I’ve always felt that there’s a deep connection between spirituality and politics in a wide sense. It’s all just life. The other day I listened to a podcast expressing this. “Insights at the Edge” podcaster Tami Simon of Sounds True was speaking with spiritual teacher and author Mirabai Starr about her latest book: Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics. What Starr had to say inspired and impressed me, and I wanted to share the highlights of it with you, based on a transcript of the podcast (released 4-1-19).
Because Starr believes that “ultimately, truth, reality is the boundless, non-dualistic field of love,” she’s shied away from comparing the wisdom of masculine and feminine mystics. Not long ago, however, she “began to realize that the feminine is rising everywhere, and that the spiritual community needs to be involved in that discourse.” Feminine wisdom, she added, often “requires excavation, because these feminine wisdom jewels are hidden in the patriarchal overlay, since all of the world’s spiritual traditions were designed and built by men, for men.”
When Simon asked which of these jewels Starr wanted to highlight, she answered, “One is the inter-relationality of the feminine; the value of cooperation and relationship, but also the core-level, cell-level, physical way I think women and some men get that everything’s interconnected. It’s not a philosophical treatise about dependent co-arising. It’s a felt experience of inter-being that I think women have in general, and that’s emphasized in the feminine wisdom teachings. Another is care for the earth. Not that men don’t also adore our mother, the earth, and want to tend her, but there’s a way in which the feminine responds to the pain of the world that’s spontaneous and generous and non-intellectual, rooted in the body.”
TS: Yes. I thought one of the things you emphasized in Wild Mercy that I really appreciated was that our actual spiritual life is connected to the fate of the earth.
MS: That’s right.
TS: I wonder if you can talk about that, because I think sometimes people think, “Well, whatever happens politically, whatever happens with climate change, that’s not really part of my spiritual agenda. My spiritual agenda is to align with the moment and be at peace, regardless of what’s happening.”
Starr had “a couple of responses. One is that the way that we treat women is directly related to the way we tend the planet. I don’t think there’s any accident that this masculine-driven model of spirituality and society and politics has left the earth in the dust and done great damage. The male-driven model of doing things has caused great detriment not only to women, humans, but to the earth herself. The feminine emphasizes relationship, that we have a real living relationship with the earth. It’s not just an idea about climate change based on science, though I think it’s important to track the science. The feminine has a relationship with Earth as mother, lover, and sister. Feminine wisdom cultivates relationship and intimacy in all spheres, which leads me to the third kind of strong value of these teachings: inclusivity. There’s a way in which, when women come together, we include each other. I’m not saying all women are inclusive and cooperative and relational. Many women have divorced themselves from those kind of values. And many men, including the men that we all know and love, are deeply relational. But there’s a way that the feminine is now emphasizing inclusive, horizontal leadership.
The spiritual traditions that many of us were trained in, even when they’ve ordained women, are still patriarchal, still hierarchical. Even if the woman is the roshi or the rabbi, she’s still the boss, standing or sitting there dispensing goodies to the hungry people. There’s something that I really tapped into with this book that the more I said it, the more true it became, for me – that this is the time for leadership to be a communal experience. Almost everyone I know carries this seed of wisdom, and all you have to do is water it with your loving attention, and it germinates and flowers. I’m seeing that in all the groups and all the communities where I’m invited to speak or teach, the minute I make it about all of us, an incredible flourishing of wisdom happens. To me, this is deeply feminine – very much about relationship and loving kindness, and developing community by acknowledging that everyone has something to bring to the table.”
TS: This brings me to the question about the future of the patriarchal religious forms we’re currently seeing crumble. We’re in this interesting transitional phase. And when I read a book like Wild Mercy and permission is given to the individual to find their way among all of these different spiritual texts; to express their spirituality in activism, caring for their families, and loving whomever they love. It’s beautiful. But what are our future forms?
MS: The crumbling you refer to is really happening. The world’s institutionalized religious structures are dissolving and disintegrating before our eyes. And there’s a fundamentalist response to prop these carcasses up. But if you tap into the deep wellspring of feminine wisdom, the women are the ones who’ve always been the midwives and the death doulas. We’re comfortable with the messy margins of things, okay with ambiguity and not knowing. So we’re present for these death throes that are happening in society and religion and the emerging of a new kind of wild, unpredictable, radically authentic…I don’t even want to call it a paradigm, but reality. It’s an exciting time if you’re not looking for easy answers and fill-in-the-blanks.
Starr and Simon then agreed that patriarchal religious leaders want their followers to be loyal to a particular spiritual path; they criticize “spiritual dilettantism.” But, Starr said, she realized that “maybe we have a faculty of discernment implanted in our being that enables us to know what the life-giving truth is and what divisive, dualistic, separating teachings are, and that we can, in fact, make honey from gathering the nectar from various traditions. We can have a deep and profound and transformational encounter within multiple sacred spaces. From these transformational encounters we can find a way that’s deep and profound and has social relevance, as well as a path to personal awakening and personal development. That’s another thing about the feminine – the whole idea of individual awakening feels kind of irrelevant, because it’s truly about all of us. The bodhisattva vow of sticking around on the wheel of samsara, of births and deaths and rebirths, until all beings are free. Individual liberation is a meaningless concept to the feminine, as are practices like purification and perfection. Those words are alien, I think, to the feminine experience, which is much more organic and sensual.”
TS: So, at some point you decided to trust your own powers of discernment. “I can discern. I can be a bee and I can pick the flowers. I don’t have to sign on with one patriarchal proposition.” I think a lot of people don’t have that level of confidence. What would you say to someone who’s like, “I’m a beginner. How do I know?”
MS: It’s interesting, because I don’t just trust my own faculty of discernment, I trust yours. I trust everyone’s, as well as everyone’s ability to take what they find, that cup of water, with them out into the world.
Simon then asked Starr about the word “mercy” in the title of her book.
MS: It’s interesting. A white man, a well-known spiritual teacher said, “I don’t think you should call it ‘Wild Mercy,’ Mirabai.” He thought the term “mercy” was sappy, that it implied meekness. But this is how Mother Mary is being rescued and resuscitated, I feel, in the current inter-spiritual landscape. The term “mercy” no longer means meek. It carries this powerful energy that’s different from compassion. Compassion, to me, carries a quality of equanimity, that the feminine not only doesn’t necessarily have, but isn’t particularly interested in cultivating. The feminine is about the outpouring of the heart. And mercy, to me, carries that quality of aliveness. It’s compassion that’s been lit on fire and that melts. There’s a melting quality to mercy. There’s a warmth. I think that feminine quality of out-flowing of the heart partnered with the wildness of the feminine that’s willing to not know what’s going on, or what’s going to happen next, but is showing up for it are the core message of the book.
TS: One of my favorite sentences is “What breaks our heart is also what connects us.” I know that you’ve had that experience, and I want to hear what you have to say about the relationship between knowing the depth of loss in our lives and our capacity for mercy, our capacity to feel a loving, alive connection with others who suffer.
MS: I know a lot of people who’ve experienced great and transformational losses, and each of them has become a more open, boundless container of love and compassion. Their losses have broken them open. I’m not worried that people are going to calcify and constrict around their losses. Maybe for a time, but 100% of the people I encounter who’ve experienced loss have become more loving, more compassionate eventually. And sometimes right away, and sometimes in moments. We open and close like an accordion, in the power, the bellows of loss. Again, I believe in us. I believe in the capacity of the human heart to enlarge in the presence of unbearable experiences. And through that enlargement of the heart, serve the world in a spontaneous way.
TS: What makes a loss a transformational loss?
MS: Entering into the experience as fully as possible, even if it feels like it’s going to kill you — a feminine yielding, like yielding to the contractions of childbirth. There’s nowhere to go but to open and surrender to the experience, though you may protest along the way. When we show up for the experience of shattering loss, it becomes transformational. It’s not about transcendence; it’s about full presence. And you know, one of the things about grief and loss that I’ve found, and I think this is a truly feminine perspective, is that when we experience a really profound, transformational loss, it’s not only about us. It doesn’t make us special. I lost a child. And there were moments, in the beginning, especially, where I felt like an alien creature. No one could understand me. And then it was like, “Wait a minute, women have been losing children backwards in time and across the planet forever. So not only am I not special, but guess what? Those women, on a soul level, are my family. They’re my sisters, we’re in this together, and they’re holding me now, as I navigate this mysterious, brutal landscape of loss.” So, rather than becoming some kind of rarefied, special creature because I’d lost a child, I took my place in the human family for the first time, in a way, when my daughter died. And it was the family of women, especially, that I felt were holding me, and that I’m holding now. That’s my job going forward.
Simon then asked Starr to introduce and read the beginning of a chapter called “Laying Down Our Burden.”
MS: This is a chapter on cultivating a sabbath practice. “Here. Come here. Take a moment to set aside that list you’ve been writing in fluorescent ink, the list that converts ordinary tasks into emergencies, where ‘Feed the orchids,’ becomes ‘If I don’t accomplish this by 11:00 tomorrow morning, the rainforests are going to dry up, and it will all be my fault.’ Gather your burdens in a basket in your heart and set them at the feet of the Mother. Say, ‘Take this, Great Mama, because I can’t carry this shit another minute.’ Then crawl into her broad lap, nestle against her ample bosom, and take a nap. When you wake, the basket will still be there, but half its contents will be gone, and the other half will have resumed their proper shapes and sizes, no longer masquerading as catastrophic, epic, and toxic. The Mother will clear things out and tidy up. She’ll take your compulsions and transmute them, if you offer them to her.’ A sabbath is a revolutionary, subversive act in our consumerist achievement-driven world.
When Simon asked Starr about imagining God as the Mother, she said, “This kind of comes back to the question we opened with, where you asked about the feminine, and I felt it as a dualistic distinction I wouldn’t normally make. Philosophically, I’m more of a Buddhist or non-theist than a theist. It takes an effort for me to picture God as anything. As even God. But I feel that at this moment emphasizing the feminine in all spheres of human activity, maybe especially religion, is going to create a needed paradigm shift reflecting the feminine values of wildness and mercy, compassion and connection to the earth, relationship and horizontal leadership that can’t help but heal and mend the torn fabric of the world.
TS: One of the things you say in the book that I thought was important is that devotion isn’t an immature inclination. Because in the kind of more militaristic spiritual traditions in which I was brought up and trained, devotion was for sissies. Kind of like, “You don’t need to prostrate yourself or make offerings. That’s superstitious mumbo jumbo.” But in Wild Mercy you reclaim the power of devotion. Tell me why that’s important to you.
MS: I’m glad you used the word reclaim, because as you were speaking, that’s what was rising in my mind: To reclaim devotion, reclaim passion, reclaim the feminine landscape of the heart. I, too, was trained in these vertical traditions, where we still our minds and leave our bodies behind. All of our bodies are feminine, incarnational, part of the earth. And if we don’t respond to the impulses of the heart residing in our bodies, we’re going to be cutting ourselves off from an entire range of spiritual experience. Devotion, for me, is the impulse of the heart that cries out to the beloved who we may not believe in in our rational minds. We may call that magical thinking, envisioning Krishna or Kuan Yin as the object of our heart’s impulse to love, but it can a placeholder for the real, holy part of ourselves that calls out for love and allows us to dissolve into those non-dual spaces.
I’m devoted to Neem Karoli Baba, the great 20thcentury saint Ram Dass wrote about in Be Here Now and all his books. Maharaj-ji’s been my guru since I was 14 years old, so philosophically it doesn’t matter what I think – I have this devotional relationship with him. When I experience Maharaj-ji, there’s something in my heart that melts. It’s like he’s a warmth, a fire, a flame. And when I come into proximity, my heart softens and the boundaries dissolve. I enter this non-dual state that other people cultivate through more cool practices that aren’t necessarily heart-centered. They’re more about mindfulness.
When I chant (I also love sacred music in all languages; in Hebrew and Arabic, especially in Sanskrit, especially kirtan), my heart softens and opens and yields, and there’s a devotional quality that’s quite ecstatic. It also has an element of pain; the pain of longing. But ultimately what happens when I allow myself to fully enter that devotional space is that I almost always taste non-dual states of undifferentiated awareness that are empty in the most delicious sense of that word. I like how Roshi Joan Halifax translates sunyata, the Buddhist term for emptiness, which is the true quality of all that is, not as emptiness, but as boundlessness. Devotional practices bring me to those non-dual states. And there’s a reciprocity when I return to individuated consciousness from those fleeting moments of resting in suchness. I have an urge to praise. Praise what? Praise who? I don’t know, but it bubbles up from my heart and my body. I experienced this terrifying sweetness of being nobody for a minute.
TS: It’s interesting that you brought up the deep pain or ache of longing, because that was also one of the sections of Wild Mercy that I appreciated. At one point, someone asked me, “Do you have longing?” And I was like, “Yes, I have all kinds of longing,” but I also felt like I’d given the person the wrong answer, that I’d failed my spirituality exam. Yet in Wild Mercy you make owning our longing part of the landscape of the heart, part of our spiritual path.
MS: And in fact, the portal. Longing is a portal.
TS: At the end of one chapter, you wrote, “What do you want from the holy one? Write a letter to your beloved stating your demands and your longings.” I thought that was a great exercise, even though it doesn’t fit with people’s conventional view of what a spiritual path should be like. I’m writing my demands to the holy one. What? My demands don’t count. Do they?
MS: You’re right – we’re not supposed to want stuff. Desire is supposed to be the problem. A more sophisticated version of that teaching is to just become aware of our desires, but either way there’s a kind of cool detachment that’s expected of us in most spiritual traditions, in which we understand that it’s okay to have desires, but it’s going to cause trouble, and ultimately you’ll be a lot happier if you can detach from them. I’m advocating that we actually connect with our desires on all levels, without making a distinction between physical and spiritual. And that we stand up for ourselves in the presence of the holy and say, “This is what I want.” Teresa of Avila, the great 16thcentury renegade nun who I’ve had the good fortune of translating, was famous for shaking her fist at God and saying, “What a minute, dude. This is not OK with me.” Or, “Why do you become present with me, enter me, inflame my heart, hold me close, and then leave me? This is not OK.” Many of the great scriptures, from the Song of Songs to the Gita Govinda to Layla and Majnun in the Sufi literature are based on lover and beloved coming together in ecstatic union, then separating. He leaves her behind, and she cries out with love longing, and her cry becomes the impetus for reunification. That reunion, I believe, is the reunification of the masculine and feminine in each of us. The love longing that our hearts cry out with is a longing for the balancing of the masculine and feminine, the godhead reforming and restoring wholeness. And our beings become a microcosm for the restoration of balance of masculine and feminine in the world.
TS: I imagine that some listeners were surprised when you said that Neem Karoli Baba, this Indian male figure, has been a guru, a teacher for you, living in your heart, and then here you are, writing about the women mystics. But at the very beginning of the book, there’s this great section where you invite men into the dialogue. And I’m wondering if you can read that for us.
MS: Sure. “You don’t have to be female yourself to walk through these gates. Men are welcome here. You just don’t get to boss us around or grab our breasts or solve our problems. You may sample our cooking and wash it down with our champagne. You may ask us to dance, and you may not pout if we decline. You may study our texts, ponder our most provocative questions. You may fall in our laps and weep if you feel the urge. We will soothe you, as we always have. And then, we’ll send you back to the city with your pockets full of seeds to plant.
The secret is out. The celebration is overflowing its banks. The joy is becoming too great to contain. The pain has grown too urgent to ignore. The earth is cracking open, and the women are rising from our hiding places and spilling onto the streets, lifting the suffering into our arms, demanding justice from the tyrants, pushing on the patriarchy and activating a paradigm shift such as the world has never seen.”
There’s a call now to step up in service of our fellow human beings, other creatures, and the earth herself, and anyone listening is going to hear it. And the feminine wisdom teachings, past and present, give us radically new ways to show up at a time when everything’s on fire. The only way we can meaningfully address the conflagration is together. Feminine teachings have always been singing that song: that we cannot, should not, and must not try to be lone saviors in the crazy reality in which find ourselves. It’s only by looking around and paying attention, and listening to each other and holding each other, and pulling each other in and lifting each other up, that we can possibly hope to mend the torn fabric.
The wisdom of the feminine lies hidden in all kinds of places and spaces, and we have to be paying attention to find it. That’s why I want to call out the younger women and the transgendered people, and people who fall all over the spectrum of the feminine experience, and are drawing on these deep values of heart, of relationship, of feeling, of tending, of nurturance, of wild, radical, fierce truth telling that’s required of us right now. Is a kind of ferocity that hasn’t always been associated with the feminine.
TS: Let’s end with you reading the piece that opens the chapter on connecting and community.
MS: “You feel special. Sometimes this feels like a curse, like no one will ever understand you, like you’ll always be an alien pretending to blend in with regular humans. You’ve learned to live with this gulf, but you crave community. You long to belong to the human family, to Mother Earth. Participating in the human condition can be hard. It can seem so much simpler to ride solo, slaying your own dragons and singing the ballads you wrote about yourself. Collaboration can be tedious, and the prevailing masculine value system may have conditioned you to feel like you’re giving away your power when you share it with others. Give it away anyway. The time of the singular sage bestowing his unique wisdom is over. That was a method devised by the men in charge who sought to regulate wisdom. They taught us to suffer alone in the desert for 40 years, collecting our insights in a secret box labeled ‘esoteric knowledge,’ then dispensing them stingily to those who’ve proven themselves worthy. This world is filled with special beings, grappling our way through the anxiety of solitary conundrums and tasting the occasional reprieve of connection. When you realize this, your body lets out its breath and relaxes. You come in from the cold. You hold out your cup, and some other special being fills it with sweet, milky tea, spiced with fragrant herbs. You drink.
Our way, the way of the feminine, is to find out what everyone is good at, praise them for it, and get them to teach it to others. Maybe you know something about the hidden meanings of the Hebrew letters, or how to build a sustainable home from recycled tires and rammed soil, or loving kindness meditation. You, the one who knows the Islamic call to prayer, climb that minaret and call us. You, the one who knows how to sit quietly at the bedside of the dying, show us the way to bear witness. You, the one who knows how to get us to wake up to the shadow of privilege, wake us the fuck up. It will be chaotic, all this community building, but your cooperation will save the world. Besides, it will be fun.”