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.