Finding meaning, hope, and new connections in times of loss.
There used to be an angel who walked, or rather seemed to float, about my west-end Toronto neighbour. His name was Michael Stone. With a clean-shaven head and an exquisitely calm and gentle demeanour, I always thought Michael exuded a majestic sense of inner peace.
Michael was—and remains—one of Canada’s most beloved Buddhist meditation and yoga teachers. He was also a father, partner, author and activist who transformed many lives, teaching people to connect with their breath, which is the very essence of human life.
The news of Michael’s unexpected death at age 42 in Vancouver last July hit me and others like so many thousands of heavy bricks dropping from the sky. An online tribute posted on the website of the Buddhist magazine, Lion’s Roar, revealed a secret. Michael was struggling privately with bipolar.
Michael was an intensely spiritual individual. One of his greatest gifts was seeing deeper connections in the everyday world. His family says his Buddhist roots were planted at an early age. As an adult Michael vigorously nurtured and harnessed his spiritual practice as a way of managing his mental health.
On the surface, Michael’s tragic death embodies the Buddhist perspective of existence: life is ripe with pain, suffering, and uncertainty. These are sentiments that resonate strongly with many of us of diverse faith today. Indeed, the concept of impermanence—the belief that nothing lasts or stays within our grasp—is regarded as the great existential challenge Buddhism addresses.
I take great comfort in viewing Michael’s death through a different lens—one of rebirth and continued life—particularly at this time of the year when we move out of Lent and into Easter.
Michael’s organs were harvested before he left this world. It is one of the myriad ways he lives on. His partner, Carina Stone, posted this message on her Facebook page after he passed away on the West coast, where he and his family had relocated from Toronto: “Michael left beautifully and peacefully… transformation… A blue heron landed on our deck. Another at the ocean’s edge.”
After I learned about Michael’s struggle with bipolar and ensuing death, I found solace at a small community-run yoga studio near my home in the west end of Toronto. Serendipitously, my instructor decided the task that morning was to learn “gentle lion’s breath.” It seemed a fitting way to reflect on Michael.
Today, it isn’t the image of an ephemeral blue heron soaring gracefully through the sky that comes to mind when I think of Michael. For me, he lives on in the form of that larger-than-life, gentle, wise, immensely compassionate, and all-sacrificing lion, Aslan, who I came to know and adore as a child in one of my favourite books, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
I smile inside when I think of Michael putting one gigantic paw softly in front of the other, sauntering down the expansive sea beach of another world, just as the character Aslan did in the movie version of “Narnia” that I watched with my daughters. I take comfort in the words of Narnia author, C.S. Lewis, who wrote: “Far, far better things lie ahead than any we leave behind.”
Namaste, Michael Stone. My soul salutes and honours yours. Your spirit sparkles in the spring sunshine as the days lengthen and we find more light. It is ever-present the green buds that are breaking through the dark earth in our gardens, reminding us of the continual cycle of rebirth.
—Kathryn Dorrell is the senior editor in the Communications Unit at the General Council Office. A version of this piece first appeared in the book Why I Believe: Daily Devotions on Faith & Discipleship edited by Alydia Smith (United Church Publishing House, 2017).