that are driven by something other than love of beauty in any kind of classical sense, but I am motivated by a beautiful sentence.
I think it's because I grew up with parents who are very literate, who were writers, who read to us all the time. My family still recites poetry to each other at family gatherings. That's what we do. That's what we love. Thank you for noticing the care with which I wrote this book and all my books because I love writing. It's my greatest joy.
Mirabai, thank you for bringing this book into the world, and thank you for the work you're doing in the world, and thank you for sharing your insights and wisdom with us today. I always look forward to talking to you and hearing your thoughts.
Thank you, Phil. Thank you for always being such a wonderful conversation companion. Thank you to The Shift Network for inviting me to teach about these women and these goddesses because it has shifted everything in me.
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.
Mirabai’s newest book, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, is essential reading for anyone ready to awaken the feminine mystic within and birth her loving, creative, and untamed power into the world.
Mirabai 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 withiconographer 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.