BY MIRABAI STARR
When I was sixteen, I was living by myself in a one-room shack perched on the edge of a ravine in the middle of a redwood forest in northern California. My living space was not insulated, and I heated it with an old pot-bellied stove I scavenged from a neighbor. It had no running water, so I hauled what I could carry in a five-gallon container. It had no electricity, so when the sun went down I read by the light of a kerosene lamp and, when I was scared, I let it burn all night until the oil was gone and it sputtered into darkness.
I guess I could have qualified as homeless.
But that’s not the way I saw it. I had dropped out of school and left my home in New Mexico to pursue a spiritual path, hooking up with a self-proclaimed teacher who, married with kids my age, convinced me that having secret sex with him would guarantee my fast track to enlightenment, and enlightenment was all I wanted. Enlightenment was the ultimate stardom. My peers may have longed to explode onto stage with their electric guitars, surrounded by a thousand adoring fans. I dreamed of sitting in silent meditation and slipping into Samadhi, and then, upon my return to waking consciousness, guiding throngs of devoted aspirants to Nirvana. Same ego trip; different trappings.
My parents supported my decision. At least in principle. They did not manage to come up with any cash, however, and so I earned just enough as a fledgling graphic artist to pay my $50 a month in rent, keep gas in my dilapidated Datsun pickup, and buy a few staples at the local food co-op. The oldest of three children—at least from the age of seven when my ten-year-old brother, Matty, died of a brain tumor—I had always managed to convince my counter-cultural parents that I had a good head on my shoulders, was capable of making my own decisions, and didn’t need them to bother much with me. So they didn’t.
Fast-forward forty years. I am thriving. But the journey has taken me into some harrowing wildernesses, and I have had to learn to breathe underwater in the storms of loss that have raged through my life. I experienced prolonged sexual abuse by a charlatan spiritual teacher, navigated a heartbreaking divorce, founded and lost a school and the community that came with it. Most of all, I have had to bear the unbearable: the death of my teenaged daughter Jenny in a car accident. Jenny did not survive the psychotic break that followed the onset of bipolar disorder and that compelled her to race my car alone into the mountains. Her death and the grief that has followed has been the single most ferocious and transformational teaching of all.
From a young age I knew that I was not interested in playing the role of victim, and I chose to meet my life with open hands and with as much compassion for myself and others as I could muster. In spite of my own early homelessness and reckless choices, I managed to earn a high school proficiency diploma, enroll in community college classes that qualified me for university, graduate with honors with a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and a master’s in Philosophy, and make a living as a college professor, translator, and author of a dozen books. My parents have long since made up for their lapse in parenting, and I now have a loving family of my own and am active in my community. I do not feel that I have built this life in spite of my troubled youth but rather as a result of the hardships I endured. Processing and integrating these experiences has given me a perspective on the human condition I would not have gained if I had followed a more conventional path.
The experiences of my youth and my encounter ever since with the unfolding human experience draw me now into service. I discovered the Reciprocity Foundation, a youth homeless service organization, in New York City. Every year, when my work takes me to New York City, I build a couple of extra days into my schedule so I can spend time with the homeless youth at this extraordinary gathering place. Here, at the heart of one of the world’s most complicated cities, the givers and the receivers are interchangeable. On “community nights” people like me—visiting writers, performing artists, holistic health practitioners, and entrepreneurs—show up at the Reciprocity space and share their passion with the youth who gather there. The evenings generally start with a guided meditation, followed by a home-cooked vegetarian meal and a lecture, discussion, performance, or experiential practice.
No one at Reciprocity seems to expect me to present myself as some kind of expert. Rather, I am invited to be exactly who I am and to share that. And so, as a bereavement counselor and the parent of a teenager who died, I facilitate grief groups, shaping a safe container for the youth to share their sorrows. As a lifelong practitioner of meditation, I lead contemplative practices, interweaving the poetry I love with silence. As a memoirist, I read passages from my books and offer guided writing exercises, encouraging the kids to tell their own stories of loss and transformation. As a human being whose heart has been shattered and remade a dozen times over, I take in the radical authenticity, startling wisdom, and unconditional love that thrives among this so-called marginalized population, and I allow it to change me.
I first heard about the Reciprocity Foundation more than ten years ago from my friend Adam Bucko, who, in the lineage of our mutual mentor, Yehudah Fine (the legendary “Times Square Rabbi”), trolled the streets of New York City in search of homeless kids. I watched with fascination as co-founder Adam’s loving impulse to be of service blossomed into a thriving holistic center where kids who have slipped into the darkest underbelly of the city find hope, healing, creative self-expression, and true inner peace. It took me several years to finally visit, but once I walked through those doors, I felt like I had come home. With its emphasis on the whole person—basic needs as well as relational and psycho-spiritual needs—the Reciprocity program “invites youth to reflect on their skills, talents, aspirations, emotional health, and spiritual values.”
When I sit with the Reciprocity kids, I am not ministering to broken beings. I am bearing witness to a group of humans on fire with life, eager to engage, speak out, and heal the world. Though circumstances and society may have rendered homeless youth powerless, they still know themselves as individuals longing for transcendence, hungry for justice, broken open by tragedy, and blessed with compassion. They have the impulse to offer the fruits of spiritual life in service to peace and sustainability.
I feel at home with the Reciprocity kids in part because I lived on my own as a teenager. But more often than not, I am overcome with the maternal urge to nurture them. Since my own teen-aged daughter, Jenny, hurtled over a cliff of mental illness to her death a few years ago, I find myself wanting to catch any other child I can and hold them in my arms. Seeing my daughter and myself in the stories of these kids strengthens and invigorates my impulse to expand beyond my own troubling circumstances and ask the question: How can I help?
In my case, the call to service seems to coalesce around my understanding of grief and loss as a spiritual path. As it turns out, not only does traumatic loss cut across socio-economic boundaries, but so also does our capacity for spiritual growth as a result of these experiences. When we bear the unbearable, we either collapse in on ourselves or we expand our hearts to contain impossible pain and, as a result, may be imbued with greater wisdom, deeper compassion, and an inclination to find beauty in the most ordinary moments of life.
Jenny died on the very day my first book came out, a new translation of Dark Night of the Soul by the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross. Dark Night is the quintessential teaching on the transformational power of suffering. Little did I dream that the culmination of my life’s work in interpreting this mystical masterpiece would coincide with a personal plunge into the void that is the dark night, an abyss that almost swallowed me. Now, fourteen years after the death of my daughter and following the publication of a long list of books on the mystics, I have finally told my own story in my most recent book, Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation. It is a naked and risky thing to speak my own truth. But by bearing witness to the glimpses of the tremendous courage of young people who have survived the streets of New York City and still embrace the beauty of life, I am emboldened.
At the Reciprocity Foundation, I can speak of the loss of my daughter and my subsequent plunge into the realms of hell, and the youth are able to find themselves in my story. When I read a Rumi poem about the secret medicine that lies at the heart of our most abject hopelessness and when I attempt to describe the indescribable holiness I encountered in my darkest despair, their own accounts of the sacred dimensions of their particular pain come tumbling out. We talk and talk, even laugh. A few of us cry, and it is always hard to say goodnight. It is such a relief to tell the truth about suffering.
Jenny’s legacy lives in me in these moments of truth, service, and engagement: her fearlessness, her quirky sense of humor, her brilliance and kindness and uncompromising commitment to peace and justice. When I sit down at my computer to write, when I walk onto stage to speak, when I show up at the Reciprocity Foundation, I am calling on the spirit of my daughter to carry out the work she started through me. Jenny is the light that rises from the depths of my darkest night, and it is my great honor to share that luminescence with the world.
I am not suggesting here that our traumas are good news. I do believe, however, that navigating suffering and loss waters the garden of our souls so they may burst effortlessly into bloom.
Terrible things have happened to the kids at Reciprocity; things that tore them from their homes and families and hurled them onto the streets of New York City without a safe place to sleep, without food to eat, and without loving adults or communities to provide a sense of comfort, guidance, and belonging. As a result, they have been violated by predators and have betrayed their own values to survive. They live with the consequences of these experiences, and their young psyches are and will continue to be weighted by burdens we can only imagine. It has taken me decades to recover from the painful experiences of my youth, and it will take me the rest of my life to integrate into my life an understanding of the death of my beloved daughter. But what I am doing is this: affirming that grief and loss are integral to the human condition.
I choose not to turn away from the truth of suffering. By being present to my most difficult experiences, I have discovered gifts of singular beauty and ongoing healing value. When I come into contact with others who are inspired to show up for their own experience of transformational suffering, it is my privilege to bear witness, to encourage them, and to bless them. Painful circumstances have not elevated me to some rarefied state where I feel separate from the world. Rather, these experiences have unraveled and rewoven the fabric of my life in such a way that I now feel humbly grounded to and connected with anyone who has ever tasted despair. The Reciprocity youth are luminous examples of human beings who are trying to approach their pain as the catalyst for becoming more fully and deeply human.
Many of the kids who have found hope and healing at the Reciprocity Foundation have also activated their lives in service of others, whether as addiction counselors or window washers, fashion designers or college students. These youth understand that the only thing that makes sense of the senseless things that have happened to them is to help alleviate sorrow in the lives of others. I see this in the warmth and care with which the members of the community treat each other and pursue their interests and projects. By being of service to others, some of their deepest wounds are redeemed. This piece of their stories is intimately familiar to me. After Jenny died, the only thing that enabled me to put one foot in front of the other and breathe was sitting in the fires of grief with other bereaved parents, quietly holding hands while we blazed. When we open ourselves to endure a loss that fills our hearts with personal grief, we tap into the wellspring of global grief, inviting us into a fuller participation with the whole of life.
I believe that this impulse to be of good use is a natural consequence of learning to be fully present with what is. Fundamental to the Reciprocity curriculum is contemplative practice. The youth learn to meditate not simply as a stress management technique but also as a willing engagement with the fires of spiritual transformation and as a commitment to cultivating presence with what is. When we practice fully inhabiting the present moment without resisting discomfort or clinging to easy answers, our consciousness expands to hold the great mystery. In the great mystery, we recognize ourselves in all beings. Our hearts open. Into that opening compassion flows. From that compassion rises the desire to do something about the pain in this world.
Suffering breaks us open, and compassion restores us to wholeness. This is how we find our way home.
Mirabai Starr is an adjunct professor of philosophy and world religions at the University of New Mexico-Taos. She is best known for her book God of Love(Monkfish, 2012) as well as her acclaimed translations of Dark Night of the Soul and The Interior Castle. Her newest book is The Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation (Sounds True, 2015). For more information, visit mirabaistarr.com.