The international Buddhist and yoga community is in mourning after the tragic passing of Michael Stone this summer. At the age of 42, Michael Stone was an internationally acclaimed teacher of the tenets of Buddhism who also lived with bipolar disorder, which he managed with lithium, meditation, yoga, and a special diet. In his genius and vulnerability, he bridged the gap between yoga and meditation. We can still learn from the wise words of this exceptional man who left us far too soon.
Based out of British Columbia, Michael Stone taught meditation retreats and workshops. He founded Toronto’s sangha, Centre of Gravity, in 2003.
An uncle with schizophrenia introduced him to Buddhism at a young age. When his uncle passed away, Michael went to spend eight months alone learning meditation in Algonquin Park, sleeping in the day and meditating at night. He then returned to his studies, completing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Toronto, followed by a Master of Arts in Psychotherapy. Norman Feldman was Michael’s first meditation mentor, and Michael also studied under Zen Teacher Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, who he sought out after reading that she had answered the question “What is your practice?” with “Manhattan,” and was struck by the intimacy and immediacy of her response.
His principal mentors were Yoga Teacher Richard Freeman, who he met in 1995, and Buddhist Teacher Stephen Batchelor.In 2003, after seeing how many of his friends wanted to deepen their meditation or yoga, he renovated a garage in downtown Toronto that became the non-profit Centre of Gravity. Here, they integrated yoga and meditation practice and built a community.
He later moved to the west coast of Canada with his partner Carina to be closer to their extended family and nature, and to have more time and space to develop his meditation practice and write.
Michael was involved in the Occupy Movement when it began in 2011, as well as its offshoots in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. He had an irreproachable sense of ethics, steadfast in his refusal to sell out to multinational corporations and become an ambassador for yoga pants. A young husband and father, he was engaged in family life and grounded in monastic practice. He was serious, funny, socially involved, and introspective—a seeker far from the stereotypical yoga fitness Barbie. Michael also sought to alleviate his symptoms of bipolar disorder. During a trip to Victoria last summer, he was refused a controlled drug at a substance abuse and addictions pharmacy as he did not have a prescription. He then bought a street drug instead and was found unresponsive from an overdose later that night.
“Over the years, I’ve found it increasingly frustrating that yoga is continually reduced to ‘a body practice’ and Buddhism [to] ‘a mind practice,” he had said in an interview. “This makes no sense to me. … Buddha gave attention to the body, Patanjali the mind. … In the Buddha’s teachings, the body is used as the primary object of meditation, so that one can study the universe not through books or theory but through one’s subjective experience. Likewise the yoga postures, when practiced with breathing and sensitivity, become opportunities for deep meditative insight because they are designed to calm the nervous system. … And for most of us, our troubles are not simply in the body—primarily, trouble is in the mind.
How can we use the body to study the mind and work with the mind through the body? By experiencing how the two are completely interrelated.
There is a fundamental affinity between mind practices and body practices. Think of them both as curves in a grand mandala that continually spirals in… What I thought was ‘body’ is mostly mental. The Buddha says ‘Leave the body in the body.’
We begin with the body because it is always present… We use ‘the mind’ to explore ‘the body,’ but as we get closer and quieter, we come to see that mind and body are inseparable.”
“I stopped skateboarding when I was thirteen. Well, that’s not quite true; my parents forbade me to skate,” Michael recalled. “In skating, the process is less about stillness and watching the world happen and more to do with the immediacy of dance, responding to micro-movements, testing ideas against concrete and the limits of the body… Unlike in meditation or yoga practice, there’s no teacher. Everyone learns from studying the knees, ankles, hands, and feet of the others… Skating feels more to me like rereading a sutra … or rolling out a yoga mat… Exploring the ways our bodies move … through kinetic and somatic experimentation all constellate into a more alive sense of self. Skating at forty-two is rekindling that love.”
A sense of lack
“People come to yoga practice because they want to pause… In a culture dominated by attention deficit and hyperactivity, people want to learn how to pay attention. As we start to go deeper into working with the body and mind, we realize that we are all haunted by a sense of lack. In yoga and in Buddhism, this is called dukkha, which often gets translated as suffering, but psychologically it refers to this sense of lack we all feel. At a psychological and social level, dukkha is the inability to be content. We feel it because the self is not a fixed thing. It’s a psychological and social construct; it’s just a story that we tell ourselves.
When we feel that sense of lack, we begin to look for ways to fill it: we think that if we shop for just the right item, or become famous, or accumulate enough capital, or fall in love with the right person, we can fill that emptiness. But none of those things work; they only serve to increase the lack.
What yoga reminds us is that we are all interconnected and that there’s no such thing as a ‘self’ that’s separate from any other thing. The self is a relational process. So if we focus our actions and ambitions on creating independent, atomized versions of ourselves, we will never find ease.”
No priests, no temples
“There are no yoga temples, and you can’t find yoga priests. … [T]hat’s why it can be accessed by so many people. … Yoga is an anarchic practice. … One of the first teachings on non-violence is non-violence to self… Self-judgment is one of the most common ways we hurt ourselves. … I’m sympathetic to people who come to yoga as a way to connect with their bodies. We live such cerebral, indoor, virtual lives that to learn how to stop and connect with our bodies can actually be a way to connect to something much larger.”
“I like to translate karma as creativity: it’s about what you do with what you’ve got. … Through our actions we reinforce some patterns, while others are elastic enough that we can change. Karma, then, is not something that happens to you; it’s what you are. You are a continual succession of actions and the consequences of those actions, which means that you are responsible for your actions! … We can’t necessarily anticipate or control the consequences of those actions, but we can control our intentions. If our intention is to cause harm … then that is the kind of seed we plant in the body and in the body politic. … What you do affects the rivers, and the quality of the river is directly related to the quality of the water that makes up your body. How we treat the body is how we treat the Earth.”
Non-attachment and Charles Darwin
“I actually think one of the biggest differences [between yoga and western psychology] that Patanjali seems to suggest is that if you really want to change, the first thing you should look at is ethics. The first thing you should look at is the quality of your role in your relationships. … [I]f you really want to change your life, you can start by paying attention to ethical practice like nonviolence, honesty, not taking what’s not given freely and so on … The core of our practice is non-attachment … non-attachment to our practice as well. … not being attached to your view, not being attached to your self-image. … The heart of the practice is being able to reduce our reactivity. … I think it would be naive to think that you can get rid of attachment and aversion. Rather, you can just see them operating, and seeing them operating you can get enough distance from reactivity that you can watch it operate instead of being hooked into it. … There’s a good story about Charles Darwin, where after he finished The Theory of Evolution he experienced a deep depression. He noticed how when people become depressed they stop going out, they stare at the ceiling, they stay in bed and they don’t have sex. Darwin’s whole theory is based on the fact that we are driven to reproduce… But a person who is depressed is not thinking too much about that. … [H]e realized that maybe depression had a purpose … to slow us down and to make us look inward and see what’s valuable and what’s important in our lives. … [Y]ou can … see how when people fall apart … there can be something so creative and magnificent in that process if we’re patient and open enough to really see our lives that way.”
Meditation and armed forces
“Abusing the Buddha: How the U.S. Army and Google co-opt mindfulness”
In this article, Michael Stone explains that “The military and massive corporations teach—and harm—Buddhist practices rooted in ethics and nonviolence.” For him, nonviolence and compassion for sentient beings are at the heart of meditation. “I like to call [Patanjali’s model of spirituality] ‘horizontal transcendence,’ which means that the purpose of my practice is not for me to wake up but the purpose of a practice is for all of us to wake up together. That way my practice includes plants and animals and other people…” Taking as an example the Mind Fitness Training Institute, which offers mindfulness meditation training to marines, veterans, and police forces, he didn’t see why this institute doesn’t serve the social workers and nurses who are on the front lines of social distress. Why not, he wondered, provide assistance to victims of war or police brutality who surely need and would benefit from mindfulness training?
In reference to mindfulness meditation, the founder of the Mind Fitness Training Institute once said, “These techniques can be very effective in increasing situational awareness on the battlefield.” This is an application far removed from compassionate motivations, serving to create better fighters rather than better human beings. As Michael said, “No Afghans or Iraqis were asked whether this has made U.S. occupations in either place more bearable.”
We shouldn’t be practicing mindfulness to create better snipers or, as in the case of Google, employees with a higher output. Meditation is a tool to help use ease tension, gain perspective on ourselves and detach from disturbing emotions like anger, pride and greed. Meditation cannot be used as an indoctrination and regimentation technique.
Google, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Monsanto and the U.S. army are capitalizing on the mindfulness trend. Writing on Google’s “Wisdom 2.0” event, activist Katie Loncke joined Michael in asking the crucial question: “What about the mindfulness, happiness, and well-being of the people mining coltan in the DRC, or the people assembling iPhones at the infamous Foxconn sweatshops?”
As Michael recounted, “When I was a kid, my closest friend was my uncle, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Most of the time I spent with my uncle was in Canada’s largest mental institution. After school, he’d talk to me about meditation and we’d read books together, including the early teachings of the Buddha. We also listened to the Beatles’ White Album.” He once quoted his uncle as saying to him, “The core of the Buddhist teachings is going against the stream and that’s what you need to do, Michael.”
“Paradoxically,” Michael said, “I felt most normal and safe when I was with my uncle. When I’d leave the institution to take the bus home, the city would seem insane. It was very confusing. The conversations I had with my uncle seemed deeper, more mysterious, and more important than anything I was learning at home, at school, or even at synagogue. A few years after my uncle died, when I was 20, I spent almost a year alone in the wilderness learning about meditation practice. I also read Carl Jung’s entire collected works, which motivated me to go back to school. … While at school, I trained in the formal Buddhist practice of Insight Meditation (of Vipassana and Zen practice). In 1995, after some years of daily practice of ashtanga yoga, I met the inimitable teacher Richard Freeman.”
Zen and the art of coupling
As explained in the Telegraph, his Buddhist teacher, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, compares meditation to the Celtic idea of “thin places.” In Celtic spirituality, “thin places” refers to the idea of places where meaning and experience are more easily or more deeply felt.
As meditation helps, so can coupling. In coupling we have a unique way to get at the more powerful and transformative aspects of living. We experience the thin places that expose us to depth and meaning. Coupling can help us change and grow like nothing else.
Michael wrote the book Family Wakes Us Up with Matthew Remsk, because “Most of us never know what our teachers are like at home. I wanted to pull back the curtain. … My teachers never demonstrated this kind of transparency. And yet, emotions are the realm where most of us get stuck. … Parents often feel like domestic chores are on one side of their lives and there is almost no time for anything else. … I just moved with my family from downtown Toronto to an island off the coast of Victoria, BC. I think there are three main issues for our era: climate change; economic inequality; and the atrophy of intimacy. … Living on an island is allowing me more time with family but also time to write and research and develop a new platform for having a greater social impact.”
The Inner Tradition of Yoga
Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life
Yoga for a World Out of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Action
At the time of his death, he had been working on The National Parks of the Mind: A Field Guide to Mental States.
Learning from his insights on yog
Sources: michaelstoneteaching.com, macon.com, salon.com, lerefletdelalune.blogspot.ca, lionsroar.com, shiversupthespine.blogspot.ca, globeandmail.com, briarpatchmagazine.com
Last modified: October 29, 2018