The following interview with Michael Stone took place in September 2010, while Michael was teaching at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was conducted by Dr. Douglas Osto, who is the programme coordinator of the Religious Studies Programme at Massey University in New Zealand. Douglas is doing research on the intersection of drugs and Buddhism.
Shôken Michael Stone is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher and Buddhist teacher. He is authorized to teach in the Vipassana tradition and is also a Zen student of Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. He travels internationally teaching about the intersection of yoga, Buddhism and social action. He leads Centre of Gravity Sangha in Toronto, a thriving community of people interested in the intersection of spirituality and community practice. He has written four books with Shambhala Publications on yoga, Buddhism and ethics and his new book is Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.
So Michael, you’ve been involved in Buddhism and Yoga for quite some time. Do you want to briefly talk about how you came to Buddhism and how long you have been practicing?
Yeah, one way to tell the story would be to start WAY at the beginning with my first introduction to Buddhism. When I was a kid I had an uncle who was schizophrenic, who lived in a mental institution and he had done a lot of LSD in his teens. He was deep into music, and he was probably the most creative person I ever knew. He was born in the fifties, and he had a psychotic episode, so he was put in a mental institution. He became a kind of guinea pig for different testing.
After school I would go and hang out with him. I loved hanging out with him. We would actually do these experiments where he would play Beatles records and he would put incense or cigarettes on the speakers and we would meditate on the shape of the smoke. He would talk to me about the mind and about concentration. We read the Vedas, we talked about the Buddha, the Beatles. And also in the background was psychology and mental illness and spirituality. So as a young kid I was immersed in all those things—insanity, LSD (even though I didn’t know what it was, but I knew he had taken some), Buddhism.
Was his psychosis related to taking LSD or was that something separate?
How can I ever know? But that’s what was claimed.
And did he continue to use LSD while he was institutionalized?
No, never again. That was it.
So this was your first introduction to Asian religions, psychedelics and mental health. Where did you go from there?
I think where it went was really through the music path. I was starting to go see a lot of music where drugs would be present. I didn’t think that pot was very interesting. Marijuana seemed to close my mind down more than it opened it up. It didn’t make my relationship with thoughts clearer. It seemed harder to see my mind. Though I couldn’t have articulated it back then I liked marijuana as a kind of escape. As just a kind of space-out. You know? And then I quickly discovered mushrooms and LSD at the same time. Probably when I was in eighth grade.
I started taking LSD maybe, once every few months for about a year. Then I had an experience where I was looking down… Do you want experiences?
Yes! Please go ahead.
I took a lot, quite a few hits of LSD – more than I had ever taken. I looked down at the sidewalk, and you know how concrete urban sidewalks often have little stones in them? Each stone was turning in a different direction. A voice whispered in my right ear from behind me, “Step on the path.” So I stepped on these stones that were turning; and then I was high in the sky looking at a scene of a house; and then the scene of the house was in a picture frame; and then the picture frame was on a wall; and then I was on a couch looking at a picture; and I was at a party.
And I was totally sober. And I had no idea how I got from a sidewalk in downtown Toronto to a suburb many hours later and became instantly sober at a party looking at a painting, and it made me not want to do it again. Partly because of that experience – when I started telling people about it no one had had that experience – I felt like maybe I had hit the limit.
Right! Missing time… a sort of gap had occurred.
But when I ate mushrooms or ingested mushrooms through tea, something else happened where I felt really connected to the natural world, and as uncomfortable as my stomach would be as a reaction to the mushrooms, my body felt cleaned out in some way. Kind of like when you’re a kid and you cry for a long time and when you finish crying it feels clean.
Exhausted, but sort of cleansed at the same time.
I felt a sense that somehow it was a cleansing process, taking mushrooms, and that somehow they were sacred and that in some ways it was a spiritual path. So I started experimenting with taking mushrooms and then writing later about what my experience was, like I was a kind of anthropologist or something. Unlike smoking pot, it was showing me something about how the natural world operates.
Right. Sort of doing auto-ethnography, writing your own thing…
My major experience on mushrooms was in the rain forest on the west coast of Canada. I took mushroom tea and I went out along the beach, and it was just a regular trip, just like any other. I sat down and I felt quite still, and I looked out at the water, and I could see small micro-organisms turning into larger organisms, then becoming snake-like, then growing limbs, and then starting to swim, and then they split—some started swimming and some started walking. It was all underwater.
Underwater, like you were seeing evolution occurring?
I realized it was evolution. Then something started coming out of the water and it was a person, and then it turned white and glowing, and it was so bright I couldn’t look at it. And then it stopped and instantly I knew that not only was it evolution, but that I wasn’t allowed to see what happens to humans. It was me. It was my body. It was a human form and I couldn’t see past that.
So the projection of the form you saw, you felt that it was humanity…
A human body. It was like deeply looking at how my human body was not mine. It was part of like this geological time. It was such a profound experience, and I was left feeling two things. Number one was that I really needed to talk to someone about it, and I had no idea how. Number two was the feeling that, “this is really profound medicine.”
How old were you at this point?
I was eighteen. And then I had the thought, “It reveals your state of mind. With great clarity… and if you can’t really look at your own state of mind, then it would be what people call a ‘bad trip.’” If you had a state of mind where you were really ready to enter what was going on and work with it, like cooperating with the experience. Making friends with it, then it could reveal something that couldn’t be revealed in my waking consciousness.
So this was a pretty profound experience. Now how did this then translate into your interest in yoga and Buddhism?
Right after that I entered a period of my life where I was very depressed and anxious, and I dropped out of university and I had no idea what to do with my life. I started practicing yoga because a girlfriend introduced me to it, and I started practicing Buddhism at the same time, learning how to sit.
I had also started my own psychotherapy. I realized that there was a kind of personal layer of the mind that if I didn’t really work with, I couldn’t integrate with those bigger experiences. What I needed to do was work more with the personal layer.
Do you feel that those earlier experiences with LSD and mushrooms have a direct connection with the later interest in yoga and Buddhism?
Definitely. I think that a lot of people come in to yoga and Buddhist practice, and especially Tantric practices, because they want to break through into some realm where they want to see what they have been promised by esoteric teachers or, you know, Indian art that they have seen. So I felt like I had that already.
I would look at these Tantric images of triangles within triangles, or bodies within bodies within universes, and I knew it to be true. But my suffering in my life and my discontent didn’t seem to be related to having to prove that. It seemed more related to the anxious and neurotic layers of my life. And the mushrooms weren’t helping with that.
It was like you had opened a door or window and saw a kind of transpersonal realm, but you still had not been able to work through your own personal issues… Getting that kind of vision wasn’t actually helping you with your life.
Exactly. And at the time I would have articulated it in the same way. Like I didn’t have the language, “personal” and “transpersonal,” but very shortly after that started reading Stanislov Grof’s work, and then Terrance McKenna’s work. Then I started reading Buddhist literature. I read all of Carl Jung’s collected works.
Wow. That’s a lot (chuckles).
Start to finish. I felt in my reading I was starting to make sense of what the psyche is, and how it’s connected to the natural world. Carl Jung, more than anyone at that time, helped me make sense of how there was a personal layer in the mind and an impersonal aspect to the mind.
It seemed that even though the mushrooms and psychedelic drugs can help me put the personal in brackets and have a greater access… as I started coming into the trip or out of the trip I was still connected to the personal, and it filtered how I was perceiving the transpersonal.
In other words, unless I had ingested quite a lot of mushrooms, most of the trip was a mix of personal and transpersonal. Those visions didn’t help the personal, and I didn’t understand why. That’s why Buddhism became really prominent in my life – I felt like it could really deal with the personal.
I remember reading Dogen, and him saying that “To study the self, is to forget the self.” When I read that I thought, “Yes!” That’s right. I imagined – this is from being a very poor anthropologist – that traditional cultures that worked with psychedelics had a way of integrating the personal and transpersonal that is more sophisticated than what I was trying to figure out on my own.
When you were doing this intense reading—Grof and McKenna and Buddhism and Jung—were you still using psychedelics and practicing meditation at the same time?
I stopped using psychedelics, because I felt like the practices of really being fully in the body were becoming more valuable to me in my life every day, and they were helping me see how my mind worked with less drama and colour. I had so much loneliness and anxiety because the mushrooms didn’t alleviate that kind of suffering. An existential suffering like a sense of “What am I doing here?” was satisfied from my earlier experiences with the mushrooms. I felt connected with something much bigger than my mind. But not in an everyday, practical way. That’s why I needed the Buddhist piece, that’s why I needed the meditation. I wanted something really practical I could integrate into my life.