Mirabai Starr Transcript

Mirabai Starr Interview

Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer and I am still out at the Science and Nonduality Conference in San Jose, California. And it’s funny, before I came here I made a very short list, three or four names of people I really wanted to meet when I came here. And Mirabai Starr, whom I’m about to interview, was on that short list. So tonight, after meditating, I went downstairs and a friend of mine said that he was in some back room eating with Kurt Johnson, who is an old friend of mine and has been on BatGap, and a few other people. So I went in there and sat down and the conversation went around, and all of a sudden I discovered that Mirabai was at the table. And I thought that was a little bit of a nice coincidence. And I also wanted to interview some Sikh people. I never had anyone of the Sikh tradition on the show, and they also happened to be at the table, so I’ll probably be interviewing them tomorrow morning. In any case, I’ve been hearing about Mirabai for years, and my friend Phil Goldberg, who wrote American Veda, who was on this show several years ago, really suggested I get in touch with her when I arrived. And unlike most of the interviews I do, I haven’t had a chance to learn anything about Mirabai, but I’m sure she’s perfectly capable of explaining herself. And as she does so, I’ll think of some questions and we’ll have a very interesting conversation, and you’ll get to know more about her, which I think would be a good thing to do. So, I’m just going to let you kind of run the show here, and tell me about yourself, what you’ve been doing, why you’ve come so highly recommended by people. Sounds true, Tammy Simon seems to be excited about you. You’ve just written a new book, you’ve written many other books. What have you been up to all these years, and what really lights your fire?

Mirabai: Thanks, Rick. What a delight to meet you. I love these spontaneous, synchronous happenings.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: Well, I grew up in the counterculture, really, of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I feel very much a product of that, from the standpoint of a child who was brought along for the ride, with parents who were really in a very iconoclastic mode in those days. My parents were very active in the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era in suburban Long Island, New York, and at a certain point, uprooted us from our mainstream life. It was hardly mainstream, though. My mom had an art gallery. She had gone back to school as a young mother, and was studying philosophy and sociology. She was studying communal living. My father kind of tried to do business and never fit. They were socially active, and they were very much taken up with this new emerging consciousness at the time, which was strongly influenced by what was coming from the Eastern traditions.

Rick: And it’s a day that I met your mother tonight. She’s sitting right here. I immediately felt an affinity with her. She ran and got me something to eat. So she’s off camera, but it was wonderful meeting her.

Mirabai: I am definitely a product of my parents.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: You know, so many people in the emerging spiritual world are acting against, in contrast to the religious milieu of their childhood, and social context.

Rick: Which many of them found boring, meaningless, frustrating.

Mirabai: Limiting.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: And for me, it’s the opposite. And I’m not just saying this because my mother is here. I say it in every interview and in print. My parents formed my consciousness. My parents, along with people like Ram Dass, who I’ve been connected with since I was 12 years old, and other people who have helped form this, what I would call, inter-spiritual consciousness that is my legacy, that is my lineage. It’s not something I’m reacting against.

Rick: And inter-spiritual consciousness means?

Mirabai: So what I mean by that is that I have always been exposed to all of the major world’s religious and spiritual traditions, not from the standpoint of a scholar who is studying them, but experiencing the practices and the heart connection with those.

Rick: So you did Buddhist practices, Hindu practices, Christian practices, Jewish practices.

Mirabai: Sufi.

Rick: Sufi practices.

Mirabai: Indigenous, shamanic.

Rick: Indigenous. Quite a potpourri.

Mirabai: Yes.

Rick: Was it confusing doing so many different practices?

Mirabai: No, I thought everybody was that way.

Rick: It was kind of enriching doing them all.

Mirabai: It was all I knew.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: So I really thought everybody was one of each. It was only when I went to college. I mean, I lived in a pretty sheltered, counterculture, sub-cultural world that I discovered that not only was not everybody one of each, but that people had very strong feelings about the need to have boundaries between the religious and spiritual traditions. What happened was that when I was around 12 or 13, the school that I went to, which was a free school, you know, in the 70s they called them free schools, alternative schools, very much arts-based, not big on math and history.

Rick: Was it Goddard or someplace?

Mirabai: Yeah.

Rick: Was it?

Mirabai: No, it was a school, an elementary in Taos, in Taos, New Mexico, where I grew up. Taos was a kind of meeting ground. It was a crossroads for many different religious and spiritual and cultural traditions at that time. Always has been. Still is. I mean, always has been meaning back in the time of the Pueblo tribes, it was a crossroads for a lot of different tribes who would come together in this place. It’s one of those vortex places, and drop their traditional animosities, historical divisions, and they would engage in trade and ritual. So it’s always been one of those places. So when I was around 13, I think, the Lama Foundation took over the school that I was going to, that my siblings and I went to. And Lama Foundation, of course, is the place where Ram Dass wrote “Be Here Now” in 1970.

Rick: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Mirabai: Oh, okay. And so Lama is the original inter-spiritual community. It’s where all of the different religions have always had a place at the table to come together. And so because Lama ran the school, the school was a place where all of these great teachers would come through, from Ram Dass to Hari Dass Baba to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Natalie Goldberg was our English teacher, and Pema Chodron was our, what was she, social studies teacher.

Rick: That’s great.

Mirabai: And so it was a place where all traditions met, and I was a kid.

Rick: What a fantastic place to go to school.

Mirabai: It was.

Rick: Wow.

Mirabai: And the way I got my name, in fact, Mirabai, was that when I was 13, I was the lead role in a play about the story of Mirabai’s life, because our drama teacher and music teacher had just come back from India with one of those comic books.

Rick: Oh, right. I used to read those all the time when I was in India.

Mirabai: So they brought back the Mirabai comic, and we wrote, the kids, we wrote a musical play with dance based on her life. And I was Mirabai, so that’s actually how I got my name. So that’s the kind of place it was.

Rick: It was the kind of education everyone should have.

Mirabai: I think so, although it was a little thin in some of the academic areas.

Rick: Yeah, the sciences maybe.

Mirabai: Yeah, the sciences, math. I remember at one point…

Rick: But it didn’t have to be. I mean, theoretically, there could be a school like that, which was strong in science and math as well.

Mirabai: For people who were drawn to science and math, it was available. I remember at one point when I couldn’t balance a fraction, the teacher concluded that was probably because I was too brilliant for simple arithmetic. So he started teaching me trigonometry.

Rick: Well, that’s kind of the route Einstein took. He was pretty bad at basic arithmetic and simple math, but he was great at the more advanced stuff.

Mirabai: Turns out I was bad at all of it.

Rick: Oh.

Mirabai: But I was deeply drawn to religion and particularly to spiritual practices, chanting, meditation. At a very young age, I developed a meditation practice. Now, my parents, who brought us into this world, not just this world, but to Taos, to Lama Foundation, and to the school, they were not interested in religion. I felt like a religious nutcase in my family, because every religion that I encountered, I was drawn to. I wanted to take robes. I wanted to take vows. I wanted to be a renunciate. By the time I was 14, all I wanted to do was be a priest. I didn’t care what flavor.

Rick: Sounds like you’ve got some past life action going on.

Mirabai: Who knows! I felt like it wasn’t exactly what my parents had in mind, but they put up with it, and over the years have really come to honor what it is that I do.

Rick: So their orientation was more political and anti-war and social stuff?

Mirabai: Yeah, and spiritual, but without any forms.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: Forms were not okay, the religious forms in particular.

Rick: Right. I had an interview with those folks who did Foster and Kimberly Gamble, who did the Thrive movie.

Mirabai: Yeah.

Rick: We were talking about how back in that era, I was sitting on my butt meditating and feeling like all these political protesters and all were just not getting the deeper level, the thing that’s going to really affect change. And they were all thinking that I was withdrawn from the world and just wasting my time with my eyes closed. And we were commenting on the fact that we’ve both kind of come full circle to appreciate that action, or maybe as is the case, inaction, on both levels is necessary for the complete package, and that together, with the right balance of those two, real change can come about.

Mirabai: Well, Rick, that’s exactly where I’m at right now, and it’s the younger people that are teaching me. I’ve been teaching college philosophy and religious studies for 20 years, and it’s the younger people who are showing me that it’s not even a question anymore. The connection between so-called action and so-called contemplation is a seamless one. That when we sit in the silence and listen, we hear the pain of the world, and there is no possible response to that than to step up and see how we can help. And so those two things are naturally integrated. So I wrote a book called God of Love, a Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This was after many books that I did that were translations of the Christian mystics. So, by the way, I come from a non-religious Jewish family, a secular Jewish family, very strong connection with Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass’s guru, basically Hindu-esque.

Rick: Did you actually go and see him, or just vicariously?

Mirabai: Yes. I found Maharaji Neem Karoli Baba just the year he left his body. But he’s always been a very dear, important wisdom figure in my life, as is Ram Dass. And, so, secular Jewish, strong connection to Hinduism, strong connection to basic Buddhist sitting practice, Vipassana-style sitting practice since I was a teenager, and a very deep heart connection with Sufism, three branches of Sufism, and everything but Christianity. Oh, and then I met Reb Zalman and studied with Zalman when I was a teenager, when I was 16, 17, and have a very strong Shabbat practice every week where I practice the Sabbath. But Christianity was the one tradition I knew the least about, but I ended up serendipitously translating Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross.

Rick: From Spanish.

Mirabai: Right. So that brought together all my loves, which was that particular text, Dark Night of the Soul, which is the kind of original non-dual teaching in many ways. Not original, but one of them. My love of language. I was a writer. I write fiction, I write poetry. And my fluency in Spanish. And they sort of all came together in creating this new, fresh translation of Dark Night of the Soul.

Rick: Where did you pick up the Spanish? In New Mexico?

Mirabai: We traveled a lot in Mexico when I was a child, and then I ended up spending my junior year in Spain studying Spanish literature, living in Seville.

Rick: Great. Cool.

Mirabai: And that’s where I found John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, who are the two Spanish mystics that I have translated. But I finally wrote a book in my own voice, God of Love. And God of Love was… I’m circling back around to this activism, contemplation thing. God of Love really followed two streams in the Abrahamic faiths. The mystical stream of longing for God, which is expressed so much in poetry. The language of love. And the social justice and environmental stream, which really just came together in one river. in that book, and I think does in all spiritual traditions, but I was looking at the Abrahamic faiths in that particular book. And so those are my passions, how our experience, our felt experience of the Divine is naturally expressed in service.

Rick: Great. What a life. And it’s not over by one shot.

Mirabai: But the Christian part is really funny, because I mean, I’m everything but.

Rick: Well, now you’re that too.

Mirabai: And now I’m considered to be one of the living… what would you call me?

Rick: Experts or something?

Mirabai: Something like that on the Christian mystics.

Rick: Because you translated them.

Mirabai: Yes, and I’ve written other books about, including St. Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen. I just translated Julian of Norwich a couple of years ago. And I love the Christian mystics, but it just…

Rick: Julian of Norwich doesn’t sound like he spoke Spanish.

Mirabai: No, she

Rick: Oh, she.

Mirabai: Was a medieval. I know Julian is a male name. It’s totally understandable. She was a medieval English mystic. She was a contemporary of Chaucer and the first woman to write in English. So I translated it from Middle English.

Rick: Oh man. How did you learn Middle English?

Mirabai: I had a dictionary.

Rick: Oh, so you just kind of painstakingly went through?

Mirabai: Yeah, but translation is so much more than just taking one word as you know and translating it into another word. You have to enter into the body of the work and into the heart of the mystic. Well, to me, they’re the mystics that I’m translating.

Rick: Yeah And to translate poetry, you have to be a poet. Translation is one of the most creative acts I know. I just finished writing a memoir, which was purely from my own voice. And I have to say, this is the first time I’m saying this, that translating is as creative an act as writing my own so-called book.

Rick: Yeah, I mean, really ultimately to translate someone you have to sort of, as you say, enter into their experience. And I think to whatever extent one can’t enter into the fullness of their experience, something is going to be lost in translation as the saying goes. So it must on the one hand be very challenging and on the other hand be very stretching or expanding. I mean, you’re kind of like stretching yourself to be able to get into their world in order to do justice to it.

Mirabai: That’s right. And it’s also darshan, to use the Hindu language.

Rick: Yeah. You know, to translate a great saint is to sit at their feet and receive their transmission. I’ve never thought of it this way, but it’s almost to receive their blessing. I feel blessed.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: Translating Teresa of Avila was an encounter with Teresa of Avila. I translated her right after my 14-year-old daughter Jenny was killed in a car accident. And in fact, Jenny died the day that my first book, Dark Night of the Soul, came out. The very same day. And I had just contracted with my publisher to translate Teresa of Avila. And they offered me the opportunity to back out of the contract in the wake of what had happened. And I sat with that for a while and decided I would do it.

Rick: Probably therapeutic.

Mirabai: It was therapeutic and it also enabled me to step out of the world because I had this book project. It took about a year to translate. And in the Jewish tradition, the year-long mourning cycle is very important, as you probably know. And I decided to borrow from my own ancestral lineage, even though I know very little about Judaism. But I grew up without much. But I did know that Judaism has a container for grief that other cultures, maybe Tibetan Buddhism has, but very few cultures know how to do it in the contemporary world. So I looked at the one-year Jewish mourning cycle and it invites the grieving person to remove herself from the day-to-day world, which is what you feel like anyway,

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: as you probably know.

Rick: Yeah, you shouldn’t force.

Mirabai: It doesn’t fit.

Rick: You shouldn’t violate that natural inclination.

Mirabai: So it was the perfect thing. And interestingly, I had this deep love affair with John of the Cross, who reminded me so much of Rumi, who I was exposed to as a teenager through Sufism, before he had been translated by Coleman Barks and Robert Bly and other contemporary translators. I knew Rumi as a Sufi master in my teens. And when I found John of the Cross at 20, he just felt exactly like Rumi to me. It turns out that’s less coincidental than I thought at the time. They were mutual influences.

Rick: They were aware of each other?

Mirabai: No, John was probably aware of Rumi.

Rick: They weren’t contemporaries?

Mirabai: No.

Rick: But John probably read Rumi’s works.

Mirabai: Probably did, because he uses exact phraseology that Rumi used. So I loved John of the Cross. I loved his deep, quiet. That’s much more my nature. And Teresa of Avila is very flamboyant and dramatic. She was a total drama queen.

Rick: Didn’t she levitate?

Mirabai: Yeah, yeah.

Rick: That would be a drama queen thing, right? Out of a well.

Mirabai: Exactly. She was always charming the inquisitors. That’s why she wasn’t condemned or something. She should have been with the things she was doing and saying. But she just had this way of making everyone fall in love with her.

Rick: If you can charm an inquisitor, then you must be pretty charming.

Mirabai: Exactly. They sat at her feet. They became her chelas, her disciples.

Rick: Unbelievable. I wonder if they gave up the inquisitor business as a result of her influence.

Mirabai: I bet. Probably. There’s the book of my life, her autobiography. It’s the best spiritual autobiography in the world. I translated it, and it’s the quintessential coming-of-age story of a mystic. And she alternates in that book. She’s writing it for the Inquisition, on the command of the Inquisition. And she alternates between calling the same guy “my son and father,” because her relationship with him becomes one of a spiritual teacher to a hungry seeker.

Rick: Her relationship with John of the Cross?

Mirabai: No, the inquisitors.

Rick: Oh, the inquisitors. Okay.

Mirabai: She did have a very close relationship with John also. But anyway, I wasn’t drawn to her. I was drawn to him. But I was contracted by my publisher to do her because she’s much more known.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: After Dark Night of the Soul. But it was doing that book, The Interior Castle, after Jenny died, that saved my life. And through that process, I developed a relationship with Teresa Vavila that is as real for me as my relationship with any of my girlfriends or tías, my aunts.

Rick: Right. Some people hearing your story might think, “Well, she’s very eclectic. She’s spread herself kind of thin. My guru says that it’s better to dig one deep hole than ten shallow holes,” you know, that kind of thing. I’m not saying that. I think that you have the capacity to dig ten deep holes, and that doing so affords you an unusual and unique perspective. So what is it like to embody within your awareness so many traditions to such a degree of depth and profundity? I mean, that must be somehow much more interesting and enriching even than delving deep into one tradition could be.

Mirabai: Thank you. This question is music to my ears. I get asked that question a lot, but not nearly as nicely as you just asked it.

Rick: Oh, thank you. Still got a little steam left in me today.

Mirabai: And somebody, I can’t remember who, told me that another analogy to this issue of trying to dig a single … what is it?

Rick: You know the old saying.

Mirabai: Yeah, yeah, it’s from Ramakrishna.

Rick: Yeah, and other gurus use it too, “It’s better to dig one deep hole than ten shallow holes if you want to find water.”

Mirabai: That’s it.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: So someone else said …

Rick: One that’s ten feet deep rather than ten that are one feet deep.

Mirabai: One you’ll never get to water. Someone said a much better analogy is using ten tools to dig a single well.

Rick: Yeah, that’s a good one.

Mirabai: I love that.

Rick: Never heard that.

Mirabai: Or it’s like cross-training. Isn’t that what Ken Wilber says and others?

Rick: Yeah

Mirabai: It’s like when you’re an athlete and you swim and you bike, and when you’re training you do all of the different …

Rick: You develop the different muscle sets and aerobic capacities and things.

Mirabai: Yes, and different systems. So what’s it like? What it’s like is, I don’t know, it’s always been that way. I remember when I was …

Rick: Yeah, grew up that way.

Mirabai: Yeah, when I was a kid I had a friend who had a black father and a white mother. And when she was little, she talks about when she was little and she had a birthday party, maybe kindergarten, and the kids came over to her house and they said, “Oh my God, you have one of each.” And she’s just like, “Doesn’t everybody?” And that’s how I feel. This is not an accomplishment. To me it feels like my birthright to be interspiritual, to draw from all of these different Western traditions.

Rick: Yeah, I mean you just fell into it. It wasn’t premeditated or planned.

Mirabai: Yeah.

Rick: But it’s interesting.

Mirabai: But I think it’s everybody’s birthright.

Rick: Well, not everyone ends up doing such a thing.

Mirabai: But so many more people are drawn to it than I’ve realized. Rick, I travel a lot and speak in a lot of different communities, and it used to be that people would confess to me. Episcopal priests would take me aside after a talk and say, “Guess what? I’ve always been this way.” And when I was in seminary, I went to a synagogue for the High Holy Days and I just wept through the whole service. And now I understand that this is the interspiritual heart, and it’s natural, and it’s my birthright. And more and more people now are not even making such a big deal out of it. They’ve just always felt that their hearts open naturally in the presence of the sacred in many different holy houses. And so the interspiritual path is about experience. It’s not about theory. It’s not about theology. Although theology can be interesting. But it’s about having a spiritual experience. It’s about having an encounter with the sacred in these different forms and saying yes to that transformation that happens in the heart.

Rick: To me, it seems that if there is any potential downside to it, it’s far outweighed by the upside, which, especially in light of all the bloodshed that has occurred throughout history because of people’s exclusive, you know, being locked into one particular tradition and thinking that all the others are false. I mean, so anyway, that’s the thought.

Mirabai: Well, and so the accusation often, or question, is how do you do this interspiritual thing and not be just a dilettante who’s dabbling and picking the parts that feel good and don’t challenge you, and then you just move on to the next thing. So my response to that is a personal one. I have had profound, deep encounters in every one of the major spiritual traditions, and still do, on a regular basis. There’s nothing superficial about it. My heart has been transformed by those encounters.

Rick: Well, you dig in one hole with ten tools, or whatever.

Mirabai: And the question is, are you willing to, not you, any of us, I, am I willing to make myself vulnerable enough? Am I willing to not know, which is what John of the Cross has taught me, so that when I enter into another faith tradition, I can allow the mystery to come and have its way with me, with my heart?

Rick: Yeah. So I guess, see if you agree with this, it would seem to me that the popularity of this interspiritual approach, which the Episcopals are telling you that you’re finding is quite widespread, would be due to the fact that there is some kind of widespread appreciation of the fact that it really is one light with many different lamps that is illuminating the world, and that we have created a lot of problems for ourselves by assuming that our particular lamp is the best, or only one, and that it would really behoove people who are interested in religion or spirituality at all to do something along the lines that you’ve done. We’d have a better world if they did.

Mirabai: Yes, and yet I’m really careful about proselytizing. And the insidious temptation for someone like me is to otherize fundamentalists,

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: and just assume that my way is just like they would, is the better way, and close my heart to someone who is evangelical, or has some other fundamentalist perspective. In my ancestral tradition of Judaism it would be, what are they called, Mom? Oh, Chabad, the Chabad people, or the fundamentalists. t; They were called fundamentalists.

Mirabai: Yeah. And so my challenge, if I’m going to walk my talk, is to keep my heart open in all of… When the Jehovah’s Witness comes knocking at the door, my father used to put them off by saying, “Sorry, we’re Zen Buddhists,” or whatever flavor he chose that day. My challenge is, no matter how busy and important I think I may be that day, to open my heart and receive what they have to say, and thank them, and even let them talk to me for a few minutes about their understanding of the truth. Otherizing is very subtle, the ways that we do it, particularly progressive types like me.

Rick: What do you think makes a fundamentalist tick? Why do people become fundamentalists?

Mirabai: Well, my easy answer is that they want easy answers. See, I’m otherizing even to answer that question in that way, but I’m much more interested in the questions. I get very nervous when anyone has an answer for me, and I myself really continuously… Maybe it’s an inquiry-based inclination in me, but as soon as I start to think I have it figured out, I fire the God that I just elected and enthroned in my consciousness. I want to live in the mystery. I want to live in the question.

Rick: Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess I would say that fundamentalists, they want surety, they want security, and it can be kind of scary to say, “You’re not sure, you don’t know. Your book may not be literally the only true thing.” So, I think there’s also a kind of a… I’m getting a little judgmental here, but a little bit of an immature human tendency to think, “My way is the best way. It must be the best way because I’m doing it. And if it weren’t the best way, I wouldn’t be doing it.” And you see that in so many different spiritual groups and all kinds of things.

Mirabai: I see it in myself. Don’t you see it in yourself from time to time?

Rick: Well, I used to be obnoxiously that way. I think I’ve mellowed a bit. But wouldn’t you say that it’s natural that there are – and again, we don’t want to sound paternalistic or something – but it’s natural that there are gradations of spiritual maturity, just as there are gradations of emotional maturity or physical maturity and everything. And each stage has its relevance and its significance, and it’s appropriate for the person who’s at that stage. And nobody stays at the same stage forever. And the only certainty is change and continued growth.

Mirabai: Yes, I would agree.

Rick: Yeah. So, I get the impression, talking to Kurt Johnson, that interspirituality is kind of on the rise. And you were just telling me before we started that you feel like all of a sudden things are kind of exploding for you, they’re really taking off. Taking off in terms of interspirituality or some other aspect of what you do. I mean, that’s basically what you do.

Mirabai: Yeah, that’s mostly it.

Rick: So that’s an interesting harbinger of something. Why do you feel like it’s catching fire like that, and where do you think it might be 10, 20 years from now?

Mirabai: Well, you know, there are other scholars who are speaking of this third axial age, that there seems to be this global– it is very much connected with the globalized phenomena that we see in both positive and negative aspects all over the world. But one of the artifacts of this interconnected communication system that we have now is that the separations between religious and spiritual traditions don’t make sense anymore. It used to be that tribal kind of consciousness that was all people knew, and if they knew about another, they would hold on tightly to their own because it was threatened.

Rick: Yeah, chances are they were at war with that one.

Mirabai: Exactly. And so now, the distinctions between these traditions no longer feel valid to many people because what they see are the commonalities. They’re so obvious now and people didn’t know before. When my grandparents were growing up in Brooklyn in the Bronx, not only did they not know Catholics, they didn’t even know people– like, they were Ashkenazi Jews who didn’t even know Sephardic Jews. I mean, things were so separated.

Rick: Yeah, compartmentalized, yeah.

Mirabai: And I remember my grandparents had Catholic friends. It was such a big deal. And I didn’t know from Catholicism, Protestantism. I knew I wanted to be a priest, though. I spoke to Andrea Levine–

Rick: A Catholic priest?

Mirabai: Yes, a Catholic priest.

Rick: And good luck with that.

Mirabai: Exactly. Andrea Levine, you know Stephen and Andrea?

Rick: Oh, I’ve heard of them, yeah.

Mirabai: She said that I’m the only other person who, as a little Jewish girl, wanted to be a Catholic priest. So those kinds of separations no longer make sense to people. And when people find out about each other’s traditions and see so much commonality, the interspiritual response is a natural one. Now, here’s the key to interspirituality and what distinguishes it from the interfaith dialogue tradition. The interspiritual movement is about experience. It’s not about concepts. In the interfaith movement, ordained representatives of each tradition would sit around the table and tell each other what they loved about their own tradition, and listen respectfully, ideally, to the other.

Rick: And try to find some commonalities on a conceptual level.

Mirabai: That’s right.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: In order to tolerate, to build tolerance. I’m not interested in tolerance. I’m interested in transformation.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: So when I chant Sufi Zikr, as a Jewish Buddhist Hindu agnostic, something happens inside my heart that changes me. Forever. I can go there right now as I think about it. The feeling, it’s not just a feeling, it’s not an emotion, although it has an emotional component, but the felt experience of entering into the heart of Islam through chanting Zikr, for instance, is an encounter with the sacred. That’s what the mystics are about having a direct encounter with the Divine. That’s what mysticism is. And the interspiritual movement is about that. It’s about mystical experience, meaning, not talking about God, but sitting in silence, or sharing in song, or breaking bread, or lighting candles. So often it’s about spiritual practice, engaging in spiritual practice in other traditions, and allowing that engagement to be a transformational experience. Not forcing it, but making yourself vulnerable enough, and empty enough, that that may happen.

Rick: That’s great. I’m really glad you explained that. I didn’t know the distinction between interfaith and interspiritual. And, it would seem to me that if the founders of all these different religions were to all sit in a room together, or all walk into a bar, or whatever, and were able to speak each other’s language, literally, their spoken language, that there would be deep agreement, and commonality, and brotherhood, because they’d all really be experiencing the same thing. And that what we see as distinct different traditions and religions, if they seem distinct and different, is probably just a matter of climatic and geographical conditions.

Mirabai: Cultural, historic.

Rick: Chronological distortions, things like that. But, it’s really all basically the same thing that they’re all talking about. It’s just taking different manifest forms.

Mirabai: Yeah, and I think that that same thing they’re talking about is the interconnected web of being.

Rick: Yeah. And we see that manifested in the mystical and in the social justice. In the mystical in the sense that they’re all speaking about the longing of the heart for union with the Beloved. And they’re all talking about the way that relationship with the Great Mystery is best expressed and galvanized and proven in our relationships with one another and with the earth herself.

Rick: Yeah. Often when I’m talking to people they say, “Well, I don’t like to use the word ‘God’ because in so many people it evokes the image of the old guy in the clouds with the beard, an external thing, whereas I understand” – I’m quoting some hypothetical person – “whereas I understand or experience God as being all-pervasive, omnipresent intelligence. There’s nothing external about it.” If you want to call it external, it’s just as much internal, it’s just in and out, all-pervading. There was a question at the tail end of that thought. Do you have a response to that? Because I forgot what my question was going to be.

Mirabai: One of my new issues is non-dualism itself feels like a dualistic concept.

Rick: That’s one of my issues too.

Mirabai: Really?

Rick: Yeah, why do you say that?

Mirabai: I’m just going to use myself as an example. Maybe because I’m a woman, I’m very grounded in this earth. I feel very embodied. And so I don’t like, even though I’m theoretically a scholar, I don’t like getting overly conceptual about this. My personal experience as Mirabai Starr is one in which my bhakti nature, my devotional heart, has always been inextricably entwined with my tendency to go to rest in a non-dual state of consciousness. And so for many years, just like this whole issue of people telling me, especially when I was young, “It’s very nice, dear, that you have this attraction and openness to all of these different religions, but eventually you’re going to have to pick one and go deep in order to be a mature spiritual being with spiritual rigor.”

Rick: Because they were assuming you weren’t going deep, the way you were doing it.

Mirabai: That’s exactly right. Exactly.

Rick: From the outside, maybe it looked like you weren’t. How could she be? I wouldn’t be if I were doing all those things.

Mirabai: And so there was this sort of subtle violence in that message. You know, you’re doing something wrong to be inter-spiritual. And I felt that there was the same message about, you’re either non-dual or you’re devotional. And the more mature spiritual position is to be non-dual. That’s a person who is truly awakened, is not going to fall for that bhakti crap of lover and beloved and longing for God and the separation of the soul from the Divine. That’s all illusion. The truth is resting in this non-dual state in which we know that we already are. There’s nowhere to go and there’s nothing to do because we’re already there and we are it.

Rick: Yada, yada, yada.

Mirabai: Yada, yada, yada. And that always made sense to me. It made sense to me not just intellectually, but it made sense to me because just in my regular meditation practice, I spent time resting in that very state that people were speaking about. But I was equally inclined. I love kirtan. In fact, I sing kirtan, I lead kirtan, I’m chanting, as I mentioned, zikr in the Sufi tradition. There are many Christian chants and hymns that I love, that I sing, that I teach. The Hebrew prayers, the ancient Hebrew prayers are so evocative, so I am just as inclined to move from that non-dual state in meditation to a mad devotional state, like my namesake Mirabai, and get up and sing and dance to the Beloved.

Rick: Well, you’re in good company, you know, because if you look at Shankara, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, they were also very devotional. I mean, Shankara wrote all these devotional hymns and things. Shankara said, “The intellect imagines duality for the sake of devotion.”

Mirabai: Oh, he said that? That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

Rick: Yeah, exactly, because devotion has juice. It’s sumptuous. The heart needs to be part of the picture.

Mirabai: It’s beauty. The heart needs to be part of the picture. It’s beauty.

Rick: Yeah, and we can say similar things about Ramana and Nisargadatta. When the crowds cleared out, Nisargadatta would grab his cymbals and do these wild bhajan things and pujas every day, and all that stuff. But the funny thing is, if non-dual is really non-dual, it just means oneness, wholeness, totality. If it’s totality, why can’t it contain all manner of things?

Mirabai: That’s right.

Rick: If it’s exclusionary, keep that out, keep that out, then it’s not all embracing, obviously, and it’s not non-dual.

Mirabai: That’s right.

Rick: It’s kind of isolating itself over in one corner.

Mirabai: Exactly. It’s fundamentalist.

Rick: That’s my rant.

Mirabai: We’re on the same page.

Rick: It’s fundamentalist. And boy, you see it too. Especially people who are sort of new to the whole thing, and they read a few books and everything, they get quite nasty sometimes on Facebook and various chat groups. You mention anything about prayer or bliss or devotion, and all of a sudden you’re like, “Lost soul.”

Mirabai: Exactly what you’re speaking about. And Teresa of Avila in the interior castle, and I’m about to start a course online about Teresa of Avila’s interior castle from an inter-spiritual perspective. So I’m going to use this Christian masterpiece, but I’m going to draw from Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism and Judaism and Islam as well. When she talks about the third of her seven dwellings of the interior castle, which is a metaphor for the journey of the soul inward, the third dwelling is that place. It’s the place where you’ve read some books, you’ve sat some retreats, you’ve had some insights, you’ve cultivated some discipline.

Rick: And you think you’re hot stuff.

Mirabai: It’s sophomoric, right? It’s a sophomore in college who has taken enough general ed that they think that they know it all.

Rick: Did you ever watch Jeff Foster’s cartoon about, “Oh, look at the beautiful tree.” “There is no tree, there is no beauty.” You ever see that one?

Mirabai: No, that’s great. I’m going to look for it. I like him.

Rick: Do you see … We don’t want to get too … Why not? Do you kind of try to envision the future sometime, and sometimes imagine where all this is going? And do you speculate as to whether with the increasing interconnectedness and communications and intermixing of ideas and cultures and all that, that we might be heading towards some kind of more homogenous planetary spirituality that maybe has a little bit different flavors and temperatures here and there, but is really recognized as a kind of a global thing? And in parallel to that, we may end up with one country or one government or something. All that’s real scary for the conspiracy people. But why should we be so fragmented as a planet on any of these levels if we really become a more enlightened world?

Mirabai: Yeah, I think the upside of globalization is something like that. But homogenization sounds bland, and I think if I were to picture the future, I think it will be very rich and diverse. So I think religion is dying, Rick.

Rick: Yeah, I think there’s a talk at this conference, “Is Christianity Worth Saving?”

Mirabai: I’m on that panel. And so my answer is, “Is it worth saving?” Not really, no, nor any of the religions. However, because I so deeply love the mystics of all traditions, I feel like it is our task to mine the jewels from each of the established religious traditions. And those jewels include practices, like contemplative practices, especially in all of the faiths. And they include the bhajans and the chants, and they include some beautiful scriptures. There are some scriptures that we’ve got to jettison because they’re nasty.

Rick: Yeah, oh sure, there’s Leviticus and things like that.

Mirabai: Yeah, there’s some good stuff in Leviticus, but a lot of really nasty stuff. So yes, I think that people can call it cherry-picking. That’s not what I call it. I call it “mining the jewels.” I think we know how to do that. I believe in us.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: I believe in our faculty of discernment, and our ability to be able to separate that which is life-giving from that which is harmful and dangerous, and creates further separation and violence.

Rick: Yes, as the band sang, “You take what you need and you leave the rest.”

Mirabai: That’s just smart. That’s just good sense.

Rick: I mean, it’s very likely that all the yucky stuff that you’re referring to was not part of the teaching…

Mirabai: That’s right.

Rick: of the people who founded those religions. It was introduced by fanatics later on, as they began to mangle the original teachings of their founder.

Mirabai: And co-opt them for power and control.

Rick: Yeah, administrators always take over, you know, and administrators and mystics have never really been on the same page.

Mirabai: Teresa of Ávila says, “I’ve known some great men of learning who have taught me a great deal, but I’ve also known some half-learned men who have done me a lot of harm.”

Rick: Yeah. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Mirabai: So I feel like a lot of people are very busy trying to prop up the carcasses of the established religions, and they’re dead or dying and crumbling in their hands.

Rick: So if we extract all the good bits from these carcasses and then cremate them, are we going to have new religions, or is spirituality going to be something which is actually no longer the province of what we might describe as a religion? It’s going to be … answer that part.

Mirabai: I think that second part. I think there will always be people who are drawn to one particular tradition and will not only be comfortable there, but will shine there.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: You know, the Father Thomas Keatings of the world, who are monastics, professional monastics, live in monastic environments and are dedicated to upholding those lineages in beautiful ways. So I don’t think that the religions are completely doomed, but I think very few people will stay with one, and that there will be this naturally emerging interspiritual context that will draw its strength from the ancient wisdom traditions. I don’t think they’re going to die. I think they will be woven into this common tapestry of spirituality, where people will not say, “I’m a something.” They will not subscribe to any one tradition because it won’t feel natural to them. I’m seeing it now.

Rick: Oh yeah, spiritual but not religious.

Mirabai: Exactly. It’s the fastest growing box on the census.

Rick: Yeah, so it will all be pared down. We’ll have the cream of each one remaining, perhaps. And yet spirituality itself could be a much more prevalent thing. It could be the predominant thing, with, as you say, the best of each religious tradition remaining to contribute to that spirituality. That was just a sloppy summary of what you just said.

Mirabai: No, it was beautiful. And I think it will be intimately involved with service and stewardship of the earth and taking care of one another.

Rick: Yeah, well, I mean, earlier when you distinguished between interfaith and interspiritual, the emphasis of interspiritual was on experience.

Mirabai: Yes, heart experience especially.

Rick: Yeah, heart experience. I mean, sometimes spiritual experience isn’t so heart-oriented. It may be more kind of transcendent and so on. But really, I’ve always felt that when I learned to meditate, and I had never really been interested in religion, it was like it always ruined my Sundays if I got dragged to church, and I always kicked up such a fuss that I felt lousy the rest of the day. But when I learned to meditate when I was about 18, I very shortly began to realize, “Oh, so that’s what all that was about.” It’s an experience. These guys were talking about an experience, and I didn’t get that in Sunday school. And I felt that just dwelling on the level of believing something or thinking about something was about as nourishing spiritually as reading a restaurant menu is nourishing in terms of food. You can starve to death doing that.

Mirabai: Right, beautiful.

Rick: Well, that’s exciting.

Mirabai: It’s not about belief system, that’s for sure.

Rick: Who cares what you believe? All beliefs, as far as I’m concerned, should be taken as theories which can be tested and either verified or rejected based upon whether the experience can bear them out.

Mirabai: Be lamps unto yourselves.

Rick: And what value is there in a belief? One thing I like about Sam Harris, who I’m eventually going to attempt to come on this show, is that despite his rabid criticism of many things, is his sort of insistence on experience, and his lamenting of how much harm has been done because people have adamantly believed things that they weren’t experiencing. I think that’s a real healthy aspect of what he’s trying to do.

Mirabai: I do. I think he’s very misunderstood. He has a deep spiritual life.

Rick: He does. He’s an ardent practitioner of meditation. Ironically, he considers himself an atheist. And I wrote him a letter attempting to set up an interview, which hasn’t happened yet, but I said, “I feel like you’ve lit a fuse, and eventually, with your spiritual practice, that fuse is going to unravel this edifice you’ve built.” Because ultimately, one’s awareness of God begins to dawn, if you adhere to spiritual practice. I worded it better than that. It’s late and I’m tired, but you know what I’m trying to say.

Mirabai: Yeah. Well, I call myself an atheist some days.

Rick: Do you?

Mirabai: Yes, I do. I don’t think it’s true,

Rick: No.

Mirabai: but I’m looking for something when I say that.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: Something that is unwilling to put it in a box.

Rick: I saw a bumper sticker recently which said, “If you’re not in awe, you’re not paying attention.” And when you think about it, we take for granted what we’re actually looking at here. And if we had superpowers and could actually see what’s happening in one of our cells, and what an incredibly sophisticated little machine it is, which is mind-boggling. We understand maybe 1% of what’s actually happening in a cell, and even that 1% is completely mind-blowing. And then to consider that we’re composed of trillions of them, and there are more neural connections in our brain than there are stars in the galaxy, and so on. And considering that it’s obviously not billiard balls randomly bouncing into each other, but there’s some kind of vast, incomprehensible intelligence orchestrating it, then you have God. You have infinite intelligence conducting things.

Mirabai: And infinite heart.

Rick: And infinite heart.

Mirabai: Because the way I always say it is that I’ve always been madly in love with a God that I don’t believe in. Because conceptually, I refuse to define. The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. Every religious tradition asserts that if you can define ultimate reality, you’re missing it. And yet, I’ve always had this love and longing for that which I refuse to conceptualize.

Rick: Yeah. Kind of reminds me of something else I put in Sam Harris’ letter, which is, “I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in.”

Mirabai: Perfect.

Rick: But I said, “I certainly believe in God, but we have to define what it is, not set up a straw man.”

Mirabai: Yeah. Easy to shoot down, but not true.

Rick: But I mean, if spirituality is – and we’re talking about spirituality and experience – if this experience we’re alluding to is coming to really cognize or apprehend the reality, not only in its unmanifest state, but in all of its manifest gradations, then all these things have to really be taken seriously and taken into consideration, it seems to me. There’s just a plethora of interesting theories, which used to be considered beliefs, which can be explored. I’m talking too much now.

Mirabai: No. I like it.

Rick: I do that at a certain stage.

Rick: So what more do we want to know about you?

Mirabai: Nothing.

Rick: No? All you wanted to know about Mirabai Starr, but were afraid to ask?

Mirabai: I mean, as you said, it’s late and I could go on and on and off and do, but I guess if I wanted to sum it up, a couple of things that I want to say, and I already said it, was beauty for me is the portal to spirit. And so, whether it’s an idea or a spiritual practice or a work of art, if it evokes that sense of awe that you speak about in the face of the beauty, then there is God for me. And so, one of the ways that I have been awakened to the beauty of all that is, is through loss and trauma. Because loss has this stripping quality, you may have noticed, where all the superficial phenomena is just taken and there is a nakedness of spirit that is naturally open to the beauty of all that is. So paradoxically, in the face of great sorrow sometimes, the scales fall from our eyes and we’re able to perceive that beauty in the simplest things. And to me, that is the holiest thing I know, is that nakedness of spirit that comes in the wake of often great suffering.

Rick: Well, if God is really love, and if there is this evolutionary imperative driving the universe, and if this intelligence we call God is really all-pervading, then why would anything that happens to anybody be like anything other than that which is going to be conducive to their further awakening? And evolution.

Mirabai: I wonder, sometimes.

Rick: Well, yeah, I mean, obviously there are people who…there are books being written, what’s that book?

Mirabai: Why do good things happen to bad things happen to good people?

Rick: Right, yeah. Well, I suppose that would be a whole other discussion.

Mirabai: Yes.

Rick: Good, well I’m sure we’ll have more of these over time.

Mirabai: I like talking to you.

Rick: We won’t do it late at night, so we’re a little bit more fresh. But a lot of good stuff has come out of this one, I think. And I can see that you’re like a mine of all kinds of interesting gems that could be dug up and appreciated.

Mirabai: Thank you so much. I’ve been hearing about you also for a long time, so it’s a pleasure to hang out with you.

Rick: Yeah, it’s great.

Mirabai: And we’re obviously one mind, I can feel that.

Rick: We seem to be.

Mirabai: You’re a little more of a believer than I am.

Rick: Yeah, I don’t know why.

Mirabai: I’m glad to hear you claim it.

Rick: Yeah.

Mirabai: I’m apologetic about my faith. But I grew up in an anti-religious family. You probably grew up in a religious family.

Rick: My mother thought it would be good for the kids to go to church, you know. They weren’t particularly religious. My father swore a lot. He used the word “God” when he did that. But personally, my life was rough enough up until the age of about 18, and when I finally got on to spirituality, it was such a relief that I threw myself into it hook, line, and sinker.

Mirabai: So people often… it’s suffering that propels people into the path.

Rick: Yeah, like you were saying. All right, well let’s wrap it up for now, because we could struggle it out with more gems of wisdom. What were you going to say?

Mirabai: I have to talk at 9 o’clock in the morning.

Rick: Oh, I absolutely should let you go.

Mirabai: 800 people.

Rick: Yeah, hopefully I’ll be one of them if I get up early enough myself.

Mirabai: You’ll just hear all the same stuff. I’ll read some poetry. Oh, poetry, that was the thing I would have talked about.

Rick: I’ll be there. I’ll be there.

Mirabai: Really? Okay.

Rick: I’ll stand up and… I know her, I talked to her. Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you so much for doing this on the spur of the moment like this. It was great.

Mirabai: Thanks, it was a pleasure. You had to digest dinner anyway.

Mirabai: That’s right.

Rick: Yeah, good. So let me conclude. I’ve been speaking with Mirabai Starr, and by now you know the drill. This is Buddha at the Gas Pump, a series of interviews with spiritually interesting and awakening people. There are hundreds of these interviews online at batgap.com. Go there, poke around through all the menus, hit the donate button if you feel like it. Sign up for the newsletter to be notified each time a new one gets posted. Click on the link if you want to do the audio podcast instead of having to sit and watch videos. You’ll see it all. It’s not a hard website to figure out. And tomorrow morning, I think I’m going to interview a couple of Sikh people, which I’ve also had in the back of my mind. I’ve never interviewed anyone from that particular tradition, so it’s unrepresented on this show so far, and I think it should be represented. So I also know nothing about them, but this went well, and so hopefully that will too. So see you for the next one. Thanks.