Remembering Michael Stone

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Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. – Helen Keller –

I first met Michael around 2005. I received a call from a young man. He said he would like to talk about the possibility of presenting a workshop about mindfulness for Leading Edge Seminars. At that time we were already offering some workshops on this topic and I wasn’t  looking for another speaker. Nevertheless I invited him to lunch, just to see what might be possible.

We met at a small café on Harbord Street just down the road from the University of Toronto. I was immediately impressed by his presence and intelligence. Though he was primarily a yoga teacher with a small private psychotherapy practice, he clearly had a broad understanding of therapy and wanted to present on how mindfulness can be integrated into clinical practice. He was charming and eloquent. I had long been interested in Buddhist philosophy and mindfulness though a poor practitioner.

It was obvious that mindfulness was on the verge of becoming one of the next “big trends “in psychotherapy and by the time coffee and tea were served, I was won over and asked Michael to send me a workshop proposal. A few weeks later, the date for Michael Stone’s first Leading Edge Seminars workshop was set.

His workshop offered an excellent integration of Buddhism, mindfulness and psychotherapy. Leading Edge audience members responded with great enthusiasm and feedback. In short, they were blown away.

We set quickly set a date for another 2-day workshop for the next series and we met again. This time Michael proposed offering 10-month course about mindfulness in clinical practice based on an intensive long-term course that he knew of in the States. He wanted to bring something similar to Toronto: a 10-month course that comprised of one Friday/Saturday per month and a 4-day silent retreat at the end. Participants had to commit to a 30-45 minute daily mindfulness practice.

Leading Edge Seminars had never offered anything like this before. I wasn’t entirely sure if our audience was going to go for it. We prepared the course outline, booked the venue with a September start date and announced the course course at Michael’s 2-day workshop in the middle of June. By the end of June, almost all 35 places in the course were filled and by September we had a waiting list of almost another 35 people.

I’ve rarely seen a speaker have this kind of impact.

June 8, 2017

Everything is inherently broken, we lose what we love, and any corner of reality is graspable for only a very short time. Maybe things make sense, maybe sometimes they don’t. Contemplative practice helps us endure, turn what’s going on in and around us into a path, and not forget about others. To me, that’s freedom.
-Michael Stone

In the first year we offered Mindfulness Meditation in Clinical Practice, the course participants were an illustrious group of mental health professionals, psychotherapists, doctors, psychologists, social workers. All had extensive experience in the mental health field. And most were about twice Michael’s age.

I attended as a participant myself for the first two years we offered this program. I still remember the first day. We were just sitting in a circle with Michael. The 1970s decor of the venue further added to how ordinary the circumstance was. Yet, we were so excited to be with Michael. What he lacked in years, he made up for in drive, passion, and an extraordinary talent for synergizing difficult ideas and experiences and then transforming them in ways that were immediately relatable and yet profound in scope.

He was powerful, clear, and unpredictable and honest.

This unpredictability was not seen as a “bad” thing. We could see that Michael was always seeking tinkering with how to teach difficult material and that he was learning continually how to be a presenter. This never changed. Ten years later, just this past spring, Michael presented a 10-day Mindfulness Meditation Facilitation Training and the desire to keep innovating was still there.

Michael and I met just a few months ago for our regular lunch during one of the workshop days. He was excited about his family, about having another child on the way and his beautiful home on Pender Island in British Columbia. He also talked about his recent travels in Europe, his four books in the works, and his many plans alongside his hopes for more time at home with family. We did our favourite thing: we talked about more workshop ideas for the future and agreed upon them. This time he fleshed out some ideas about leading a workshop in Toronto and Ottawa on “trauma and the body” and made plans to join Leading Edge for a conference in Cuba.

Leading Edge Seminars has been privileged to have been one of the conduits through which Michael was able to manifest and share his brilliance.

Many of us saw the Michael we loved and that had such an impact on us. Ours was the psychotherapy community, others included communities of yoga, buddhism, social action, environmental concerns. Always learning and willing to join and present to searchers with a wide range of interests, he had the capacity to hold a Jewish Buddhist retreat in Toronto last year, participate in yoga communities in Copenhagen and Paris and co-lead a “running with a meditative mind” weeklong program planned at the Hollyhock centre in BC the week he died.

What was his appeal to our audience of experienced, well-trained mental health professionals?

We learned practical ideas about psychotherapy, about being honest and transparent, about the multi layered issues that clients bring to therapy, about the always important mind/ body/spirit/ soul connection, about being present with others, paying attention and being open to your own biases. Or was it the way he could “hold a room “with his presence and humor. He saw the ironies and contradictions of life.

Beyond intelligence he had a rare wisdom.

 

In 2015, Michael shared-

“You’d think that given all this inner work, an incredible network of support, strong friendships, a loving partner and kids, and lastly, a life dedicated to embodying the dharma (literally every single day includes practice and study), that I’d be immune to extreme mental states.”

 

That Michael was struggling with bi-polar disorder makes his work on acceptance and mindfulness not only poignant but ever more powerful. On a certain level, we all know that most mental health professionals are drawn to this work to learn how to heal themselves. But in Michael’s case, his effort was so extraordinary.

He was such a powerhouse of inspiration, endlessly innovating to create the space for self-acceptance in a clinical setting, to be real as a therapist, to be human and yet not break in the face of suffering and pain. To discover that he felt that he had to hide his diagnosis underlines the scale of stigma he was trying to overcome. If “even” Michael Stone, with all his accomplishments, felt he had to hide, where does this leave the everyday person who suffers?

His loss was so astounding because he seemed like the healthiest person around. Physically emotionally mentally he seemed to have it all together. We know now about the support he received from his wife Carina and a circle of care.

 

“Michael lived with bipolar disorder his whole life. Bipolar disorder is characterized by a fluctuation between normalcy, mania and depression. This manifested in visible and invisible ways. He was aroused by life, he sought experiences. As a young man he drove race cars, followed the Grateful Dead, and experimented with psychedelics. He perceived the world with incredible sensitivity, through music, art and literature. Along with this lust for life was an impulsivity that he struggled to quell through yoga and Buddhist practice. His brain was rapidfire and wide open. It was part of his brilliance and his sensitive nature.

Michael came to spiritual practice innately at a young age, and then to formal study as a teenager. It was also a way to take care of his mental health. For a long time he was well enough to resist the diagnosis and stay balanced naturally through practice and self-care, but as things got worse, he opened up more to family and friends, and sought medical help.

Taking care of his extreme mental states became a full-time job for him and his partner Carina. They were a team. They were doing well. His international work was incredibly inspired and flourishing. They established self-care routines. He exercised. He went to bed early. He ate a special diet. They joked about fecal transplants. He saw naturopaths and herbalists and trainers and therapists. He continued his daily practice. As things worsened he turned to psychiatry and medication as well. Balancing his meds was ever-changing and precarious. He struggled to be completely open with those around him about how much and how deeply he struggled. He tried.”

It was also revealed that Michael was “on the cusp” of announcing this to the world. So heartbreaking and leaves us with the question of what that would have meant to Michael and us. He would’ve received more support and love then could be imagined.

In dealing with his death we do what we always do. Look for stories, someway to explain this, to rationalize this.

Some situations lend themselves better to this attempt to rationalize. My parents and sisters died after long illnesses. Expected. Grief and sadness. No tragedy though… no surprise. We are ready.

And if it’s a car accident or sudden health event like a heart attack or aneurism we can feel devastated and at the same time understand the not uncommon realities of sudden loss. In Michael’s case, we contend with added layers of things that do not fit easily into explanations.

Carina writes

“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 always strive to wake us up.

He ended many sessions whether yoga or professional training with this refrain from Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Buddhist Priest and wise man:

Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.”

Let us remember Michael, his kindness and wisdom along with many lessons and questions about life and our fragile existence.

Michael Kerman, with editing support by Angela Szeto

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