I met Gail Straub in November 2011 when she came to a reading I did in Woodstock, NY. Her radiant, kind, empathetic face in the audience steadied me as I read especially poignant passages from The Anti-Romantic Child, and a few weeks later, Gail invited me to be on a panel she was chairing at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival in April 2012. That panel on Writing and Resilience was one of the most inspiring and rewarding experiences of my life. I’m delighted to share Gail’s luminous voice, compassion, and wisdom with you today.
A pioneer in the field of empowerment, Gail Straub co-directs the Empowerment Institute, a school for transformative social change where her primary focus is women’s empowerment. For the last three decades she has offered her work to tens of thousands of people worldwide. She co-founded IMAGINE: A Global Initiative for the Empowerment of Women to help women heal from violence, build strong lives, and contribute to their community. This initiative applies the Institute’s empowerment methodology to the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal “to promote gender equality and empower women.” IMAGINE initiatives are under way in Afghanistan, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa, India, Brazil and Jordan. Gail has consulted to many organizations furthering women’s empowerment including the Chinese Women’s Federation, Women for Women International, the Omega Women’s Leadership Center, and World Pulse.
Gail is the author of four books including, with her husband David Gershon, the best selling Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life As You Want It, the critically acclaimed The Rhythm of Compassion: Caring for Self, Connecting with Society, and the awarding-winning memoir Returning to My Mother’s House: Taking Back the Wisdom of the Feminine. She is also a contributor to the anthology Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership.
1) Tell us about what led you to write your memoir and what the writing process taught you about your mother, your own maternal impulses, instincts, and talents, and mothering more generally?
I wrote my memoir to grieve my mother and to get to know her thirty- six years after she had died. I was approaching the age my mother was when she died so mom was very present to me. In the most profound sense I learned that a person we love deeply never really dies. They are physically gone which is of course a great loss, but they are still available emotionally and spiritually through the imagination and the mystery of memory. And then I learned that in certain ways spiritual mothering was very similar to mothering a child physically.
2) I so identified with your desire “to fix my students and take away their pain.” The Anti-Romantic Child is studded with similar statements about my powerful impulse to make things right for my loved ones and protect them from disappointment, suffering, and pain. And by the same token, I couldn’t agree more with your statement: “I believe that people want the truth more than they want to avoid suffering.” How did you learn to “resist the impulse to fix”? How can we help people become less assiduous and desperate in their attempts to avoid suffering and more comfortable facing and finding the truth?
Oh my! This is a very BIG question, as in one of the main impulses for the spiritual journey. It took me a long time and working with many thousands of students to learn this. In the simplest sense I just witnessed this over and over, that real liberation comes in facing the truth not avoiding suffering. Currently I am working with many remarkable women in Afghanistan, Africa, and India going through extremely difficult things—genocide, mass rape, sex trafficking—and their courage to go towards their suffering to find freedom has shown me this concept at an even deeper level. Thomas Merton famously said: “The truth that many people never understand until it is too late, is that the more you avoid suffering, the more you suffer.” I think that we Americans are often a bit soft and spoiled so this idea can be difficult for us. It’s helps to become a global citizen and get out and see the difficulties that most the world has to face on a daily basis.
3) One of your major teaching methods is the practice of self-compassion. Can you tell us a little more about self-compassion and how you help your students develop it?
Yes, self-compassion means we make friends with what I call the beautiful mess of our human condition. We accept our imperfections and we don’t waste our precious energy on trying to be perfect. We become part of a sangha or a community, which is the best place to practice and learn self- compassion. And we work with the idea of “my heart is breaking, my heart is awakening” which goes back to your previous question. One of the best ways to find sustained self-compassion is to offer compassion to others, especially those who take you way out of your comfort zone and break your heart allowing it to awaken to deeper levels of compassion.
4) At one point in your memoir, you write of the sacred feminine: “through her refusal to take simplistic either/or positions, and with her firm insistence that we hold all the awful messiness of paradox, she gave me the central requirement for helping people grow up spiritually.” Oh how I love your embrace of complexity, mystery, and messiness here! Can you elaborate on how openness to and acceptance of complexity, ambiguity, and paradox can help people grow up spiritually?
Actually I would go so far as to say that the embrace of paradox and contradiction is a requirement for growing up spiritually. I think at some irrational child level we would all like a world with just light, happiness, and ease. But our world is full of dark and suffering too. Part of the journey of growing up spiritually is building the strength to reconcile opposites neither clinging to the good stuff nor pushing away the bad stuff. I think that true freedom lives in that space where there is the unification of opposites.
5) Your honesty about the challenges and rewards of building and sustaining a life-long love affair with your husband was comforting and helpful to me and your beautiful relationship with him is endlessly inspiring to me and my new husband. What advice would you give couples about how best to nurture love over a lifetime?
Another BIG question! First learn how to fight well. You are going to have disagreements, so learn how to have constructive disagreements and build the resilience that allows you to move on quickly after the argument is over.
Going back to the previous question, understand that a marriage brings out the best and the worst in each other, both light and dark. I think we are liberated once our dark side no longer embarrasses us.
Nourish strong friendships outside the marriage so that some of your needs–emotional, intellectual, and spiritual –are met by someone other than your beloved.
Both people need to find their mission, their passion, or their purpose in life. This is critical is the relationship is to flourish and grow over time. If one person is connected to their deepest raison d’etre and the other isn’t, there will be problems and imbalance on all levels.
6) How is your work as a spiritual mother related to your work as an expert in empowerment?
I think that any good teaching is a form of spiritual mothering or fathering. We are offering life skills, comfort, inspiration, and compassion. And at best we are teaching our students how to fish not giving them fish.
7) Who inspires you? These can be public figures, people from your personal life, historical or literary characters, authors, musicians, and leaders, friends and family members, students and teachers.
So many people inspire me. First and foremost both my parents, the brave women I work with in far corners of the globe, the activist and playwright Eve Ensler, the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, the musician Bono, President Obama, Nelson Mandela, and Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
8) What do you to keep yourself centered and balanced on a daily basis? What nourishes you and makes you more resilient? for ie, meditation, exercise, special diet, prayer, reading, music, nature.
Yes, I have had a meditation practice for over 35 years, deep prayer life, dedicated yoga practice, and walking daily with my husband David. Also as activists we find that we need to have retreat several times a year where we get away, unplug, and empty. Burnout is no fun and we can’t really be creative or effective if we have burnout or compassion fatigue.
9) What would your ideal day look like?
Begin the day with meditation, yoga, and then walking along the Ashokan Reservoir where we live with David. Then engage deeply with a work or writing project that I am passionate about. End the day with a divine dinner with David and dear friends followed by a film, concert, or theater.
10) What is your favorite meal? some of your favorite restaurants (in the Woodstock area, in NYC, abroad)?
Oh I love to eat, French, Italian, and Thai especially! Favorite restaurant in Woodstock the sublime Cucina, in NYC I love Lincoln, and in Paris, Ze Kitchen Galerie in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
11) Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?
I read voraciously so I will just say what’s top of mind now. I love anything that Barbara Kingsolver writes especially The Poisonwood Bible. I am eagerly awaiting her new novel Flight Behavior. Love all Jonathan Franzen’s work and just read his essays Farther Away. Just read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and it was extraordinary. As a kid of the sixties I devoured Kurt Andersen’s True Believers. Love all Zadie Smith’s work and reading NW now.
12) What are some quotations that especially speak to or inspire you?
These are two quotes I am working with in my teaching this week!
“Again and again in history some people wake up. They have no ground in the crowd and they move to broader, deeper laws. They carry strange customs with them and demand room for bold and audacious action. The future speaks ruthlessly through them. They change the world.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
“Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit and the heart.”