Feminine Wisdom for Our Broken World ~ A Day With Mirabai Starr

What does it mean to leverage feminine wisdom in today’s world? Last week I had the immense privilege of attending a day-long workshop facilitated by Mirabai Starr on the eve of her book launch for Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics. Distilling the mystical wisdom of women through the ages, Mirabai led us through a day of exploring some feminine approaches for contemporary challenges.

WHO IS MIRABAI STARR?

I first learned of Mirabai Starr as an undergraduate, when I needed to find accessible English translations of works by Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross for a final paper. At first, I just felt grateful that somebody had recently translated these works. But after submitting my final paper, I could be fascinated with Mirabai’s inter-spirituality – how she sees the value of all spiritual traditions and opens herself up to be shaped by them.

In today’s world where it is more accepted to have identities that are multiple and fluid, Mirabai’s inter-spirituality may seem unremarkable. But 9 years ago when I first learned of her work, Mirabai was a breath of some desperately needed fresh air for me. And now? Mirabai shows it’s not only possible to lead a meaningfully inter-spiritual life, but that it’s essential for bridging divisions.

Inter-spirituality goes beyond an arm’s-length dialogue into the more challenging (but enriching) space of letting other traditions shape her worldview. Hers is not the distance of tolerance, but the intimate invitation to collaborate in shaping her life and therefore, the world. In our polarized climate, this is desperately needed.

4 PIECES OF FEMININE WISDOM

The workshop was a day spent in healing community, learning from each other. It was rather empowering to understand embracing the feminine as valuable and urgently needed in today’s world.In no particular order, here are the pieces of feminine wisdom that stood out for me:

#1 Engage an Embodied Response to Suffering

When I think about an embodied response to suffering, I remember the last week of my grandmother’s life. One night when I had come home from the hospital, my husband held me for 30 minutes while I screamed out my grief. In that moment of unfathomable pain my husband did not comfort me with empty words or platitudes of hope. He did not give me false assurances that my life would once again be normal, nor did he tell me to pull myself together. My husband simply created space for my suffering and held it with love.

Perhaps it’s a combination of American optimism and this country’s roots in a Protestant work ethic, but in my experience the United States doesn’t know what to do with suffering. The glass is always half-full, the future will always better than the past or present. Work hard and things will turn out. If not, then you can just go shopping and feel better that way. Armed with this mindset, nothing should impede our success march down the path of progress.

Unfortunately, this means that suffering is often interpreted as a sign that you are not working hard enough. That you are not doing everything you could possibly do to make sure you do not suffer.

With the added twist of social media and posting only the “highlight reels” of our lives, suffering and struggle is even less welcome in our social spaces. We only want to see positive things, even though it creates a horribly lopsided view of life. If we hold even a fair amount of privilege, we are taught to push those  issues – those people – away. If we don’t want to feel unpleasant emotions, we don’t have to.

Ironically, the more we push it away, the more paralyzed we become. Then the issues we’ve been pushing away will eventually come back to bite us in the butt.

But a feminine response to suffering is rooted in a loving embrace. But it takes great courage to respond to suffering with love because it means that we invite another’s suffering into ourselves. It also means we suspend our judgement to be with another in their lived reality – not from our visions for what we think they should do or ought to be.

What if we stopped pursuing the perfect problem-ending technique and decided to become experts on being there for each other? – Walk On, Walk Out

Love is transformative in a way that sympathy, pity, or even compassion can never be. When my husband held me and let me cry, it did not make the pain go away. In fact, it did not guarantee anything. But it allowed me to create space for this grief in my life, which was the only way I could then create my life anew from this suffering.

#2 Recognize our Capacities for Healing

This piece of wisdom is rooted in the idea that our capacity for healing the world is alive in the work we are already doing. Granted, most of the workshop attendees were spiritual directors or working in some kind of care-centered capacity. But this piece of wisdom can and should go beyond our job titles and into the core of who we are and how we bring ourselves into whatever we do.

Maybe you always express gratitude to your team, can light up a room with laughter, have a knack for helping others build their confidence, are always willing to be a resource for new employees, or are able to engage your clients with relationships centered in care rather than transaction. Whatever it is, you already have it within you.

To some people these things may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Our problems are larger, scarier, and more dire than a simple “thank-you” at work could ever heal. But these small things that our culture dismisses as unimportant actually mean everything. They can alter the trajectory of someone’s day, week, or entire life – and it’s likely you’ll never know.

The key to creating or transforming…is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. – Peter Block

Don’t look for big impact; look for significant impact, which often resides in the small ways we show up for others.

#3 Create Space for Rest

When Mirabai talked about setting aside time for rest, it was in the context of how she observes the weekly Sabbath. She described it as a time to set aside her “self-importance” to be attentive to family, friends, and her sense of place. Creating space for rest must be an intentional process if it is to truly restore us.

For some of us, we must engage in a process similar to Mirabai’s and set aside our ego for at least one day out of the week. We live in a culture that values us by how little free-time we have; the less we have, the more important we must be! Time is too precious to squander it on fattening our egos – we’ll just end up starving ourselves of real meaning and authentic connection. In these situations, we can practice letting go of this system that encourages us to devalue each other.

Or perhaps to some of us, setting aside any kind of space – let alone an entire day – is a luxury we literally do not have. Maybe we are working a few jobs, struggling to make ends meet, and are the primary provider for our households. Having an entire day to ourselves could be a privilege we just do not have at this point.

In this situation, I’ve found that creating interior space whenever possible is a restorative practice. During the 5-10 minutes while waiting at the bus stop we could take a few deep breaths, set aside our frustrations, and focus on appreciating the gifts in our lives.

Don’t think it is any less restorative simply because it cannot span an entire day of rest and rejuvenation. Any moment when we can set aside our worries and cares to experience joy is a place of refuge and rest. 

#4 Face the Dynamics of Privilege in Any Situation

I was absolutely floored when Mirabai brought up the issue of privilege in inter-spirituality. She owned up to the privileged language she has used in the past, like calling it “our birthright” to gather to us the world’s traditions for our spiritual lives.

Now she recognizes the dynamics of white, Western privilege around picking and choosing from different traditions for our use. When does this become cultural appropriation? Disrespectful? Exploitative or extractive? It was refreshing to watch a leader display integrity in this issue through a daily assessment of her privilege and inviting us to do the same.

I also felt relieved when Mirabai called attention to the lack of racial diversity in the workshop by saying, “I talk to a lot of people who look like me – just look around!” Honestly, this was the last thing I expected because of the dominant demographic present in the room. But Mirabai threw open that door, which meant everything to me as the only visibly non-white attendee. We need to be attuned to who is participating in our conversations, whose voices are missing, and work toward providing everyone a space in the dialogue.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I enjoyed my time at this workshop and I found invaluable insights through Mirabai Starr and the wonderful community we built. If I could change anything, it would have been to have more diversity in the space. I think that would have contributed some valuable, additional insights that we didn’t get to hear. However, it was still a full day and I’m excited to incorporate this wisdom into my graduate studies.

What do you think? Did you find anything valuable for your life? Is there anything you’d critique? I’d love to read your thoughts!

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