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Toronto based Buddhist teacher Michael Stone, who has travelled visiting several occupy groups photographed in downtown Toronto, November 24 2011. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto based Buddhist teacher Michael Stone, who has travelled visiting several occupy groups photographed in downtown Toronto, November 24 2011. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Philosophical lessons in Occupy? One yoga teacher's quest Add to ...

“When the Occupy movement first started, one realization I had is that this is a collective attempt to pull the handbrake on a culture that’s really outgrown what’s sustainable.”

Michael Stone is a bearded street sage, a young man who has hung out with Occupiers in their camps this fall to understand what they’re all about.

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“I make a point of not coming north of Bloor Street,” explained the yoga teacher, psychotherapist and founder of Centre of Gravity, a Buddhist community in Toronto, when I met him uptown. “This is the first time in a long time,” he continued, a tad forlornly, as if the experience was somewhat disconcerting.

To placate him, I find an alternative eatery – an organic, vegetarian joint – and over herbal tea, out pour his thoughts on why the Occupy movement shouldn’t be underestimated and how it will reappear in unexpected places.

To a famously inchoate phenomenon of urban squatters that has flummoxed media onlookers, he has become a voice on YouTube and CBC Radio that attempts to cast a philosophical net of meaning around the disparate groups of people who gathered in city parks and captured headlines.

But that doesn’t mean he provides easy or clear answers. Talking to Mr. Stone is an exercise in frustration. He is as obtuse in his responses as the Occupiers are in their demands.

Weirdly, though, that’s what’s interesting about him. The Occupy movement, if you go by his take, is not just about economic disparity. He makes you feel that to not understand what they represent is to be on the other side of a philosophical/spiritual divide. If this is a revolution, it’s very Zen. Listening to him is like being in some wannabe 1960s love-in, where everyone is feeling something so big and spacey, they can’t quite articulate it. Then again, if you feel that, you just might be too mainstream, too Establishment, too square, too much of a 99 per cent-er, suffering, as he says, from “a failure of the imagination.”

“This is the kind of movement that when it loses its focal point – eviction from the park – it actually becomes more successful. So maybe we needed to lose the park in order to transcend the park,” he says gently over his detoxifying agent.

In September, Mr. Stone, a 37-year-old single father of an 8-year-old boy, was in Sante Fe, N.M., teaching at a Zen Buddhist monastery, when Occupiers called to ask if someone could help them moderate a conversation with the Pueblo people. They had been trying to get the native Americans to join their protest.

“I got there and I cried,” says Mr. Stone. (He speaks easily about his life and emotions.) “I saw about 50 people in a circle, trying to have a conversation across ethnic lines, across economic lines, across racial lines, and I had this feeling that everything I believe in was being embodied there.” He helped them initiate a conversation with each other, and when Occupiers showed up in New York, he went there to observe what was going on. He has visited a total of five Occupy encampments across Canada and the United States.

His interest in understanding the marginalized – or those whom he says the culture discards – began as a young boy. Growing up in Forest Hill, a well-to-do neighbourhood of Toronto (well north of the Bloor Street divide, it should be noted) he became aware of what he calls “compartmentalization” in his socio-economic class. The eldest of three children, born to a father who is an architect and schoolteacher mother, he was drawn to an uncle who lived in a mental institution after being diagnosed as schizophrenic. “He didn’t fit in our family, and he didn’t really fit in our economy,” he says.

After dropping out of University of British Columbia, where he was studying philosophy, he took up Buddhism, convinced he needed to find stillness within himself. He enrolled at the University of Toronto, graduating with a degree in psychology. Later, he added a degree in psychoanalysis that allowed him to open his own psychotherapy practice. In 2004, he began Centre of Gravity, a not-for-profit facility, where people can come to practice yoga, meditate and have psychotherapy sessions.

“I have this hypothesis that the path to healing wounds and building community is about learning where there are parts of ourselves that we compartmentalize and parts of society that we treat like garbage ... Meditation brings into awareness all the stuff you haven’t wanted to look at. And the Occupy movement is trying to bring into public awareness the parts of our environment, the parts of our community, that we haven’t wanted to look at.”

What was happening in all the Occupy camps was “real democracy” he explains. Some may have drawn homeless people and drug addicts, but “every day there were meetings about how to live together in the park ...What the Occupy movement achieved is not that they’ve developed a place as much as they have developed a space where the compartmentalized parts of our cities have been having a conversation with each other.”

He cautions onlookers not to dismiss the Occupiers’ significance. “We have this idea that if something isn’t hierarchical and doesn’t have a leader at the top, that it’s structureless.” In addition to strong online communication, there are ongoing meetings taking place every day, he says.

Still, he is unwilling to predict its direction. Sitting back in his banquette, he laughs gently at the mainstream culture’s desire for sound-bite explanation.

“The movement will gel in ways we don’t understand,” he offers.

“If anyone told you this would happen two months ago and it would look like this – that there would be 50,000 people in Times Square last week – no one would believe you. One thing about this movement is that even at its core, we don’t know where it’s going.”

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