8.05 am. May 5th. The man pointing to the moon appears on my Skype video screen. He is no longer sporting a beard and trendy side-parting. Instead, he looks more like a Caucasian monk with his cleanly shaven face and bald head, now wrapped in large headphones. Some of his features are still recognizable: his large, sharp, noble nose, and grey-blue eyes; his elongated face and high cheekbones.
Michael Stone greets me with his warm smile and his resemblance becomes more apparent. After a few minutes of idle chatter, he asks me to remind him what this interview is for. I respond that various work in spiritually-based projects has left me questioning what so-called ‘spirituality’ actually is.
I tell Michael, the more I think about spirituality’s definition, the more I realize that within this modern, urban lifestyle my peers and I lead, ‘spirituality’ merely appears to be a comparative term. It’s comparative in the sense that we are contrasting a traditional, organic lifestyle of devoted religious practice (mainly in the East), to our present lives here in the West. Upon examining spirituality more in-depthly in my own urban, Western community – Vancouver – I’ve begun to realize that I’m not alone in my attempt to bridge the gap between what was once considered ‘spiritual,’ and what is now considered so. However, this bridging process has resulted in the ‘spiritual’ lifestyle evolving in such a way that it is barely recognizable, when compared to its original roots. One such example is seen in the Western practice of yoga. It would not be a stretch to say, that here in Vancouver, yoga is practiced on almost every fourth block. But it is done so in modified, Westernized, and even commoditized forms, the most infamous being Bikram Yoga – a patented Hatha series, performed in an overheated studio. This evolution can also be observed in the modern practice of meditation. Meditation, a practice once performed by monks and nuns in monasteries and ashrams, under the guidance of a guru, is now done so by Western lay communities in family houses and common-rooms. After tracing this transformation, I couldn’t help but ask, can one be leading a ‘spiritual life’ even without devoted spiritual practice?
And so I came to Michael with this question, and who better to pose it to? Michael is a teacher of both yoga and Buddhism and his focus is on integrating these ancient, traditional schools into a contemporary, urban environment. He is the founder of his own Buddhist and yoga center called The Centre of Gravity, which is situated in his home city of Toronto. The center is a meeting place for those seeking and practicing yogic and Buddhist knowledge. As a result, it aims to examine on the one hand, how the two schools compliment each other, but also, how they differ. The most interesting part about this center is that it’s a hub of spiritual practice that attempts to embrace the environment that it is located in: downtown Toronto. It incorporates Michael’s personal philosophy: that we should be able to merge spiritual practice into the chaotic busy lifestyles that many of us lead, within these big cities we inhabit.
Before Michael responds, he takes a moment and looks to his left, away from the camera, as if the answer is situated externally. Pausing, a smile spreads across his face and his gaze returns:
"I think that the ‘why’ definition of spirituality to me, is being able to connect with something that is larger and deeper and more astounding than our stories about ourselves, and the way we think things are. Spirituality is really a sense of being astonished by how the world really is, and then going beyond just being astonished, and responding.
He continues that “spirituality is about dropping so deeply into your life that there's no separation, and then, following that through with an authentic, creative response to what that means to you."
On the question of what this response might be, Michael says it’s really just about doing the work.
"it’s about rolling up your sleeves and doing the work in your life that benefits yourself and others.” As a result of this, "spirituality is active, it's creative, it's ongoing, and it's continually reworked."
One thing’s for sure, there are no airy-fairy, pie-in-the-sky notions residing in Michael Stone’s concept of spirituality. Unfortunately, the new age or ‘spiritual’ lifestyle is stereotyped as relying on a metaphysical world – a world beyond this material world. And this is understandable, as many concepts and truths existent in new age teachings are part of a world that we cannot see, but instead, must have faith in. In contrast, Michael’s view of spirituality sidesteps such a stereotype. The only “mystical experience” he talks of, is the idea of “dropping deeply into our lives.” He is suggesting we do this in order to ground ourselves more on the material plane. In other words, he is proposing that we keep our spiritual practice here in the world in front of us. He even states that spirituality is a term that makes him “uncomfortable” because of its metaphysical implications.
“I like to subtract from the definition of spirituality, the idea of a spirit, or the divine, or the sacred because I don’t want to posit something that’s eternal that we connect with that creates a kind of bliss state,” he says.
In fact, in a recent video posted on Youtube, Michael explains how becoming a “materialist” might not be such a bad thing after all because “coming to love the material” doesn’t necessarily connote attachment. We can come to love the body we inhabit and the possessions we care for in a way that is not attached, but rather, appreciative.
From our initial discussion, I interpret that Michael’s perspective on spirituality is perhaps like a creative or artistic project, such as composing a piece of music, or painting a picture. Alone in our practice, whatever it may be, we are editing that project and reworking it in such a way that we can put it on display for the world. But this project is not completely self-based. We begin working on it ourselves and then we bring it into our communities, in order to collaborate further. Through this collaboration we learn how to help others, and in turn, they help us; much like a composer writing a tune and then bringing it to his band, or the orchestra, so that it can be work-shopped. Or an artist painting a picture and then displaying it in a gallery for others to enjoy.
In my view, it is difficult to conceive being a materialist without attachment, since enjoyment of the material world seems to be all about attachment. To Michael, however, it’s simply a matter of waking up to the world that is around us – a world that is present in our experience. By doing this, we don’t detach from the world. Rather, we do quite the opposite: we allow ourselves to fully engage with the experience we are having. This sort of engagement is one that ideally supersedes judgment. It is engagement that is really at the core of all of Michael’s teachings. In one of his online videos he remarks:
“Forests, rivers, [and] polluted cities don’t care about your enlightenment. What they care about is your aliveness to present experience. Your action in the world and the effects of your actions.”
From his lessons, we come to understand that if we are completely engaged with our lives, we are fully present in that moment because we are committing to the intimacy that the present moment asks of us – and that is all that it is asking of us. It wants us to be intimate with it, to appreciate it, and not to run away from it. Michael argues that to be engaged with our lives through presence is really the greatest gift we can offer the world. He terms it as, “showing up in our hearts.”
This includes being open to suffering. Michael puts great emphasis on the idea that following a ‘spiritual path’ means to be open to the entire spectrum of feelings that we can experience during the course of our life. This spectrum obviously ranges from the greatest highs to the deepest lows. He says it’s important to not just be one with what you like, but to “be one even with pain, one with anxiety, even one with hurt.”
Like many others, Michael came to spiritual practice in the hopes of escaping the suffering that he experienced as a younger man. He describes in an intimate and personal talk on forgiveness, recorded at one of his retreats, how by the age of twenty he was leading the ‘perfect’ life. He’d managed to get a job writing press releases for Paul Newman’s racing car team and this job was making him a lot of money. But during tours with the team, Michael would retire to his hotel room at the end of the day, only to realize that he was actually really depressed. Everyone was telling him his career was set and he had it all, but inside he still felt empty. And in this void state, alone in his hotel room, he practiced yoga and read about the dharma a lot. He admits, he probably read Zen mind, beginner’s mind by Shunryo Suzuki “about 100 times in two years.”
So one day he just quit. He then drove from a hotel in Indiana back to Detroit, and to his apartment where all his belongings lay. Upon arriving, he realized that he wanted to escape the life he was leading so badly, that he didn’t even want to stop to collect his possessions; he just kept driving, all the way back to Toronto. It was on that drive back to his home province that he made a decision that would change his life: he would buy a camper van and go out to a remote park in rural Ontario and not talk to anyone for 6 months. And that’s exactly what he did. Sleeping during the day and staying up during the night so as not to freeze, Michael led a hermitic existence of solitary study, meditation, and painting in the back of his VW kombi. It was during this time in isolation that he “started learning how to sit.”
One could argue that doing this was really just an attempt to avert the prospect of living life. But what Michael was actually doing was sitting down to face his own suffering in a place that was still, with no distractions. He describes:
“[There] comes a point in our lives, when we are ready to just sit down, right in the middle of our lives: right in the middle of pain, right in the middle of boredom, right in the middle of sadness, right in the middle of joy, and start to look more clearly at our lives”
In light of this, Michael teaches that through yoga practice, we come face to face with the suffering we seek to escape from. At first it becomes magnified but over time we learn how to face it, in all honesty, and through this confrontation we learn to accept it. He’s observed how, “when you sit still for the first few months, or even years, it’s a kind of torture.”
There is no promise of happiness or bliss. Michael understands we need to be realistic. He also recognizes that we have to be contemporary when it comes to spiritual practice. We can be knowledgeable of spiritual traditions like Buddhism and Christianity, and be inspired by their figureheads, but we must adapt their teachings and practices to the modern, urban lifestyles we live in a way that allows religious traditions to “come alive in [our] lives now.” Otherwise their teachings, and in turn, our practice, becomes stagnant. As he comically puts it:
“The Buddha and Jesus didn’t know about the printing press and the molecular basis of certain discourses, and biological and nuclear weapons, and the Internet and Twitter and Facebook and iPhones, so their practices have to come alive in the world that we’re in now…with polluted rivers and dying forests.”
But the real question is: how do we do that?
“It’s the integration, of a contemplative life that’s committed to real behavioural change and social change, in such a way that the inner work and outer work are integrated.”
In other words, finding a way of focusing both on the self and the community, so that they are not separated from one another. By doing so, we become actively engaged with both.
Since Michael is all about bringing the traditional into the contemporary in order for it to come “alive,” I decide to take this scenario to its furthest and most literal point and conclude the interview with this situation: Dogen – a 13th century Zen Buddhist sage – has just called Michael on his new iPhone and has invited Michael to meet with him down at the local café. When Michael arrives, they order tea together and Dogen says, “I have brought you down here so that you can ask me a question, any question you like, just ask away.”
I ask Michael what his question would be.
He chuckles and then looks to the left of the camera for an answer, but this time, nothing comes.
“You know, I don’t know. I want to answer your question but I’m not sure if I have a question for Dogen. My question would be silent. It would be just watching him carefully: How does he drink his tea? How does he sit down? How does he walk? What’s his face like? Because I don’t have many questions for spiritual teachers.”
In Zen Buddhism there is a famous saying: one should not mistake a finger pointing to the moon as the moon itself. The finger is a signpost, an indication if you like, to where the moon truly lies, but we must gaze beyond the finger if we want to observe the moon’s true nature.
It seems Michael Stone realizes that to seek answers from spiritual teachers, is merely to observe the finger that points towards the moon. It may guide us closer to the answers we seek, but nothing more. More importantly, it appears that his days of seeking are over. He has looked out beyond the finger to find there is really no profound answer to be sought or cosmic question to be asked. Michael has come to see the moon only through his detachment from seeking. Now he has become the man pointing to the moon, and we can use his finger only as a signpost that points to our own individual discovery of a practice that allows us to live a life of engagement, within our communities.
Originally published: Oct 9th, 2012