Love & Death: A Mystic View with Mirabai Starr, interviewed by Rameshwar Das

The Be Here Now Network is proud to present this heart-opening conversation with Mirabai Starr and Rameshwar Das on viewing love and death through a mystic lens.

The Be Here Now Network is proud to present this heart-opening conversation with Mirabai Starr and Rameshwar Das on viewing love and death through a mystic lens.

Mirabai Starr is an author, translator and teacher whose latest book, Wild Mercy, lifts up the wisdom of the women mystics across the spiritual traditions.  Her memoir, Caravan of No Despair, published in 2015 and dedicated to her lifelong friend and mentor Ram Dass, centered on the transformational power of the death of her fourteen-year-old daughter Jenny. It feels especially timely to share this conversation between Mirabai and Rameshwar Das during this season of collective loss when we are all being invited to enter grief as a sacred landscape.  In her memoir, Mirabai describes the collision of her daughter’s death with her exploration of the Spanish mystics, St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Mirabai’s first advance copy of her first book, a new translation of Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, had just been delivered when the police came to her door to inform her that Jenny had been killed in a car crash. The turning of her life journey has truly taken her onto a ground both shattered and holy, an experience we can take to heart as we travel through crisis ourselves.
A Few Words From Ramesh:

I have known Mirabai for many years through the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram in Taos. Three years ago I went through an experience not unlike hers. My fourteen-year-old daughter, whose name also happens to be Mirabai, was killed in a traffic accident on her bike. Her death pushed me into a similar cardiac conflagration and broke my heart open. As a friend Mirabai Starr bore witness for my wife and me as we navigated our family catastrophe. If in truth there’s any help in such a time, sharing that experience with her helped us through. Entering that door, we became members of a club no one would ever want to join. The roller coaster of grief and love profoundly changed my life as it did Mirabai’s. She remains a deep spiritual friend.

Beyond existential shattering, a profound loss can become a doorway into the mystery, into the depths of our being.  In such moments the language of the mystics – especially poetry – can help us take refuge in our spiritual heart.  When that door opens it is to a place that transcends the mind and blows through any concepts we have of reality, any attachments we think we have to these bodies and this physical world. Because of her work translating the mystic saints, Mirabai Starr undertook that profound journey especially intensely.

We began this conversation on September 13, 2015, sitting in Mirabai’s living room in Taos, New Mexico. Hours later she was heading to a funeral ceremony for the son of a friend where she would give the eulogy. Besides experiencing the death of her daughter and acting as a compassionate witness for me, Mirabai has become certified as a bereavement counselor to help other people harness the transformational power of loss. That is the subject of our conversation.

Love & Death:

Rameshwar Das: From your memoir, Caravan of No Despair, we see that Jenny’s death forced you into a radical encounter with your own dark night of the soul.  Truly, the sudden death of someone near and dear shakes your being to the core. But something else also happened to you. It propelled you into a different consciousness, another way of being. Can you describe the state you entered into when Jenny’s death destroyed life as you knew it?

Mirabai Starr: It is not as if a shattering experience is an automatic ticket to a state of awakening. But there does seem to be a kind of access that we are granted in the wake of a radical loss. It is an opening to a sacred field. It is the field of mystery.

Many people who are given this experience of profound loss have no support in their culture, in their families, or even in their own psychological history to meet that experience in a sacred way.  This is especially challenging when it comes to the death of a child, which seems to be so out of the natural order of things.  Cultures throughout time and cultures other than the first world countries have experienced high mortality rates among children. But in the West we don’t have a lot of experience with those kinds of losses. And we are mostly conditioned to deal with death as an unmitigated catastrophe.

I want to be careful how we talk about this. Death and loss can be cataclysmic experiences that fracture our psyches. I don’t want to sound like I am blessing death as a wonderful opportunity for spiritual growth.

R: Death is a train wreck with mortality.  And grief is the part of the spiritual path you would never wish on anybody but none of us can avoid.

M: That’s right. It is the annihilating fire. No one wants to go through this or have anyone else go through it. But when someone we’re connected to dies there’s really no choice.

R: To a father or mother a child’s death is the worst thing that can happen. It completely blows apart all your assumptions about your kid growing up, becoming an adult, the fruition of all the love and caring you put into parenting, every expectation you had for that being. How did you experience it? How did you cope?

M: Yes, losing your child is the worst thing that can happen. And, in the intensity of that pain sometimes something else manifests too.  When Jenny died it was like a forest fire sweeping through the landscape of my soul. It took everything to the ground.

St. John of the Cross, my hero, who I translated from his native Spanish, speaks eloquently in his classic teaching Dark Night of the Soul about the annihilating power of suffering. In many of the world’s spiritual traditions, especially the mystical ones, that annihilation is also a profound blessing. We are invited into the place where our ego, our identity as a separate self, dissolves into the One.

To be freed from our separation, or the illusion of separation from our source, from God, is seen as a blessing of the highest order. It is a harrowing initiation. It’s not usually the case that we just get to have a blissful meditation where we effortlessly merge into unitive consciousness. That is sometimes given as a grace, to be in such a deep state of meditation that we experience that unitive reality. But there is a deeper level of initiation in which all that we have come to believe, all that we are attached to in our spiritual life, is taken from us and stripped away. That is what John of the Cross refers to as the dark night of the soul.

A dark night of the soul is not about navigating a difficult divorce or even grieving the loss of a loved one. It’s about being freed from your internal obstacles, which are of a couple of kinds. One is our sensory attachment to the way we expect spiritual life to feel — blissful, for instance. The other is attachment to conceptual constructs, the way we explain the mystery to ourselves, our internal storyline of how we’re a spiritual person, for instance, and we’re going to get enlightened. A dark night of the soul experience strips all that away. It is dismantled. What I want to suggest is that the death of a loved one is a similar annihilation.  Our sensory and conceptual attachments come undone.

R: I thought I was on a spiritual path. Losing my ego was a concept, something I thought would happen eventually. I wasn’t ready for my heart to be ripped open, for my daughter to be torn from me.  In your case, you were immersed in these teachings when your daughter died.  What was it like for you to have these two things collide? Dark Night of the Soul had just been published, the new book had just arrived. Jenny had gone missing. Then the police arrived. What happened to you when these things came together?

M: Yes, the police came right to that door there (gestures to the entrance to her home). The impact exploded any concept of what life was about. This was not some kind of spiritual practice. It was a disaster.  No one would wish for a child’s death to serve as a spiritual teaching, even if you were a crazed tantric who sits with corpses at the cremation ground – which is what this was like!

R: In many ways, this is that cremation ground practice. You just don’t have a choice about it.

M: Yes, it is. It is like the Tibetan chod practice in the charnel grounds. You become intimate with death.

How can we recognize the invitation in the middle of such a horrendous situation? I mean I would feel like slapping someone who proclaimed that the death of my daughter was a blessing in any way or an opportunity for spiritual growth. However, somehow I did catch the fragrance of the highest, holiest mystery of love just behind the flames of loss and anguish.

R: Did it take you a while to get to that?

M: Even early on there were moments when it came and went in flashes. At first, I couldn’t trust it. Nor should I be expected to, nor you, or anyone. But in retrospect, I was able to see that from the very beginning there was something indescribably holy happening right behind the fire of tragedy. That doesn’t mean it was all right, but it was utterly sacred. Little by little I was able to integrate that.

Intertwined with all the biochemical phenomena unfolding when we are in shock, what I am suggesting is that there is something else too. Like what happened for you and me with the deaths of our daughters — such unexpected, sudden, violent deaths in accidents. Another door also opens. There’s no time to prepare; it’s like a hole is blown in the universe, a portal between life and death.

R: For me, that incredible pain of loss opened into love. You as a mother have that deep maternal connection. For me it was paternal. I vividly remember the moment I got the call. I was in Hawaii working on a book project with Ram Dass when it happened. I was out for a morning walk and my cell phone rang, remarkable in itself because there’s only one spot on that hill where there’s reception. It was my son calling. There were sirens in the background. When he said my daughter Mirabai had been hit by a car it was like someone opened my heart with a can opener. I felt an intense physical pain in my chest.

I walked back to the house in a daze and told Ram Dass and his caregivers. At that moment they became my contextual support, my prayer circle. Communication to the East Coast was hard. We didn’t know for some time that my daughter had been airlifted to the trauma hospital. Then my wife, Kate, called and told me she hadn’t made it through surgery. Her internal injuries were so severe they hadn’t been able to stop the bleeding.

In my anguish, I said to Ram Dass, “She didn’t get to finish her life.” He looked me in the eye, and said, “Yes, she did.”

In that moment I was forced to accept a reality I didn’t want to deal with. But it was here and there was no way out. I think now that’s what Trungpa Rinpoche means when he uses the term “choiceless awareness”. Ram Dass helped me see my daughter as a soul in an incarnation. It gave me a small edge of perspective to help me get through the pain and chaos of the next days.

M: Probably no one else on the planet could have gotten away with saying that to you…

R:  I would have punched anybody else if they said something like that to me, like her ‘time had come’ or some stupidity like that. I mean, they could be right but it wouldn’t matter. Later people did say absolutely stupid stuff thinking they were being comforting. Fortunately, I didn’t punch anyone.

M: Somehow coming from Ram Dass it felt true, and you got it and were able to receive it, and in fact rely on it in the days that followed.

Greif & Acceptance

R: There is a level of acceptance that allows you to move through and come into your own heart space.

M: Was it fleeting, the acceptance?  Did you stay in a solid state of acceptance from that moment on? Did you just accept Mirabai’s death?  Or did it come and go?

R: I was torn apart. I was destroyed, wrecked, I felt like I was in a washing machine. I took a redeye flight home and when I got off the plane at LaGuardia in New York the pilot said, “And to all you dads, Happy Father’s Day!” I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach.  

And yet because of Ram Dass’s statement, a feeling stayed with me over the next days, even sometimes a subliminal feeling, of soul connection with Anna Mirabai, of feeling her as a soul. I felt like I was living with one foot in life and one foot in death, in the no-form, the not-knowing. I had no understanding of anything.

M: For those of us closest to the one who has died, it is almost like we are led to this gateway to the other world in those early days. We abide in a liminal space, a sacred space.  We are standing on holy ground.  We do kind of dwell in both places – the land of the living and that… other realm. I find that the shattering of our hearts creates more space so that we are able to hold seemingly contradictory realities: Like, I am a parent whose child died and this is utterly fucked up, but at the same time I am watching the universe unfolding in its perfection from one moment to the next.

Ram Dass also called me the day after Jenny died and said a similar thing — that she finished her work here.  It was something that felt true to me, and I was able to rest on that little rock in the midst of the rapids and pull back from time to time in the turmoil that followed.

Jenny died in an altered state of consciousness. Mentally, she was experiencing a psychotic break. Spiritually she was experiencing this enormous influx of shakti or spiritual energy. It was the time of Durga Puja in the Hindu tradition, which, as you know, we celebrate here in Taos at the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram.  Something cracked open for Jenny during the festival and continued over the next few days.  She seemed to feel that she was having a direct experience with the Divine Mother.

Ram Dass said she couldn’t contain it, and it shattered the vessel of her mind and body. As with you, only Ram Dass could get away with saying something like that to me. Somehow, I not only heard it, but I felt I was privileged to be the mother of a being who had that gift, had the ability to open that way. That’s not all I felt, of course.  Mostly what I felt was devastated.

R: Part of the gift for you is that you realize that this kid who you have known from childhood, with all her idiosyncrasies and problems and teenage silliness, is a very high being.  Even though you thought she was just your daughter. It’s the beginning of recognizing her soul.

M: It didn’t surprise me. I certainly had glimpses of it. Jenny died in the middle of her difficult individuation process. She didn’t do anything partway, my Jenny! Everything was to the extreme. Her extreme attachment and devotion to me as a young child were equaled by the extreme separation she was working on when she died. She went in and out of that rebellion, thank God.

Only the day before she died she took both my hands in hers and said, “You are such a good mom.” I hang on to those words with all my heart.

R:  As you relate in Caravan of No Despair, grief and loss have been an intimate part of your life journey, and you’ve helped many others through their grieving. What are some of your other losses, and how do they integrate with your spiritual path?

M: I feel like my spiritual path really began with my first significant loss when I was seven-and-a-half and my ten-year-old brother Matty died of a brain tumor. He had been diagnosed less than a year before. His illness was like a bullet train. The tumor was discovered at a pediatrician’s appointment on one day and within days he was practically in a coma. It just happened so fast.

My grandfather was a doctor in Brooklyn and we were living on Long Island. Grandpa had all kinds of connections with the best specialists on the planet.  But nothing could be done. As a small child, I was observing this process of my brother coming and going. He was hospitalized. Then he’d come home for a while. He’d be bald; he’d be puffy. He wouldn’t be able to run and play the way he always had. Matty loved baseball.

It was bewildering for me. Nobody really discussed what was going on or what might happen next. This was 1968 and people didn’t talk openly about death, especially the death of a child. When Matty finally died I entered into this altered state of being. Maybe seven-year-olds kind of live in the threshold between worlds anyway. But I was plunged into the mystery of death. I glimpsed a numinous presence; I tasted it. Something about Matty’s death pulled me into this state of complete unknowing and also of unbounded love. Only, I lived there all by myself because my parents were grieving their child’s death and there was nothing holy about it. For them, it was simply anguish.

Over the next couple of years, my father started drinking a lot and slipped into alcoholism. My mother threw herself into busyness. She started an art gallery in the basement of our home. She enrolled in college and went to SUNY to study philosophy and sociology. She started researching alternative lifestyles and communal living. We visited communes all over the eastern seaboard. Eventually, we ended up moving to New Mexico and living communally ourselves.

This was also the Vietnam War era. My parents became very active in the war protest movement. My mother describes this period as this kind of double unraveling. She was unraveling with grief. Her whole life was devastated by the death of her firstborn child.  And at the same time, America was in upheaval and all the social norms were thrown to the winds. My parents still had three children. I was eight by this time and my sister Amy was four. My brother Roy was a newborn. My mother had been six months pregnant with Roy when Matty was diagnosed with cancer. She was carrying a new life while she fought for the life of her first child. Roy was born into a fire of grief. It was an incredibly difficult time for our whole family. Roy has suffered the effects his whole life.

R: As a child you were going through an intensely emotional journey into a new state of consciousness. For a child, I guess it is not intellectual but it is much more direct.

M: Right. The most difficult part was that I was completely alone in this sacred experience of the death of my beloved big brother. Inside my heart and my child-consciousness, I was entering this mystical reality. I was experiencing this intensity of love and also of longing. That is when I first connected yearning for God and the heartbreak of loss.

R: Did you really experience God at that age or just the painful absence of your brother who you loved?

M: It was so big. It was so much bigger than Matty. There was this feeling of vastness that kind of engulfed me. It was like love itself became this enormous, pulsing void that both threatened to swallow me up and also held me and rocked me. I had this paradoxical experience as a little girl whose big brother had just died, of being connected to him and cut off from him at the same time.  Death felt like a terrifying void, but I was also drawn into the heart of the mystery, which was love. And I had nobody to talk to.

I started to write, first rhyming poems and then short stories. One story I wrote when I was eight years old was about a mermaid who lived under the sea with her mother and father and sister and brothers. She was in love with a boy mermaid (merboy?) who got into a “crash-up” and died.

My grandmother, bless her, typed it up in my grandfather’s office and made carbon copies for all the family members.  She made the cover out of wrapping-paper and tied them with ribbons and gave them out to all the family members. She said, “Someday this girl is going to be a writer.”

Matty’s death set the tone for the rest of my life. From then on my awareness was informed by the mystery of death. I carried that. I talked about it to everyone I met. I wanted everyone to know that I had a brother who died. It was very important to me. Of course it made people uncomfortable so I learned to contain it. But it didn’t want to be contained. It was always bursting. I felt like Matty’s death was the most significant thing in my life.

R: Did those feelings of expansive love and the void of death stay with you?

M: They didn’t go away.  I grew into a poetic and emotional child who was extremely introspective. I was highly sensitive and I took on that role in the family. I was the one who was intense, dramatic, and had my feelings easily hurt.

R: You were the emotional barometer for everybody?

M: I was, and I was ridiculed for it. I have a wonderful family, and they feel badly about that now. They were pretty unconsciousness then. All my family members have done a lot of therapy and a lot of inner work and Twelve-step work since then. They are conscious, caring people who have evolved over the years in really beautiful ways.  But at the time there was not that emphasis on working on oneself.

My parents and grandparents were all agnostic intellectual Jews, and I grew into this spiritually hungry child. I was really drawn at a young age, not so much to organized religion, but to spiritual life, to saints and angels and things like that. That stuff was just not interesting to my family. Eventually, my mom and dad split up. That often happens in families who have lost a child when parents grieve differently. They remained close friends, though, and very connected in their community. My parents and their various new partners were all smart, cynical, sarcastic people at that time. I was definitely a target and they enjoyed teasing me for being so serious.

R: People go through all kinds of avoidance behavior in grief. Your parents sound like they were probably more in avoidance mode — your mom went back to school, and your father started drinking. You seem to have met your experience head-on in some way. 

M: It’s true. I guess I represented the face-to-face confrontation with what is. Matty’s death planted seeds that began to germinate and sprout and flower in me, and grew into this predilection for altered states of consciousness. I had a profound hunger for beauty and meaning.

Around ten or eleven I started to become more of a serious writer – prose poems, short stories. By eleven I was keeping journals of my writings and drawings.

Healing & Renewal

R: How did you get to New Mexico?  

M: When we were living on Long Island my parents were already experimenting with alternative lifestyles. They finally decided they couldn’t raise a family in suburbia. We left New York when I was eleven. My father had been going along with my mother on all her expeditions to communes and other intentional communities on the East Coast. My mother was always in the intellectual vanguard and she was the de facto leader in the family, but my father was always really interested and he supported her ideas.

Mom was the one who got involved in the protest movement. She became a folk singer and sang protest songs. My dad was completely drawn into it. After my mom finished her degree in philosophy she said, “Let’s get out of here,” and my father said, “Yeah, let’s go.”

They sold the house and gave away a lot of our possessions, including many family heirlooms. They were in a divesting-the-material phase. My mother had encountered Zen Buddhism. Material objects were obstacles so they let a lot of things go. They bought an extended pickup truck with a cab-over camper and we went on the road. We traveled around the U.S. and into Mexico. We spent six months on an isolated Caribbean beach, which is now Cancun. There was nobody around when we got there. Eventually, we met some people – a few gringos, and a local Mayan family. There were a lot of hippie vagabonds in Mexico in those days.

From some of these travelers, we heard about an alternative school in Taos, New Mexico. We also heard about Lama Foundation where Ram Dass had written Be Here Now, which my parents happened to have with them on their odyssey. After months of living on the beach in the Yucatan, we loaded up and headed for New Mexico to visit Lama. My parents quickly decided it was not for them. They thought the people were too elitist and holier than thou. My parents were allergic to anything that hinted of organized religion, although Lama was more of an example of disorganized religion! But it was still people wearing white with robes and prayer shawls, fingering strings of beads and exclaiming things in Hebrew and Arabic and Sanskrit. It just put them off. They did eventually find a house in Taos and people began to live with us.

R: So you lost your brother when you were seven. Now you are on the road without the things you grew up with, and you’ve lost all your social reference points except your immediate family. Your parents are becoming reborn into some kind of alternative lifestyle. Now you get to Taos, you are eleven or twelve and, as a budding teenager, you fall in love?

M: Yes, that’s right. My parents enrolled us in an alternative school in Taos. In those days they were called free schools. It was founded by a couple of British intellectual artists – real visionaries.  A year or so after we got there Lama Foundation took it over and the co-founder of Lama, Barbara Durkee, began running it. The children from the Lama community attended along with a bunch of Taos hippie kids.

Our school had a strong emphasis on creative arts and self-expression. There was little emphasis on academics except insofar as any particular child was drawn to math or science or history. There was no set academic curriculum, or at least it was not imposed very strongly. Being the artistic kid that I was, I spent most of my time writing poetry and painting, making music and folk dancing and things like that. Natalie Goldberg was my English teacher. She was a wonderful mentor and later wrote the best-selling book, Writing Down the Bones, based on the method she developed with us.

There was a boy in my class named Phillip.  He was a child prodigy who played incredible guitar, from rock to classical, and composed his own music. We fell in love. I was twelve and he was my first boyfriend. Phillip was a rebel and he was always getting into trouble. He did whatever he wanted.  He wasn’t an easy person but he was a really remarkable being. He had the magnetism of someone much older.

Being with Philip was an incredible adventure. We hitchhiked all over the county and went camping in the mountains by ourselves. When we were thirteen our class wrote a musical about the life of the Indian poet-saint Mirabai.  I was cast as Mirabai and I wanted Phillip to play Krishna. Then he was killed in the gun accident and my life unraveled all over again.

R: Did the play go on?

M: The play went on.  A girl played the role of Krishna.

R: And you still went on with the show as Mirabai?

M: I kept my Mirabai role. Part of the Mirabai story is that she worships the disembodied god Krishna. If my spiritual life began when I was seven with the death of my brother Matty, now, just as I was turning fourteen, it kicked into gear.  I had a kind of mystical experience playing Mirabai, which we performed in the geodesic dome at Lama Foundation.  I felt her singing through me.

I decided I couldn’t live at home anymore. I wasn’t connecting with my family. I was having all these spiritual experiences and it wasn’t a good fit with my home life. So that summer I moved up to Lama Foundation and stayed. I was a young teenager, but I became part of the Lama Foundation community, taking on all the tasks and practices of an adult.

R: Those thoughts and experiences of the mystery are dangerous. Yours and my daughter’s namesake, Mirabai, was a rebellious Rajasthani princess – she was a wild woman totally devoted to Krishna, to God. Her poems are still recited and her songs are sung all over India

(Mirabai shakes her head and smiles.)

Mysticism & Mystery

R: I’d like to talk about your relationship to the Christian mystics. It doesn’t come from the Catholic Church, it started in the mystic-eclectic atmosphere of Lama. Since your original perspective on them is from outside the Christian tradition, is your view of them different from Catholicism?

M: You’d think that I would have received a lot of flack from the Catholic Church or Christians in general for taking on these Christian mystics. But I have gotten almost no criticism, so maybe my take on things is not so radical after all. Catholics in particular have thanked me for shining light on their beloved wisdom figures.  My friend Father Bill, who is a Roman Catholic priest and an iconographer, told me from the beginning that he feels God picked me to translate the Christian mystics — particularly Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross — precisely because I stand outside the tradition. Maybe I bring a more universal perspective. It is mysterious to me too.

In writing Caravan of No Despair, I had an epiphany toward the end of the book. I came to really understand that the Christian mystics saved my life after Jenny died. I realized that this niche I accidentally created as a translator of the Christian mystics, which I have been trying to get away from, was a place of profound refuge for me in my deepest despair. These wise saints helped me fall in love with Christ.

This is why I am so excited about memoir writing as a spiritual practice. I am teaching workshops now to help other people give birth to their own stories of transformation. Writing our stories in a radically authentic, truth-telling way is a very alive process, and things begin to happen and shift and take birth inside us when we show up in this way.

Let’s take a moment to talk about what we mean by the mystics. A mystic, from a technical standpoint anyway, is one who has a direct experience of the Divine. A mystic is someone who experiences union with God, or at least a glimpse of the Absolute that is transformational. Mysticism is about the path of union. In some traditions, it’s like a one-shot deal. You experience samadhi and you don’t return to ordinary consciousness. You stay in that unified state. But for most people, I think the mystical experience is actually very common. It is our birthright. We all have moments of unitive consciousness, which is a mystical experience. Those moments change us. We don’t sustain that state, that unifying awareness in all our waking moments; it comes and goes. But each time that it comes it is transformational.  Something shifts and it changes us.

So, mystics, mysticism, and now mystery: For me, the teachings of the mystics from all traditions — from mystical Judaism, Christian mysticism, Sufism, which is the mystical branch of Islam, and Hinduism, Buddhism, which is non-theistic but nonetheless very much a spiritual path, and indigenous religious traditions — all seem to affirm that true wisdom lies in not knowing. When we release all of our concepts about ultimate reality and all of our names for the Divine and rest in the mystery, that’s when we actually experience a direct encounter with our source or with the One or with the Beloved.

The language of the mystics can seem difficult and paradoxical because we are using language to transcend language. We frame conceptual constructs in order to demolish them or allow them to be shattered by direct experience. It is like we are building scaffolding and then we kick it out from under ourselves. In that freefall, we experience the very thing we have been striving to connect to.  And so for me, the mystery is manifold. I decided to translate Dark Night of the Soul by 16th-century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, for several reasons. It had been one of my favorite mystical texts since I first encountered it while living in Spain when I was twenty years old, studying Spanish literature. And the writerly part of me really wanted to try my hand at distilling its literary essence. Also, I am fluent in Spanish, so I knew I could access the work at a really deep level. I wasn’t dependent on someone else to tell me what it meant. So, I could marry my fluency in Spanish, my love for the beauty of language, and my deep appreciation of his teaching. All three came together when I decided to translate the Dark Night of the Soul.

Translating is like weaving a tapestry, or maybe restoring a classical tapestry. You find an old piece in a museum basement, a great work of art. You unfurl it and it is a mess, it’s faded and patched and unraveling. As a translator, you are reweaving this beautiful masterpiece. You are untangling the threads and re-dying them to restore its brilliance and luminosity.

R: It’s like taking the layers of glaze off an old painting and getting the original color coming through again?

M: Yes, so people can see and enjoy it again. I wanted the beauty of this classic work to be available again.

In the late 90s, there was a resurgence of translations of mystical masterpieces and other literary classics. Robert Bly and Coleman Barks had brought Rumi back to life for us all. Then there were longer texts being translated by other translators, such as Stephen Mitchell. It was time for a new translation of these Spanish mystics who hadn’t yet really been rediscovered by the broader spiritual community. They were studied by Christian scholars but the Christian mystics weren’t readily accessible to people on a spiritual path who aren’t necessarily Christian.  People I knew were more drawn to the Eastern and Middle-Eastern mystics.

I guess it was a case of the right thing at the right time.  I was able to sell the idea for the St. John of the Cross translation quickly. And then I lived with that sixteenth-century text in a really intimate way for about two years. Who could imagine that the day the first copy of the book came into my hands would be the day I was plunged into the deepest imaginable darkness? That’s when the mystery began to unfold in a powerfully personal way.

Before Jenny died, when I submitted the manuscript for Dark Night of the Soul, my publisher asked me if I would translate The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila. They felt it would be a good companion book to the Dark Night.  I thought, “OK, that sounds like a good job. I’ll take it.” It wasn’t because I had any real interest in Teresa of Avila. When Jenny died my editor called and said, “Listen, if you don’t want to do this we can rescind the contract.”  I said, “Let me think about it for a couple of days.” This was the first week after Jenny’s death. I knew, of course, that Teresa of Avila was the mentor of John of the Cross and he was a mentor to her as well.  They met when he was twenty-six and she was fifty-three. He was so much younger, yet their influence on each other was mutual.

I got how important she was in his life but in the encounters I had with her in the literature, I found her insufferable. Teresa was a drama queen, extroverted and flashy. She seemed self-centered. I was not attracted to her. John was very much like me in some ways — a quieter exterior but an interior on fire with love and longing for God. Teresa’s flamboyant exterior put me off. I decided I would go ahead and do it in spite of these misgivings; I would write the translation of The Interior Castle. Partly because I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t function in any other area of my life. A trip to the grocery store felt like an expedition to Everest.  Yet that was something I knew how to do, to sit at my desk with an original Spanish text and a fat dictionary and go from page 3 to page 4.

R: It can be good to have something distracting to do in those times.

M: Yes, it was kind of like that. In that first week, I had already decided I was going to take on the year-long mourning cycle of the Jewish tradition and let go of most of my regular activities. I am Jewish by birth though, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, not at all by training. My parents were completely non-religious – anti-religious, actually — and my grandparents were barely religious. I didn’t really know much about Judaism, but friends told me about the one-year mourning cycle in which the people closest to the deceased withdraw from regular life until the first yahrtzeit, the first anniversary. You stay home as much as you can, you don’t socialize and you do as little as possible out in the world so that your focus is inward. It is a time to honor the one who has died and to reconfigure your own inner landscape, which has changed completely in the wake of that loss. I knew I wanted to withdraw from the world and I figured translating a book was the perfect fit.

And then in translating St. Teresa’s Interior Castle, I started to become intimate with her. She revealed herself to me as a magnificent friend and a truly wise and loving spiritual resource. Her soul’s journey to union with God was the exact medicine I needed for my shattered heart. So many aspects of The Interior Castle and of Teresa’s teaching spoke directly to my experience of grief and loss and longing and transformation. This woman who had been dead for five hundred years and in whom I had no interest became a loving guide and a skilled spiritual doctor – which is exactly what she is!

Teresa of Avila is a Doctor of the Church. Doctor of the Church is a term for those rare beings who have contributed significantly to Catholic theology. They are original theologians whose teachings become part of official Church doctrine. Teresa of Avila is one of the few saints held in that very high esteem.

R: Two things come to me about the mystery — one is this sense of not-knowingness, the radical unknowing which to some degree is a verbal device to get us beyond language. That is the linguistic part of it. But it also seems to be a critical part of the mystical experience, surrendering to God’s Will.  I’d like to know the ways you have found to translate that unknowing, or how you talk about it.

Second is the actuality of merging into the unitive state, the mystical consciousness. Let’s see if we are able to find some ways to describe what John and Teresa were really talking about. In my hybrid Bhakti tradition, it is merging with the Beloved.

M: Yes, that’s what both of these mystics – John and Teresa — are all about.  That love language evokes union with the object of our heart’s deepest desire.

R: As you know from both our experiences, this also speaks to the pain of separation you feel when you have a death.

M: You are singing my song Ramesh – I’m fascinated by the ways in which the essence of the teachings of these Spanish mystics connect with other traditions, with our devotional Bhakti path and with Advaita Vedanta, the non-dual path, which is about transcending all knowing.

Check out Mirabai’s new book, Saint John of the Cross: Luminous Darkness, a collection of her favorite prose passages and poems by St. John of the Cross, many of which she translated herself, woven with her own poetic reflections of the distilled essence of John’s mystical teachings. Order now: Saint John of the Cross: Luminous Darkness
Rameshwar Das has been navigating a spiritual path for 50 years. Ramesh met Ram Dass in 1968, and spent time with Neem Karoli Baba in India from 1970-72. He learned Vipassana meditation from Goenka in India. Ramesh has worked as an artist, photographer, environmentalist and writer. He has collaborated on many projects with Ram Dass over the years, including the original Be Here Now and the Love Serve Remember recordings, and is co-author with Ram Dass on three books, Be Love Now (2010), Polishing the Mirror (2013), and Being Ram Dass (2021). Ramesh and Mirabai Starr both currently sit on the Love Serve Remember Foundation’s board of directors, dedicated to spreading the heart-centered teachings of Neem Karoli Baba and Ram Dass.
Photos via azur13, aLittleSilhouetto