Story of A Soul: An Intimate Conversation with Mirabai Starr
The renowned author and teacher talks about grief and the miracle of healing.
Posted Jan 27, 2016
Mirabai Starr is an interspiritual author and speaker who leads retreats internationally on the mystics and contemplative life. She is best known for her acclaimed translations of Dark Night of the Soul and The Interior Castle, as well as God Of Love. Her long-awaited memoir, Caravan of No Despair, is an extraordinary account of the author’s search for her lost daughter – a story both intimate and universal – and Starr’s fascinating experiences at the epicenter of the American spiritual scene for the past four decades. We spoke recently about her new memoir and the path of healing, grief, and transformation that characterizes her life and work.
MM: I want to start by asking you, why did you call the book Caravan of no Despair?
MS: That title is extracted from a Rumi poem that’s also inscribed on his tombstone in Konya, Turkey. A couple of lines that I particularly love are: “Come, come, whoever you are, wander, worshipper, lover of leaving. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Even if you’ve broken your vows a thousand times, come, come again, come.” I love the invitational spirit and the affirmation that no matter what has happened, this caravan moving us through the wilderness is not a caravan of despair. My story is one in which not everybody, least of all myself, always plays a heroic role and so this seemed perfect.
MM: Yet this caravan contains despair, doesn’t it?
MS: For sure. I would not want to deny the absolutely initiatory fire of our dark times. In my case, the deepest times of sorrow have been the greatest catalyst for transformation in my life. It seems to be a universal human experience that when we’re suffering it’s difficult to see any redeeming value, but over time, I’ve hardly met anyone who hasn’t said the deaths of their beloveds or their cancer diagnosis or whatever their most harrowing experiences might be, weren’t actually “the secret medicine”, as Rumi also says, that has given them their greatest gifts.
MM: For skeptics reading this interview, it might sound as if we’re sugar coating misfortunes that are basically miserable. What would you say to someone who doubts the transformative power of tragedy.
MS: It’s true that when you’re in the midst of it, not only is it offensive to have someone suggest that there is some silver lining in your suffering, but it’s just inappropriate. It’s only something that we can recognize ourselves afterwards. When my fourteen-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident, it’s not like I said, “Now here’s my chance for transformation.” If anyone had suggested such a thing, it would have really felt like an affront. But even in the earliest stages of trauma, I remember moments where I felt this sense of grace—of breaking in through my shattered heart. And this radiance would fill me and hold me. I’ve spoken with many grieving people who’ve experienced that same sense of being catapulted into a sacred space in the wake of a fresh loss.
I think we can tap into that universal experience of the sacred, holy, or something that feels like unconditional love, when we are at our most broken. I’m not someone interested in going for what I think is aptly named “the spiritual bypass.” I don’t like slapping on spiritual platitudes to harrowing situations. This is actually the opposite of trying to cram our experience into some neat, tidy package. It’s more a matter of that courageous response of the spiritual warrior who is willing to show up for what is, and to sit in that fire.
MM: What’s the connection between loss of control and what you’re calling the sacred?
MS: Being groundless is the ultimate lack of control, or as Pema Chodron says, “Being in your groundlessness.” Instead of trying to fix something broken—your heart for instance—what we’re doing is actually saying “yes” to what is, even if “what is” is an unutterable mystery. It’s not trying to remedy or manipulate our situation or otherwise fill in the emptiness, but letting go and yielding. It’s what one of my heroes, John of the Cross, means by “dark night of the soul.” It’s not about being depressed, but letting ourselves down into the arms of radical unknowingness. Not trying to control the spiritual crisis that has descended on us, which John of the Cross considers to be a great blessing. When we’re stripped of everything we used to use to explain our lives to ourselves, that frees us of ourselves. When the dark night descends, when we’re plunged into that emptiness, our only path is stop doing. To actually let go of our spiritual practices. This is a 16th century Spanish monk saying, “Stop your prayers and your rituals.” Let go of those things you used to reliably prop you up and just rest in the darkness.
MM: In the beginning of the book you write, “In a dark night of the soul, all the ways you have become accustomed to tasting the sacred dry up and fall away. All concepts of the holy one evaporate. You’re plunged into a darkness so impenetrable that you’re convinced it will never lift. You may flail about for something, anything to prop you up but you grasp only emptiness, and so rendered reckless by despair, you let yourself fall backward into the arms of nothing.” That’s so beautiful.
MS: Thank you, Mark.
MM: “rendered reckless by despair...” What does that mean?
MS: When you are shattered, nothing matters. When Jenny died, I wanted to die. It wasn’t that I was suicidal, but if my life ended right then, I would have been fine. And I felt this sense of fearlessness, because the thing that I most feared—losing a child—had happened. With nothing left to lose, there was nothing to hold on to and this created a feeling of spiritual recklessness. It’s sort of like tonglen practice in Tibetan Buddhism where we tune into whatever it is that is hurting our heart and become present with that feeling. You breathe it in and breathe out relief. And then, as long as you’re broken open by pain, you begin to breathe in the pain of the whole world. Breathing in pain and breathing out surrender is incredibly freeing. It’s very much the kind of practice I did do when my daughter died. I didn’t do prescribed practices or tonglen per se, but I did some version of it intuitively.
Jenny died a few weeks after 9/11, and the western world was on fire with grief. There was this culpable sense I had of mothers in war zones who were losing children, who were experiencing terrible violence and oppression, and my broken-openness connected me with other sufferers everywhere, especially mothers. Not only did I take them into my heart as their pain became my pain, but I felt held in the collective heart of humanity.
I’d spent a lifetime feeling kind of special and that went out the window when my daughter died. Even though I’d experienced other deaths, this was the first time I ever felt fully connected to the human condition. This tremendous loss made me recognize my place in the human family.
MM: Why do you think it took fourteen years to tell this story of her death?
MS: I tried to write the book several times and each time it read like a journal. I was still processing my pain, so it took me all this time to distill it into some kind of nourishing elixir I could serve the world. It needed to be accessible to others because it wasn’t just my private story. I strongly believe that our personal stories are versions of the universal story, and that stories are transformational.
Lead needs to be transmuted into gold, and I don’t know what does that except to continually show up for the experience and speak in your authentic voice. I was asked to write this book by Tami Simon, the publisher of Sounds True, after a podcast I did with her “Insights at the Edge”. We called it “Naked with the Beloved.” Then an editor friend of mine said, “Whatever you do, don’t try to make yourself look pretty in this memoir. Just tell the truth and if it feels like you’re going somewhere really naked and scary, go there. Be true to that.” That was the permission I needed to tell this story.
MM: So, did writing this down change your relationship to the experience of losing your daughter?
MS: When Jenny died, I wrote her eulogy and read it at her memorial service the week after she died. I could only do that from that altered state we often get into in trauma. The last line was, “I will write your story.” So having made that promise, I had to do it eventually. Delivering my vow was very meaningful to me and Jenny has, little by little over the years, infiltrated my psyche in such a way that I feel she’s part of everything I do.
She’s part of my spirit team in a very real way. I do a lot of speaking and teaching, and I call on Jenny like I call on the ancestors, the divine mother, gurus, masters and angels to be with me. She died the day my first book came out: my translation of Dark Night of the Soul. So, at the time, I was turning inward to grieve the death of my child, I was being called outward to the world to speak and teach, and from the very beginning, Jenny was part of my work, somehow guiding my steps. I’ve felt that more and more as the years go by. I would give it all up for one more minute to be with her again, but since that’s not possible, I am grateful for the way in which she is with me.
You experience the trauma all over again when you write, so that process was pretty intense but I stayed with it in as conscious a way as I could. I’ve tried to engage in as much self-care as I could along the way, all the things that nourish and feed my body, mind and soul. I have incredibly supportive family and community, and I felt we were all writing this book together.
MM: When someone comes to you in deep grief, what kind of advice do you give?
MS: First of all, I don’t try to change anybody’s experience or help them shift. My task is to companion people’s hearts because that is all I wanted when I experienced my most difficult loss—just somebody to bear witness to my pain. I invite them to live in the fire with me by saying, “I’m here with you, I’m going to sit in it right here with you.” I don’t shield myself from their pain, I just try to hold a loving space for them to feel it. Shifting happens almost 100% of the time as a result of having someone bear witness.
MM: Let me ask you one last question. Your life and your career have been deeply cultivated by your work with the mystics of all traditions, and mysticism has kind of a bad rep in our culture. A lot of intelligent, well-informed people think it is the same as magic or wizardry. So, how can we ground our sense of what mysticism is in everyday life?
MS: Mysticism is about having a direct encounter with the divine, with the sacred, with the mystery, as opposed to some kind of mediated experience through prescribed prayers or rituals. It’s about meeting the holy with our own beings, of having a sense of direct experience of the sacred. It may be hiking, it may be cooking, it may be witnessing the birth of a baby or the death of a loved one when that sense of the sacred breaks through and touches us directly.
These experiences come partly through grace and sometimes occur whether we want them to or not. The key way I know to cultivate the ground for that experience is through some kind of meditation practice. Silent sitting teaches us to not believe everything we think, and therefore, to be available to the breaking through—as the Christian mystics say—of the divine. By virtue of having been still and silent for a few minutes on a regular basis, that ground of our being becomes tilled. The willingness to not know helps create the conditions for this sacred, transformational encounter. I don’t limit that to any one religious tradition. I’ll take the god of love wherever I can find her. In Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Native American traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism. Everywhere.