Mirabai Starr answers the question:
What is the nicest thing a non-family member has ever done for you?
I've been thinking about this for months, this question, ever since you raised it, Phil, and the truth is that there are so many people who have given this little prophet a drink of water along the way, that I couldn't even remember one, because it's like the whole climate of my life is defined by the kindness of the people in it, known and unknown.
So that's the first thing I want to say, is that I feel like there's such a bounty of kindness and goodness that has been offered to me my whole life... that to tease out anything, was really challenging. So it's not for lack of kind things or nice things that people have done for me, it’s the opposite, the problem I was having.
But my beloved lifelong friend and mentor, Ram Dass, just died a few weeks ago. As we're speaking now, it's very recent and I just can't honor him enough in enough different ways. So the opportunity to just say a few things about him here, is a great gift to me in my grieving process.
Ram Dass has been in my life since I was 14 years old and I met him at the Lama Foundation, the place where he had recently created Be Here Now, his iconic groundbreaking book that really introduced this perennial wisdom of India to a secular American audience in a way that everyone seemed to be able to relate to. It was a huge change, not only in the lives of those of us who knew him, but in the culture at large, which is why his death is just rippling in such amazing ways, even now, just a few weeks after he's gone.
But personally for me, in addition to the fact that he gave me my name Mirabai when I was 15 and that he has always been kind of there for me in such a way that I always called him Uncle Ram Dass, because he was kind of avuncular in the relationship that we had. Every time I had a new accomplishment, especially when I began writing books, he was so proud of me, not like a spiritual teacher being proud of his devotee, but like an uncle — being happy that this young woman was stepping into the world and receiving some recognition for this work that I was doing, which of course was very much aligned with Ram Dass's work. Ram Dass, in many ways, is the reason why I have an interspiritual approach in all my work. All my books, all my teaching is about drawing from the wellspring of the world's great spiritual traditions.
And I do that because that's what I learned to do by being with Ram Dass. It just was the most natural thing in the world to read the Buddhist Sutras and the New Testament and weave it in with Sufi Zikr and Hindu Kirtan and all of it kind of came together in this vast field of the heart. That was the way I was raised, if you will, by Ram Dass.
And also, I would say that my emphasis on the divine feminine in my work now is very much influenced by this Jewish white dude turned Hindu-slash-Buddhist called Ram Dass. He was a deep devotee of the sacred feminine, particularly the Divine Mother in her Hindu forms of Kali and Durga. That really influenced the way that I intimately and directly relate to the Great Mystery, using my holy imagination and seeing it as "She" with all of the wondrous attributes of the divine feminine, of loving kindness and fierce truth-telling and everything in between.
Mirabai Starr with Ram Dass
But I guess the story that I would end with now is that... It has to do with Ram Dass' incredible generosity of being and his ability to truly be present, to be here now. And this was a couple of years ago when Sri Siddhi Ma, who was widely considered to be, in many ways, the successor of Neem Karoli Baba in India. She was one of the Ma’s, one of the women that was closest to Maharaji Neem Karoli Baba, there in India. When he died, she kind of reluctantly stepped up or stepped in, not as Maharaji, she always returned the attention to him, but as the one who kind of took care of all his devotees. She was very motherly, but not in a sweet-like indulgent way. She was very motherly in a very clear, powerful way. Siddhi Ma died a couple of years ago, in her nineties, and that day, I got word early on that morning from India and that day I called Ram Dass in Hawaii, because we have an ashram here in Taos, New Mexico, where I live, where I grew up and where I still live.
The ashram is dedicated to Neem Karoli Baba, and Ram Dass was instrumental in creating this ashram here in Taos. So I called Ram Dass in Hawaii to ask him how we might best honor Ma on this day of her death with chanting and ritual and so on. We talked about that for about five minutes and I felt like I got it and I knew what to do and I was ready to get in my car and drive over to the ashram and convey Ram Dass' suggestions for how we could honor this great Saint who had just died. And he said, "So what are you working on?" And I said, "Well, I'm working on this new book about the sacred feminine. It's called Wild Mercy, and I just happened to have written yesterday about Siddhi Ma and about being with her in India. In that same section, Ram Dass, I also wrote about you." And he said, "Well, this is perfect timing. Why don't you read it to me?" I said, "Ram Dass, right now?" And he said, "Right now."
And so I read him that section. I don't know, it was about five pages or so, and he just listened with his full attention. During the course of talking to him, he cried, which he often did. Post-stroke, Ram Dass had his heart wide open and his emotions were very available. So he cried and he laughed because I tend to be funny in my writing whenever possible and he gave me very specific feedback, but the feedback was all entirely one thing which was, "Mirabai, you nailed it. You have my blessing." I said, "You're sure I can say these things about you?" He said, "You can say anything you want about me. I have told you that before" — which he had — "that there is nothing you can write about me, that will not be okay, because you are writing your authentic truth and that's all that matters."
I was concerned, because there are a lot of people in our spiritual community that I was afraid might have some judgments about my daring to speak out about some of their more elevated beings and teachers, and Ram Dass always encouraged me to tell my truth, to step into my own voice and my own knowing, and that included my own not knowing. I think that what Ram Dass really modeled for me and for many, many of us, was that it's okay to not have all the answers and not have it figured out. He never pretended to be an enlightened being. What he did, was he modeled for all of us, and for me in particular, what it is to be fully, deeply human and to share that with the world, to not try to hide it, but to actually reveal it, to help others step into their full humanness.
So, I miss him and love him with all my heart and those moments of actual, particular personal generosity? This is one of the things that I will miss the most. I'm not even sure yet how I'm going to walk in a world without him in it in that personal way. So it's yet to be seen.
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 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.