Feed The Yogi
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An Interview With Michael Stone

Michael Stone is a psychotherapist in private practice, lecturer, yoga teacher and author. He co-leads the Centre of Gravity Sangha, a community of Yoga & Buddhist practitioners in Toronto and travels internationally, teaching in academic, yoga studio and conference settings. Michael offers courses and retreats that focus on integrating yoga postures, breathing practices, meditation and textual study. His research and teaching explore the intersection of committed spiritual practice and social action. Read his complete bio here.

Michael will be coming to Portland in late September to give a 3-day workshop hosted by The Yoga Space. In preparation for his upcoming visit I had the good fortune to chat with him the other day about his work, his philosophy and what ‘the intersection of committed spiritual practice and social action‘ really is.

3/3/10 Interview with Michael Stone

RS: What does it mean to have a yoga practice that includes all aspects of daily life and how does one go about making that happen or being mindful of that?

MS: So many people define yoga as a verb. It derives from the root ‘yug‘ which means to unite or to connect one thing or yoke one thing with another; the breath with the body, the mind and the spirit, the soul and god or whatever your vocabulary is. But actually the term ‘yug‘ is taken out of its verb form when it becomes ‘yoga‘ which literally means that everything is already inherently united. You don’t need to unite one thing with another because, in fact, everything is already inter-permeating everything else.

I like to translate the word yoga as intimacy, literally being one with everything. But I think that sometimes we get a little bit inflated about what our ideas of intimacy or oneness might be. Maybe we want to be one with pleasure or what we think is beautiful, but do we really want to be one with loneliness or one with pain or one with war… And really do we want to open up and be one with everything? So the core of the practice of yoga or the heart of yoga is really opening up to the reality of how life really happens, not the way we want it to happen or the way we think it should happen. And to recognize that underneath all of our ideas about how we think life should go, everything is inherently intimate. We are connected with water and with plants, with culture, with great art, and with friends in ways that are bottomless. What interests me about yoga practice is how the various limbs or practices of yoga can wake us up to that level of intimacy.

RS: Please explain what you mean by various limbs.

MS: Well, for Patanjali there were eight limbs of practice and I like that model. Especially for us westerners who I think live lives that are very compartmentalized. We can think that one part of our life is spiritual and another part of our life is more material, but actually that’s just semantics. Our lives are psychosomatic; they’re emotional, they’re spiritual, they’re political, they’re economic. You can’t separate any of those spheres. Everything you do is emotional, spiritual and political. If we think about the mind, the body, and the body politic as interconnected, then the eight limbs that Patanjali outlines really makes sense. Starting with ethics, including taking care of and waking up the body, releasing the internal patterns of breathing and then also moving into deeper states of meditation that help us see though the self image that we’re totally addicted to.

Having a path that makes us look at all aspects of our lives really makes a difference. Some people ask what the difference is between yoga and western psychology, and I actually think one of the biggest differences that Patanjali seems to suggest is that if you really want to change, the first thing you should look at is ethics. The first thing you should look at is the quality of your role in your relationships. In western psychology, maybe because of the Victorian times, we are afraid of talking about ethics. We tend to think of ethics as rules, rather than as suggestions for how to give attention to the quality of our relationships. It is quite fascinating to think that if you really want to change your life, to become more altruistic and creative, and less concerned with yourself, then you can start by paying attention to ethical practice like nonviolence, honesty, not taking what’s not given freely and so on…

RS: What you’re saying makes me think of a conflict between some approaches to yoga and spirituality where it seems that many emphasize the idea of ‘detachment’ from life and what I hear you saying is that it’s not at all detachment, but actually some kind of extreme merging, and as you say, intimacy with what life is, or happens to be doing.

MS: In the yoga tradition there are two words that are used that like twins and they’re never separated, one is abhyasa and one is vairagya, meaning practice and non-attachment. The core of our practice is non-attachment. Actually I would go further and say that for mature practitioners we practice non-attachment to our practice as well. But to begin with, what we mean by non-attachment is that what we cling to the most when we really give attention to the way that we create suffering in our lives is the fact that we are always compulsively fixated on ourselves. When we dream, we are always the main character. When we think almost all of our thoughts are stories about ourselves. Even when we create enemies or project nations to be our enemies, that is all to secure our own view of how we think things are. So what non-attachment means is not clinging to self image. It’s easy to practice non-attachment to your bicycle or your apartment or maybe even to some of your possessions but internal renunciation means not being attached to your view, not being attached to your self image.

That’s wonderful philosophy but what that actually looks like is engagement. The definition of non-attachment is engagement because when I’m not attached to how I think things should go then suddenly I’m open, I’m free and I’m engaged with how things actually are…So you and I don’t know each other, but I know a few things about you. The more that I learn about you the more it can also shut down an experience of really getting to know you because I might have some preconceptions of who you are and what you are like. That’s an example of non-attachment. If I can notice how my ideas about you and my ideas about me actually get in the way, then I can be open to seeing beyond those ideas.

So again, non-attachment actually means engagement. The more that I can learn how to not cling to how I think of myself and how I think of others, the more I can open to the interconnectivity that’s possible when I’m fully present. It’s really important to understand this point because yoga is about engagement in the world, it’s about action and it’s not about passivity. The teaching of karma reminds us that everything we do has an effect, so it’s really important to understand that you can’t be free of action. Every time you have an action, there’s an effect.

RS: One of the preconditions to the practice of abhyasa and vairagya is the release of raga (attachment) and dwesha (aversion), that you have to release your mind from the polarity of like and the dislike… How does that affect one’s actions?

MS: Raga and dwesha are both forms of clinging. It’s not so much about feeling bad or feeling good, but rather our attachment to feeling good and our tendency to lean away from what doesn’t feel good. When we learn how to work with our patterns of reactivity which are raga (attachment) and dwesha (aversion), then we can start to see how they operate in each moment of our lives.

The heart of the practice is being able to reduce our reactivity. We live right now in an attention deficit society where people are highly reactive. It takes its toll on our bodies and it takes its toll on our relationships because in highly reactive modes we can’t recognize intimacy when it shows up. Maybe I would even go so far as to say that the thing most of us fear the most is intimacy, because intimacy threatens our reactivity and most of us hold on to our reactivity because that’s the way we know ourselves.

It’s a funny paradox I think… I don’t want to say that you get rid of your reactivity because as human beings we’re always going to have reactive patterns. I think it would be naive to think that you can get rid of attachment and aversion. Rather, you can just see them operating, and seeing them operating you can get enough distance from reactivity that you can watch it operate instead of being hooked into it.

RS: So you’re saying that the practice is first developing the ability to see our own patterns of reactivity and then being able to observe them, and then perhaps we can become less reactive in how we act?

MS: Yes. You talked earlier about western psychology and some things you’ve read and I think that this is a good time to pick up on that. What’s so brilliant about western psychology is that it helps to really recognize our patterns of reactivity and it helps us to see how our patterns of reactivity are chronic, historical, and relational. What yoga really teaches us is how to see those patterns and notice how they’re impermanent, how they’re empty of self and how they’re malleable. That way when we see our patterns we can learn how to let them go and we don’t get as hooked into them and I think that’s really the heart of the yoga practice.

RS: In your interview in Ascent you talked about a moral obligation to practice. Is that what you meant?

MS: Exactly. When I see my capacity for anger and my capacity for greed, hatred, confusion and envy, and when I learn how to work on the yoga mat, or on the meditation cushion, or in relationships with my particular patterns of strong emotions, then because I see those potentials in myself, my practice becomes a profound form of social action because I’m not planting those seeds in my mind, but I’m also not planting those seeds in my body or in the body politic.

Every individual is a corner of culture. If we see that, then working with our patterns of reactivity is also working on a small corner of culture. By not contributing those negative patterns our practice becomes a practice of social morality in some way. When I said we had a moral obligation to practice it might sound like an overstatement, but what we see is that most of the problems in our families and in our communities are not separate from us. We have the capacity for all of the negative states that we perceive outside of ourself and we have to learn how to work with those states if we don’t want to contribute them to the culture.

RS: In your bio it says that your research and teaching explore the intersection of committed spiritual practice and social action. I often wonder about this fine line of taking action in the world and being aware enough to notice whether or not the action that we’re taking is helpful or needed or even wanted, in the case of trying to help other people. What is the intersection of social action and committed spiritual practice and how does one keep the other grounded in reality?

MS: Well the intersection has some history behind it. Traditionally, one of the models for spirituality in the Abrahamic religions, but also even in the yoga practice in early Buddhism is a model of ‘vertical transcendence‘, which means, “If I can wake up then I can be free of suffering and I do a practice so that I can become enlightened.” What’s really interesting about Patanjali is that he gets rid of the word ‘moksha‘ or gets rid of the word ‘enlightenment‘ and he doesn’t use it. I like to call his model ‘horizontal transcendence‘, which means that the purpose of my practice is not for me to wake up but the purpose of a practice is for all of us to wake up together. That way my practice includes plants and animals and other people, architecture, city planning and good food. That way we practice cultural awakening.

We don’t have time to go practice in caves or inner sanctums, in fact I don’t think there are even that many caves or forests left where you can go move and practice. I think instead we need to use the conditions of our life as the vehicle for waking up. If the conditions are your particular city with all its imperfections, then that city becomes what you use to practice. I think that in our secular age it’s really important to focus on practicing in a way that deals with the imbalances of the entire world rather than just our internal imbalances, because the fish really need us, and the frogs and the rivers need us and they need us now! They don’t have time for us to get enlightened, and maybe enlightenment is a holdover from another age and doesn’t really apply to us anymore.

RS: It sounds like what you’re saying is that there’s a difference in ideas about enlightenment. At one point enlightenment was perceived as something that was “beyond all of this” and what I hear you saying is that enlightenment is a connection and deep involvement with “all of this”.

MS: My understanding of enlightenment is that it’s waking up to the inherent interconnection of everything. I think every human culture throughout history has needed to find a way to reach the transcendent. Sometimes the transcendent was imagined as something beyond the body or something beyond the self, culture or the material plane. But actually, what if we push further and see that the transcendent actually means connecting with something that’s bigger than the stories you tell about yourself and your life? Then we see that we can have that experience with other people, we can have that experience in the natural world. You can have that experience eating an apple. To really drop in to the experience of eating an apple is to recognize your interconnectivity and your place in the world.

What I’m arguing for, if you will, in my recent book “Yoga For a World Out of Balance” is to see that we need to become more material… People say that we’re materialistic but we’re not really. We don’t love the material. I think we need to learn to love the material and then as we care for the material we see that the material is spiritual and there is no separation.

RS: One of the cornerstones of western psychology is the the development of the ‘ego’ or the sense of self, and this sense of self is critical to being functional in the world. Yet we also have to get beyond it if we want to engage in intimacy like you’re saying. How do we maintain enough of it so that we don’t end up institutionalized?

MS: So many people talk about the self as the ego, or they say that the goal of spiritual practice is to get rid of the ego or kill the ego or get beyond the ego. Well, the only people I’ve ever met who actually have no ego are institutionalized. We need an ego. An ego is really healthy and it’s sacred. The purpose of practice is to cultivate an awareness that allows the ego to be flexible and porous, not fixed and rigid or stuck in historical patterns of reactivity, and also not inflated or deflated,and not propped up and also not judged. The self is not something to get rid of, the self is just a conglomeration of stories that we tell ourselves or that have been told to us. But seeing the self as just an encyclopedia or an anthology of stories helps unfix those stories so that the self becomes more of a process rather than a structure. The self does exist and it does function but it’s not hard and it doesn’t have a “core” that is eternal or fixed. The self is plastic, or to use a new term in neuropsychology the self is ‘elastic‘, and that is wonderful to know.

Your identity is not fixed. Who you think you are is not fixed. Your sexuality is not fixed. Your career is not fixed. Your relationships are not fixed… It’s all flow. Within that flow there’s great freedom, but from the perspective of the ego it’s scary because we want to fix ourselves and define ourselves. How many young people learn that they’re attracted to someone of the same sex and then they do a lot of work to define themselves as a dyke or a queer and for a while that’s so helpful because you can say what you are. But then maybe once in a while you’re attracted to someone of the opposite sex and then it screws up your definition of yourself as queer. That’s such a common story and I use it because it reminds us that the self flows in ways that are more like water than structured. We’re a lot more like trees than cars.

RS: How does that relate to the “anarchy of the gaps”– two systems that meet to point out the shadow of the other system? It sounds like in order to allow something to be elastic you do in fact need to see it in its function as a system, which include the gaps inherent in the structure of a system.

MS: Every system has a shadow or gaps. Nothing can be organized into a system, life just doesn’t work that way. Stephen Bachelor has a wonderful term that he uses in a book called “Living With the Devil“, and the term he uses is called ‘anarchy of the gaps’. The reason why I like that term is because anarchy refers to the fact that all systems are resilient and they self-organize. For example, a computer is not a good example of a self-organizing system. When it breaks it’s broken, and only now are we learning how to recycle them. But a forest is a good example of a resilient system. When there’s a forest fire and you go walk out into the black charcoal several months after the fire, that’s usually the time in the forest when there are the best wildflowers, because the forest is resilient.

We need to be resilient; we need to get depressed, we need to stay in bed sometimes for a month. We need our relationships to fall apart because we need to fall apart and regroup, and this is part of the healthy resilience of a person. I call that anarchy because it’s an example of how human beings internally and also culturally know how to self-organize in order to create balance. That’s something that I trust in ecologically, spiritually and politically and it’s something which is far more interesting than hierarchy. Two systems never quite fit together because each one has a shadow. And that’s why you need different systems to point out the shadow of other systems. Where systems don’t fit together, there’s so much vitality there… and that’s the anarchy of the gaps. I think that western psychology and yoga philosophy don’t totally fit together, but the places where they don’t fit together is way more interesting that where they do fit together.

RS: When a system collapses in on itself; when the forest burns or the relationship falls apart… Is that the self-reference point where we can meet up with our own shadow? Do we have to totally fall apart and then regroup to see it?

MS: There’s a good story about Charles Darwin, where after he finished “The Theory of Evolution” he experienced a deep depression. He noticed how when people become depressed they stop going out, they stare at the ceiling, they stay in bed and they don’t have sex. Darwin’s whole theory is based on the fact that we are driven to reproduce… But a person who is depressed is not thinking too much about that. After a few years of contemplating depression he realized that maybe depression had a purpose, and maybe it was an evolutionary purpose which was to slow us down and to make us look inward and see what’s valuable and what’s important in our lives.

I think that’s a good example of what you brought up because a lot of our symptoms have a purpose. You know this as a yoga teacher, you see people fall apart and they do everything they can to try and get back together and get back to work and to get their hamstrings working again. But you can also see how when people fall apart and their lives start to unravel, there can be something so creative and magnificent in that process if we’re patient and open enough to really see our lives that way.

RS: That brings us back to what we started with today talking about the attachment to pleasure and pain and learning to open and be with the experience that’s happening right now.

MS: If you go deep into your yoga asana practice and you really practice in a way that includes drishti, which is gazing, and bandhas, which are the bonding of breathing and our attention span, and pranayama, which is the un-restriction or the un-restraint of internal energetic pathways in the body… Then our practice becomes very psychological. Within a focused and concentrated asana practice we start to work not just with feeling good in our practice, but we move deeper into the realms where we learn how to really be present with strong emotions and turbulent thoughts and then that becomes a very deep form of meditation so that when we’re off the yoga mat we can use that kind of patience and attentiveness to serve others and to take care of ourselves.

RS: If you could put a message on a T-shirt, what would it say?

MS:  emptiness:compassion

Michael Stone is the author of three books, as well as other writing and articles. He is based on Toronto where he runs the Centre of Gravity Sangha and he travels and teaches internationally.
Michael will in Portland the weekend of September 24, 2010! This is what he has to say about that weekend’s offering:

“I feel inspired offering a workshop in Portland because in my imagination Portland, as a city, is an experiment that seeks to integrate urban life with creative ways of addressing social, ecological, transportation and economic issues. And the land along the coast is beautiful. Friday evening I will give a talk about the ways in which Yoga can be brought to life in this culture at this time without needing to escape our lives. We will explore the way yoga postures, meditation, ethics and art, all form a well-rounded path that allows us to practice deeply and then express our practice in everything we do.

On Saturday and Sunday we will look at yoga postures in subtle ways that focus on the internal pathways of the breath, proper gazing, and alignment techniques that allow us to turn the postures in vehicles of concentration. From there we will slow down asana sequences and see how practice matures not by adding more and more poses but by tuning into the psychological as well as physical patterns in mind and body. And we will do all this while having fun!”

For more information in registration for this workshop please visit The Yoga Space.

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