The Wild Mercy of Mirabai Starr
“All my teachers were men. And most of them were white men. Meaning, they were the pinnacle of privilege in America and they were the carriers of these lineages that were distinctly boy-shaped. Their spiritual traditions organized established dominant patriarchal religious traditions that emphasized transcendence. This kind of vertical spirituality that is all about transcending the body and the Earth about blasting up and out of our relative experience of embodiment and seeing the Earth as an allusion to be awakened from. And I bought into it because life in the body was hard. I had had all these losses. The two significant losses were my brother and my boyfriend. I was being abused. I was being sexually abused. I hated sex, I hated my body, I hated him but I couldn’t admit it because he was my spiritual teacher. And so this transcendent spirituality was right up my alley. Also not only did this masculine patriarchal sensibility emphasize transcending the body and the Earth, but it was also about perfection and purification. And so that of course increased my self-hatred exponentially because this body of mine was not right. And so if I just could beat the shit out of it and beat it into submission then maybe I could get to God. And all of these practices of purification and perfection – this whole self improvement project is designed for failure. It’s designed to disparage who we are and what we have. And so it’s taken me decades to recover from that kind of conditioning. That somehow I was impure and imperfect and if I just worked hard enough I could get right with God. And to actually reclaim and embrace my body as holy ground and this Earth as sacred. And to see that it’s not only about me. It’s about all of us and it’s about the Earth herself. And this predicament of the climate catastrophe. And the way that women and girls have been disparaged and buried and women’s wisdom has been basically erased from the religious canon across the landscape of the spiritual traditions, is intimately entwined with this disparagement of the body in this emphasis on transcendence and purification of perfection. And that the Earth herself, our beloved mother, our lover, the Earth herself has been the most tragic victim of that way of seeing and being.
[The feminine] is about recognizing our interdependence rather than our individual heroic personality traits or sets of of skills. So the feminine is about recognizing the way in which everything is interconnected. And we are all interconnected and that we all have something to bring to the table and that nobody is more special than anybody else. And so emphasizing those qualities of interconnectedness and relationship and mutual affirmation is a task that we all have and that we’re all called in some prophetic, powerful way to embody right now. That there is wisdom in feelings and emotions, in relationships, in the body itself. That the masculine paradigm has denied for millennia. And that embodied relational feeling-centered wisdom is what’s needed to save us from the brink of extinction. And therefore yes men women people of all genders can emphasize and center those values in everything that we do. And I’m really moved by the ways in which many men, privileged white men are voluntarily abdicating their own power in order to emphasize these feminine realities and hold them up and lift them up and support them. And are stepping back and allowing these feminine voices to be centered and to be prominent. And that takes a lot of courage and a lot of humility. It’s interesting, I’ve been interviewed a lot about this and many podcasts – I’ve done a lot of podcasts and I would say 90% of them are white men’s podcasts. And they are all hungry for this feminine wisdom. And so willing to step back and allow that to emerge. And every once in a while I actually have been interviewed by women who are just recapitulating the patriarchy and are being just as as bossy and controlling and ego-centered as the men that they purport to be replacing. So it’s not just about women doing what the dudes have done. It’s about all of us reclaiming our interconnectedness and the power of loving kindness. And not just those soft kind of traditionally feminine qualities of compassion and loving-kindness and mercy and unconditional forgiveness and all of those things that definitely belong to the feminine. But also the ferocity, the wildness, the overflowing creativity that can look like chaos. And the rule-breaking, the subversive elements of the feminine that disrupt those structures that are so entrenched and so rule-bound and legislative. The feminine turns it all upside down. Breaks it all open. It’s messy. It’s not pretty always. That aspect of the feminine also is is what is needed right now.”
I met Mirabai Starr in her home in Taos, New Mexico after being told of her and her important work on the Divine Feminine only two days earlier. How gracious and warm and beautiful of a soul she is and I felt instantly welcomed and invited into a great soul conversation. Mirabai “had me at hello” when she described herself as “a Jewish Sufi with a Hindu guru and a Buddhist Meditation practice and a pagan inclination who is a contemporary translator and commentator on the Christian mystics.”
Provocatively, Mirabai says very clearly “I don’t have faith and I’ve never had faith. I have always felt an intimacy with the Divine, however.” It was her own experiences with death (both the death of one of her brothers when she was a child and then the death of her boyfriend in high school) and then her experience being sexually manipulated by a spiritual teacher in her teens that led her to a more profound healing and spiritual connection. While I was busy in the 1970’s with my Jewish synagogue youth group in Atlanta, Georgia, Mirabai was already a free spirit and seeker following Ram Das around in New York. She was truly born into this “interspiritual” space as a teacher and a healer.
Mirabai is most known for her translation of Christian mystics from Spanish to English (such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross). She just published an amazing new book, Wild Mercy, uncovering the power of the Divine Feminine and female mystics across religions and cultures. I learned so many things about the Divine Feminine from her book and our time together in Taos:
- That religion and the idea of a “vertical” spiritual journey of seeking to transcend the body is an artifact of the white males who have shaped religion in western society.
- That perfectionism and self-hatred is the by-product produced by this idea of needing to transcend the body and this world.
- That embracing the Feminine does not mean the Female. Males and Females and other gendered people can all embody the feminine traits that our world so desperately needs now such as interdependence, mutual affirmation, relationship, wild creativity, and wisdom of the body.
- That white men and men in general can take active steps in helping the feminine become more of a driving force in our society, particularly embracing the feminine characteristics and stepping aside for women to lead where necessary or possible.
- That we need to be careful that we are not just bringing women on board to lead in male ways which emphasize hierarchy, winning, consuming, authority, etc.
It is so powerful to realize that the very metaphor of needing to transcend the body and the here and now is a masculine construct. It gives me permission to realize many things I held sacred might, in fact, be Old World constructs that neglected to integrate feminine wisdom. It makes me ask “what am I willing to do to bring in more feminine energy into the world including allowing more women to lead in ways that honor the feminine energy?” So I am asking myself where have unnecessarily stuck in the male paradigm. For example, for many years I was unnecessarily over-competitive at work, fearful of protecting “my space.” So Mirabai’s interview is having me ask myself new questions. Where can I emphasize relationship over winning and consuming? How can I honor my overweight body and its wisdom while I work to become healthier vs. shaming myself? Would I be willing to step aside to allow a woman to be a more visible leader where I would have otherwise been leading? I am in the latter part of my career so it seems safe to now say yes but would I have given up being a Harley Procter Marketing Director at P&G or an instructor teaching a class at Rotman MBA to enable greater representation by women? Those have been important accomplishments for me but I recognize that I need to be willing to step aside to let women take a greater lead. My contribution is that I hope to have shown others in the corporate environment that a spiritual and relational approach to leadership are valuable and impactful.
I am further provoked by Mirabai’s reminder that the Feminine is not just more cooperative and loving but it is radical and transformative: “… the ferocity, the wildness, the overflowing creativity that can look like chaos. And the rule-breaking, the subversive elements of the feminine that disrupt those structures that are so entrenched and so rule-bound and legislative.” So embracing the Feminine also means for me to be willing to take down and unearth historical male dominated structures and ways of being and thinking even when that results in chaos and change. Thank you to Mirabai Starr for her beautiful journey that she is sharing with all of us and challenging us with great vulnerability and insight. Being with her that afternoon in Taos changed me and my understanding of the masculine and feminine and what is required for change.