My Interview with Author Mirabai Starr

Mirabai Starr

It was a privilege to interview author, teacher and speaker Mirabai Starr about her poignant and beautifully written book, Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation, which chronicles her most significant life experiences, and in particular the tragic loss of her teenage daughter, Jenny.

This beautifully written book spoke directly to my heart. Mirabai’s transparency and willingness to be emotionally naked and vulnerable are astonishing. Her openness to share her journey of grief and loss is undoubtedly a gift to those who are struggling with unimaginable losses.

I was so very impressed with the quality of the writing as well. Dozens of times throughout the book, with just a few perfectly expressed and arranged words, Mirabai conveys an emotional power and depth that is nothing short of stunning.

Her message is clear and powerful: even when the world is not large enough to contain your grief, and even though you will never again be who you once were, know that healing is possible, and that joy patiently waits on the other side of sorrow.

Click here to visit Mirabai’s website.

Click on the audio player below to listen to my 24-minute interview with Mirabai:


Hi, Mirabai, thanks so much for joining us today.
Hi, Phil. Thanks for having me. I’m delighted to be with you.

My pleasure. Allow me to introduce you. Mirabai Starr writes creative nonfiction and contemporary translations of sacred literature. She teaches and speaks internationally on contemplative practice and inter-spiritual dialogue. A certified bereavement counselor, Mirabai helps mourners harness the transformational power of loss. Her newest book, Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation, received the Spirituality and Practice Best Books of 2015 Award. Mirabai, tell us about this book, Caravan of No Despair.
Well, the book started . . . The seed idea came from the coalescing or the cataclysm, actually, of two events in my life. One was the release of my first book, which was a translation of Dark Night of the Soul by the 16th-century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, and on the very day that that book was released, that I received my first advanced copy, my fourteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car accident. In fact, the two events coincided so closely that it still blows my mind almost fifteen years later. The UPS . . . we lived rurally in Taos, New Mexico, so UPS had just . . . no, it was FedEx . . . had just delivered the first advance copy of my first book and it was sitting on the table unopened. Jenny had been missing since the night before when she took off with my car. Half an hour after the book was delivered, the police came to the door to inform me that they had found her and that she was gone, that she was dead.

It took me a long time, Phil, to integrate those two things. I mean it became clear to me pretty early on that what I had understood about the Dark Night of the Soul when I was translating that mystical masterpiece by John of the Cross was inadequate for meeting the magnitude of this loss, and yet little by little those teachings not only integrated with my own loss, but I would say really saved my life.

So the book is an effort to show how the teachings of the Dark Night of the Soul and the Spanish mystics, not only John of the Cross but Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross’ mentor, his guru, really, I think . . . how those teachings helped me navigate the landscape of loss. But it turned out that in trying to tell that story, I actually ended up having to draw upon every other loss that’s ever happened to me — and there have been many in my little life — and really look at the kind of tapestry of my life that led up to Jenny’s death. It’s a memoir and a lot of storytelling.

Well, I read it myself as I mentioned and I thought it was beautiful on so many levels, so thank you so much for writing that book. I know that your healing process will help so many others with theirs.
Thank you, Phil. I hope so.

Now, you wrote this book more than ten years after Jenny died. How much did writing it aid in your own healing process?
Well, I had been writing this book all along. It’s just that the previous versions were all basically beautiful journaling. I mean it was journaling that was . . . Because I love language and because I’m a wordsmith and because words for me are holy and they’re art, it wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the writing, but it somehow wasn’t cooked. It wasn’t fully ripened inside of me, but I wrote all along, and writing definitely has always been a healing path for me, so it helps me . . . I don’t want to say organize the chaos, and I don’t want to say helps me understand or makes sense of the senseless because I’m actually not interested in creating order to the wildness of the human condition. I’m interested in being present to it and bearing loving witness to what is. If that includes what is for me, then so be it.

But it took a while, as a writer, until I was able to graduate from the purely subjective experience to something that was available to others, that was accessible in which other people, particularly grieving people but really I hope anyone — and who hasn’t experienced loss anyway — confined themselves, confined their own story of loss and ultimately of transformation. When I speak of transformation, I’m not talking about an enlightenment experience in the classic Eastern sense of awakening, an awakening from which we never fall back to sleep. It’s a transformation that is subtle and ongoing and includes moments still of deep sorrow and remorse and anger and all of those emotions that some people on a spiritual path don’t always want to look at or don’t think of as being spiritual.

So it’s a slow integration that results in transformation. For me, I love the metaphor of alchemy from the ancient Western esoteric tradition. When you take a base substance like lead, and through the alchemical process it is transmuted into gold — and I think that somehow that happened over the twelve years between Jenny’s death from the publication of this book — that the lead of my personal story, through the fire of my conscious grieving process — because I engaged on the grief path as a spiritual practice really — something golden emerged and it’s subtle and it’s not even that flashy. It’s just beautiful and simple and filled with gratitude and still laced with pain. It’s all there in the same space, the same sacred space.

Well, I’ve found that writing is tremendously cathartic as well, but grief demands its due and it’s, as you said, a slow process to integrate it all. If you had been able to read this book in the months after Jenny died, do you think it would have provided you with much comfort?
That’s such a great question, Phil. I mean at the risk of sounding arrogant, which I please do not mean to sound, this is the book that I was looking for when I was freshly grieving as a mother, and I looked everywhere. Books, literature, for me, they’re holy things. They are vessels for spirit and so I turn to books the way I would turn to any spiritual practice and I couldn’t really find what I was looking for. They were either books about grief, kind of self-help books, which just irritated me, to say the least, or else they were books that just didn’t really . . . I know what it was. Even when people writing memoirs . . . often they were trying to make themselves look like enlightened beings or look like they were blameless, faultless, perfect creatures, and I had no patience for that. First of all, I was filled with self-blame because when you lose a child, you feel like you failed your essential mission as a human, which is to keep your children safe.

Even though it wasn’t technically my fault, there were all kinds of ways that I could find to make it my fault. All of the books that I was reading made these people into such perfect specimens of humanity that I couldn’t relate to them. So I had the great, good fortune of having a friend who’s also an editor . . . when I signed this book contract with Sounds True, Kelly said to me, “My one piece of advice to you is don’t try to make yourself look pretty. If there’s something that’s hard to talk about, talk about it.” It doesn’t mean that it all has to get into the book. I mean, a fraction of what I wrote made it into the book form. It’s a very finely edited book. It’s much more what I took away than what I said really. Like a sculptor, I suppose, finding the artwork in the block of stone.

But I didn’t shy away from the difficult things to talk about, as you know, Phil. You read it. It’s a very naked book and it’s also not pious. It’s rather irreverent in places, including irreverently funny when maybe somebody wouldn’t think that that was appropriate.

Have you heard from readers about how your book has affected their own healing journeys?
Hundreds and hundreds of letters — letters, emails, Facebook messages. In every form, I have and continue to receive messages from people who found themselves in this book. That was my highest hope. And very few people, by the way, who criticized my naked vulnerability and my foibles.

Well, for those who have experienced this significant loss, what’s the best they can expect with regard to healing their grief? What can you share in terms of your wisdom with these people that will get them some measure of comfort?

Well, first of all, whatever it is that you’re carrying, I bow to you and I hold you in my heart, whoever you are. We are all interwoven in this net of loss and transformation. For me, the most important step of the process was like Pema Chödrön says, “To abandon hope . . . ” Not just Pema, I think; that was Socrates as well . . . that hope for healing often is what makes us suffer the most deeply because we place these unrealistic expectations on ourselves with regard to the timeline for grieving. Like, it’s been six months, time’s up. Sometimes other people with, if not overtly then indirectly, give us the message that it’s time to stop talking about it; it’s time to stop dwelling on it — even indulging in it, some people are accused of — but grief has its own trajectory.

I think that the most sacred and authentic thing that we can do is be true to that. Show up for the process and not try to divert it, not try to bypass it through plastering on certain spiritual beliefs or even spiritual practices that enable us to lift up in a way from our experience. But actually saying yes and being present — even if it means saying yes to unbearable anguish — is the way to not necessarily be consoled, but to be transformed — so that it’s not necessarily about consolation, it’s about transformation. For me, that doesn’t mean that we don’t also need comfort. We don’t also need to be held in our pain, in our sorrow, in our remorse. Writing has been the single most powerful transformational practice for me, to sit down and write the truth.

What I do is I actually physically make a list of topics. I was trained in the Natalie Goldberg style of writing practice where you have a writing prompt and then you do a timed writing; so say ten minutes . . . ten minutes is a great little frame for this. So I make a list in the back of a notebook or on my computer of a dozen different topics related to my story of loss or my stories in my case and in many of your cases, I think, and then I give myself a period, ten minutes, to write, and I just go and I don’t edit myself, I don’t censor myself, I don’t worry about spelling, punctuation and grammar. If there is something uncomfortable that starts to arise and the little internal editor that lives in my head says, “You can’t say that or you can say it but nobody else can ever read that,” go there. That’s the place where the juice is. That’s where the life water is flowing, and that will often take us to other places.

So it’s been a powerful practice for me. In my book, I was writing about a transformational experience, which was the death of my daughter, but the writing itself became transformative. In fact, there was one moment toward the end of writing the book . . . and it’s in the book, where I had an epiphany, and I have it while writing and I share it with the reader. The epiphany was that I had spent ten years trying to get away from the Christian mystics. After my first book, Dark Night of the Soul, I was asked to write all of these other books and translations of Christian mystics and I was a Jewish, Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu pagan. I had no business writing about the Christians.

Yet here it was. This had become my life path because publishers kept approaching me and I did love the work. But at a certain point, I felt like, “Get me out of here. This isn’t true to who I am.” It was embarrassing or something, I don’t know. Then I realized while writing Caravan of No Despair that the Christian mystics who I had been working with for these ten, twelve years had saved my life. They had helped me survive because every day, I was having darshan. That’s a Hindu term. Darshan is to sit at the feet of the master, and I was sitting at the feet of these great mystical masters and they were healing me, and they were teaching me, and they were giving me refuge for my broken heart, and they were teaching me to love Christ.

So it was this huge moment of acceptance and joy and gratitude and it put it all into perspective. That can happen through the writing process. It’s magic as you well know, Phil.

That’s beautiful. This week’s issue of Time magazine features Sheryl Sandberg, the executive at Facebook, on the cover. “Let’s Talk About Grief” is what it says. Her husband died a couple of years ago at the age of forty-seven suddenly and she has an essay in Time, which is an excerpt from her book, called “How to Talk to a Friend Who is Suffering,” because she said that at work, and with her friends, nobody brought it up, and she felt like she was invisible, and there was a big elephant in the room, and she writes about that process. Can you give people advice about how do you talk to a friend who is grieving? What should you do or say and what should you not do or say?
It’s such a big question. Sometimes saying things like, “You’re so strong; I really admire the way you’re doing this,” can be very hurtful to a grieving person even though you think you’re giving them a compliment because inside they’re barely holding it together and they’re not even interested in being strong. Besides, that changes moment to moment. I remember when Jenny died, somebody would ask my sister or my best friend, “So how’s Mirabai doing?” They wanted to hear that I was doing better. Some days I was doing better and some days I was having a complete meltdown. If the person who was being asked, “How’s Mirabai doing?” most recently saw me melting down, then they might report that Mirabai is having a really hard time. But I might actually not be the very next day.

So grief is a very changeable landscape and we need to be careful to not put people in a grief box. Any kind of platitudes like, “They’re in a better place” or “They’re no longer suffering” or “You can get another husband or another dog or another child. You’re young, you can have another baby,” all of those things are very unhelpful. What we need, and I know many of you listening or reading this, if you’re reading it as a transcript, know what I’m talking about; that what we crave when we’re grieving is someone to just be with us and hold space. Or not be with us. Sometimes we need to be alone and people worry about us, but solitude is an important part of the grief process because there are times when we have to turn inward and just go inside and hold our own broken heart and try to just recalibrate. We need space to do that.

But when we need people, really what we need is for them to just quietly be with us. It’s perfectly okay . . . in fact, it can be comforting to say, “I don’t know what to say to you right now. I have no idea what to say or what to do, but I just wanted to be here for you. I’m not going to turn away from your pain,” because people do. They think that if they don’t say anything, that that is going . . . like if they say something it’s going to remind you that you’re in agony, as if you would forget you’ve lost a beloved. It’s with you pretty much all the time. To have someone say their name, it can be so comforting. They existed. They mattered. They don’t just matter to me. Telling stories that you remember of the person’s life . . . sweet stories, funny stories, even sad and moving stories, these are all things that help a grieving person carry their unbearable load.

Finally, if someone is really crying and emoting and appears to be grieving their brains out, don’t freak out. It’s okay. Like that’s what they need to do. I remember there’d be times that I was crying and I had to turn to the person next to me and say, “Please don’t worry, I’m okay. I mean it doesn’t look like I’m okay, but this is what I need to do.” So just bear witness. That’s hard to do. It takes a lot of courage to be with a grieving person, especially someone in the fresh fire of grief.

Mirabai, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your heart today. I know that you’ve touched . . . as you said, hundreds and hundreds of people have already contacted you and thanked you for your book and that’s just a small fraction who you are helping. Before we leave, what projects are you currently working on?

I’m writing a new book on walking the path of the feminine mystic, very much drawing from my years of teaching that course on The Shift Network. And I am teaching a new course for Shift on the goddesses, which is really exciting to me because even though I’ve been working in this path of the feminine, the sacred feminine, for years with regard to the women mystics, this is the first time that I’ve really been focusing on the deities, on the wisdom beings like Tara and Kwan Yin and Kali and Durga and the Latin American indigenous goddesses and African goddesses and the Greco-Roman goddesses. It has been such a joy just diving into them. Really, what I’m doing because what I’m known for . . . I think you know this, Phil . . . is my inter-spiritual orientation. All my teachings draw from all the world’s spiritual traditions and religions. So I’m doing that with this goddess course.

So to be finding these essential wisdom beings across the spiritual and religious spectrum has been really exciting and just like with the women mystics I’ve been studying and teaching all these years, these goddesses, these wisdom beings have become my friends, my allies, my grandmothers. I feel like I’m developing this new wisdom council, that I can consult for guidance and inspiration and humor and joy and all kinds of wonderful things. So that’s what I’m hoping to convey to my students. I’m very excited about this course. It’s changing me on the insides in ways I had not anticipated.

Well, it certainly sounds like that’s a future book waiting to be birthed.
I think you may be right about that.

Mirabai, how can people connect with you?
Go to my website,, and there is a sign-up button for my newsletter, which I try to keep infrequent enough to not be obnoxious, and also newsy and juicy, so please do sign up for that and we’ll keep in touch.

It has been a joy and a pleasure and a privilege speaking to you today. Thank you so much for this and for the work you do in the world.
Thank you, Phil, for your insightful questions and all that you do to support all of us.


Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation

Dark Night of the Soul: St. John of the Cross

The Interior Castle: St. Teresa of Avila

Saint Teresa of Avila: Passionate Mystic

God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation

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