Sudden Harvest: An Elegy for Michael Stone

Please support Michael’s partner Carina and children through this fund.

 Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.

Content warning: description of organ harvest.

 

 

1.

I started writing this the day my friend Michael Stone died. On that day, the surgeons carefully cut into the body associated with him, to take the parts that used to be him and give them to others in need.

I wasn’t there, but I picture the following:

Their scalpels slide under the skin that was him, and was scanned a hundred thousand times in vipassana meditation.

They poke through the webbing of fascia that was him, and was stretched and twisted through a hundred thousand yoga postures.

Their blue-gloved hands, splashed with blood, pluck out two kidneys like sleeping fish.

They saw through the ribcage, softened by a decade of exhaling visualized light in the Tibetan style. They lift out the still-pulsing lungs, and watch them shudder to stillness on the ice pack. As though Michael were still practicing to lengthen and smooth his breath into that single point of silence he craved.

The transplant team demonstrates an ancient proof in Buddhist logic:

If you look for the person among the parts, you will not find him. “Michael” and “my friend” and “Buddhist teacher” are designations applied to a collection of skin, blood, voice, eyes, behaviors, images, and mysteries. All of which are ultimately ownerless.

One of the mantras Michael sought comfort from was: There is no “me” or “mine.” It’s an assertion of emptiness, but it hides a multiplicity: Michael, like any person, was many.

There was Carina’s Michael: doting and vulnerable. The Michael who stood large beside his brother Jayme and sister Sunny. The Michael of his parents, his teenage friends, his first partner. His friends from many walks of life. Those who didn’t care about Buddhism or yoga.

The Michaels of his children: Arlyn, and the two boys he had with  Carina. The thirteen year-old, the four year-old, and the toddler knew different fathers. Baby-to-be heard a resonant voice to be remembered in dreams.

In rings circling outwards, more Michaels appear, each one a little less knowable: therapist, sometimes-monk, public speaker, heartthrob, author, entrepreneur. And of course, Michael the dharma teacher, sitting at the front of the room, by turns radiant, startled, or wooden.

Which Michael did his Buddhist teachers see? His therapists? His psychotherapy supervisor? What about his doctors?

Who was Michael to the man who sold him that little white pill?

The surgeons murmur over the body, and it sounds like prayers.

 

2.

If you knew and loved Michael through his work, you beat the surgeons to that harvest.

You harvested the voice of his writing and podcasts, marked by the rhythm of the practices he loved and depended on. His penchant for boiling the broadest themes down to taut aphorisms. And for finding the Buddha everywhere he wanted to find him: novels, obscure Canadian poetry, cool apps, superior espresso, pop music, therapy, laundry, mountains, streetcars, his motorcycle, and hospitals.

If you were a student who went to his retreats, you harvested other things. Like how so many mirrored his exquisite posture with equal parts earnestness and piety. You absorbed a dynamic silence – at times anxious, haunted, or womblike. The talks he gave were metronomic, as though he needed the entire world to slow down and listen at the exact pace that soothed him. Then, his quirky yoga instructions tangled you up on your mat, made you teeter and laugh.

Perhaps you had a meeting with him about your meditation or yoga practice and he dispensed advice that connected, perhaps miraculously. Was he intuitive, or lucky? You can’t honestly say. Or maybe the meeting made no sense at all, and you felt odd about that – maybe even apologetic, like you were letting him down. Or: he outright frustrated you with those blue eyes that could seem to know you, love you, judge you, or be lost, all in quick succession.

You collected the countless steps of walking meditation, and the group chants Michael loved. They may have stirred you deeply. Or you may have found that in the English translations from Sanskrit or Japanese he collected and tweaked, they sounded angular and explicit to the point of embarrassment:

Don’t squander your life!

Does anyone really squander their life?

 

3.

2013. We were walking through Mile End in Montreal, looking for the perfect cortado. Michael was telling me he’d backed off on the rigidity of practice in recent years, as we tend to do.

“I’m leaving just enough discipline to hold the shape of something,” he said, on the step of Café Névé. He gestured in the cold air with his hands.

That something was always meticulous, artistic, and intense. It felt like his longing for ritual order emerged, as much religion does, as an artistic response to internal and external chaos.

I remember when he rented my old space in Cabbagetown for several month-long retreats in 2006. One was in February. He’d ride his Danish bicycle over from Parkdale, and come in with snow in his beard that melted into the cup of coffee I handed him. Through the day, I sat at the desk outside the room, working to the rhythm of his somnambulant baritone, lulled by the vowels.

The students were Gen X, Y, and millennials, countercultural. Three-quarters women. When they trickled out to the bathroom they moved quietly and kept their heads down. It seemed like they were under a thrall they couldn’t risk breaking. When the studio door was left open, I could see the cohort encircle him. Some sat very close, absorbed in him.

I was impressed, and uneasy. What was going on? How did he manage to make all of that attention directed at him seem natural?

The fragments of his talks I overheard rung with a single note. It wasn’t from Buddhism or yoga. The texts were delivery devices for a sense of collective certainty, expressed through the first person plural.

“When we feel… we often find… and then we get caught up in… and so we practice because… and we fail… our hearts are like… our armour falls away… we are open to… we can be receptive to… we touch intimacy… we continue on with our work, not knowing.”

Michael’s register of wisdom could make people feel merged with each other, and with him. It created a feeling of group confession that generalized and depersonalized towards an unboundaried warmth. It seemed to hold nothing in private.

When the group left at dusk, the building vibrated. I’d sweep the room and then pause for a while by the altar they’d made by the window. I took note not only of the personal artifacts people had brought, but also the pristine and eccentric aesthetic Michael inspired. Japanese paper, quirky calligraphy, microbrew beer coasters folded into squat origami turtles.

The style was hipster zen, years before it was a thing. But instead of irony, it was imbued with what his brother Jayme described over the phone as Michael’s sense of the “ceremonious”. That same sense, Jayme said, that made the scene of Michael’s death so uncharacteristic of him.

 

4.

I was never Michael’s student. I was his peer, colleague, co-author, and eventually, his friend.

I was that friend – I’m sure there were others – who made fun of him for having students. I would say:

Look at the mess you’re in now. People expect you to give them spiritual advice!

He smiled and shrugged, a little bashful. Sometimes he laughed. It was like he didn’t know how it all happened, even if he knew how to nudge it along. He didn’t stop it, because it seemed to be working. The glowing feedback he got burned everything else away. It’s hard to imagine anyone around him being large enough to persuade him to slow down.

But he asked everyone else to slow down, and look within. I wonder if he needed those around him to find the answers he couldn’t.

 

5.

Friends harvested more hidden things:

His bouts of social unease, his obsession with dorky trivia and dark humour. You saw him long for guidance from senior teachers, like a prodigal son. He would connect with them, misfire with them.

You saw him draw conflict, get defensive, take a breath, take inventory, try to make amends. He would drift away from these people over here, become infatuated with others over there. You saw the acrimony from his divorce spill out and polarize a community. You understood that his prescription to always practice intimacy and forgiveness was the one he had written for himself.

You saw his effect on women, of all ages. They adored him and confessed to him. They poured their labour into his projects. Some became angry when they realized the imbalances. When they ghosted away, others came to replace them.

In such seemingly progressive spaces, it can be hard to call out hierarchy. The spirituality industry wants to make Iron Age yoga and medieval Zen look like they aren’t patriarchal in theme, form, and division of labour.

If you were a close friend, you saw how Michael’s doubts about his direction and competence were punctuated by flourishes of manic creativity. You saw how easy it was for his vision to outpace his introversion, and his appetite to outpace his digestion.

When he was flying high, his intellect became very porous, consuming and repackaging every idea he loved with dizzying speed. He was a DJ of ambient Buddhism, mixing freely from whatever tracks he could find.

 

6.

If you were close to him, you collected his surges of warmth. These became more poignant when you realized that he often had to climb up out of a dark well to let them flow. You collected things that were hidden by his stylishness, his supermodel looks, and by the gold paint that people sprayed on him in their minds and online.

Maybe you were close enough to soak up what he was like with his family in its various constellations. How he loved and baffled them, how he thrilled but could also disappoint. How relatives orbited his sun in seasons of estrangement and reconciliation.

When he touched Carina’s hand or when his sons clung to his arms, or when he listened to Jayme play the banjo, or when he watched his sister Sunny whip up her cooking magic, you could feel his love come out in a flood of bewildered tenderness.

He ended our book together with a distillation of such moments:

Everything was in its right place and everything was heading in the same direction. In my body I felt something new about life: not my own life, but about the whole parade of humans moving through the world, of which my family was only one small part, but the largest part of the world I could ever know.

If you worked with him, like I did on his talk about struggling with the danger of his own charisma, you harvested the giddiness of his concentration. You understood that he survived in part by taking risks.

After their first son was born, Carina asked him to sell the motorcycle a psychic had told him he should buy. He did as she asked. But he kept driving too fast in his mind.

When we worked he would pause, waiting for the words to come. I could feel him teeter on the edge of something.  One March day, I prodded him a little harder. I could hear his tapping keys over the phone as he murmured:

“I came to understand the shadow of charisma — of my charisma — was dependency.”

There was that feeling I often had around him. A lightning bolt of clarity, and then something fuzzy and frenetic rushing back in.

He was impatient with whatever couldn’t be finished with the speed of a zen brush painting. I would offer a paragraph of commentary; he parried with a sentence. I built things up, and he hacked them away. He loved the koans that could be answered in a single word. He was acutely aware of the shortness of time, and he’d learned that art must be made from the simplicity of panic.

I can hear him saying now: “This elegy is too damned long. And you always go too far!”

I yell into my silent phone:

Dude, I’m just getting started. And you’re the one who went too far. Gone, gone beyond, and all that, right?

I wait for his laugh.

 

7.

During a snowstorm three years ago, Michael and I met for lunch to finish work on our book. At one point he stopped and leaned over to ask me something that wasn’t really a question.

“Hey – do you generally feel even-keeled?”

I shrugged.

“I guess. Can you say more?”

“I mean – do you feel in control of your emotions?”

After I fumbled through an answer, he told me he was struggling with his mental health. That it had been going on for as long as he could remember. Suddenly many things made sense.

We got very still and gazed at each other. After a moment, I realized he was gapping out. I’d seen this before, but now it was clear that he had to struggle to come back to the table.

It occurred to me that this oscillation between intense focus and vacancy was part of what drew people to him. Like he could see you, and that felt so intoxicating, but then you’d have to chase after him to feel that again. Like he was profoundly okay in one moment, but you wanted to save him in the next. Or maybe you thought he was regularly falling into a meditative trance.

Things became more transparent between us, but never fully. I loved him more, even as – or because – I felt more uncertain about where he was going. I knew I’d been drawn to him without understanding a crucial thing. I was in his sphere because he’d cast a spell over me. Part of me resented that, but now I could love him closer to where he was.

We deepened things by trading war stories about our health. On the phone he’d tell me about crushing insomnia. About having to fly places and teach meditation on autopilot because he was exhausted and agitated. I told him about my heart palpitations in the middle of the night. He’d had that too. Once, I picked him up from the hospital when he went for knee surgery to fix the damage from that stupid lotus pose. Or was it skateboarding?

I developed a pulmonary embolism a few months after our book was published. I could easily have died. He was the first person outside of my family I called. I knew he would  say something luminous and comforting. But there was also the feeling that I wanted him to know I was joining him at the edge of something.

We talked a lot about self-regulation. He told me that he’d stopped meditating everyday as an experiment to see if meditation was actually making his swings worse. He suspected it was. This was around the time he taped an interview with the world’s leading researcher in the neuroscience of negative meditation experiences. I’ll bet the turns of his research interests map perfectly onto his internal labyrinth.

I had to take warfarin to thin out my blood clots. He told me that lithium seemed to help even out his moods. We joked about it: after years of studying Ayurvedic diet and self-care, here I was, kept alive on rat poison. And for him — after scouring the library of scriptures, he’d found the answer in the periodic table. A single molecule, labeled “3”.

I said it was the chemical version of the triple jewel of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. He laughed his broad broken laugh.

 

8.

Over the next few years I saw Michael increasingly exhausted by a race against the pressures of his persona, the tightening claustrophobia of his brain, his search for better medications, and the possibility that disclosing it all would help, or at least give him the next thing to work with. I thought about the growing distance between what he saw in the mirror and the headshots staring out at him from the screen.

His public life went viral, even as he seemed to become more isolated. He kept preaching the necessity of practice, even as I knew practice was less accessible to him. His sermons were about place and connection and sustainability. But he composed them on airplanes. He preached about community from the remote island he moved to after leaving the community he had founded.

When he was getting ready to move out west with Carina and their first child, he called me to say that he wanted to give me a bunch of his books on psychoanalysis. Two titles stood out: Being a Character, by Christopher Bollas, and Terrors and Experts, by Adam Phillips, who Michael and I had recently gone to see lecture.

Bollas describes the devastating results of living in the prison of other peoples’ idealizations. Phillips opens his book by quoting Iris Murdoch on how philosophers show you what they fear through what they become experts in.

We thumbed through his books, stacked in the front hallway. “I really think psychoanalysis,” he said, “gave us the most beautiful literature we have.”

He sounded wistful. I don’t know whether he was giving me a message, telling me about what had helped him find peace for a while, or parting with things that hadn’t worked. He handed over the books with a generous smile, and his body pulsed with warmth when we hugged. But as I drove away I felt like a thief.

As time wore on, Michael became an ever stronger advocate of the thing he struggled to do.  Show each other your face, he would say.

I wondered whether his ideas got larger as his internal space and room to breathe narrowed. Not only did he constantly push himself to break new ground in Buddhist thought, he wanted to carve out a leadership role in the movement to renovate yoga postures. There was talk of building a new centre in the western mountains, and landing a university fellowship. He told me about one of his next books, in which he was going to be more transparent about his mental health. He was searching for the right hook. Something that could go mainstream.

If he was going to own his mental illness, he was going to learn and write and teach his way through it. It’s what he had always done.

It is perhaps what the Buddha himself had done.

A main difference being: Siddhartha Gautama wasn’t preceded in the world by the images of his own enlightenment. He didn’t need to feed the insatiable hunger of wellness culture. He did not have to live up to – nor compete with – the branding of spirituality.

 

9.

The poet John Ashbury just died at the ripe old age of ninety. He once wrote:

Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.

 

10.

Don’t squander your life!

Sometimes the group whispered it. At the memorial, one of his students shouted it at the top of his lungs. Who was he shouting it at?

Those who harbour anger at Michael right now – and feel so guilty because of it – might feel sucker-punched by that line. Doesn’t it open a cut of hypocrisy? Did he really recite it a hundred thousand times? Who was he talking to?

The stigma Michael faced is real. But the broader story must include the fact that thousands of us paid him for the creative side of his mania, which was hard to separate from his talent. A portion of our money poured directly into a small industry of marketing and publicity that reflected our desires back to us. It paid for gorgeous photography and design, for occasional ghostwriting, and for partnerships that gave structure and anchoring to his flow states.

The yoga and meditation economy embraced him with open arms. And enabled him. He was working on four different books, all in different subject areas, when he died.

He may not have wanted to disclose. But if anyone could have turned stigma into stigmata, it was him. The spirituality industry, however, would suffer for it.

A disclosure like Michael’s would continue to erode the arbitrary distinctions between sane and insane spiritual leaders. It would be that much harder to read Pema Chodron or Alan Watts without wondering how much of Buddhism amongst postmodern converts is an elaborate way of covering over a hidden story.

If Michael had disclosed, we would look at our shelves full of Shambhala titles and wonder how many trees were felled to print them. We’d remember that the press that launched him was itself launched by the mercurial genius of Chogyam Trungpa: alcoholic, womanizing, surely undiagnosed. We would not be talking about the fall of a single hero, but the clay feet of a culture. We might sense the deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that drive so many men to the front of the room to prove themselves. We think they are vibrating, when really they are trembling.

After that line about squandering your life, Michael’s assistant would strike the gong while holding the rim, so it couldn’t ring to its natural end.

 

11.

I was always a crappy Buddhist. Over that surreal weekend of his coma, I felt so identified with Michael’s body that I felt some shadow part of myself on that ventilator, forcing me to breathe, waiting for it to be switched off. A more solid part of me was here, not believing that he couldn’t taste this coffee, couldn’t stand in this garden, couldn’t smile at his wife, couldn’t hold his toddler.

Even two weeks later, his death still seemed a spectacle to me, I expected him to step out from behind a tree, or send a text from the edge of Algonquin Park, where he disappeared to when he was twenty. As though he’d just been out of cell phone range, and had no clue there was such a fuss.

It only really hit home as I sat with my family on a driftwood log on a Pender Island beach with a hundred others at the memorial. The children waited patiently through the chanting, holding the paper lanterns they would release after the last bell.

Jayme stood behind the altar with his partner Laura and cracked open the Zen liturgy with his banjo and a southern spiritual. His voice, braided with hers, carried light and ash. Their three year-old son pulled at Laura’s dress, asking to be picked up.

 

12.

If you’re a Canadian Gen Xer like Michael and me, you’ll probably remember a little Québécois film from 1989 by Denys Arcand called “Jesus of Montreal”. I went to the Carleton Cinema over and over again to soak it in. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Michael was sitting there during one of those screenings. I was eighteen; he would have been fifteen.

The movie tells a simple, predictable story. A wandering actor returns to his hometown and is hired to direct and star in a revamp of the Cathedral’s chintzy Passion play. He’s silent, magnetic, dreamboaty. Also a little wonky. He electrifies an unlikely cohort of disciples and leads them in pulling their art and their lives out of banality.

At the peak of his influence, while performing Jesus, and not really knowing what he was doing, the actor accidentally dies.

The concluding montage leaves the main characters behind. It cuts from one hospital room to the next, showing patient after patient waking up after their surgery to receive an organ, donated by the actor who played Jesus.

An old man wakes up with a new heart. A middle-aged woman has the bandages removed so that she can blink at her daughter with new eyes, and call out her name.

This is my body, which will be given up for you, as they say in the church to which I once belonged.

I cried harder during that scene than almost ever before or since, and couldn’t move from my seat until the janitor tapped me on the arm at closing time.

 

13.

Whenever I crest over this present edge of numbness and am finally able to cry about Michael, I think the tears will join the river that started in that theatre. They’ll flow from the material realizations of love:

I’ll feel how one body becomes other bodies.

I’ll feel that this is all there ever was or needs to be: a recycling of flesh into new joys and troubles. This is the way biology grants forgiveness. The process itself is the only soul we need to speculate about.

I’ll feel that in death, as in life, a person is both visible and invisible. Charisma magnifies this split.

Visible or invisible, Michael couldn’t be found or boxed in. I was foolish to think he could be. So it goes for those burdened with charisma. They are who they are because they seem so much larger and more permanent than you, even when they desperately want to be equal, normal, not-special; even when they want to disappear.

I know this tune: I’ve spent years deconstructing the light and shadow of spiritual teachers. On the surface my crusade has been related to healing from being in two cults. But the deeper drives that both attracted me to those men and led me to loathe them flow from my own need to be special, to heal attachment wounds, to be seen and praised — and then the shame of recognizing these things.

Pegging Michael as charismatic, and feeling smug about it, let me off the hook for years. I could only truly love him when I began to understand that he was living an amplified version of my own needs.

Part of why I wanted to be his friend was that I wanted to see myself more clearly. Knowing he did many of the things I work against, I tried to forgive him because he was ill and couldn’t seem to do otherwise. Perhaps he was my dharma teacher after all, teaching me about love in that sideways land of the unconscious.

My eventual tears will tally all I harvested in every moment I knew him – over years, and not just suddenly. The organs are just the last parts to be offered.

I’ll understand that those who speak most about community and ethics and family and forgiveness and intimacy are those who most long for such things.

I’ll sense that the pain of watching a person you love shattering into emptiness can be soothed by the feeling that he’s already inside you, transplanted, flaws and all. He lends you the heart, for the brief time we have, to take care of others.

24 Comments

  • Gorgeous. I lost my friend a couple of years ago and felt her energetic body combine with my own and you capture that phenomenon so well here. As a far off student of Michael’s and an appreciator of your work as well, I am greatful for this piece…for its tenderness, its honesty and its grace. Blessings on your journey.

  • A beautiful revelation of the landscape that can only be found by feeling the way. You have covered so much fertile ground filled with even more to grapple with in the undertaking. Thank you, Matthew.

  • I am the student who shouted “do not squander your life” at Michael’s memorial. I was shouting it for you. And for me. And for my wife, who was also a student of Michael’s, and who was not drawn to him because of his “effect on women,” but because of a connection to his teaching. The point of that line is not to accuse anyone of wasting their life. The point is to prompt the question: am I using my life to wake up, or to go to sleep? It’s a question we should all be asking ourselves in every moment, not a judgment. We do not strike the gong while holding the rim after that line. We sit in silence.

    Some of what you wrote, while helpful to you and others, feels like mischaracterization of someone I knew and cared for. My purpose in writing this is not to argue with you about who you think Michael was, but to express discomfort, because I know there are others who feel the same. I hope that you can find peace and healing after the loss of our friend, but I hope that you can also honestly consider the effect that your words can have on those close to him.

    • Thank you Nathan for writing. It can’t have been easy to comment here. I’m aware of the diverse experiences that people had of Michael, based upon how long and how personally we knew him and when we knew him. I tried to speak to this in the opening.

      I’m also aware of the moral burden of offering a personal account that chafes against others. I’ve agonized over that question in other context for the last decade. Thanks for bringing it up.

      I understand the intentions of the line: I was speaking to its varied impacts. I was trying to bring out its considerable poignant ambivalence in the circumstance. And to show that a kind of sleeping can happen within the discourse of awakening.

      I would appreciate and enjoy reading your own memorial some day, or just talking with you. As much as the line you shouted was impassioned and resonant, it wasn’t, with respect, for me. It was part of a liturgy that speaks to only one section of those who knew him. Saying something personal is another matter.

      Best wishes to you and yours.

  • As a friend of Michael’s and many of his students for nearly a decade, I feel the need to say something about what you’re suggesting about his students (who you dismiss as mostly women – ‘moving quietly, heads down’) and why it was so many smart, engaged people studied with him.

    The people I know who studied with him are in fact some of the most critically-minded, intelligent men and women, who studied with him not because they were drawn to his ‘charisma’ but because of his clarity, generosity, and culturally and psychologically relevant tools and practices. How many artists, activists, doctors, writers, nurses, therapists, teachers, teenagers, human beings did Michael help further empower?

    To suggest, especially to people who did study with him, that a lot of this was somehow an effect of charisma reveals the limits of what you knew about a rather central area of his life and person. (I grew up surrounded by charismatic teachers of all kinds, and have always been suspicious of/disinterested in ‘spiritual leaders’.) Michael was something entirely else. He was one of the most real, committed, no-bullshit people I have known, and this includes his flaws, his immense generosity and intelligence, and also his struggle with bipolar – a struggle I find courageous and inspiring in the face of the clarity of his teachings, the core of whose contents you neglect in your piece.

    I don’t want to create conflict within our already grieving community, but I feel another perspective from a friend of Michael’s is needed –

    Certainly Michael, like everyone, was full of contradiction and multiplicity and people knew different sides of him, but he also had a very consistent gift that he gave tirelessly and generously. So, here’s something from him-

    “When you finish reading this, and you walk out the door, into an increasingly cool evening, maybe try one thing new. Walk home in a way you haven’t walked, lead with your left foot, open the door with your less dominant hand, don’t open facebook, pick a book from your shelf and open it to any page, read in the bath before bed, skip your coffee in the morning, walk backwards, ask someone you know how they are doing, how they are really doing, and listen. Watch the sun dwindle in the canal, drink lemon water, cook asparagus. Or, just have a bath and then lay very still in your room, your head absorbed by the carpet.”

    • Thank you Erin for taking the time to comment. You say many good things about Michael’s influence that ring true to me, and yet I also feel have been covered in many other places. The end of Jayme’s memorial especially summarized this well.

      It’s my fault if the note that the group that rented my space was mostly women reads like a dismissal instead of a fact, not only about Michael’s demographic, but about the industry in general.

      It sounds like you consider “charisma” as a slight, rather than a social phenomenon. I don’t. I don’t fault him for it, nor did I try to suggest that that aspect of his ecosphere somehow damaged his integrity. It complicated it, I’m sure we can agree.

      You’re right that my article doesn’t refer to his diagnosis at all. I purposefully stayed away from that aspect — covered in more detail by more qualified people — to focus on my personal and social experience of and conversations with him. I felt that the discourse surrounding his death omitted the social ecosystem implicated in the tragedy, and I felt that that was where I had something to say.

      I’m glad that you carry with you his consistent gift, and I look forward to seeing it shine through your writing and performance work.

  • I knew one corner of Michael’s life, from the point of view of a student on retreat. I also saw closely something of the immediate life of the community after his death, on retreat in France where students who had known Michael a long time and students who had only heard his podcasts. We gathered together, not knowing. We listened to his assistants (I cannot speak for them but I don’t recognise at all the passivity with which you ascribe them here) give quickly written, tender hearted, deeply knowledgeable dharma talks, we practiced and cried. We laughed. I for one laughed a lot. We were engaged in the wonder and the shock and the not knowing. What most stood out for me was a total lack of mysticism, and the way we just continued, with the comfort and peace, and also the mundane ordinariness of the practice. The absurdity of just continuing. A group of people so engaged in the world and determined to be more so.

    You write that you were not a student of Michael’s, and then you write the (possible) experiences of one. This is the experience of one.

    The choice not to disclose his diagnosis may be tied up in problems we have around stigma, shame, illness. Most students I know well (a small corner for sure) felt absolutely his humanity, his richness, his history and his depth of feeling in his teachings. Would you critique his level of productivity in a person who had not received a diagnosis? We all bear responsibility for the inability of our communities not to speak openly about health and ill health, and norms and acceptable behaviour and why and where we draw those boundaries at all. We could all do better to listen to those who really know the experience, and to those who directly care for them. Not just listen, but amplify their voices over our own.

    • Thanks for commenting. It’s great to hear news from that gathering. There were many moments surrounding the memorial events that felt like that. I expect to be at many other informal gatherings, within and without the context of the spiritual community.

      As I’ve replied above, I’m not focused on the diagnosis, here or elsewhere. While a necessary part of the picture, I feel that in some ways it drives the view into an unknowable internal space, with the side effect of losing site of the social an intersubjective aspects.

      My gesture at his productivity is at most a frame within which his diagnosis takes on another colour. There are plenty of people who are as productive: it speaks to various circumstances, and not all of them benign.

      Since Michael’s death I’ve reached out to people who share the diagnosis for more insight. And I’ve also spoken with people who knew him for decades before you gathered in France. I hope to hear many more stories and perspectives.

  • Why so provocative? You sound angry. As everyone says, I’ve no intent to argue etc, but the piece takes a decidedly bitter and slanderous tone – what is gained? What are the ethics of writing such a piece in the wake of the grief experienced by Michaels family, friends and community? To describe the community in such a way, or indeed any bodies experience that’s been appropriated in this peice, how did you acquire those shoes to stand in?

    Here’s wishing that you find peace in your own process, but look for a little respect for others, as the angle of this piece looks set to provoke and will obviously divide. Again I ask, what is gained?

    • Thanks for commenting. It’s fair to read anger and bitterness here, intertwined with grief. But there’s nothing slanderous on this page.

      Your comment makes me want to add this to my response to Erin, above: this is a person who moved into, through, and out of many communities. There are many experiences, and what I witnessed when I hosted him and worked with him has produced an outsider’s view of one person. I regret not pre-empting Erin’s description of how thoughtful and creative the gatherings were. That’s an omission. At the same time, it’s important to note that there were intelligent, critically-minded people who left, as well as those who stayed. They have their impressions as well. If collected, they will show a diversity, rather than a division, that’s already there. Thanks for your kind wishes.

  • Dear Matthew Remski as well to all other friends of Michael Stone.
    I am one of Michael Stones many danish students – he would come here to Copenhagen over the years and do workshops at Yogamudra.
    U will find his foot-print many places around this city, not in the form of actual prints but merely in the form of what I guess he would have called – “aspiring-bodhisattva’s-to-be.
    Some of the footprints has the form and shape as teachers, others are working at a municipal swim-hall, others are students at the University, carpenters, nurses, etc.

    The love that Michael shared with us in his teaching is sort of the heart of every one of these footprints – like a pulse it is vibrating in the work we do, how we connect with other people and our relationships with friends, family and fellow-human beings.

    Every Tuesday some of these footprints meet at a little space in the city-center.
    They sit together; chant the heart-sutra and whisper, “do-not-squander your-life”.
    They do so to keep Michaels teaching alive and to remind each other to stay awake.
    In the little Sangha we talk about life as well as dead. These days this little sangha has been a place to share grief and sadness of the loss of Michael and the mystery of life and death.
    It is powerful to meet, so powerful that sangha-friends from around Scandinavia has come to Copenhagen to sit.

    I guess that some people are being born with the gift to aspire and guide others to awake, open their hearts and share love. Your friend Michael Stone had that gift. Whether that gift was wrapped in charisma, bipolar disorder or a handsome face……….does it matter?
    I feel sadness of the pain and suffering he and his family most have gone trough and I feel joy and grateful for the gift he gave us, a gift to use.
    Like a little seed it is growing to give nourish and heal.
    I hope that can bring maybe just a little comfort in all the grief and sadness; to you who have lost a dear friend and all the other friends Michael have around the world as well as his children and wife.

  • Hi everyone. This conversation is hard, but I want to make my contribution.

    As a woman I was drawn to Michaels teaching because I felt included. He used female pronouns with intention when translating old texts. He seemed to understand the obvious need for this in a culture that does not. The Sangha has always felt like a safe space to let our guards down, to trust, to `show our face´. This makes a fertile ground for personal growth. It is a testament to Michael that he inspired satellites around the world of people sitting together in nourishing communities of intelligent and compassionate human beings that have let themselves been seen. I had hoped to study with Michael many years, partly because I am inspired by the level of intelligence and critical thinking in the Sangha, but mostly because I trusted him. I wish I had thanked him for creating an environment where I as a woman felt safe, respected and included. I will miss having a teacher who can see so clearly what affects this dynamic and so skillfully integrate it in the teachings and in the community.

    With love and gratitude from Oslo/Norway.

  • Matthew, I have long appreciated your work, especially your interrogations of charismatic gurus. I joked last night to my partner about you “doing a Matthew Remski” on Michael, and how he would have laughed and rolled his eyes. Or would he have been hurt, or felt exposed? We can’t know. I can’t know. I wondered about Carina (who I don’t know personally), and assumed she must have okayed this piece.

    However, this morning, re-reading the post, I felt less jovial about it. I didn’t appreciate the organ harvest description, and wonder if I’d missed the trigger warning the first time. I felt the heavy-handed reference to the mainly female student population (as if that was particular to Michael, rather than general to yoga culture) and the allusion that those heads were “bowed” in reverence to Michael rather than, say, to life. I know you do get called out for sexism in your work, and I wonder if it’s more because of what is unsaid rather than what’s said.

    Michael ignited a spark of reverence for life in me, without igniting a spark of reverence for him. That’s why I appreciated him as a teacher so very much. As a hetero woman I didn’t feel he was always the most important person in the room, even if I did mainly look at him while he was talking, rather than, say, look in the opposite direction. No one who met him can deny his charisma, or his good looks. But from what I experienced his good looks were more something to openly joke about than to privately fawn over. There was a lot of humour and irony with Michael. He leveraged cutting, charisma-undermining humour a lot more than he leveraged his trendy haircuts.

    As someone who suffers from mental illness, and is in a helping profession, I have been well aware of Michael’s struggles with mental health whilst studying with him. Although he didn’t talk of his diagnosis publically or with me, I think he made it pretty clear that he wasn’t well, even if that wasn’t explicit. Michael attracted me to his teaching because I thought “wow. He struggles in some ways like I do, and look at how he tries to keep going! He’s sometimes a mess but he still has so much to offer”. Most of our in person and via email conversations were along the lines of “keep going”. He seemed to know that his main function was as a cheerleader of sorts, and for me that’s what he did best, beyond even the intellectual Dj-ing. That didn’t work because he was charismatic, but because he was trying his very best to be kind, against all odds. That was what showed. That was what was impressive. He always responded. I try always to respond, now.

    What I find problematic and painful in your post is exactly what I have enjoyed in many of your other posts. That’s confusing for me. There’s something more complex here, regarding what theory is “for”. And love. This is a big and important question. But, partly due to timing, the effect of this post is one of you “using” your friend’s very recent death as a soapbox for expressing an ongoing distaste for religious life and its “leaders”, regardless of your intention.

    I can imagine how, given your work, this piece felt important for you to write. However, it is not surprising that both the post and the conversation flowing from it is both offensive and deeply saddening for those who, understandably, do not want one of the first public conversations about Michael’s legacy to be a divisive one, or one that’s about a culture rather than this specific man, who we love in many different ways, and who actually reeled against so many of the problems within that culture. I’m sorry for your loss, but I hope that you take to heart the words of others going through a similarly real – but very different – grieving process for Michael. It’s such a shame that your role as public commentator AND Michael’s friend means that Michael’s grieving wife is having to engage on Facebook (via Caitlin) with people who know your theoretical work a great deal than they know who Michael Stone is or was.

    • Thank you Rachael for your important feedback and for sharing your warm experience, which was clearly enriched by your capacity to identify and attune to what many others couldn’t.

      It’s a real gift to be challenged in this way. Thank you as well for summing up the tensions of my many roles and allegiances here.

      I’ve addressed the discussion around permission above and won’t repeat it here, except to add that the permission I sought was from a network. You did miss the content warning, which I added when the feedback about it started to come in.

      I can’t think of any way in which I could avoid the perception of opportunism. Perception aside, it was a moral question I took very seriously, weighing the proximity of Michael’s death against the fading opportunity to explore the conflicting emotions it has provoked for so many.

      It’s true that I could have waited six months, or a year, or 20. But it’s also true that memory fades and changes, for both writer and reader. There’s fading-affect bias, positivity effect bias, rosy retrospection, and all the rest. These can and do compound the idealizations that I find most harmful, most dangerous, and, I believe, implicated in Michael’s death.

      I wrote most of this in the week before the funeral in a flood of memory and emotion. Any writer who knows what this is like also knows the potentially repressive forces of the editorial superego. From oneself and others. “Illegal” thoughts come into sharp relief. All of the guilt and shame reflexes are marshalled into order — even more acutely when you are dealing with guilt and shame-inducing things like an accidental death that feels so wrong. You’ll always have to take some things out, but if you believe in the present moment, you know you have to protect some of that unconscious surge that gave rise to the thing to begin with, and let it breathe. There’s a sad consequence in the fact that the suppressing of that surge is embodied in social polarization.

      Your questions around the purpose of theory and how it intersects with love are profound, and combined with the notion of opportunism brings out how deeply I must probe my own psychology in this matter — as Carina asked me to do — to understand the extent to which I’m offloading onto innocents to quell my own discomforts.

      There is no doubt I have narcissistic tendencies, which I must work on in therapy, and interrogate in relation to my public life. I understand a little bit about where they come from, and how they are either enhanced or broken down by the essentially narcissistic activity of writing itself. As Michael would say, I’ll never get that perfectly right. He would have cheerleaded, not necessarily this episode, but the general project. Once he called me the “plumber”.

      I’ve built my soapbox against patriarchal and metaphysical oppressions, and against toxic masculinity, which forbids the complexity of feeling. (This soapbox doesn’t absolve my unconscious sexism.) In some ways I can’t step off of it, either personally or in the eyes of my readership. That’s the theory that feels like love to me. But the deeper love I feel in this set of memories is wrapped up in melancholy. Far from feeling distaste for religious life, to which I am inexorably drawn as a participant and observer, I am fixated on its ironies: how efforts at transparency can become their own disguises, and how the line between transcendent aspirations and trauma responses is impossible to find. It’s the richest human landscape I know, and I’m not surprised that Michael gravitated towards it for comfort and to find his place in the world, given how its complexity embodied his own.

      Thank you again.

  • Rachel I just want to say thank you for your post – it sums up so much of how I feel too. I initially posted up some feedback on Matthew’s Facebook page and then took it down as I felt so conflicted and I didn’t want to add to the divisiveness that has arisen as a result of Matthew’s article.

    Matthew you might have felt driven to write this article but not everything that is written has to be published … or published immediately. And most especially so when, (from what I understand from the Facebook comments), Michael’s grieving pregnant wife asked you not to at this time. Like Rachel, I was unsettled by the organ harvest reference and I wonder at the impact of that metaphor on those most closest to Michael. I also wonder how this will be explained to Michael’s children if and when they come across it on the Internet … potentially having to explain how their father was cut into … – remember, it’s not always possible for parents to control when distressing information is revealed … it could be a playmate in a school playground …

    But also I was upset because, like others have written here and elsewhere, the observation you make about the relationship Michael had with the women he studied with does not reflect the relationship I had with him. I only met Michael a handful of times and several of those were in a clinical setting – on courses where he taught mindfulness skills to clinicians. I studied with him (and was drawn to study with him) because of the clarity with which he taught and how clearly what he taught was grounded in a lot of experience. Mindfulness is very much of the moment in clinical practice and there are a lot of people out there selling it like snake oil who really don’t walk their talk. Michael was the antithesis of that and I think it’s one of many reasons why people paid to study his courses … what he taught was so clearly drawn from long experience and hard earned wisdom.

    I understand your need to write in response to the grief you are experiencing Matthew; I myself have written a few things about Michael’s death in my own journal. But what I don’t understand is why you allowed your desire to put this article out in the world immediately to override consideration for his wife’s wishes … why immediacy trumps measuredness.

    Not everything we write has to be published … and even if it does, it’s good sometimes to sit on something for a while, let it marinate, then take a fresh look at it before putting it out in the world. Michael died July 16th. Your article was put up September 24th. By my calculation that’s around 70 days … why the rush?

    As well, you have a platform and a particular angle (as Rachel eloquently describes) and the course of the conversation around Michael is now divisive as some look at it through the lens you have made your career out of and others disagree … which just adds to the sadness of the raw grief many people are experiencing around Michael’s death.

    In your work you often talk about silences – of things unspoken because of particular problematic community or individual dynamics. But consider Matthew, that the concept of silence itself is not always problematic … sometimes silence serves as a healing process, a time to sit with what is and watch what comes up … to let go of the need to verbally put things out there. It’s one of the reasons I grew to love the practice of meditation and why the things Michael taught meant so much to me.

    I wish you had “sat” with this article more …

    An experiment: imagine your Alix is expecting a child and you have died. Try reading this article with your name where you have written Michael’s name and your children’s names where Michael’s children’s names are. Reflect on how it leaves you feeling, especially as Alix has asked that this article not be published at this time …

    I’ve admired the scholarship of your writing in the past Matthew and I also enjoyed taking an Ayurveda course with you and have a sense from our interactions of the good hearted person you can be. And, I feel for you in your grief. I grieve Michael’s death too. But I hope you take time to really look at some of the inner drives that led you to publish this article now. Everybody grieves differently but what’s important is that people feel supported in their grief, especially those most close to Michael.

    • Thanks for commenting, Angela. I appreciate your questions around my choice to publish. I can say a few words in response, but would first point you to my reply to Katharina, in which I address the falsehood that I was asked to not publish this elegy. In that reply I also mention my position with regard to the protection of children from adult speech.

      I’m glad you felt empowered by your meetings with Michael and can only say that he had many relationships with people over time, and the spectrum of responses was broad. I don’t think a handful of meetings qualifies you or anyone to define who he was. What I know directly is that he provoked many different responses. That some responses are less visible than others is a function of the sprirituality industry.

      I do value silence, but I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about here, unless you’re out there criticizing other people’s contributions as well. After Michael’s death there was a whole chorus of voices, as you know. Because there were, your comment amounts to suggesting that everyone should be saying the same thing, the right thing. I ask you to consider the attempt to shame that undergirds your comment.

      Finally, a note against the codependence implied by your experiment:

      Alix is not “my Alix”, but Alix herself, her own person. She knew Michael longer than I did, and had her own experience. We talked this out endlessly prior to my publishing. While she appreciated what the writing captured, she also had misgivings about the timing. We agreed to hold different opinions, knowing we’re separate people with separate temperaments and positions. At the risk of speaking for her I can tell you that every time we ran the very experiment you describe after the fact, her response was that she could imagine not loving such an article, but could also imagine reading it as one view among many. Regardless, the experiment always felt impossible: we are not names to be switched and subbed but people with very different pasts and paths.

      Thanks again for sharing.

  • For several days I’ve been following the comments on this blog, as well as the FB comments, and I’ve been thinking about I want to say. I read your piece on Sunday, and while I was moved by several aspects of it, I was also deeply unsettled by it. I felt the beauty mentioned by many, and the love you feel for your friend Michael is palpable to me. I got the sense that I was reading a conversation between you and Michael, one he would have perhaps understood more readily than the rest of us who read it, and perhaps you wish he were alive to respond. I never met Michael in person, but I got the sense from his writing and his podcasts that he had a great sense of humor and he was open to such criticism. I believe he was not trying to be on anyone’s pedestal, and that is one of the reasons I was drawn to his work.
    I don’t know when the right time to write such a piece may have been, to be honest, but so many who read it are still grieving and were clearly triggered. As a trauma-informed psychotherapist and yoga teacher, I must say that your piece was not trauma sensitive, so it is not surprising to me that so many people were triggered by what you wrote. I’m always telling my new clients it’s okay not to tell me their whole story, in fact, I ask them not to because I know how triggering this can be. Of course I am curious about the stories of my clients, but the therapeutic process is not about me. There were so many personal details in your piece that I wondered why you felt compelled to include them.
    I noticed that one commentator felt the need to point out that you have “haters”. To me this is actually a good sign that you are not writing to be liked, you seem to be writing to think of things in a different way, to challenge the status quo, to shake up some of the complacency and ignorance in the yoga world, the problematic guru-student relationship, etc., and you seem willing to risk your reputation. I actually admire that. On the other hand, I really feel for Michael’s widow Carina. I will admit that I have been very curious about the amazing woman who supported such a public and well-loved figure and now has to raise their children on her own, but I felt like a voyeur when I read some of the very personal details in your piece. I was personally triggered by your mention of Michael’s children’s names (I saw that you removed the names of the younger ones) because I know what it’s like to have a grieving child. My son lost his father at the age of 13, and it has been one of the more painful experiences of my life to watch him grieve. Nothing I have ever had to do was worse than telling him his father had died. His father was an ex, and although I loved him, I didn’t like him, yet I have worked very hard to keep the positive memories of my son’s father alive for him. I would not want him to read a piece like yours, to be painfully honest with you. It is such a tender age, to be on the brink of manhood and lose a father figure, however imperfect.
    I’ve also been thinking about how few people have emphasized the therapist side of Michael. I’ve been thinking about how we therapists have to share our affect with our client – we cannot close off to them, and yet we have to find a balance of protecting our own energy in order to be emotionally safe for them (to not be continually retraumatized ourselves) – it is such a constant balancing act. I have been struck by how much Michael shared of himself with his students and readers. I’m not surprised to read that he was perhaps embarrassed to have students; he does not strike me as someone who sought followers. And yet he had an undeniable charisma that he shared freely, and I’m sure that often left him depleted. I wonder why you had to mention his “super model” good looks – sure, I guess he was good-looking – but a super model? This made me wonder if you were jealous of him somehow.
    I was on the retreat in France that some have mentioned, and I was deeply moved by the people on the retreat who knew him. The atmosphere of the retreat was never maudlin. Michael’s presence was felt, and yet the focus of the retreat was clear – it was on the practice itself. The fact that 40 people traveled from all over Europe, Canada, and the US to attend a retreat without the guiding teacher is a testament, in my humble opinion, to how he shared his love of the practice above all. He never made it about him. You say he was drawing away from the practice due to his mental struggles. That’s understandable. So what? In my opinion that does not detract in any way from the body of work that he left behind. I truly believe that those of us who are drawn to the work of therapy are drawn to the work because of our own issues – which allows us to be more compassionate – and yet reveals us to be deeply imperfect. It’s a risk, one that Michael appears to have taken, over and over again, at his expense and perhaps at the expense of those who loved him. To love anyone is to be open to the risk of “losing” that person, especially in the physical form, but it also allows for the opportunity to choose love over fear. To be willing to grow is also in a sense a willingness to live and die in many ways, over and over again. Those of us who are drawn to become teachers, are often drawn to become teachers because we get to be perpetual students alongside our students. Those of us who are compelled to write, often feel the need to work things out with words, which is what I feel you were doing with your piece. I hope that you continue to be open to hearing all of the comments about your piece, for there is an opportunity for healing here (I am not assuming what form that may take for you or your readers). Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts.
    Gassho.

    • Thanks for your comments, Katharina. I understand your concerns and how they resonate with your own story, which I thank you for sharing. I’ll take the time here to respond to a few of the points you raise.

      Firstly, I am not a psychotherapist, and my readers are not my clients. It’s not my role to share affect. I wrote about my experience of Michael and included a brief observation of his work with those who followed him. These actions do not require consent, from anyone. At the same time I am fully responsible for what I write. When I hear that this elegy wasn’t “trauma-sensitive”, I wonder: was the mainstream media reporting on Michael’s actual death “trauma-sensitive”? I think it’s better to not confuse categories.

      Secondly, those who say Carina asked me not to publish this elegy feel they are aiding a friend, and I respect that. Others simply jumped on an outrage train. But those with direct knowledge are misspeaking, because they were cc’d on our email exchange. Moreover, not one of them intervened to express any opinion at all, even after I indicated that I concluded from the exchange that the choice to publish was mine to make. (But I can understand them not wanting to get involved.) Carina limited her comments to misgivings about my credibility and motivations, and appealed to my moral sense in making a decision. Her comments came after refusing to read the draft, which I offered twice for her review. I honoured her request to self-reflect.

      Michael himself loved to say “ethics are situational”. This situation contains a lot more data than I can reveal without truly breaching privacy. The truth of Michael’s statement, however, is shown very simply by the fact that this is a piece of writing that Carina seemed pre-determined to not like, but that his brother Jayme, who knew him for 40 years, found “healing and lucid”, as he expressed in his Facebook share of it. Who is qualified to assess the correct path in this situation? Is there one?

      Third, the notion that individual people who knew and loved Michael should not speak frankly about what they felt and saw over the years is part of what contributed to whatever isolation and stigma he faced. In my opinion, the refusal to talk to and about Michael openly and frankly, and the attempt to muzzle others from doing so, is implicated in Michael’s death. What I believe is helpful in this circumstance is to try to speak and write without the aid of religious scripts, idealizations from far away, or emotionally manipulative appeals about protecting children from adult conversation.

      Lastly, Michael did share a lot in his writing. But he also hid a lot. I can say this with absolute certainty as his co-author and editor.

      I’ll just end by restating the obvious: he was many things to many people. Thanks again for sharing.

  • Thank you Matthew for sharing your raw and complex experiences with Michael and for your consideration in responding to the comments, both positive and critical. This was helpful for me.

  • I have followed Micheal and his community from a far for years. I was shocked but not shocked at all when I read he had bipolar disorder, as I do to. I am close to his age and the illness has progressed and worsened since it started when I was a young child. As hard as it has been to read what has happened, as scary as it was for me as I have experienced first hand what he his experienced (racing thoughts, agitation and so much more), his death has helped me see the importance of self-care and the need for balance. It’s easy to fall into the thinking that a disciplined meditation practice and yoga practice alone will resolve bipolar. It is a major illness that requires vigilance and a long list of self-care practices, coping skills and usually medication that work together with a solid support team and good therapy to have quality of life. My goal in commenting is to reach anyone else in the community who is mentally ill. There is hope and the bad times will pass. Micheal was a gifted man and we are blessed that he shared so much with us.

  • A very touching, honest and very well written article which I feel elucidates many of the challenges, experiences and states of being that you felt Michael lived and are lived by many aspiring spiritual guides. I have read one of Michael Stones’ books and his earnestness is apparent. Ones determination and honesty are the best example one can give regardless of purported ‘success’. Our need to judge and projection of our reality is evident in many of the comments and of course the need to comment (ironic smirk) no less. I wish all who feel a loss by his departure my sympathy and hope that his legacy, not least of all his unexpected departure from this realm, serves to as a learning with which to grow as I am sure he would have wanted. Thank you Matthew Namaste

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