It feels like I've spent most of my life rehearsing for loss.
Like the 13th century wandering poet-monk Ehei Dogen, to whose texts my late teacher, Michael Stone introduced me, I lost my biological mother in childhood.
You'd have thought that loss might have prepared me for every loss that followed. But Michael's death feels like salt to a wound of some core, unavoidable separation.
In the wake of death, a hollow outline of my teacher's absence stares back at me.
Numerous students, family members and friends count the beads of the mala of Michael's love, now flung to the ocean but still thread in some variation of a heart sutra, simultaneously sutured and strung in the invisible.
Where lies the separation lies between grief and love?
Where lies gulf between life and death?
In Tibetan Buddhism, the dead spend 49 days in the intermediary zone between living and dying, between one life and the next. Loved ones guide the soul through The Bardo to the next incarnation.
Is that where Michael is now?
My culture has no certain language to speak about death and fewer rituals to keep our own souls from fragmenting from a safe holding space.
I hold my heart. A pain that is peaceful at times, and at other times ravaged, pulsates through my collar bones.
I ask questions that have no answers.
Negative capability, writes Keats, is the potential for the beauty of the world to unfold in the poet's wonder. Rilke counselled a young poet in a letter to never stop asking questions, "You might one day live your way into the answers."
If any experience might teach that no certainty exists in this world, it's death. Or maybe death, like taxes, is one of only two certainties. But still, in death, so many questions arise.
Michael suffered from a bipolar disorder, one that unbeknownst to most of his wider community had been worsening. He had talked openly of his depression. His vulnerability with his own pain and the pain in the world opened up a dialogue around trauma, about how wounds initiate our intimacy with the world and our collective responsibility to one another. That eloquence around suffering led me to follow his teachings. Most of my yoga teachers up until then had denied their own pain and encouraged denial in their students.
"Don't admit when you're in pain," one Swami had taught me, "If you talk about your unhappiness, people will think yoga doesn't work."
And so I witnessed all sorts of pain hidden in forms of denial: reckless sex, assumptions that one yoga reigned supreme over another, too-certain assertions about God.
By the time I met Michael, I had one foot poised and planted in Virabhadrasana II, (the warrior pose), and the other facing the door for a quick exit.
I kept one eye on the look out for a yoga I might know intimately on my own terms. And somehow Michael's terms and mine met in a kind of silent contract to approach the world with questions rather than answers.
"How do I intimately know my grief? How do I stay alive amidst heartbreak? How do I embrace the world in its pain and its joy? How do I serve?"
Following my mother's death, my own family in ways masked its grief. I remember once my father in my early 20s showing a slides of the early days of our family. The images of my mother, once alive, now gone, invoked sadness.
Seeing my tears, my father yelled, "You're supposed to be happy!" The utterance is cultural: we often shroud expressions of grief, upset, and anger in shame.
Did Michael, like many, feel shame for his own suffering? Did he march on like so many? Did he turn to a drug to mask the pain? Was it the isolation with a wound that he felt sting? Or was it the stigma, a stigmata, a mark that he feared if he had showed the world it might wound him further? Was he embarrassed? What impulses led him to self-medicate?
A stigma in botany is part of the flower that receives pollination.
In the wake of his death, I only wish he had shared that mark with us. I wish we could have held our teacher's pain in the way he held ours.
Now that stigma pollinates the world with questions and responses.
Where we've inherited shame around mental suffering, I'm not sure.
In his 1923 book The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes in "On Joy and Sorrow":
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
But that wasn't the poem that initiated me to walk with Michael for a while on the path of practice.
On cold winter evening in 2010, I first attended one of Michael's talk at Naada Yoga in Montreal. Tall, agile, full-beaded and gently moving, Michael reminded me, mysteriously, of "home." Now that I look back, I wonder if that feeling of "home" had been a summoning some neglected part of myself. Michael grieved the smallness of his first son's feet, ones that at the time were growing into pre-adolescence. Had he tapped into a grief my own upbringing hadn't allowed me to experience safely?
Touched by his gentleness, the way his words opened up a place in myself I hadn't felt permitted within community to explore, I felt drawn to him.
"Thank you for the light you bring into the world," I wrote Michael in an email, the day after that talk. I copied and pasted a poem by Robert Bringhurst, "Flowers of the Body." It was the beginning of an exchange of poems and words and meetings as a teacher and student that lasted seven. The last verse of "Flowers" reads:
We are the trees we plant
in the one earth of one another,
that they flower there
together: flowers we bring on the living
branch to one another,
in the darkness where there are
no other faces, shapes or colours,
no bouquets, no other
and in spite of that,
and in spite of that,
no faces, voices, colours,
no song singing itself
in the fingertips,
no tongues, no teeth,
no taut lips softening,
and closing, no
of light and fire and
and no flowers
and no hands.
He responded to say Bringhurst was one of his favourites.
Now that I read this poem, I see the prophecy in it. For every life ends in "no tongues" and "no teeth." It reminds me of "The Heart Sutra," a song that sings of the empty place where consciousness has no certain body. When I was going through breast cancer treatment, Michael's partner Carina mentioned she memorized The Heart Sutra to soothe herself.
The "no ears," "no hands" and "no mind" of The Heart Sutra at the time didn't have the same affect on me. But now I see the wisdom in it. In those threads of words I hear an unimaginable state, perhaps like the "no opening / and closing, no / unsoftening," of "Flowers of the Body" by Bringhurst. Repeated ritualistically, perhaps "The Heart Sutra," prepares the body for that state of "no eyes."
Such a place frightens me. Like most people, I hang onto life, to my physical body. I hang onto images of health, of wellness. I hang onto how Michael used to appear to us. When I watch him on video, it feels like I will see him soon.
I had emailed him the day he went into a coma. He told me I had a bell ringing job at the retreat in France. I half expect in my psyche's own denial of his absence, that he will be present at that retreat, calm and welcoming with the gentle embrace with which he ritualistically greeted his students.
As much as anyone, I have learnt ways to mask my pain and my scars.
So, in my own attempt to hold this unknown and uncertain place of "no opening and closing" that we call death, I have created my own rituals to contain the unthreaded complex feelings around loss.
What are those rituals?
Ritual readings of poems. Ritual dances. Ritual sharing. Ritual bowing. Ritual running along the ocean where in the wide expanse of sand, sea and sky where I imagine a world of freedom beyond form. If that is where the "no bouquets" of Michael's body soar, in that empty wide expanse, may it be glorious and alive, full and bright, even in the state of "no eyes."
This share is one ritual. It is one of many poems Michael and I shared through the course of our friendship. For my own healing process, my own mourning, I will continue to share these poems over time.
If you like to bear witness, please do. Or share your own in the comments below.