Michael Stone: Meditation, tattoos and the inevitability of pain

Michael Stone is a Buddhist teacher, yogi, psychotherapist, author, father and social activist. He translates the teachings from yoga and Buddhist traditions, into practical tools that people can use, both for their own awakening, and also for a deeper change in our culture.

I signed up for a workshop with Michael Stone in London recently about transforming pain through yoga and mindfulness practice.

One of the things that I realized during my last tattoo session was that I’ve been using some of the meditation techniques to go through the pain. And then I started to think more about how pain is a part of the meditation process, getting a tattoo, and life in general.

I’ve been following Michael’s teachings for a couple of years, and what captures me is the fresh approach he has around ancient practices like Buddhism and how accessible and adaptable it can be for our modern times.

I was curious to find out what Michael thinks about meditation and pain in relation to tattoos, and he took the time to have a chat about it and asked me a few questions too.

Yaknel: How did you come to Buddhism?

Michael: I was exposed to both yoga and Buddhist teachings when I was young. I had an uncle named Ian and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He lived in a mental institution (back then they were called asylums), so he lived in a hospital, and when I was young I used to go visit him after school. He was my best friend and we used to meditate together and we also would read texts together like the Bhagavad Gita. So when I was a kid I was sort of exposed to some of these ideas, but I never really understood that they were something that you practice. It was just kind of ideas or you meditate — I never thought it was something that you would devote a life to. So around the time that he died I was 19 and I really didn’t really know what to do with my life and I tried different jobs, which didn’t workout, and I eventually turned to those teachings again. I had a girlfriend who brought me to a yoga class and when I was at that class (I’d never known anything about yoga classes), and from the moment the class started I felt like I knew every single thing the teacher was going to say. It was the strangest feeling that I’ve only had a couple of times in my life where I was completely in the right place. And then I started going to different Buddhist centers to learn more about meditation, because in the yoga world I was having a hard hard time finding teachers who were really clear about how to practice meditation, and also at the same time I started studying psychology, so for me yoga, Buddhist practice, psychology have always been interconnected in my own life. So originally I trained in the Vipassana tradition also known as insight meditation. I started teaching retreats in that tradition and then around the same time I started teaching, I also started to study Zen. I had a teacher name Pat Enkyo O’Hara in Manhattan and she was a radical teacher and I loved her.

Y: I also like to bring things together and every time I go to a tattoo session, I go through pain. I started with a really tiny tattoo and then they got bigger and bigger, so the sessions got longer and longer, and then in one session I started using some meditation techniques to go through the physical pain. So thought maybe going through pain or getting a tattoo is a form of meditation. I have a couple of friends who are tattoo artists and I started asking them how they feel when they are tattooing. Now because I have this project I thought it was a great opportunity to bring tattoos and pain and meditation together. Do you have any tattoos?

M: I don’t have any tattoos.

Y: Are you thinking of getting one?

M: No, I’ve never had a feeling for an image that I wanted to imprint on my body, and because of that I’ve never felt like I wanted to explore the meaning of being in a relationship with an image that’s in my skin. Having said that, I have lots of friends who are, some of them, including my sister, are obsessed with tattoos, and I really love the process of them thinking through what they wanna do, how they want to do it, what it means to them, the relationship with the artist, like whether they want someone else to interpret it or there’s an image that’s come from their own imagination. So I’m really interested in the whole process around tattoos and maybe one day I will get a tattoo, but I’ve just never felt the calling. But I think the topic of the relationship between the art of the tattoo, the process of receiving the tattoo, and the pain that one feels in the process is really interesting because I don’t think people (at least I don’t hear in my community), people say ‘I’m getting a tattoo and then they say it was painful and then they say here’s the tattoo’, and I feel that sometimes I want to learn more about how the process of getting the tattoo can be a practice, and the process of working with pain can be a practice, because my interest is basically how everything we do can be some kind of practice that can help us be free. And so I’m interested in thinking how that might happen with tattoos. You’re asking the questions but maybe I should be asking the question.

“Everything we do can be some kind of practice that can help us be free, and so I’m interested in thinking how that might happen with tattoos.”

Y: Do you know how Buddhism views the body and tattoos? For example Thai Buddhist monks have tattoos and they also give tattoos, so there is a cultural connection with the tattoo form as a meditation form.

M: I’m not familiar with tattoos being connected with Buddhist practice. I think there is something that arises in different cultures and maybe taken on by people who are Buddhist.

It’s interesting though, one of the terms that is very popular in Yoga is vinyasa, probably everyone who is listening knows the term vinyasa which most of the people translate as jumping back in a pose and being sweaty. But the word ‘vin’ means to go in, and ‘yasa’ means a tattoo. It’s an impression and there’s a tantric practice where you take an image or a really important sentence or a mantra, so something that’s very meaningful for you, and you visualize it inside of your body and you meditate on it inside of your body, and then the story is, the practice is, and then it stays in your body and at different times in your life when you need it, you take your breath down there, and you have the image saved, which is kind of an interesting idea. It’s like an internal tattoo, and that’s actually where that term comes from, it’s an invisible internal tattoo that’s obviously private.

Y: In modern life we try to avoid pain, and we take pain killers and so on. Why do you think people choose to experience pain in different forms? For example getting a tattoos means I’m choosing to be in pain, (sometimes I feel that my body starts craving that pain), or activities where pain cannot be avoided, for example ballet or full-contact sports?

It seems like when we experience pain most of us have no idea what to do with it, and sometimes I think when our pain is very personal and we don’t have a community where we can express our pain, or a place that’s safe where we can express our pain, we think our pain is invisible or it’s mysterious. So we really hurt inside but we don’t know how to make it real. I think that’s one of the reasons why people turn to cutting because when you cut yourself you make the pain tangible, you make it real, it’s visible, and it’s got sensation and you know where it is, and somehow you can control it to a certain extent. It’s like ‘I’m in pain and I’m going to make it real, and now it’s real’ and I don’t think that’s why people get tattoos. But I think there is something similar in it, which is, not so much there is an image I love so I’m going to have pain so it’s imprinted in me, but that the pain is somehow connected it to the whole process, so I’m going to enter into this because I can open up to the pain.

“There is this magical thing that humans seem to be able to do, where we can take pain and turn it into something meaningful.”

And if I open up to the pain and I know people say this when they experience pain in tattooing, that some part of them is in pain, but also their mind can be free at the same time if they don’t fight the pain. So in a way there is something masochistic about human beings in general, which is that we can find a way to turn pain into pleasure, and if human beings didn’t have that, we would all kill ourselves. There is this magical thing that humans seem to be able to do, where we can take pain and turn it into something meaningful. So in a way once you get your first, third, fifth, tenth tattoo, probably something happens where you’re interested not just in the image, but in the process of working with the pain because it’s real and you can’t escape it and the only thing you can do is be intimate with it, and be one with it, and be one with it, and I think there is a kind of freedom in that.

Y: The other day I saw a journalist and she didn’t want a tattoo, but she wanted to feel how a tattoo feels. So she went to a tattoo studio and asked the artist if he could use the different needles on her skin without the ink? And then I clicked immediately and I thought that’s very interesting because I can just go to my tattoo artist and say I just want the pain of the needles. If I’m craving the pain I can just go and buy a tattoo machine and just do it by myself. It was very interesting for me to wonder why I want ink on my skin if I can go through the process without it.

M: and what did you discover?

Y: Well I’ve been analyzing the process. For myself I just like the entire process because it involves so many different things: looking for the tattoo artist, establishing a relationship with that person, then going through a concept, then the session, then the pain and then the healing. For me it’s like a lifetime project. It’s not just that you get the tattoo, it’s ageing with you. I usually get asked questions like ‘how will you feel when you get really old and your skin gets old?’ and I don’t think about it, but I think it’s nice that your tattoos are ageing with you.

When somebody gets a tattoo it’s a ritual, and we don’t know how to do ritual in our culture. But wouldn’t it be interesting if the tattoo artists also had some training in the history and the process of giving ritual, because in a way the tattoo artist is a shaman or is a guide, and the person who is undergoing the tattoo, if the tattoo artist kind of open up the space and says, ‘this is a really important process, let’s explore some of the other things that come up around this, I don’t mean like a psychotherapist but I mean more like: ‘let’s treat this as a spiritual experience and a ritual that marks a change in your life,’ because I assume when we you get a tattoo it marks the end of something and the beginning of something else. And I guess I wonder, do tattoo artists ever think of themselves as helping someone through a deeper ritual?

Y: it depends.

M: or is it just the client comes in and they gets the image that they want?

Y: It totally depends on the person. I have this experience with a tattoo artist who is considered a bit of a weird guy. We had coffee and was not until the second appointment that we started to talk about the concept of the tattoo. During the second appointment we sat and he asked me some questions about my spiritual life and so on…

M: So he was inviting in a deeper dimension to the experience, which probably made you feel safer.

Y: Yes, and I got why some people might feel strange around him because some people just wanna get there and get the tattoo and get out. And I so enjoyed that experience.He showed me the sketch and asked me how I feel about the colours. There was a lot of communication inside the process. Do you think there is any different between the pain that we choose and the pain that is kind of there by accident or that pain that just “shows up”?

“Pain is inevitable; it’s built into life.”

M: In the Buddhist tradition it’s said that pain comes from getting what you don’t want, not getting what you want, being separated from what you love, and just being in a physical body that’s in relationships. In other words, your pain is inevitable, it’s built into life. It happens when we age, it happens when we get ill, it happen when people hurt us, it happen when we hurt other people even unintentionally. So there’s a pain that is built into human life and sometimes I feel like living an awakened life means recognizing that there is pain built into life, but that you’re going to take actions that don’t make it worse, so how can you live in a way where you’re open to the experience of pain and not trying to escape it, but simultaneously your actions don’t create more pain in a world where there’s enough pain.

“My interest in helping people see life as more spiritual begins with helping people see that everything they do has an effect and because there’s already so much pain, let’s try and live in a way where we’re not increasing unnecessary pain. And that’s really easy to talk about it and really hard to practice, really hard to embody.”

So life is really hard sometimes so I guess if your practice is in the realm of tattoos then I’m interested in how tattoo practice helps us to open up to pain, but also teaches us how to find ways of lessening unnecessary pain. And maybe because there is so many images telling us, and I think this is more true for women, that there are so many images telling us how we should look, and what are bodies should look like, and how we should or shouldn’t age, that maybe one of the reasons why tattoos are also very popular, is that people just want to have some way of like taking control of their body and say, ‘no, this is not a corporate body. I can do what I want with it.’ And likewise I think that even though everybody criticize Instagram and Facebook as self-centred I wonder too if sometimes things like Instagram are also a way of taking control of the images of our life, and portraying how we want to look in the way we feel like looking, and so that’s the one thing I’m really attracted to about the tattoo community, is that it’s saying, ‘we are not corporate bodies.’ And then the critique of course is how then do you engage that community without just looking like everyone else in that community. (laugh).

It’s very interesting that you mention that, because when we were brainstorming for the name of the project we decided to call it Plumage, we realised that birds have feathers, different animals have camouflage, they look beautiful so we as human being are not as beautiful as some animals, so maybe tattoos are a way to create our own Plumage our own feathers.

M: That is that something that has probably been central to the history of tattoo in any culture.

Y: or body modification

M: yes.

Y: Do you know anyone who meditates during a tattoo session?

M: I would say that if you are getting a tattoo and you can work with your mind in a way where you continually open to the sensations of the tattoo and you can notice when you start drifting away, or you dissociate, and you come back again to the each moment of sensation that’s happening during the tattoo then that is meditation practice.

Y: It’s very intense holding that for four hours

M: and it’s really intense meditating for weeks and weeks on end even 10 minutes! Sometimes your knees are in pain, or your back is in pain and you just work with it. I don’t see how it is any different with tattoos.

Y: When I realized this I started asking to the tattoo artist if they find meditative the act of tattooing, if you do an activity that absorbs your attention for the person who is getting the tattoo the focus is the pain. Does this process of focusing create a kind of discipline?

M: No. I don’t think it does anything. Just because you can pay attention to something in a sustained way, it maybe stabilizes your mind, but I don’t think it really would change you very deeply. Although everybody is hip to meditation nowadays, I don’t think that just being able to use your attention to meditate is enough. I think we also need to have teachings and study in order to have some understanding about how to life our life, whether that’s learning more about non-violence, or whether that’s learning about cultivating compassion, or perhaps it’s just cultivating some kindness in our own ways that we talk about or perceive ourselves. So I think that meditation has to sit side by side with teachings and understanding in order for it to really change us as people. I’m not convinced that just meditating really changes somebody, in the same way that one of the places where mindfulness and meditation is use nowadays is in the US military. Does just meditating make soldiers more compassionate or does it just make them more focused? I don’t know, we’ll see what happen over the years.

But one thing that I do notice is that we need a little bit more than just meditation. So if we have this idea that ‘oh if the tattoo artist really just treats it as meditation practice, or the person getting the tattoo treats it like meditation practice, I don’t think it’s enough. I think we also need to be able to have some deeper understanding about what we’re looking at in meditation so that we can learn more about impermanence, or open up to more non-reactivity so we become more compassionate, caring, creative people. I feel like sometimes that’s why any kind of creative practice is helpful but I feel like it’s not quite the same as spiritual practice, because sometimes there’s no teachings associated with it. Like you can being an amazing improviser, but it might not go deep enough into all aspects of your life, you just may be good at improvising with music, but it might not make you a nicer person.

Y: Do you think that tattoos also illustrate the impermanence of life and the body?

M: Of course, our bodies are changing and when you get a tattoo it probably seems like it’s not changing for a few years, but depending on your age, and your body type and your genetics, and how you eat and exercise, your tattoo is going to change and that’s a beautiful thing, and I think maybe that’s place where you can start to explore not only your attachment to your body, but your relationship with impermanence. If you have a tattoo that you feel like ‘oh my god this isn’t the image that I originally got, it’s changed so much! I don’t like it anymore,’ that’s a place to really work with maybe your expectations. In the same way when you meet somebody and you fall in love with them, they are never the same person a year later or two years later. You hear that a lot when people break up with people they say, ‘oh he wasn’t the person that married.’ Well no. And the tattoo you got ten years ago is not the tattoo you got ten years ago.

Y: Do you think through pain we can liberate ourself from suffering, or does the physical pain put emotional suffering in perspective?

M: I think that if we’re talking about self-created suffering, yes, because some suffering, a lot of human suffering is really, what Zen calls: adding a head on top of your head, which basically means, if pain is inevitable then maybe most of our suffering comes from trying to escape our pain, so how do we turn towards our pain and really open to it? And I think one thing that somebody who’s in the tattoo community might begin to notice is that when you have that understanding of opening to pain, really opening to pain until you’re just one with the pain, then probably you can really use that in childbirth, or when you’re ill, or when someone near you is in emotional pain you can really be with them, because you know what it’s like to be with pain, so I would encourage people who are in the tattooing process to really open to the sensations of pain until there is no you there, just pain. And also notice how when you are experiencing the pain but you personalize it, like ‘it’s happening to me, I don’t like this’, to notice how much suffering there is. So maybe it’s possible to feel pain and not suffer and I think you can explore that really, truly in tattoos, but I can’t say that from personal experience.

“If pain is inevitable then maybe most of our suffering comes from trying to escape our pain, so how do we turn towards our pain and really open to it?”