review: awake in the world by michael stone

As I write this, riots are spreading across England, Syrian forces are cracking down on protesters, Somalian children are dying from famine-related diseases, global financial markets are in turmoil and radiation continues to quietly leak from Fukushima nuclear power reactors.

It sounds apocalyptic, but honestly, today the world is in no better or worse a state than it was yesterday or will be tomorrow. Yet, this reality is on my mind as I read Michael Stone’s latest book, Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life (Shambala Publications, 2011). The book is a collection of essays adapted from talks given between 2004 and 2010, from Northern Ontario to Greece to Los Angeles. The topics cover activism, ecology, money, community awakening, the mind and meditation.

As he states in his introduction, Michael’s hope is that the essays in the book will “encourage you to bring your practice to a deeper level by placing it at the centre of your life rather than the outskirts of your lifestyle.” His intention is to inspire the reader to integrate the formal path with daily activities of life, so that “your life and your Yoga practice are seamless continuities of one another.”

This core intention is embedded in every essay. There are repeated calls for engaging practice and life, balancing inner transformation with outer transformation, and initiating a collective experiment in awakening. “We all have to figure out how to bring our commitment to practice into everyday life in a way that serves,” Michael writes in ‘Diversity.’ “This is the heart of intimate practice.”

While this repeated core message gives the collection of essays a sense of continuity, it also means that these essays are best read one at a time. They are meant to be reflected upon and digested; they go perfectly with a contemplative breakfast, or as an apéritif before practice.

Awake in the World may be Michael’s most accessible work yet. Since it was adapted from talks, the book has an overall conversational tone, with just enough yoga philosophy and Sanskrit terminology sprinkled throughout. Each essay is an example of real life yoga theory in action. Michael’s writing style evokes Annie Dillard and Wendell Barry: thoughtful, connected and intimate.

In this intimacy, we also receive some insights into the Michael Stone behind the teaching. We get glimpses of the man who hangs out at the skateboard park with his son, who sometimes feels embarrassed to call himself a “yoga teacher” when he thinks about himself “wearing leotards on the cover of a Yoga DVD at the check-out line at Whole Foods.”

Michael writes openly about the feelings of depression and aimlessness in his early 20s which lead to him committing to practice. And he admits that this is difficult for him to reveal, but that he appreciates it when teachers are able to talk about their anxieties and inadequacies. “I want to be truthful in unwinding my experience so that others can see their lives in new ways,” he writes.

These essays and this honesty do help me see my life and the world in a new way. But I also find myself wondering: “What next? What happens after we wake up, even a bit? What do we do?” I don’t consider myself a particularly awakened or enlightened being, but I’ve noticed lately that the more I practice, the more I reflect, the more I engage ~ the more sensitive I become. As my practice integrates into my life and I look at the world with more clarity, I often feel raw, heartbroken. I become too invested in my community work. The news reports leave me powerless and frustrated. My Twitter stream makes me cry.

I suppose the answer is simply to let myself cry. Practice more. Turn off my computer and close the newspaper, step into my pain and walk in the world. Talk to my neighbours. Hug my loved ones.

  1. . . . and keep writing. You have an important voice – and we want to hear it.

  2. P.S. I have read about half of the book. I like it very much but also can’t help but feel that it’s a somewhat partial and sanitized presentation of Michael’s full voice. I heard a lot live that I don’t see in the book, including some pretty bitingly sarcastic humor. Personally I would like to see him write in a more down and dirty way, if that makes sense. Not to replace what’s here, but to round it out more fully. This feels very very clean . . . to the point where, as good as it is, I still feel like something vital is being held back, something’s missing. Just my 2 cents.

    • interesting observation, thanks carol. i’ve also seen micheal’s sarcastic sense of humour in workshops and talks, and that aspect has been washed out in the editing process. it would be interesting to find out why. sometimes that kind of humour doesn’t translate well to the page. perhaps it read brash and tacky, rather than funny, so was cut out.

  3. Lovely review. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and agree that it’s best read one piece at a time.

  4. I love his stuff! And yes, in person, he can be very very funny (altho’ I’ve only ever got to two of his workshops).
    Re your comment about what to do after we wake up … have you read “after the ecstacy the laundry” by Jack Kornfield?! It’s very good. I also like Ethan Nichtern’s perspective about interdependence and community activisim .. which (to my mind) is similar to some of what Michael appears to be doing. Ethan’s written a book on the subject too and his IDP website is great – I’ve taken an online course with him in the past and it was very affordable which I really appreciated given that I’m living on a student budget in Canada 🙂

    • good suggestions, thank you. and thanks also for pointing out the reference below. it’s in a lovely article by anna guest-jelley, who commented above! 🙂

  5. BTW just discovered there is a nice reference to Michael’s book in this article too http://themagazineofyoga.com/blog/2011/08/11/each-time/

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Roseanne. Echoing Carol: “Keep writing!”

    A few thoughts:

    Not remembering where, but I believe one of the Yoga-Upanishads refers to the yogi growing as sensitive as an eyeball.

    Of course, as Thich Nhat Hanh often says, “Suffering is not enough.” My weekly Dharma Lounge has been working with a very short, sweet, and profoundly penetrating and relevant sutra from the Pali Canon on just this question of how to remain open and present and not drown, be oppressed by, lost or caught in our mental formations. I think once we’re done (in about two weeks) I may post about it on the mindfulness yoga blog….

    Meanwhile, much love!

    • thanks, frank jude! “sensitive as an eyeball…” love that simile, haha! i look forward to your blog post about the sutra. i expect that i will find some reassurance in there…

  7. great post! .. i attended a talk with michael stone in regina a few months ago and enjoyed it so much .. he has a great sense of humour and is so honest and upfront … inspiring and real. this post reminded me that i really want to read his book!

    thanks,
    jessica

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