Michael Stone was a renowned international yoga teacher and author whose death by drug overdose was met with shock and confusion – and of course grief – by those whose lives he touched. Stone’s wife Carina, in an intelligent and compelling statement says “Culturally we don’t have enough language to talk about this,” and adds “…can we find questions?”
Carina wisely calls on us to resist finding comfort or conclusion in answers, and instead to do the difficult work of questioning. But questioning what?
Some of her suggestions include –
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?
(Read the full statement here.)
Michael, it has been revealed, suffered from something we currently call bipolar disorder, a condition or set of symptoms that has been called many things throughout the ages.
Deaths like Michael’s spark regret, outrage, blame, confusion, and increasingly a heartfelt outcry for mental health reform and de-stigmatization. Carina Stone asks “What can we do for ourselves and others who have impulses or behaviors we cannot understand?” Indeed, what can we do? But perhaps before we set about to the business of doing, we might begin at the tail end of her question: understanding.
How do we understand these happenings? What do they mean? We might ask – What does Michael Stone, his life and his death, symbolize?
As with all celebrity figures, Michael symbolized something profound and specific, if not for everyone, for a particular type of someone. Symbolism is the very nature of the celebrity phenomenon; celebrities are celebrated, and they are celebrated precisely for what they symbolize.
Michael’s own words give us a clue – “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.”
Apparently the yoga practice and teaching that made Stone such a celebrated figure grew out of an attempt to find immunity from that which plagued him. A picture emerges. It was Michael’s very real and visceral suffering that propelled him to work so hard, and to become a symbol of wisdom, healing, and inspiration to so many others.
We might recognize in Michael the archetype of Wounded Healer (a specific archetype named by Carl Jung, but we might also identify and name archetypes according to our own lives).
The Wounded Healer is motivated through their own suffering to help others, and the kind of help they provide is fundamentally connected to the suffering they experience personally; The Wounded Healer accesses their own pain as insight into the experience of others, and also gleans from the pain of others insights about their own. This biofeedback loop becomes a source of energy moving them through the world.
Most of us do not embody a single archetype in our lives. While The Wounded Healer seems present and active in Michael’s life, it would seem that another archetype was also in the forefront.
The Hero is probably the most obviously celebrated archetype in our contemporary culture. Ours is predominantly a cult of The Hero. We worship The Hero above all.
The Hero overcomes obstacles and achieves goals. They are “unshakeable” (a descriptor ascribed to Michael). They seek immunity.
When confronted with failure, The Hero has only one recourse: try harder. We can see The Hero archetype reflected in Stone’s words, “It can be hard to admit even to ourselves that there are times when the stability of awareness that we discover in [meditation] just isn’t there. When this started happening I’d say my practice needs to get deeper.”
Then he adds “But the truth is, there was a chemical change in my brain.”
We see in this statement first the quintessential Heroic approach to challenge – “…my practice needs to get deeper” – and then an acknowledgement of a hard-won truth: “…there was a chemical change in my brain.” This chemical change is, metaphorically, a bestowal from the Gods, for better or for worse, a confusing and troubling blessing/curse, resistant to The Hero’s (any Hero’s) best efforts.
This is a potential turning point; The Hero fails, and so matures. A force beyond The Hero’s efforts and control is acknowledged, giving room now for The Wounded Healer to emerge more fully.
To admit vulnerability, even powerlessness, is required in order to move beyond Heroism, and in a culture that worships The Hero so completely, power is the ultimate virtue, the ultimate currency; power to shape one’s own life, one’s own reality, power to slay the dragon and win the treasure; power of force and control. For a yogi or Buddhist teacher, it might be the power of finally achieving a “stability of awareness,” or becoming “immune to extreme mental states” that fuels their Heroism.
When we find ourselves wearing the mantle of Hero, and then we get public attention, we end up carrying not only our own self-burden, but also the heavy unconscious projections of others. Many others. Not only are we a Hero, we are THEIR Hero. This is a tremendous responsibility, and one that someone in the role of Hero does not necessarily ask for, and often does not fully recognize.
I didn’t know Michael, and I won’t pretend to know what would have been best for him. I do feel for his struggles, and of course for the family and community left behind.
I’m writing partly at Michael’s wife’s implied invitation when she states “Culturally we don’t have enough language to talk about this.” I couldn’t agree more. I write this now in the spirit of making some small contribution to the language we might use to talk about this.
Carina asks us not to “Feel the shame and tragedy of it.”
I’ll trade shame for humility. Humility means on the ground, of the earth; humus. Simple. Here and now. This sense of groundedness seems especially appropriate when remembering a man grounded in buddhist practice and philosophy, and also subject to such strong upward forces, forces that threaten to take one upward and away.
And I humbly suggest that this is by definition a tragedy. Not the empty sort of tragedy you shake your head at in bewilderment (“this shouldn’t have happened”), but rather the kind of familiar tragedy you nod at in recognition (“this is what happens”).
Tragedy in the ancient and mythological context connects us to the bittersweetness of Heroism and the glorious futility of living a life. The Hero in all of us is linked to the tragic in this way.
In Michael we might glimpse the tension between Hero and Wounded Healer; upon reflection we might recognize these archetypes active in ourselves and around us in the world.
Further reading –
The Hero Within by Carol Pearson
King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette
Re-Visioning Psychology by James Hillman
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