That’s my real story

“By the time I finished my tour in 1993, I was in some condition of anguish that deepened and deepened. Prozac didn’t work. Paxil didn’t work. Zoloft didn’t work. Wellbutrin didn’t work. In fact, the only comic element in the whole thing was when I was taking Prozac, I came to believe that I had overcome my [sexual] desires. I didn’t know that it has that side effect. I thought it was a spiritual achievement.”

The daily regimen of life at the Zen center was sometimes preoccupation enough. “Think of a Boy Scout camp,” Cohen said. “There are a lot of small cabins, a mess hall and some kind of recreation hall that had been converted into a Zen meditation hall. Just maintenance took the whole day just to keep the thing going. Pipes would burst in the winter. You get up at 2:30 or 3 in the morning, depending on your duties. I ended up as one of Roshi’s personal assistants, and I was cooking for him.” After a year, Cohen was ordained as a Buddhist monk. “None of this represented the solution to a crisis of faith,” Cohen told me. “I looked at it as a demonstration of solidarity with the community. I was never looking for a new religion. I was perfectly satisfied with my old religion.”

Other times, the Zen life wasn’t enough. “I was sitting in the meditation hall one afternoon,” said Cohen, “and I thought, ‘This sucks. This whole scene sucks.’ And I moved from that into cataloging the various negative feelings I had for the mother of my children. I found myself descending into a bonfire of hatred, you know – that bitch, what she’d done to me, what she left me with, how she wrecked the whole fucking scene. I was in there, I was in my robes, and the furthest thing from my mind was spiritual advancement. The furthest. I mean, I was consumed with rage.”

That day, Cohen’s rage gave way to a moment of unexpected grace, a kind of temporary epiphany. “There was sunlight on the floor of the cabin, where we were waiting to go see Roshi,” he said. “There were leaves outside and the shadow of these leaves was on the floor. The wind moved, something moved, and I disappeared into this movement. . . .  The whole scene blew up. A dog started barking, and I was barking. And everything that arose was the content of my being. Everything that moved was me. . . .  In certain blessed moments, we experience ourselves as the reality that is manifesting as everything. There’s no ‘I am one with the universe,’ which is the cheapest mystical slogan.” Cohen paused. “There is that moment,” he continued, “and it decides that life is worth living. I was barking with the dog, but there really was no dog.”

But dread still arose, and it could obliterate the self. After several years at the camp, Cohen had decided it was time to leave. He was driving to the airport, and, he said, “the bottom dropped out. This floor that was supposed to be there wasn’t there. It was dreadful. I pulled my car over to the side of the road. I reached back and I got my shaving kit, and I took out all the medication and threw it out the window and I said, ‘Fuck this. If I’m going to go down, I want to go down clear-eyed.’ So, I went back to the camp and I did those next few weeks, which were pure hell, and during that time, I picked up a book by an Indian writer by the name of Balsekar.”

Ramesh Balsekar was a Hindu mentor who lived in Mumbai and wrote about a concept called “non-dualism,” developed in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In 1999, Cohen departed Mount Baldy and headed to Mumbai. He spent a year studying with Balsekar. “The model I finally understood,” he recalled, “suggested that there really is no fixed self. The conventional therapeutic wisdom today encourages the sufferer to get in touch with his inner feelings – as if there were an inner self, a true self, the real self that we have glimmerings of in dreams and insights. . . . There is no real inner self to command your loyalty and the tyranny of your investigation. What happened to me was not that I got any answers, but that the questions dissolved. As one of Balsekar’s students said, ‘I believe in cause and effect, but I don’t know which is which.’”

Slowly, the depression eased. “By imperceptible degrees, something happened, and it lifted,” Cohen continued. “It lifted, and it hasn’t come back for two and a half years. That’s my real story. I don’t feel like saying, ‘I’ve been saved,’ throwing my crutches up in the air. But I have been. Since that depression has lifted – and I don’t know whether it’s permanent or temporary – I still have the same appetite to write.” Ten New Songs was perhaps the loveliest and most gracious album Cohen had made. “The Future came out of suffering,” he said. “This came out of celebration.”

Interview with Leonard Cohen

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