An Interfaith Crucible

A Conversation with Mirabai Starr

Mirabai StarrMirabai Starr is an adjunct professor of philosophy and world religions at the University of New Mexico-Taos. She is the author of God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and other works, and is the translator of Dark Night of the Soul, by John of the Cross, and The Interior Castle and The Book of My Life by Teresa of Avila. Recently Starr has emerged as one of the most impressive voices connecting multiple religious traditions. Her years spent at the interfaith Lama Foundation contributed to her understanding; and so, apparently, has her more recent work as a locksmith. –Jeff Zaleski


 

JEFF ZALESKI

You were raised in a secular Jewish family suspicious of organized religion, yet as a teen you moved away from your family and to the Lama Foundation, which you have described as an “intentional spiritual community” where you were exposed to a variety of spiritual traditions. Why did you seek out the Lama Foundation and how did your experiences there shape your inner life?

MIRABAI STARR

Lama Foundation is a place that has actively embraced all the world’s religions and spiritual traditions since its inception in 1968. After my parents uprooted us from suburban Long Island in 1972 in search of an alternative lifestyle, we traveled for a year and finally settled in the mountains of Taos, New Mexico, largely because of the alternative school there, started by British artists, which was being run at that time by Lama. The multitude of teachers that came through Lama ended up visiting the school: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Ram Dass, Sasaki Roshi, Pir Vilayat Khan, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Father Thomas Keating, Mesoamerican shamans, Hopi elders, and medicine men and women from Taos Pueblo. Pema Chödrön (she was Deirdre then) was our Social Studies teacher, and Natalie Goldberg was our English teacher. They each brought stories, songs, and prayers from their lineage, and shared them with us.

The spring I turned fourteen, my first love was killed in a gun accident. This loss catapulted me onto a spiritual path. Something about death seems to break us open to the numinous, and this glimpse of the sacred reality underlying the veneer of the everyday world ignited my longing for God. It was natural for me to seek refuge at Lama—only a few miles north of my family home—where I could immerse myself in the practices that had become like living waters for my thirsty soul. Because Lama was, and still is, a place where all traditions meet and are equally honored, my entire spiritual formation unfolded in an interfaith crucible. I did not know that this was unusual. I thought everyone was one of each!

JEFF ZALESKI

Mirabai StarrAs you know, a common admonition given to spiritual seekers is to explore one tradition deeply, and not to mix traditions. Yet you recommend that people practice at least two traditions, and you yourself practice in a variety of traditions. What is the benefit to that?

MIRABAI STARR

I believe we are endowed with a faculty of discernment that guides us to seek life-giving truths. When we encounter different faiths, we know exactly how to excavate and sift to find the jewels that lie at the heart of each tradition. Every religion contains a treasure trove of wisdom teachings and transformational practices, and each one is also burdened with divisive messages and a history of violence and oppression. The gems are our birthright, and this God-wrestling process is our legacy. Contrary to the assumption that the inter-spiritual path is for those who lack conviction—spiritual dilettantes who dabble in the feel-good aspects of religion because they’re too lazy to cultivate the discipline required for “real” religious life—it requires tremendous rigor and courage to say “yes” to the beauty wherever we encounter it, and to say “no” to whatever generates the poison of “otheriz-ing.” There is a subtle elitism—almost a violence—in the message that we have to “pick one path and go deep,” implying that following multiple points of entry to Spirit precludes depth. My own encounters in an array of religious contexts have been anything but shallow! And I am finding more and more people like me, who seem to be temperamentally incapable of choosing one way to God, to the exclusion of all others.

My guiding value is love. Wherever I find access to the teachings and practices of love—whenever I am drawn into a field of love in the context of religion—I enter, I drink, I allow myself to be changed by the encounter. These soul visits to the holy houses of a faith tradition not my own frequently have the effect of dissolving my preconceptions; I am delighted when that happens. I cherish not-knowing!

JEFF ZALESKI

If you could distill all of the world’s great spiritual traditions into a single message, what would it be?

MIRABAI STARR

I think Jesus got it exactly right when he answered that question in Luke 10:27 by summarizing Judaism. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind,” he said (quoting Deuteronomy 6:5) “and your neighbor as yourself” (from Leviticus 19:18). In the famous “Judaism on one foot” legend, the great sage Rabbi Hillel put it this way, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Now go and study it.”

It’s about making ourselves vulnerable to the pain of yearning, and available to the presence of the Divine that comes pouring into the broken-open chamber of the heart when we allow ourselves to rest in the mystery. Nothing can lock up the doors of the soul faster than dogma—especially the flavors that encourage us to set up certain groups or individuals as worthy and condemn others as beyond salvation. It’s not that I am claiming that all religions are essentially the same. They are not; they are, thankfully, gloriously, different. But I believe all religions are calling us into a state of oneness—with Ultimate Reality, and with each other.

JEFF ZALESKI

In the current issue of a popular Buddhist magazine, a Buddhist scholar writes, “One can get only so far … by following other religions; only Buddhism has the path to liberation from suffering. All roads may lead to the base camp, but only Buddhism leads to the summit.” What would you say in response to that statement?

MIRABAI STARR

I respectfully disagree. My entire life’s work is predicated on the eradication of any such dualistic claims. I am not aware of a spiritual path on the planet that is not fully dedicated to soothing our pain and showing us the way home to truth.

JEFF ZALESKI

Why practice any tradition at all? What does practice bring?

The Shekinah Glory Enters the Tabernacle, Unknown Artist, 1908

The Shekinah Glory Enters the Tabernacle, Unknown Artist, 1908

MIRABAI STARR

Spiritual practice is direct experience. When we follow our breath in the Zen tradition, or repeat the names of God in Islam, or kindle the Sabbath candles and welcome the Shekinah on Shabbat, or offer the light of a butter lamp to Mata Durga, we are harnessing timeless technologies precisely engineered to open the heart and transform consciousness. Practice knocks on the door of the soul and it opens to the presence of the sacred. It shifts us from the intellectual realms of theology into the embodied space of spirit as it pours into and animates all that is.

JEFF ZALESKI

Please describe your daily practices, especially how you might integrate more than one tradition into your daily routine.

The Hindu Godess Durga Killing the Buffalo-Demon, Unknown Artist, 18th Century

The Hindu Godess Durga Killing the Buffalo-Demon, Unknown Artist, 18th Century

MIRABAI STARR

I begin most mornings by paying homage to the array of saints and masters on my puja table (altar): Buddha, Krishna, Ganesh, Christ, Mary, Tara, Kali, Hanuman, Neem Karoli Baba, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Ananda Maya Ma, Rumi. I light incense and wave it in slow circles as I silently chant a short prayer in each tradition, starting with Om Namah Shivaya and ending with the Shema (Hear, O Israel, the Beloved, your God, the Beloved is One), and then turn to the six directions (north, south, east, west, above, below), closing with a blessing for Mother Earth. I cup my hands at my heart to gather qi before practicing a series of Sun Salutations (Hatha Yoga). Then I sit for a few minutes in silence, dropping down to the formless from which all these delicious forms are born. I usually have a sacred text from one of the world’s religions stacked on the floor beside my cushion and I finish my meditation by reading a couple of pages. This entire routine is symbolic of the well of wisdom and beauty I carry with me wherever I go, dipping freely to find whatever medicine best meets the needs of the moment.

When my daughter died suddenly in a car wreck in 2001, I instinctively reached out for a ritual container that could hold this impossible loss. I turned to my ancestral tradition of Judaism and discovered precious resources there. We decided to sit Shiva, gathering every day at sunset for seven days to chant the Kaddish in praise of the unknowable but loving God. We sang kirtan in the Hindu tradition, chanted Sufi zikr, read from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Hebrew Psalms, invited a Catholic priest to bless Jenny’s body, and accepted the offer of a Therevadan Buddhist to dedicate the merit of her silent retreat in Jenny’s honor. We smudged Jenny’s casket with cedar and sage, and had her cremated with hand-tied prayer bundles to sustain her on her spirit journey. I don’t see how I could have survived without the bounty of these blessings. I was stripped of conceptual beliefs about Ultimate Reality—it all dissolved in the fire of grief—but I drew strength and solace from the ancient ways humans have been connecting and making meaning across cultures and throughout time. These practices helped me to show up for the holiness of death, rather than check out and miss the opportunity to fully honor my child.

JEFF ZALESKI

In your writings, you speak of spiritual teachings on mysticism and spiritual teachings on social justice. What is the relationship between the two?

MIRABAI STARR

The natural outcome of connecting to the sacred is an urge to alleviate suffering. The intensity of spiritual longing and those fleeting moments of unitive consciousness bring us into direct contact with a wellspring of blessing, which cannot help but spill over into every aspect of our lives. The legendary Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, whose masterpieces I’ve had the honor of translating, teaches that when at last lover (soul) attains union with Beloved (God), the only thing that makes sense is to dedicate herself to service in the world. Most religions claim that the true test of our relationship with the Holy One is the care with which we treat one another and steward the earth. The distinction between action and contemplation is a false one. We are called to be contemplative activists. Martha and Mary are one being. She is us—all of us.

Huston Smith and Mirabai Starr

Huston Smith and Mirabai Starr

JEFF ZALESKI

What is the role of the Divine Feminine in the spiritual traditions and in spiritual work?

MIRABAI STARR

I’m not the only one to notice that the Divine Feminine has been buried alive for millennia. But her potency is undiminished, and now seems to be her time to rise from the shadows and radiate into every arena of the human experience. Not as the alternative to the masculine model of holiness, but as an equal expression of the ineffable, formless Absolute as it pours into form. The Divine Feminine feels to me to be all about embodiment, about immanence (as opposed to transcendence), about incarnational spirituality. She is the felt experience of the sacred in nature, in relationships and community, in work for peace and justice, in the arts. Rather than striving for the vertical ascension up and out of this world, the Sacred Feminine celebrates the body, inter­dependence with all beings. She is not about wielding the sword but rather about bearing compassionate witness. Her non-violent fearlessness is needed now more than ever.

JEFF ZALESKI

Interestingly, you work professionally not only as a teacher, speaker, and author, but as an assistant to your husband, a locksmith. What is the relationship of locksmithing to your spiritual work? What kind of opportunities does it open for spiritual work?

2013_VOL_384_Winter_Letting_Go_SP-Starr-Interview-03-8

Ram Dass and Mirabai Starr

MIRABAI STARR

Ha! Nobody asks me about this, so thank you. Sadly (and somewhat ironically), as my work becomes more recognized and I am increasingly called on to teach and speak, I am less available to Jeff as assistant locksmith! Often these days I accompany him on his route simply so I can sit in a blank hotel room and write, undistracted by my demanding life in the “real” world. And yet even in this capacity, I have the experience of meeting so-called “ordinary” people—from guests in hotel parking lots to the maintenance and housekeeping staff—with whom I have these extraordinarily sacred exchanges that throw open the doors of my heart and fill me with love for the human family. This is where the soul-work feels most real for me.

JEFF ZALESKI

You are widely read in many traditions. Other than scripture, what one book per tradition would you recommend to someone who wanted to learn about: Christianity; Islam; Judaism; Hinduism; Buddhism; Taoism; and the Native tradition?

MIRABAI STARR

Christianity: The Interior Castle (Teresa of Avila)
Judaism: I and Thou (Martin Buber)
Islam: Mathnawi (Jalaluddin Rumi)
Hinduism: The Bhagavad Gita (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Buddhism: One Bird, One Stone (Sean Murphy)
Taoism: Tao Te Ching (Lao Tsu, translated by Gia-Fu Feng, Jane English, and Toinette Lippe)
Native: Black Elk Speaks (John G. Neihardt). ♦