Several years ago a friend of mine, like me an ex-Buddhist monk, invited me to come hear Michael Stone speak at a yoga studio in Victoria, British Columbia. I knew of Michael, and while I disagreed with the way he interpreted some of the ancient texts of the Buddha, as well as Patanjali, an ancient Indian yogi, I appreciated his values of social and ecological justice, intimate engagement with the world, a psychologically sensitive approach to spirituality, and self-transformation.
I went to the talk and was impressed by him personally—he seemed calm, kind, centered. My friend introduced us afterward. One thing led to another, and before long I was working as his research assistant on a book about the Buddha’s teachings on social justice (it never materialized). During our work together we had repeated disagreements: he had some beliefs about the Buddha I thought were unfounded, and I sometimes wrote extensive critiques of his positions, which he accepted graciously, humbly, and warmly. I became even more impressed with him.
A friendship developed, and when he visited Vancouver we would grab coffee or a meal. I attended a hatha yoga daylong retreat with him and was blown away by his precision as a teacher of physical yoga as well as his black humor and ironic wit, something I hadn’t seen in his public teachings before. Over the years we drifted away from each other—he had his partner, Carina Stone, his children, and an extensive teaching and writing schedule, with books and an expanding presence in the worldwide Buddhist community.
Then, just three weeks after my own mother, who had struggled with alcoholism for decades, suddenly succumbed to a drinking binge after a year of self-control and wonderfully sane behavior, I opened my Facebook feed to see that Michael had been admitted to the hospital after collapsing in downtown Victoria under mysterious circumstances. The similarities to my mother’s story were striking: as she had attempted to withdraw from alcohol again, she had suffered a seizure, then cardiac arrest and brain damage. She never woke up, and after 10 days we removed her from life support. Michael, too, had brain damage. He was to be taken off life support that night. I shared the shocking story with my wife, Miriam, and thought of him throughout the night and into the next morning. But the biggest shock was to come.
On July 20, Carina released a statement written together with senior students Erin Robinsong and Rose Riccio detailing the “complex and heartbreaking” story of what had led to his death. It turns out that Michael had bipolar disorder, and had struggled for years to control his extreme mental states. He had tried a host of medicines and supports both mainstream and alternative. As Carina wrote, “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 his disorder and how he was doing.”
“In the silencing he hid his desire for relief,” she continues. “This spring his mania began to cycle more rapidly.” Michael’s psychiatrist increased his medication, and he expressed privately a wish for a safe, nonaddictive prescribed natural form of opium. On the day of his collapse, on a routine trip into Victoria from the gulf island where he lived, Michael apparently tried to get a safe, controlled drug to self-medicate from a substance abuse and addictions pharmacy but didn’t qualify. After a haircut, exercise, and some errands, he bought an unknown street drug that contained opioids and Western Canada’s deadly scourge, fentanyl. He didn’t come home.
Michael’s death has left a sudden vacuum. Aside from leaving his partner and children, he had thousands of students on multiple continents and was the lynchpin for more than one dharma community. He was an admired, trusted guide for many, many people.
What are we to make of his tragic struggle and death, particularly in the light of his daily practice for many years of dharma disciplines believed to reduce suffering and stabilize the mind?
Michael is certainly not the first dharma practitioner to struggle with mental illness or the self-destructive use of a substance. Many before him have succumbed to alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, mental disintegration, and even suicide. When this happens, the usual takeaway is a call to clear away the stigma surrounding mental illness. That is important and needs to be said. But I want to focus on a different, if related, lesson: the myth of the heroic self.
Michael Stone, from a Buddhist perspective, was a flow of conditions, a dance of factors and facts that he didn’t choose or control. There was no “essential Michael” who could have resisted his impulses or heroically chosen differently. Dogen taught in the Genjokoan that just as the reflection of the moon does not break the drop of water it is reflected in, enlightenment does not erase the personality of the practitioner. Michael, like all of us, contained not only the whole moon of buddhanature but also the whole rain-filled sky. He was a manifestation of the universe—an expression of all that he met, which includes a world of contradictions, a world of beauty as well as suffering.
This was true for my mom as well, and thankfully I had a chance to tell her that before her death, while I held her in my arms as she trembled from alcohol withdrawal. It is true for all of us. This is one reason that our attempts to understand ourselves and others must always make room for complexity and come with a healthy dose of forgiveness. The Buddhist understanding of no-self always leads to compassion, because it reveals the truth that none of us is in control. None of us is a static person responsible for our lives, failures when we do not heroically master them.
Not that Michael didn’t master his life. In a significant way, he did. Here was someone who suffered from bipolar disorder for years and in the midst of that wrote books, loved people, brought children into the world and cared for them, and shared the riches of hatha yoga and the dharma with thousands of people. Michael eased the suffering of untold numbers of people and inspired spiritual activism throughout his communities.
Threaded through the dark tangle of our misery are strings of light. We are no more responsible for the light than for the dark, but surely it is wise to celebrate the beauty of the light that has manifested in and through us. Let’s remember and celebrate that in Michael, and in ourselves, and let’s put to rest the myth of the heroic self, of the one who finally gets it all right. Let’s let ourselves off the hook and then see what small bodhisattva activity we can get up to today in our crazy and imperfect lives where death waits behind an unknown door.