My guest in this episode is Shôken Michael Stone. Michael Stone's work illuminates the ancient teachings and practices of Vipassana meditation, yoga and Mahayana Buddhism for a postmillennial age. Internationally recognized as a transformative visionary, teacher and agent of social change, his work manifests the fusion of committed spiritual practice and social action. He is the author of several books: The Inner Tradition of Yoga: A Guide to Yoga Philosophy for the Contemporary Practitioner; Yoga for a World Out of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Change; Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life; and Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections Between Yoga and Buddhism. He is also the co-author with Matthew Remski of Family Wakes Us Up, and he's currently at work on a new book on mental health. Michael is also currently a Fellow in Residence at the University of British Columbia.
Given that Michael is known for his renovation of ancient concepts for a contemporary world, I wanted to get his thoughts on what yoga is. He shared his beautiful notion of yoga as intimacy with life, which is different from the classical philosophy of yoga in that it doesn’t prescribe a moving away from the world but rather a moving toward it. He said that as we get closer to things as they are in this moment, one begins to realize that “there aren’t really any things at all. There’s just intimacy all the way through.” Therefore, in Michael’s consideration, yoga is a practice of trying to get closer to life.
Michael gives anger as an example and discusses how we can get enough distance from anger so as to see the stories that we’ve written around our experience of anger. “When you keep an eye on the anger and you’re watching the anger, in the space of non-reactivity, the anger actually increases. Once you can get stable and know that anger is present. You feel anger so deeply that there’s only anger. You can be so intimate with anything that there’s no you left.”
Michael teaches that it is by going into our experience that we begin to develop new habits of dealing with those experiences without falling into the reactive tendencies that typically punctuate our lives. Michael, however, in contrast to the “witness” systems of some traditions, recommends a complete immersion into the emotion or sensation, rather than this abstracted idea of “witnessing”. “It’s not that we’re detaching from the world but that we’re letting go of reactivity. We’re not letting go of the material world. We’re letting go of our habitual reactivity.”
Our meditative practice serves to clear a space for non-reactivity. We can thus feel more deeply and connect more fully with what really is going on. Michael said that when we reside in a place of reactivity, we become rigid and incapable of learning from our experiences and connecting with others.
I asked Michael how we are to begin if we are addicted to our bad habits and our modes of reactivity. He mentioned the term samskara, which is the word for “imprint” or “groove” in sanskrit, and refers to our sedimented ways of thinking or reacting. Some academics think that the word “scar” might be etymologically related to samskaras, which is interesting, because the word samskara does denote a scar that feeds the same reactive tendency.
Our habits are a “coming together of scars”, Michael says, and he remarks that they are not just in us psychologically but are in the culture as well. This is important, because it shows that our own awakening and liberation cannot be considered separate from the awakening of our culture. If we are all connected, then my liberation has to be accompanied by yours, if I am truly to be free.
When we are finally able to let go of the reactive model, Michael promises that the pleasure of letting go of the object(s) that we crave is deeper than the pleasure that the object could have given us. “The richness of being able to work with our reactivity is more pleasurable than the ice cream.”
I then asked about Michael’s life and what led him to these teachings and to the decision to teach. He reminisced about a schizophrenic uncle who he used to visit at the hospital, and who would read to him from the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada, asking him what he thought about various ideas. “When someone asks you what you think about things at that age, you don’t forget it.” It was this uncle that first introduced him to meditation.
In Michael’s early years, his parents were concerned that he might be schizophrenic. He suffered from depression in high school and university. He hit rock bottom, as he says, when he left university and landed in a job he hated. He did what many young men do - packed his bags, bought a volkswagon and headed to the woods, where he lived for eight months, paying a truck driver to bring him food.
He came out of that experience wanting to go back to school. He had been reading the work of psychologist Carl Jung and wanted to study him at an academic level. He started practicing yoga as well at this time, and soon after began teaching meditation and yoga. He studied psychology academically and now, as he enters his forties, he mentions that he is coming around again to an interest in mental health. He said that his sense is that many of our problems - with intimacy, the economy and climate change - as being rooted in our mental health.
He said he is now returning to the questions that captivated him when he was eight years old at the hospital with his uncle. “What does it mean to be sane? What does it mean to be free? Does being free have anything to do with what we feel?”
“If freedom is just dependent on feeling good, that’s a pretty superficial freedom.”
BLISS OR ENDORPHINS
We then discussed the compulsion in the yoga community toward “feeling good”. Michael drew an illuminating distinction between the superficial endorphin bliss of a post-asana state and the taste of bliss that you occasionally experience in deep meditation. “There’s a bliss that arises in meditative states of stillness which is not the same as the bliss of running. Bliss of knowing a clear space, a quietude. It’s so important, when those moments happen, to know them and to let them in. It’s so rare that we feel in ourselves that everything is okay.”
The goal of practice is for you to become your own teacher, Michael said, and not to be yoga-high. We don’t know how we’re going to need to serve. Our practice is about learning how to serve with whatever’s coming up in our lives.
I mentioned Michael’s TED talk and asked him about horizontal versus vertical transcendence. He refers to “vertical transcendence” as the “up-and-out” model of spirituality, where the point is to get out of the world. He encourages a “horizontal transcendence” or an ethic of “deep materialism”, in which we are encouraged to invest in the world, admire it and immerse ourselves fully in it.
I asked him how a deep materialist is different from a materialistic person who consumes in an unmindful. He said that the difference comes down to “wanting”. Imagine yourself standing in front of a window looking at an outfit you want. The materialistic person reacts to the want and buys the outfit. The deep materialist peers inside and observes, “ah, this is what wanting feels like”. You turn the light inward instead of clinging to what is outward. You learn to feel wanting without having to act it out.
RIDING THE WAVE
Michael shared a short practice that anyone can do, based on this experience of craving that we talked about. It’s very simple. When an experience of hunger, wanting, or craving arises, you stay with the feeling of wanting. You “ride the wave”. He says you can do this a few times per day to explore the space of non-reactivity. Let the reactivity arise and erupt in your body and know fully what reactivity feels like.
TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT MICHAEL...
RECOMMENDED BOOKS BY MICHAEL
After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age - Stephen Batchelor
Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World - Timothy Morton
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind - Shunryu Suzuki