Voices in Unity: A Conversation With Mirabai Starr

Mirabai Starr, who lives in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, is an author and highly sought-after speaker on the teachings of the mystics and contemplative practice. 

Unity: How do you best explain who you are and the work you do?

Mirabai: I draw from the teachings of the mystics of all the world’s religions and spiritual traditions, and convey that essence in a way that any contemporary seeker can understand and connect with. I translate these perennial wisdom teachings in a contemporary voice so they’re relevant to real people’s lives. My special area of interest is inter-spirituality—where all faiths meet in the heart. Although I’m recognized as a scholar of the mystics, particularly Christian mystics, I go for the heart. I bring out the poetry in these teachings and the transformational power of the mystics.


Unity: You had a very interesting upbringing. Tell us about that and how it formed who you are and the work you do today.

Mirabai:  My parents dropped out of mainstream society in 1972. We moved from suburban Long Island, New York, to the mountains of New Mexico, via a year on a remote Caribbean beach in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. In Taos, New Mexico, we lived communally. My parents were part of the back-to-the-land movement. The reason we moved to Taos was there was a marvelous alternative school there that was very much centered on the creative arts, and the school, although started by British intellectuals, was handed over to Lama Foun­da­tion (founded in 1967). It’s the original inten­tional spir­i­tual com­mu­nity and still exists and flourishes today, where all religious traditions are honored and practiced. There, I was exposed to the heart of all faiths and they were all presented as being equally true and equally beautiful. I thought everybody was open to all of the world religions as being true and beautiful. I thought everyone was an inter-spiritual being. That’s where I met my first teachers and people who had the most influence on me, like Ram Dass, who continues to be a dear friend and mentor. I feel very much that death was the catalyst for me and for my spiritual path.


Unity: Could you elaborate on that?

Mirabai:  When I was 7, my brother died of a brain tumor. For me it was a profoundly mysterious experience that was imbued with the sacred. Nobody else talked about it, so it was just a private experience. Then when I was 14, my first love was killed in a gun accident. That’s when I went rushing into the arms of God, I would say. I think I was always an introspective child. I was writing poetry at 8. I liked to be alone. I wasn’t antisocial, but I wasn’t a social creature. I could never relate to my peers, particularly as a teenager. What they were interested in was so not interesting to me. I was into yoga, meditation, chanting. At 16, I thought I’d be enlightened by 20.


Unity: You share on your website that your youngest daughter was killed in a car accident in 2001 when she was just 14—and that she died on the same day as your first book (Dark Night of the Soul: St. John of the Cross) came out. I can’t even imagine ...

Mirabai:  I don’t know either how I manage to keep breathing in the face of these things. Jenny’s death coinciding with the release of the first book; that’s how my memoir begins. UPS delivered an advance copy and a half hour later the police were at my door telling me my daughter had been in an accident, and she was gone. Even though I had been on a serious spiritual path since I was 14, my path truly began on that day. It was a path that led through fire into an abject wilderness where there was no map, and none of the tools and techniques I had gathered so carefully served me.


Unity: How did you survive that?

Mirabai:  I guess I knew just enough from my studies of the sacred texts and my own experience of silent meditation practice to know it was okay to know nothing. My only task was to sit in the darkness and be with it without any expectation of relief or reward or sense of meaning. I allowed my unraveling to happen without meddling and, as a result, organically and authentically a new self began to emerge from the ashes of my loss—a new being that was much simpler and more childlike and more connected to the human experience than ever before.

Unity: Were you shocked that that happened?

Mirabai:  No. I guess what I’m saying is rather than rendering me special, my loss placed me squarely in the center of the human experience, and I took my rightful place in the human family. I am at home here … All of my other books unfolded from that (first) book. The strange irony is when my daughter died, my new life began. I didn’t want that. I would have traded everything for one more chance to hold her in my arms. Yet this is what happened. I was blasted off into the world in a big way when all I wanted to do was fold in on myself and be alone and hold my loss close. I was blessed because I had signed a contract for my second book (The Interior Castle: St. Teresa of Avila). That enabled me to stay home in the quiet and work. Having that clear task of translating that mystical masterpiece was very life-giving—and also because her (St. Teresa) teachings were so comforting and beautiful. She became very real for me, like a beloved aunt or grandmother who was sitting with me in my grief.


Unity: Where are you today in your work and in your writing?

Mirabai:  Flourishing—in spite of myself! I haven’t sought this out, but I am doing a lot of writing and speaking. Finally, after 11 or 12 books, I’m finally ready to write about this experience, about the loss of my daughter, and how this coincided with my first book, and how the teachings of the mystics have not only helped me survive this loss, but actually created an alchemical transmutation in my own soul. It’s not that I was hiding behind these translations, but it was a refuge for me so I could share these great classic perennial wisdom teachings without having to make any claims about my own knowing. I’m still not making any claims—I’m just telling my stories. It’s clearly time to be more self-revealing. I’m willing to do this, and I’m having a lot of fun doing it. Even though it’s a tragic story, I use a lot of humor. I’m happy to do this now at this time, because what do I turn to when I need guidance and inspiration? I want to hear the real stories of real people. I don’t want sermons. I don’t want self-help books. I want to hear the real stories of real human beings, who aren’t pretending to be enlightened. Why wouldn’t I return the favor and give such an offering?


Learn more about Mirabai at www.mirabaistarr.com.

About the Author

Annie L. Scholl is a freelance writer and native Iowan who lives in North Carolina. In addition to writing for unity.org and Unity Magazine®, she is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and blogs at her website, anniescholl.com.