“Loss shows us some basic truth about who we are: we are tied to others and to place… It’s not like there is an “I” that exists over here and a “you” over there somewhere. When I lose you, I lose me too. Grief challenges the very notion that we are separate selves. We do not always succeed at being whole. The faces of others, the touch and smell of them, our memories of places we have lived and loved—all of this undoes us. It should. Falling down is necessary for waking up to our shared humanity.”
We have recently lost one of the dearest and brightest voices in the yogic and Buddhist community. Michael Stone was a psychotherapist, yogi, teacher, writer, community leader, and family man. His work and his teachings touched many, both in his local community as well as internationally; even those who did not have the fortune of studying with him in person are mourning this great soul’s passing. In his honor, it seems apt to look at the sensation of loss many of us are experiencing more closely, and explore how it is that, as Michael Stone so beautifully put it, “When I lose you, I lose me too.”
Allan Watts, another brilliant mind and teacher of philosophy and Buddhism, explains that in our habitual state of everyday living, we forget a fundamental truth about who we are; namely, that we are purely contextual beings. He goes on to say that this is precisely the gem of the philosophies of the Far East: they are conduits to our remembering and re-accessing our truest nature. In doing so, our relationships to our lives undergo a radical transformation. If we decide to study our experience of existence closely, we find that we are always deeply enmeshed in context. Even as a fetus, when we aren’t yet part of society or able to relate to anything or anyone, we rely completely on our mother for sustenance and safety. We are webbed into her existence. Once we exit the birth canal, we are born into different context, from which we don’t exit until death. We are as inextricable from life as we are from our mother’s womb, which is to say that we are as indivisible from one another as we are from ourselves. Your life affects me, as mine affects yours, sometimes in great, palpable ways, and other times in subtle, almost imperceptible ways. Yet, we tend to experience life as if we are isolated creatures “over here” in a world that exists “out there.” A great deal of our experience is internal and self-centered. That is, until something shakes us and wakes us up: a separation, a death, an illness—and we arise to the feeling of “Wow: what really matters to me?” in this wake up call and “aha” moment, often, the answer is family, relationships, community, love: our very contextualization.
We are context the same way we are nature. Nature isn’t exclusively the South American Rainforest or the wildlife in the African Sahara we see on the Planet Earth DVD. We are planet Earth. But we forget. We become entrenched in our laundry-list of to-do’s, in our schedules, meetings, responsibilities, and goals, and in the places where we run the show and the show feels distinctly different from us. And yet, when push comes to shove, or when we get really, really still, or when we get truly honest, we know. Deep inside, we’ve always known: we aren’t any of these things.
Necrophobia, or fear of death, is the second most prevalent fear we have as a culture. Most people are, in some way, afraid of their own mortality. If we were to include the number of people afraid of someone else, someone close to them, dying, I’m fairly certain that number would skyrocket. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, the ancient text of yogic philosophy lists one of the kosas, or obstacles towards or path of awareness, as clinging to bodily life. Fear of death isn’t a new phenomenon. It makes sense: death is perhaps one of, if not the greatest of, our human unknowns. The Sūtras say that in even the wise fear or discomfort with death can remain. Yet, fear of death goes beyond our apprehension of losing our own physical form. Michael Stone hit the nail on the head: “when I lose you, I lose me too.” Death, as we tend to perceive it, is the ultimate loss; it is the most radical form of re-evaluation of our context that we have; it is final. It is, perhaps the complete loss of context.
Yogic philosophy suggests that the fear we experience, the separation we perceive, happens as a result of avidya, non-seeing. This very state is primarily self-inflicted, or at least self-perpetuated. In other words, we actively blind ourselves from the truth of who we are. We know that ultimately, who we are isn’t found in the plethora of to-do lists nor in the myriad pursuit of goals. We know this, I think, instinctively: that in truth, we are Purusa: pure consciousness, unadulterated beingness—beneath all the layers of distinction between us, we all share beingness. This is what Michael Stone so brilliantly gets at: when the layers are peeled back, we recognize our need for context. When we find moments of clarity, perhaps as a result of loss, we are awakened into the realization of how much we depend, care for, and deeply love one another; how much we are each other. Perhaps this is the gift of death, it reveals that we are not separate selves; not emotionally, not spiritually. This means that when one of us goes, we go too; just as when one of us stays, the ones who are no longer here also remain. This was (and will continue to be) Michael’s gift: his uncanny ability to see past the layers of illusion and help us, his students, wake up to the reality of our truest nature, our inherent connectedness. So, thank you, Michael for your teachings that will endure for years to come, and for, in your passing, allowing us to lose a little of ourselves so that we might find our way home into beingness.