Sample from the Summer 2008 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine

An Interview with Mirabai Starr

Since the passing of her daughter, Jenny, in 2001, Mirabai has dedicated her time to working with other people who are interested in using their experiences of grief and loss for spiritual growth and transformation. In this interview she talks about grief and loss, drawing on the teachings of the mystics and the tradition of contemplative practice from all religions, to illustrate the transformational power of deep sorrow.

Integral Yoga Magazine: What is the “dark night of the soul”?

Mirabai Starr: The dark soul night of the soul happens to every serious spiritual practitioner. Anyone practicing Yoga in a deep way will touch those dry places, that radical unknowningness. I found that in all traditions, and in particular, the mystics and Christian mystics, talk about a necessary phase along the spiritual path wherein all our sense of the divine, our feelings of connectedness to the sacred and our concepts about it dry up and fall away. We have a tendency to panic or, at least to despair, when that happens. This often causes us to question everything we formerly believed in and this act of deep inquiry is really important spiritually. But, it doesn’t feel good. In fact, it can feel horrendous and unbearable especially if we’ve built our lives on a sensory connectedness to Spirit and conceptual certainty of the nature and existence of God.

The dark night—as John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic called it— is a profoundly painful awakening which doesn’t feel like awakening but rather feels like the deadening of everything. He says it is a cause for great celebration. When the stripping away—of sensory attachments, conceptual attachments—happens, then we can meet the divine naked and have a pure experience. It doesn’t happen immediately. First, we have to sit in the darkness, the fire of unknowing. If we can observe, with a quiet heart, be still and breathe into it, he says—and a lot of mystics echo this—slowly we begin to sense a very subtle, delicious essence that transcends logic and concepts. The more we allow that to grow, the more we refrain from trying to control it and we surrender, the deeper and more found the connection becomes.

IYM: Where is this present in other faith traditions?

MS: All great mystics at least allude to a similar process. In the Sufi tradition there is the longing for union with the Beloved. In the Song of Songs in Judaism, the bride longs for the Bridegroom. In Hinduism Radha longs for Krishna who loves and then leaves her. I wrote an article about this theme which I call, “the disappearing God—the spiritual phenomenon of the God who makes passionate love with us and then flees, disappears. We find this unrequited love in all the mystical love stories of the world. Why? There is something about the longing that seems to embody the answer to the longing. I was raised Jewish and on the Sabbath, we fill the kiddish cup to the brim. The empty cup is the heart longing for union. The wine that fills the cup to overflowing is the response to the longing. They are completely intertwined. An ancient Roman philosopher said, “God who is everywhere always, cannot come visit you unless you are not there.” There is something about the emptiness that is required for the grace to come.

I think that is what the contemplative process is about and why there is this component in all faiths. When we sit in silence we’re able to touch the sacred in a way that we can’t otherwise. I’m a big advocate of contemplative practice—even a little every day. It’s a discipline. It’s a commandment to be still and rest. This is the meaning of the Sabbath. Left to our own devices, we will never purposely do it. We always have one more thing to do, one more thing to accomplish. So if we wait until everything is checked off our list—well, it’s not going to happen. Then, we rob ourselves of an opportunity to meet with the Beloved in the innermost chamber of our hearts.

IYM: Did your loss bring you closer to that experience?…


Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2008 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.