Mirabai Starr grew up in a secular Jewish family that left their home on Long Island, New York, in the ’70s for a nomadic trip that included living on a beach in the Yucatán Peninsula. They finally settled in Taos, New Mexico, where Starr came of age at the Lama Foundation—an intentional spiritual community that hosted elders and teachers from nearly every tradition. It’s no surprise that after marinating in that soup, she would eventually become one of the world’s most prominent interspiritual teachers. Indeed, she’s known for her stellar contemporary translations of sacred literature from multiple traditions. Here, Starr talks with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz about interspirituality, cultural appropriation, and why it’s time for all of us to embody more mystical feminine energy.

Katy Koontz: You’re known as an interspiritual teacher. What’s the difference between interfaith and interspiritual?

Mirabai Starr: I wish there was a term besides interspiritual because there’s no common agreement on its meaning. For me, the interspiritual path draws on the mystical teachings at the heart of all the world’s great spiritual traditions—mystical referring to having a direct experience of that wisdom, versus following a prescribed belief system.

For instance, when I as a Jew go to my local Catholic church and participate in the Catholic Mass in Spanish, then I am having a direct experience of the Beloved in the form of the Catholic Mass. That experience is intimate, and it’s transformational.

If I then attend a Sufi zikr and chant, La ilaha illallah (there is nothing but God), I am having a direct experience of the Beloved through the doorway of mystical Islam.

To me, interspiritual is about cultivating intimacy with the Divine in multiple spiritual spaces, while interfaith is an intellectual orientation. Interfaith dialogue is a beautiful peacemaking activity in which people of different faith traditions show up with humility and curiosity to learn about the faith of the other, to build tolerance.

But for me, tolerance isn’t enough. I want burning. I want direct experience of the Beloved wherever I can get my hands on it. That’s an interspiritual path.

KK: Cultural appropriation is a hot topic these days. How do we draw the line between appreciation and appropriation?

MS: I’m so glad you’re asking this question. As an interspiritual teacher—and as someone who’s been actively engaged in anti-racism work for the past six years—this is a hugely important topic to me.

I’ll try my best to articulate it, but for me, it’s a work in progress.

So how do I, as a privileged white woman who speaks about harvesting the beauty at the heart of all the world’s great spiritual traditions, do that in a responsible way?

But for me, tolerance isn’t enough. I want burning. I want direct experience of the Beloved wherever I can get my hands on it. That’s an interspiritual path.

With interspirituality, it’s like you’re a bee in the garden of the human spirit, and you’re drawing the nectar from all of the beautiful, life-giving plants and flowers to bring it back to the queen and make honey with which to nourish yourself, yes, but also with which to feed the world.

Our souls have an embedded faculty of discernment that enables us to know the difference between life-giving nectar and toxic substances.

All religions have divisive messages and versions of otherizing—including otherizing queer people or those of different so-called races (which of course is a construct, not a reality).

Something in us knows that’s B.S. when we encounter it, and we do not drink that poison. Yet white people like me who grew up in relative privilege just by virtue of our skin color have been conditioned to help ourselves to whatever we want.

There’s this innate sense of entitlement that often goes with whiteness that has caused great harm in the world. So how do I check my colonial impulse, my “imperial birthright” that does not, in fact, belong to me?

Take the goddess Kali from the Hindu tradition.

She is such a potent archetype of the fierce feminine rising up with her sword to say no to injustice and false constructs of spirituality that put us to sleep rather than wake us up to the very real issues of injustice in this world.

Yet this very archetype that can help us responsibly navigate a world of spirit and politics is one that doesn’t belong to most of us reading this interview, or to most of those who gather in my retreats and workshops.

Most of the people who study with me look like me. So how do we responsibly draw on archetypes from other spiritual traditions?

For one thing, we name it. When I’m teaching and I quote the Tao Te Ching, the primary sacred scripture of the indigenous spiritual tradition of China, I talk about Lao Tzu. I tell the legend, and I name that this is a treasure that comes to us from Taoism.

KK: That seems vital.

MS: I do believe it’s no accident that in these times, we’ve been given the technology to access transmissions from across the religious and spiritual landscape.

We are born into a time when we have medical technologies that save lives and environmental technologies that mitigate (and even potentially reverse) the catastrophe of climate change.

Should we not say yes to that?

We now also have access to spiritual technologies that can transform human consciousness and the heart of humanity in positive and much-needed ways.

Our task is to approach these wisdom teachings with as much respect for the cultures from which they arise as we possibly can—not just calling on Lakshmi to make us rich because she’s the goddess of abundance in Hinduism—to learn whatever we can about them, respectfully bow to those spiritual traditions, say thank you, and be curious and humble.

I don’t know how else to do it. I know that the challenge before us is not to reject those treasures of human wisdom, but also not to think we’re entitled to them—to be respectful.

KK: I know that many well-meaning people struggle with this. And of course not only do many of us have a mixture of genetics, but we’re all also more than physical beings with physical genes.

MS: That’s beautiful. I love that. And so much of our cultural experience is a conglomerate of multiple traditions—our food, our music, our clothing.

There is beauty in the blend. It’s just that those of us who are white-bodied people often don’t even consider the cultures that have been oppressed and marginalized in order for us to mine their jewels.

Listening in with Mirabai Starr The Ascendancy of the Sacred Feminine, Unity Magazine July/August 2022 – QA, Listening in With

KK: You talk a lot about the connection between mysticism and sacred activism. Can you explain how they’re intertwined?

MS: In this regard, I’ve been deeply influenced by my dear friend Andrew Harvey, who coined the term sacred activism. But let’s back up.

Since mysticism is having a direct experience of the sacred, that implies a melting of the boundary between our souls and the Divine. The lover who has longed for the Beloved melts into the Beloved so all that remains is love.

These are usually fleeting experiences. We don’t remain in these unitive states, but they change everything.

They ripple into our lives forever. They are woven into the fabric of being a human being, whether we’re watching the sunrise, sitting with someone taking their last breath, making bread, or even making love.

We could just collect these experiences, like objects, for our own personal gratification. Or we can listen to the invitation that lies at the heart of those experiences—which is the teaching that if we are one with the One, then we are also connected to all beings.

Therefore, it is our imperative and our blessing to rise up wherever we see injustice, othering, and marginalizing of any of the strands of oneness in this world—whether human, animal, the earth herself, the air, the water, everything that we belong to.

It’s our responsibility to tend. It’s just a natural outflowing of our own experiences of direct connection to the sacred.

KK: In other words, we have to up our game.

MS: Right! It’s really important now for all of us to graduate from the private project of awakening and enlightenment and remember that we belong to each other and to the earth and that we’re having a collective experience of waking up and stepping up right now.

KK: How is sacred rage integral to sacred activism?

MS: To begin with, there are different psychospiritual temperaments.

For some, that prophetic fire ignites in us, and we want to rise up and repair the harm we see being done. Others are more contemplative and inward focused.

I belong to that category, so I’ve had to intentionally cultivate my sacred rage so I wouldn’t just collapse into my own meditative spaces that are so alluring and just stay there.

In my effort to wake up and make myself an instrument of peace, I’ve had to really look to the feminine—locating, excavating, and lifting up the jewels of feminine wisdom across the spiritual traditions—to give me the energy, power, discernment, and ferocity to do something.

The masculine version of spirituality teaches us to check out of the human experience because it’s somehow seen as an illusion, and the body an obstacle to obtaining enlightenment.

Transcendence is the name of the game.

But the feminine version of spirituality is the opposite experience. The Shekinah in Judaism is the indwelling feminine presence—the presence of the Divine that dwells in us, among us, and through us. She is embodied.

That’s why the feminine has been my greatest teacher in Judaism, in Christianity, in Islam, in Hinduism, in Buddhism, in Taoism, and in the indigenous traditions.

The sacred feminine is where I find that sacred rage to rise up with all my might and say no to injustice and with just as much ferocity and passion say yes to love—a big, juicy, heartful, sensual, creative, chaotic, daring yes to love.

KK: I’ve read your description that the masculine mystical experience is about dissolving into the Divine and the feminine mystical experience is communion with the Divine, while stressing that we need a balance between them.

MS: Right, I’m definitely not saying no to transcendence, yet thousands of years of emphasis on the patriarchal model of spirituality has done damage to our souls, our communities, and the earth.

So we need to balance feminine with masculine, immanence with transcendence, devotion with nonduality. The Dalai Lama has often said women will save the world.

KK: Will we ever see that balance in our lifetimes?

MS: I see people worldwide of all genders engaging the feminine attributes of loving-kindness, nurturing, tenderness, compassion, and also fierce truth-telling—another attribute of the sacred feminine.

I also see the scary rising of authoritarianism. It’s almost as if in proportion to this rising feminine power and love, there is this terrifying creature emerging that’s the very embodiment of toxic masculinity.

I think that’s the last gasps of the structure that is coming undone.

However, these spiritual technologies we’ve had the great honor of learning from all the world’s traditions (like Buddhist mindfulness practice, for instance) are designed to help us not just to smash the ego—that’s a patriarchal version—but to laugh at it, become more curious about it, not take it so seriously so we can get on with the work of waking up and stopping it.

In our surrender to utter unknowing, we let ourselves down into the arms of the darkness.

KK: That reminds me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Toto reveals that the great and powerful wizard is just a guy pulling levers behind a curtain.

MS: That’s right—he’s just a schmuck with a megaphone. That’s the patriarchy.

KK: You also teach that part of the feminine mystical power is unknowingness. Can you say more about what unknowingness can teach us?

MS: My beloved Saint John of the Cross wrote in Dark Night of the Soul that at some point on our spiritual paths, there will come a time when the ways we’ve relied upon to directly experience the sacred don’t work anymore.

We can no longer get that spiritual juiciness we used to from prayer, meditation, chanting, or reading sacred scriptures and mystical poetry. They’re just not doing it for us anymore.

He names these desert spaces “the night of sense.”

He invites us to abide in those spaces and see what they have to teach us instead of running from them and frenetically trying to fill them with whatever we can to get the juice back.

If we can truly surrender to those periods of emptiness, then we can deepen into a darker night of the soul he calls “the night of Spirit,” in which not only do our sensory attachments fall away, but so do all the conceptual constructs we rely upon as a scaffolding to climb up to God—even our most cherished belief systems, like “all will be well,” “everything happens for a reason,” or whatever we’ve relied on in our moments of darkest despair.

In our surrender to utter unknowing, we let ourselves down into the arms of the darkness.

To me, that’s a feminine embrace. That’s the Dark Mother. She’s got us, and it requires not only dismantling our former belief systems but also actively saying, “Not this, not that.”

In Sanskrit, the term is neti-neti—looking at each belief and saying, “Nah, that’s not it.” Only the direct truth will do.

It’s not even so much an active process as it is a complete and utter surrender, as if we are saying, “I do not know, and I don’t need to know. You’ve got me. Just do it.”

John of the Cross calls it knowing by unknowing, and even though he’s a dude and in many ways exemplifies a masculine version of spirituality because his is very much a transcendent kind of teaching, I have reclaimed that beloved teaching through the lens of the sacred feminine as an experience of the Dark Mother, as the very quintessence of feminine spirituality.

KK: One of the most helpful images I’ve found of the void that comes with this unknowingness has been the fur of a black panther.

MS: That’s a perfect example because the Dark Mother isn’t just saying, “Oh, honey, everything’s going to be okay.” She’s also uncompromising. She’s dangerous. No wonder we don’t want to say yes to that.

But knowingness is just an illusion.

As soon as we think we know something, it shifts. And that’s okay because otherwise, we miss the magic. I value my magic moments way more than I value a sense of control. 

Mirabai Starr is an award-winning author of creative nonfiction and contemporary translations of sacred literature. She taught philosophy and world religions at the University of New Mexico-Taos for 20 years and now teaches and speaks internationally on contemplative practice and interspiritual dialogue. Earlier this year, Hampton Roads published a new edition of her 2013 translation of The Showings of Julian of Norwich. Visit mirabaistarr.com.

This article appeared in Unity Magazine® and was a finalist in the 2023 Folio: Eddie Awards.

About the Author

Katy Koontz is the editor in chief of Unity Magazine.


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