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Carla Friedman – WNN Global Arts – Interview

Mirabai Starr

At home with author and inter-religious scholar Mirabai Starr. Image: Joe Zimmerman.

(WNN) Taos, New Mexico, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: What has been called her use of “passionate eloquence” author Mirabai Starr has been an inspiration to a wide variety of global religious leaders and laypersons. It’s not that Starr has redefined global religion; she has managed to give everyone a chance to redefine themselves in the face of today’s religious belief systems in a way that some conservative religious leaders may call heretical. But her focus on the discovery of inter-spirituality that exists in ‘the mystical space’ where the major world religions reside may describe a common thread, a common path.

Mirabai’s system in understanding the sacred includes both theistic and non-theistic belief.

“I have always been spiritually promiscuous, lying down with any God who will have me,” outlines Mirabai. “This passionate attraction to religion makes no sense. My parents, intellectual Jews, rejected the wrathful Father-God of their ancestors in favor of an eclectic embrace of eastern thought, western esotericism and indigenous wisdom ways. (I love those versions too: the Buddha Nature, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Great Spirit — they are all equally alluring to me),” continues Starr.

Her latest book, “God Of Love ~ A Guide To The Heart of Judaism, Christianity And Islam,” explores the realm of what theosophy experts call Abrahamic Theism that evolved from the regional belief that was borne inside the Middle East. Mirabai’s parents, who rejected traditional religion, the Vietnam War and the status quo, uprooted the family from their U.S. American suburban life in 1972. As they traveled through the jungles of Mexico they finally came home to relocate in Taos, New Mexico (U.S.) where the local language is the same ancient Castilian Spanish that was spoken by the mystics, including St. John of the Cross and Teresa de Avila.

Through the loss of her 14-year-old daughter who was killed in a car accident in 2001, Starr discovered that the path of loss and grief is also a way through to personal transformation.

WNN – Women News Network reporter on religion, art and society, Carla Friedman, had a chance to talk one-on-one with Mirabai Starr bringing the concept of humanitarianism, human rights and global spirituality together into the same room. The discussion highlights how human rights advocates can bring their own system of belief, or non-belief, to the table in efforts to lift suffering and bring peace to the world.

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Carla Friedman for WNN – Women News Network: A video I recently watched on the care of the dying from a Buddhist perspective, suggests that there are only two emotions, love and fear. Does this resonate with what you’ve learned through your study of the world’s spiritual paths, your personal experience, and as a Bereavement Counselor?

Mirabai Starr: One thing I have discovered, especially in my own experiences of grief and also by sitting with people whose hearts have been shattered by loss, is that our beings are vast enough to contain seemingly contradictory experiences. Like love and fear.  Like unbearable anguish and ineffable joy. 

In fact it is sometimes only into the cracked vessel that grace flows.  Rumi calls this “the secret medicine, given only to those who hurt so hard they cannot hope.”  (The hopers, he goes on to say, would feel slighted if they knew.)  In my translations I usually substitute the traditional “fear of God” with “awe of God.” 

This more accurately reflects the original Hebrew meaning of the Old Testament term, and also the essence of spiritual experience. Many mystics conceive of God as the mysterium tremendum, in the face of which we can only fall to our knees in adoration.  If this is fear, then not only is it not in contradiction to love, it embodies it.  I try to cultivate this wonderment with every breath.

WNN: You teach on ‘The Poetry of Longing’ and ‘The Transformational Power of Suffering’. How can our understanding of global and personal suffering transform into something beautiful?

MS: Through direct personal encounters with profound loss, I have discovered this intimate connection between grief and spiritual yearning.  Mystics of all traditions express the sorrow of separation from the Beloved in exquisite love poems to the Divine. 

St. John of the Cross coined the term “dark night of the soul” to describe a spiritual crisis in which all our attachments to the way we used to feel the presence of God and all our theological concepts begin to dry up and fall away.  We are left in a state of radical emptiness.  It is disconcerting, at best, and unbearable at its extreme. 

But it is a sign of spiritual maturity, John promises, and if we can resist the urge to fight it and fix it, and instead drop down and yield, we will discover divine love seeping into the empty cup and filling us with radiance.  Personal loss can have a very similar stripping effect.  If we can show up for our experience of suffering, with tenderness and curiosity, mindfully and heartfully, we may well experience that transformation from anguish to something else, something much bigger and more beautiful than we could ever have anticipated in the depths of our darkness. 

In fact, most people—many of your viewers included, I’m sure—can personally attest to the gifts that came to them not in spite of but as a direct result of radical losses.  I’m not saying that suffering is the only way we experience this grace, but it is a powerful path to awakening and enlivening.  Partly because in the fire of loss, everything that does not really matter is burned away and we are often left with this unshakable sense of life’s beauty and preciousness.

WNN: In your book on extraordinary Feminist, Benedictine Abbess, Hildegard Von Bingen, you write that she “inhabited that legendary line between genius and madness.” Do you find that the dichotomy between personal clarity and chaos is a common experience for both mystics and visionaries?

MS: This is a topic of special interest to me.  So many people I have loved have danced on that boundary: highly gifted — spiritually, artistically, intellectually — and also specially broken. 

All the mystics I’ve translated (translation is a very intimate relationship to have, even with someone who has been dead for centuries) fit this description in some way.  Any of them would probably be locked up and drugged if they dared to be who they are in present day Middle America. 

Hildegard regularly received detailed cosmological information from a voice that called itself  “The Living Light,” accompanied by a blinding radiance and crippling headaches.  Teresa of Avila claimed to have regular visions of Christ who chatted with her like a hiking buddy wherever she went, and sometimes she levitated. 

Francis of Assisi rebuilt a ruined church in the Umbrian countryside because Jesus came down from his cross and told him to.  He also tore off his expensive robes in the town square in a symbolic gesture of returning his inheritance to his mortified father and embracing a life of voluntary simplicity and solidarity with the poor. 

We can probably all think of examples of musicians, painters, scientists and philosophers who did not fit in the mainstream, and maybe suffered terribly as a result of their gifts.  My own daughter died in the midst of what is now characterized as a “manic episode” but which she experienced as merging with the Divine Mother.

Painting "Sweet Communion" by artist Shiloh Sophia McCloud

This 2013 painting by artist Shiloh Sophia McCloud called “Sweet Communion,” captures the essence in the concept of religious love of the Divine – mentioned in all global religions and beliefs as ‘the Known and the Unknown’.

WNN: In an increasingly border-less and blending world, Nobel Peace Prize Winner the 14th Dalai Lama from Tibet has said “It is a matter of great urgency for us cooperate with one another in a spirit of mutual acceptance and respect.” Your home location in the United States, in Taos, New Mexico, has a community where deeply imbedded cultures and traditions are interwoven. In seeking to soften the barriers between all religions what have you noticed about tolerance and intolerance?

MS: One of the key differences between ‘interfaith dialog’ and ‘inter-spirituality’ has to do with moving from a place of cultivating an intellectual orientation with the goal of understanding and tolerating other religions to a wholehearted and transformational encounter with the Divine in different Holy Houses. 

It’s a shift from head to heart. 

I am not interested in ‘tolerating Muslims’.  I want to chant the name of Allah with my Sufi friends and feel my heart melt in surrender to the One.  I want my Gentile friends to fast with me on Yom Kippur and reach out to the Holy One with every fiber of their soul so that when the sun goes down at the end of that sacred day they feel truly washed clean and re-aligned with the Creator and all creation. 

My inter-spiritual perspective is not about convincing people to give up their root traditions, but rather to transcend the urge to ‘otherize’ and make the courageous move to embrace, or at least taste, other wisdom ways, and the love at their common core. 

Here in Northern New Mexico there is a rich tri-cultural heritage of Pueblo Indians who have been living in their ancestral home for over a thousand years; Spanish Catholics who have been here for five centuries, and Anglos — many of whom are artists and spiritual seekers who came to this land in search of an alternative lifestyle.  These three communities have not always blended well, yet there is a sense of collective pride around here that we are known for living together in relative harmony. The so-called Golden Age of Spain was like that. 

Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted under Islamic rule for almost 800 years.  It wasn’t perfect, but great sages from all three traditions collaborated on some of the highest achievements of human history in the areas of cosmology, poetry, architecture, mathematics, and science.

WNN: In your most recent book, “God Of Love ~ A Guide To The Heart of Judaism, Christianity And Islam,” you write on the feminine face of the divine. What can you tell us about this?

MS: It is not news to most of us that the feminine has been relegated to the shadows in society in general and religion in particular.  She is still present in every tradition, but she is often hidden.  In Hinduism, she is worshiped as the Divine Mother, often placed higher than any of the masculine deities.  In Tibetan Buddhism she is Tara, the embodiment of mercy, created from a tear of the Buddha who looked upon the suffering of the world and wept.  In Christianity she is Sophia, the essence of Wisdom, and of course Mary, Mother of All.  In Judaism she is the Shekhinah, the indwelling spirit of the Divine, the Bride of Israel. 

The Prophet Mohammad was in many ways the first feminist, liberating the women of seventh century Arabia from centuries of enslavement to men and assigning them rights and protections they never dreamed of.  In indigenous cultures she is the earth itself.  But culturally these same traditions often disparage women to a horrifying degree.  It’s going to take conscious collective effort to reclaim the sacred feminine. 

I attended a traditional Episcopal mass in southern California recently in which the middle-aged white priest consistently and quite naturally referred to God as “she” throughout his homily.  My heart leapt for joy.  We need to re-frame the biblical story of “man” being created in the image of God.  Instead of conceiving of God is some kind of super hero guy running our lives from some heavenly realm, how about affirming the absolute righteousness and perfect compassion of the Divine, and that to be created in the image of the Holy One is to be endowed with the capacity to act righteously and compassionately in this world? 

This wisdom is imprinted in our hearts.  It is a gift that transcends gender.

WNN: One might view the devotional aspects of theistic traditions and Buddhism from a dualistic perspective. Can you talk about the benefit of story as a way to nourish the spirit versus the act of letting go of holding all personal ‘views’ by ’emptying the mind’? How does a Buddhist practice of seeking to become less enraptured by our own ego and dramas balance at the same time the ‘nourishment’ of myths and mystical stories embraced within our theistically focused devotional traditions?

MS: Just as I used to suffer from the illusion that I needed to pick one religious tradition and dedicate myself exclusively to it in order to “go deep” I also used to berate myself for being both a bhakta (devotional being) and a non-dualist.  As I grow older I have begun to realize that these are not mutually exclusive impulses. 

Like my namesake, the 15th century poet-saint, Mirabai, I have an ecstatic love relationship with the Holy One.  And I am equally drawn to the emptiness, which I experience through contemplative practice (silence, stillness).  I have always been madly in love with a God that I do not even believe in.  For me Ultimate Reality is ineffable, transcending any definition we could possibly come up with, and yet there is this intense spiritual longing in me, which feels exactly like love. 

Why can’t they both be true: we engage in spiritual practices to ignite the fire that will annihilate our separate self, and still celebrate the illusion of separation by bowing at the lotus feet of God-as-we-know-it?

WNN: What helps us to celebrate rather than diminish what we experience as ‘the otherness’, those who are culturally, politically, religiously or philosophically different from ourselves?

MS: An essential teaching of the Abrahamic faiths is ‘welcoming the stranger’.  It’s sometimes called ‘desert hospitality’. 

The idea here is that you must treat everyone you encounter as God-in-disguise.  Even if we have trouble with the biblical archetypes of angels masquerading as humans to test the hearts of real humans, we can apply this wisdom to our efforts to create a more just and loving world. 

The minute we identify an individual or a group as “other” we justify treating them as less worthy of the rights we assign to ourselves and those who are more like us. 

Our tendency to ‘otherize’ is insidious. 

We may consider ourselves to be open-minded and liberal, in contrast to “those fundamentalists,” yet by placing ‘true believers’ outside ourselves we banish them from the human family.  We forget our essential interconnectedness with all beings.  We perpetuate fear and hostility. 

We do not have to agree with someone else’s politics or the ethics, but if we can honor our diversity and affirm our unity, seeing the face of the divine in everyone, we have hope for activating peace on earth—at least in our small sphere of influence.

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Describing a ‘challenge to believe’ in the face of social justice, Mirabai Starr author of “God Of Love ~ A Guide To The Heart of Judaism, Christianity And Islam” speaks out about an important discovery she made after much study and research in putting her book together covering the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Her discovery points to an important note: how we treat each other globally, as well as in our own back yard, is actually more important than our personal connection to what we call and view as the ‘Divine’. This April 2012 2:47 min video is a production of the University of New Mexico – Taos (U.S.) – Center for Learning at a Distance.  

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Carla Friedman is the WNN – Women News Network’s special reporter on religion, art, society and social justice. Raised in New York and long-time student of Tibetan Buddhism, Friedman is a women’s rights and human rights advocate deeply involved in the process of ‘the creative’. She was also the first poet graduate at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, a U.S. liberal arts college that brings together Grammy award winning musicians, world-renowned Buddhist scholars, famous writers and Fulbright fellows.

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©2013 WNN – Women News Network
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