A Wake in the World: Reflections on the life and death of Michael Stone
Creations are numberless, I vow to free them
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it
The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.
- The Boddhisattva Vow
In my work as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting many “famous” people including numerous spiritual teachers. I’ve come to recognize the various ways these people behave depending on the context: when they’re giving interviews, when they’re on stage, and sometimes, in rare and precious moments, when they are undefended.
One of these teachers is Michael Stone, a friend and collaborator who died this summer. The circumstances surrounding his death are complex and multilayered, though I wish to offer a story of our time together. This is one attempt to let his death serve the times we’re in.
This is a story about teachers, and what we in the West demand of them, whether we know it or not.
I first met Michael Stone in 2011 at a yoga studio in Victoria, British Columbia.
I’d been gathering footage for a potential video series on yoga and activism, and his voice was one of the most prominent. I had just completed reading his new book Awake In The World, a lucid case for spiritual practice that is fundamentally bound to social change.
In the moments before he arrived, I was nervous. It wasn’t long before Michael and I were chatting affably and his natural charm eased my fears. We explored the necessity for meditation to proceed off the cushion, that awakening to interdependence meant to awaken to the suffering of others. His articulate challenge to the spiritual community was to put their enlightenment to work.
It was the first of many interviews to come (and almost as many changes in his hair styles).
Later that year, the Occupy movement bloomed in New York and city squares around the world. By that time I was shooting with Canadian filmmaker Velcrow Ripper for his documentary (which would eventually become Occupy Love). Michael was quick to recognize the cultural importance of the moment and traveled to various encampments in solidarity and support. While visiting Vancouver for a separate conference, he reached out to see if I wanted to record his offering to the occupiers on how to deal with conflict.
While there, I felt compelled to ask him informally about his sense of the deeper longing behind the movement. This interview became the short film Love & Shadow.
By early November, many of the Occupy camps had been forcibly disbanded through police intervention, including Vancouver, which limped onward for a few weeks before dissolving entirely. I continued tracking the threads as they dispersed into a “thousand shards of light” which continue to reverberate to this day.
In February 2012, Michael reached out to share his intention to visit Japan on a pilgrimage, initially to work on his new book, though the trip took on a different meaning given the 3/11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that rocked the coast, destabilizing the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Rather than cancel the trip, he wanted to visit more than ever. He had no money for the production, only the invitation and a number of questions:
How are the Japanese responding to this crisis?
How can we let go of old stories that are no longer serving?
What does it mean to be a Bodhisattva in this time?
Immediately, I knew my answer ‘yes.’ Soon after, we raised $8500 through a crowdfunding campaign, and a few weeks after that, I was on a plane crossing the Pacific for the ancient temple city of Kyoto.
“Our economy and our lifestyles are driven by stories we have about what a meaningful life is. And these seem so fixed. And yet these are also fleeting, and also transient.” ~ Michael Stone
With little to no planning, we shot the film Reactor. Over those two weeks, we interviewed a Zen abbott, a nuclear research scientist, a Hiroshima survivor, an art collective activist, a children’s illustrator, and an American expat.
One of my favourite moments came when we found ourselves in the presence of an old Zen master, Taiun Matsunami, in the Daitoku-Ji complex of Kyoto. The tiny man walked with a cane and obvious limp, determined though not in any rush. Michael struck up a conversation about practice and the nature of enlightenment. I snapped this photo from the river of time: Michael on bent knee, respectfully listening to the words of this ancient man.
“What is your understanding of emptiness?” the old man asked.
“This garden,” answered Michael. “And love.”
“Christian love?” he responded coyly.
“This love. Being here together.”
“Good,” the old man nodded. Then added:
“Love… is taking care of things.”
(Read the full essay of Michael’s time in Japan: We Promise to Fix It Back).
In Zen, there is a tradition called the “death poem.” Generally brief and unspectacular, the practice is meant to reflect on the core Buddhist teachings of existence: that the material world is impermanent, that attachment to permanence causes suffering, and at the heart of all reality is emptiness — that nothing contains a self-nature that is absent from its relationship to everything else.
Reactor is a death poem for Western culture. The stories that have governed the rise of behemoth corporations, vapid political discourse, and the insanity of limitless growth — their time is coming to an end. The biosphere can no longer absorb the scope of destruction that is unraveling the web of life.
Anyone who is willing to see this truth, can see it. And yet, the massive scale and scarcity of time needed to enact such a change often feels hopeless.
“Most of us are detached,” says Michael in the closing scene of the film. “It doesn’t matter what I do, it’s all changing. And I’m gonna die.”
“But if I feel: this is temporary. And I’m going to die.
Then out of that, when I really open to that, comes the motivation to realize that we’re all interconnected. And it’s not enough that we’re interconnected.
Our actions matter. Our actions make a difference.
I don’t have some blueprint for how this is all going to turn out. But I want one.”
After two weeks on the road, we ended our journey in Tokyo. Michael caught an early flight back to Toronto and I returned to Vancouver to edit the film.
That winter I participated in Michael’s five day silent New Year’s retreat in the forests of Ontario, the days consisting of Vipassana meditation and self-guided yoga practice. I struggled to remain still during the longer sessions, and was asked to move to the back row so as not to distract the other meditators. (I didn’t mind).
During our time, I witnessed Michael’s discipline and dedication to practice, even as I struggled to decelerate my thoughts that continued to rattle the bars of my internal cage.
In one of our teacher/student checkins he told me with his compassionate frankness:
“You are so creative.”
“You are so creative, and… not everything has to become a thing.”
I nodded and left the room. It remains one of the most helpful teachings I have ever received.
We released Reactor in early 2013, with a small tour in various cities including Vancouver, Toronto, and San Francisco. The film won a few modest awards and galvanized a deeper conversation on the hard lessons from Fukushima and what it means to be awake in the world.
In 2014, Michael and I collaborated on one final occasion, this time for his forthcoming book “Family Wakes Us Up”, a collection of letters between himself and Matthew Remski as they both awaited the births of their children. It was a delight to witness the playful dedication of his fatherhood and the loving dynamic between Michael and his partner Carina.
After the campaign, we spoke less and less. He moved his family from the streets of Toronto to an island off the coast of Vancouver. I continued to receive his newsletter and followed his Facebook posts.
I heard through a mutual acquaintance about his wedding ceremony with Carina and felt a twinge of not being invited. It was then I realized I may not have been as close to Michael as I imagined myself to be. Perhaps I was just another outsider, wanting to be close to greatness.
In one of his final emails to me, he asked if I would be interested in supporting a crowdfunding campaign for his book-in-progress on understanding various states of mental health. I respectfully responded that I didn’t have the bandwidth to run another campaign.
I suppose I might have wondered then about his interest in a book on mental health, though I assumed it was driven by his compassion for a group that often suffers most, rather than the possibility that he might be included in that crowd as well.
“It’s painful to be moved be something so beautiful, and also, having to let it go.” ~ Michael Stone
In mid-July, at a music festival outside Vancouver, I received a few panicked emails from friends who asked me if I’d heard the news about Michael.
Confused, I visited his official fan page and read that he had been admitted to a Victoria hospital in a coma. My lungs emptied of breath. I staggered back to camp, informing others about the situation. We whispered prayers that he may find his way back to his body. Questions continued to swirl: Michael was still young, healthy. What could possibly have happened?
The next afternoon, another Facebook post revealed that he would be removed from life support that evening. I choked back a sob. I couldn’t believe I was reading the words.
Not Michael. Not like this.
I carried him with me that night, speaking words to buoy him along the arduous journey along the river of stars. I thought of the same cosmic sea that sparkled over Tokyo when the lights went out after the Fukushima disaster.
A week later, Michael’s family issued an official statement on the circumstances surrounding his death.
“On Thursday, July 13, 2017, Michael left his Gulf Island home for a routine trip to Victoria. […] When he didn’t come home, Carina initiated a missing persons search with the RCMP and he was found around midnight on Thursday. He was unresponsive and found to have no brain function upon arrival at the hospital. He was declared brain dead on July 14th.”
The cause of his death, though still awaiting a full toxicology report, appeared to be an opioid laced with deadly fentanyl.
In tandem with this revelation was the fact that Michael had struggled with bipolar disorder his entire life. For years he had attempted to control it through diet, medication, practice, and family support — and yet in recent months his episodes continued to worsen.
In what appeared as a moment of desperation, he risked turning to the street for medication. The official statement continues:
“It may be hard to put one’s mind into his, to imagine how he could take such a risk with a young family, baby on the way, with such a full life and such fortune. It could be easy to shake one’s head and think, what a shame.
Culturally we don’t have enough language to talk about this. Rather than feel the shame and tragedy of it, can we find questions? What was he feeling? How was he coping? What am I uncomfortable hearing? What can we do for ourselves and others who have impulses or behaviors we cannot understand? Impulses that scare us and silence us? How can we take care of each other?”
Michael never told me about his condition directly. But upon reading these words and reviewing our time together, it felt like the final scene in the film The Usual Suspects.
Every memory and conversation suddenly overturned and cascading into clues that had always hidden just below the surface. His admirable dedication to practice every morning during our time in Kyoto. His sudden mood swings that flashed into irritability at seemingly trivial things. His strong desire for alone time at the end of each day of shooting.
As his brother Jayme revealed in a recent post:
“Michael’s charisma […] had the effect of hiding a deeper woundedness. He was someone who struggled intensely in his own life. In his teaching, he talked so much about the truth of suffering but rarely shared the extent of his own experience of it. He had a Moses-come-down-from-the-mountain kind of personality (his Hebrew name is Moshe) — able to share his wisdom with startling clarity, but protective of his own inner process. Few people saw the burning bushes inside of him.”
I wondered, like many, why didn’t Michael share his condition with the wider world?
The family reports: “As versed as Michael was with the silence around mental health issues in our culture, he feared the stigma of his diagnosis. He was on the cusp of revealing publicly how shaped he was by bipolar disorder, and how he was doing.”
Here was a man who by all accounts, had the best support available to anyone suffering with mental illness. A loving and supportive family. A dedicated doctor. A disciplined regimen of diet, medication, and spiritual practice.
And yet, it wasn’t enough.
I have been fortunate to study with another teacher, some call him The Griefwalker. Most know him as Stephen Jenkinson, a farmer by trade, though lately his travels keep him mostly on the road.
He spent years in the presence of Brother Blue, an African-American master storyteller, before his journey led him to the industry of palliative care, or “the death trade” as Stephen calls it. He thought he was there to help people die, though that was rarely the case. Instead, it was often to shroud the death phobia that consistently showed up at the bedside, as those facing the precipice looked upon what they saw as oblivion.
When Stephen was no longer willing to conspire with the status quo, he left the hospital halls and found himself instead in the work of cultural redemption, rather than personal salvation.
It was during a teaching that I heard one of my favourite stories from the trenches. In this case, it was a backstage conversation a few years prior at a large spiritual conference in Toronto. Stephen was asked to join the roster of speakers which included various luminaries of the “spiritual circuit”, including a well-known Tibetan lama who inadvertently sat across of Stephen at the lunch table.
After mutually agreeing on the blandness of the vegetarian food (both men were unabashed carnivores), the conversation turned toward the vagaries of being a spiritual “somebody,” often situated before legions of eyes, eager for the wisdom that was expected to spill continuously from their lips.
In a moment of pause, a forlorn look crossed the lama’s face.
“Why do you teach?” he asked sincerely.
Stephen, somewhat taken aback by the question, considered for a moment, before responding “why do you ask?”
The lama leaned in close, perhaps afraid of being overheard, carrying with him all of his years of speaking before audiences and devotees outside and in North America, and whispered:
“Because… they eat teachers here.”
“Eating teachers” rarely looks as recognizable as one might expect.
As I witnessed during my time with various wisdom holders, it can look like: the aggressive interviewer who demands bite size “wisdom nuggets” to fill out their latest article.
It can look like the lineup of people after a show who reveal their pained life story in the brief moment it takes to sign a book, hungry for a response on the spot that might banish their pain.
It can look like the teacher being confused as the Father or Mother of the student who never felt loved as a child and they now needed them to make up for it.
And it can look like crippling self-doubt in the quiet moments while waiting in the blue dawn at the airport for your next flight to the city on the latest tour.
For these reasons and more, many teachers are often critiqued for being too aloof or too defended. And yet, having seen the consequence of being too open, I see why it’s not personal choice but necessary protection. In a world choked on the transient and superfluous, it’s no wonder the hunger for something “real” is vast and insatiable. Especially in a culture that has no conception of “enough.”
I remember some of these moments in my time with Michael. Perhaps this is partly why he felt unable to reveal the depths of his mental illness, for fear of being rejected by the very community that held him aloft.
Aly Hazelwood writes a blistering critique on this same thread:
“Michael’s death represents a shameful failure on the part of Western society to acknowledge, normalise and support mental illness, which affects millions of people worldwide. But it is also the spiritual community’s failure. Humans are prone to pedestalising people when it suits their (largely unconscious) agenda, and most want their spiritual teachers to be perfect, solid, immutable. They certainly don’t want them necking a cocktail of medications prescribed to regulate a neurological imbalance. To my utter stupefaction, many still view these kinds of illnesses as a character flaw. We’re supposed to be able to meditate it all away right?”
While I agree strongly with her diagnosis, I wonder about her prescription for sanity:
“It is incumbent upon all of us, teachers, students, people, to strip away the layers of shame that have been imposed upon us, so that bright, sacred, precious lives may be saved.
I implore you. Let yourselves be seen. Seek help when you need it.”
It’s true that teachers, and most of the rest of us, are unwilling to reveal the depths of our beings for fear of being judged, shamed, and rejected. We retreat deeper into the cult of the Individual — barricading our inner lives from the world, daring only to share with our closest allies, which for many ends at the nuclear family.
Therefore, the antidote “let yourself be seen” sounds courageous, though relies once again upon the Individual to overcome the shame and the fear, and does little about the very real peril that comes from revealing in a culture that has little capacity to hold others’ vulnerability.
I know this from personal experience. Last year, I wrote an essay that chronicled the end of my marriage. It was raw, transparent, and grief-soaked. While the majority of responses were quite positive, I was not prepared for the venom and judgement that also spewed forth. The psychic toll on my body was severe — I immediately fell ill for weeks.
Looking back, I realize I received a taste of the cultural hostility toward that which society at-large purports to desire.
“We the people” might demand politicians and teachers and celebrities that are “real” “authentic” and “tell the truth”, but do we really? What happens when any of them dare speak what’s actually in their hearts? Or when a particular word is twisted and repeated endlessly in the echo chamber of social media? Or when shameful behaviour is revealed and entitles anyone with a Facebook account to crucify them for their failure to be anything less than perfect?
I’m not suggesting that certain behaviour or destructive actions should be excused from condemnation and consequence. But I am saying of our politicians, our celebrities, and our spiritual teachers: what would it look like to let them be human?
What would it look like to unshackle them from the glistening pedestals we have placed them upon?
What would it look like to let them them come down?
In 2015, I first visited the village of Tamera — a radical 40 year experiment to create a living example of a viable peace culture. They call their model a “Healing Biotope”, with the stated goal of removing coercion and fear from all relationships within the system, especially between their fellow humans and all living beings. While they are not there yet, Tamera has already achieved something remarkable.
One of their key social practices is called The Forum. It is a circle process where members of the community gather to hold space for each other to “perform” whatever is moving through them. Guided by expert facilitation, the aim is for the participants to dis-identify with their emotional states and reveal what are below the triggers. This requires the willingness to recognize that one is fundamentally limited and unable to see their own blind spots, requiring the trusted eyes of others’ to give crucial feedback to support healing and personal growth.
This is the heart of “communitarianism” — only through others’ can we become the fullest expression of our individual self.
In the same vein, their leadership is also subjected to the same feedback loops, allowing for a crucial engagement against the toxic misuses of power that are endemic to structures of authority in most cultures and organizations.
The seduction of power is well known, and time and again we are regaled with examples of politicians and spiritual leaders who abuse their status, only to be branded “bad apples” with weak ethical willpower. This conveniently fits a model of punitive justice that punishes the sinners, rather than look to the structures of power as the source of the problem.
Might it be too much to ask that a single individual can ever guard against their own shadow, when devoid of a wider circle to support them?
In the same way, might it be too much to ask a spiritual teacher — with all of their brilliance, their brokenness, their compassion, and all of their frailty — to dare to step off the pedestal if we do not yet have the circle capable enough to hold them?
And even deeper, what might that reveal about their own motivation to remain on the pedestal, convinced of the necessity to play out the myth of the heroic self?
Structures like Forum, and the wider foundation of village, point the way toward another possibility.
Author Charles Eisenstein, who is frequently held aloft for his visionary imagination, recently participated in one of Tamera’s key programs The Love School. He shared with me what it was like to suddenly step into a different type of container.
“One of the participants here said to me: ‘I love the real Charles.’ And it felt like such a relief, to be seen through and still loved. And not to be projected on. Not to be loved because of my charismatic stage presence or the ideas that I put out in the world. Not that those aren’t part of me, but they’re not all of me. And there’s a lot that may not be so visible through that persona. That part wants to be loved too.
But I needed help even to allow that to be seen. Because my habits in hiding it are really strong. Community, real community offers me that help. [They say], it’s ok to show yourself. We love you. We trust you. And then I feel safe to do that.
What would that look like on a political level? If people felt safe to admit their participation in systems of oppression. To be seen in that, because when it’s seen, when you see it yourself and when it’s seen, then it becomes no longer this hidden unconscious power that manipulates you.”
Perhaps if Michael Stone had had a wider circle that could have held him, in all his genius and his mania, perhaps things might have been different.
Perhaps if our teachers, leaders, and politicians were able to reveal their hidden selves, we wouldn’t crucify them with our hunger, or protect them from our loving and necessary mirrors.
Perhaps if we are willing to stop pretending that we are fine, we might find ourselves in good company, with enough heartbreak to proceed toward a better day.
Michael’s Buddhist name was Shoken, which is translated as “clear sight.”
Or, one who sees clearly. One who is awake in the world.
The theme of being awake was a constant touchstone for Michael. In most contemporary understandings, it is often used interchangeably with the term enlightenment. The realization of non-duality — that all is interconnected.
I’ve come to wonder about another interpretation of a “wake.” That is, the rippling consequence of karma that every action has upon the river of life. This includes all that we do and all that we don’t do.
If one is awake, they are willing to recognize the consequence of their life. This is the first wake over which we have some degree of control.
Then there is the second wake that continues after a life has expired, the consequence of which falls largely upon those who are left to decide what it means. This includes how we will carry them and their story and what we are willing to do because of their existing at all.
What will we make of Michael’s wake in the world?
That is up to us.
May these words be one more ripple on behalf of my friend.
If you’d like to support Michael’s family, please contribute here.