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Remembering beloved Jewish Buddhist teacher Michael Stone

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Michael Stone, a prolific teacher of an approach to Buddhism and yoga that integrated social justice and ecological issues. CAITLIN STROM PHOTO VIA FACEBOOK

Michael Stone, a renowned teacher of an approach to Buddhism and yoga that integrated social justice and ecological issues, passed away on Jul 16, at the age of 42. Stone reportedly had consumed an unknown “street drug” laced with fentanyl, in an attempt to relieve the distress that was brought on by his bipolar disorder.

Stone was found unconscious in Victoria by the RCMP early in the morning on July 14 and taken to the hospital, where he remained on life support for two days before passing away on the 16th. On July 20, Carina Stone, his partner, released a statement, which detailed the “complex and heartbreaking” story of what led to his death.

The statement revealed publicly for the first time that Stone had bipolar disorder and had struggled for years to control his extreme mental states, trying both mainstream and alternative treatments.

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“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,” wrote Carina Stone.

“In the silencing he hid his desire for relief,” she continued. “This spring his mania began to cycle more rapidly.”

On the day of his collapse, on a routine trip into Victoria from his Gulf Island home, Stone apparently tried to get a safe, controlled drug to self-medicate from a substance abuse and addictions pharmacy, but didn’t qualify. Sometime later that day, he bought an unknown street drug that contained Western Canada’s deadly scourge: fentanyl. He didn’t come home.

“Michael did amazing work in the world and changed the lives of so many,” Carina Stone wrote. “He was a beautiful father and loving husband. He loved his life, his work and his students deeply. He was loved immeasurably.”

Based in British Columbia, where he lived with his family (and was a fellow in residence at the University of British Columbia), Stone was a uniquely prolific and talented teacher and writer with an international following. Highly sought after as a teacher of retreats and workshops, he was scheduled to lead retreats in England, France, Denmark and Sweden in the coming months. He was known for his podcasts and influential books – four to date, with two more in the works at the time of his death. Stone was at the forefront of two fusion movements: yoga with Buddhism and meditation training with social activism.

Stone’s interest in understanding the mind and the nature of reality apparently began with visits to his Buddhist uncle, who Stone described as his best friend as a child. “The conversations I had with my uncle seemed deeper, more mysterious and more important than anything I was learning at home, at school or even at synagogue,” wrote Stone.

He went on to study psychotherapy and began to practice meditation and yoga. Stone studied with revered Ashtanga yoga teacher Richard Freeman beginning in 1995 and then Buddhist teachers Norman Fischer and Peter Levitt, both also Jewish, as his interest in Buddhist teachings grew. Stone became particularly close to New York-based Zen teacher Pat Enkyo O’Hara, who gave him the Buddhist name, Shoken (Clear Sight).

The Centre of Gravity (now known as Gravity), a yoga centre that Stone founded in Toronto in 2003, had expanded to four locations before Stone shifted his focus to the online community that had grown around him. Stone also founded True North Insight Vipassana in Ottawa, where he had served as its guiding teacher and was a regular teacher in communities in Victoria and Vancouver. Stone was involved in the Occupy movement in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. “What motivated me was creating spaces (and not just physical ones) for different struggles to build alliances,” he wrote on his website.

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In 2013, Stone made a pilgrimage to Japan, documented in the film Reactor, to witness the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Reactor filmmaker Ian MacKenzie, told Lion’s Roar, a Buddhist magazine, that, “I deeply treasure(d) my time with Michael in Japan. He was a man of deep compassion and love of all life. I considered him a friend and older brother.”

Stone reportedly had a warm, if not religious, approach to Judaism and continued to attend family Passover seders and other Jewish community events. In 2013 and 2015, he co-led two Jewish-Buddhist mindfulness meditation retreats near Ottawa with Rabbi Miriam Margles.

Memorial meditation gatherings were held in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Dublin, Portland, San Francisco and several other cities around the world. At a gathering at Semperviva Yoga in Vancouver on July 23, students and friends sat in a circle sharing stories, many of them in tears. One student told of the battered copy of one of his books she carries everywhere; another of listening to his podcasts every morning to help deal with her husband’s death. An old friend present at the gathering said that Stone had sent an email out weeks ago to people close to him asking for help, which she feared had not been taken seriously enough.

Stone’s death has prompted considerable discussion online about the role that the stigmatization of mental illness may have played in his death.

“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… It could be easy to shake one’s head and think, what a shame,” wrote Carina Stone. “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 can we do for ourselves and others who have impulses or behaviours we cannot understand?”

Rabbi Margles led a meditation sitting, accompanied by Hebrew chanting in Stone’s memory on July 22 at Geary Park in Toronto, which included a recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish in his memory.

Stone had three children and a fourth one on the way with his partner, Carina Stone. A GoFundMe page has been set up to support the family.

Correction: In the original version of this article, we wrongly wrote that Stone founded True North Insight Vipassana in Ottawa. In fact, True North Insight was co-founded by Daryl Lynn Ross, David Schouela, Norman Feldman, Molly Swan and several others in Montreal and Ottawa. A few years after the founding, Stone was invited to teach True North Insight sponsored retreats, and then to be a part of the team of guiding teachers.