Leonard Cohen: Several Lifetimes Already
Leonard Cohen: Several Lifetimes Already
"Nine o’clock," says Leonard Cohen, "and we’ve had several lifetimes already." Over a long and brilliant career, the poet and singer has lived many lives already, from essence of hip to celebrated lover to serious Zen man. PICO IYER on Leonard Cohen’s journey from Suzanne to Sesshin.
In the falling mountain darkness, I pull my car off the high, winding road into a rough parking lot, and a man comes out to greet me: an older man, stooped a little and shaven-headed, in tattered black gown and woolen cap and glasses. He extends a hand, gives me a bow and, picking up my case, leads me off to a cabin. He worries about my "long drive," asks if I’ll be okay here, heats up a pot of tea, and slices some fresh bread for me. As night falls, he tells me to feel at home and mentions a young woman he thinks I should be married to.
Then, since I will need some clothes to join him in the austerities for which he has invited me, this Talmudic-looking gentleman leads me off into the chill, unlit night to collect a gown and cap and pair of canvas sneakers for me. His home is a markedly simple place, with a small, black Welcome mat outside its door. Inside, a narrow single bed, a tiny mirror, a dirty old carpet, and a picture of some puppies cavorting under the legend "Friends Are All Welcome."
Farther inside, a pair of scissors, a few Kleenexes, a small shoulder bag with a Virgin Airlines tag around it, and on a chest of drawers, a menorah. "This place is really quite a trip," he says, smiling. "You enter a kind of science-fiction universe which has no beginning and no end." His own ragged gown, I notice, is held together with safety pins. The small Technics synthesizer in the next room is unplugged.
Leading me out into the dark, he climbs a steep road to where there are tall pine trees and the outline of monks in the distance and a thousand stars. We slip into a cold, empty room, and he gives me instructions on how to sit. "The bottom half—the legs—should be really strong," he says. "The rest should be fluid."
Then, assessing my posture as serviceable, he leads me out into the mountain dark and into the zendo next door. Thirty or so figures, all in black, are sitting stock-still in the night. They are coming to the end of a winter retreat, rohatsu, in which they sit like this, all but uninterruptedly, for seven days. Monks patrol the aisles with sticks, ready to hit anyone who threatens to drop off. Every forty-five minutes or so, the practitioners are allowed to break from their zazen positions to relieve themselves in buckets in the woods, or in rough outhouses known and feared throughout the Zen community. Most of them use the breaks, however, to continue their meditation unbroken, marching in spellbound, silent Indian file, round and around a central pine tree. My host, I notice, is probably thirty years older than most of the fresh-faced young men and women in attendance, yet as they walk around the tree, at top speed, he seems at least thirty years stronger too.
At 2 AM, after I head back to my cabin to get some sleep, there’s a knock on my door and a flashlight in the dark, and it’s the rabbinical-seeming elderly man again, ready to vault up rough stone paths to join in morning chants. For half an hour or so, to the beat of a steadily pounded drum, the assembled company races through twenty-four pages of Japanese syllabary, my host, like many others, reciting the entire Heart Sutra from memory. Then he leads me back through the frosty night to his cabin, to show me the ninth-century text on which we’ll soon be hearing a teisho, or Zen discourse. It’s a fearless scripture, as bracing as a sudden blow to the skull. "Anything you may find through seeking," the Zen master Rinzai warns, "will be only a wild fox spirit."
The light has come back to the austere settlement, and the huge boulders outside my room look as if they’re buried in snow when I hear a knock again, and follow my sleepless host up again, through the black-and-white silence, to hear the roshi, or teacher of this community, deliver his daily talk. A small round figure in huge orange robes comes in, and two attendants help him onto a kind of throne. "What is this thing called love?" the man says, speaking in the old-fashioned tones of his northern Japanese dialect, through a translator, chuckling but unhesitating. "A child can befriend a dog and lick its rear end. Is that love? Is love just shaking hands? Dogs and cats and insects mate; is that love?
"You’ve been hypnotized," he goes on. "You’ve got to take your mind to the laundry. Get it clean." And, he concludes, "When a man is with a woman, he has to occupy her fully."
Afterwards we head out into what is now a dazzling, blue-sky day. "Nine o’clock," says Leonard Cohen, a penetrating glint in his eye, "and we’ve had several lifetimes already today."
The "Lord Byron of rock ’n’ roll," as he is too often called, has always been a man of surprises—to the point where many (and sometimes himself) take him to be a man of artful disguises. Cohen’s life has always been dangerously mythic—from the house he bought on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960 with a $1,500 inheritance, to the dramatic turning-down of Canada’s Governor General’s Award for English-language poetry when he was only 34, to the wild, strung-out days at the Chelsea Hotel, the Chateau Marmont, and other holy shrines of dissipation (with Janis Joplin "giving me head on the unmade bed").
Even those who were not surprised when this archetypal figure from the seeking sixties suddenly came back with a growl in the late eighties and started winning all the prizes yet again may be taken aback to learn of some of his adventures: that he wrote, scored and directed a short film, "I Am a Hotel," which won the Golden Rose at an international television festival in Montreux; that he played for the Israeli troops of Ariel Sharon for two weeks, during the buildup to the Yom Kippur War; that he acted as the head of Interpol on an episode of "Miami Vice."
But many would be most surprised of all to know that the definitive ladies’ man and husky poet of the morning after is now living year-round in the Mount Baldy Zen Center, 6,250 feet above sea level, in the dark San Gabriel Mountains behind Los Angeles, serving, as he says, as "cook, chauffeur, and sometimes drinking buddy" to a 92-year-old Japanese man with whom he shares few words.
Cohen has, in fact, been a friend of Joshu Sasaki ever since 1973, though he has not made a fuss about it, and votaries will get clues to this part of his existence only from a couple of tiny elliptical vignettes in his 1978 book, Death of a Lady’s Man, and occasional songs—like "If It Be Your Will"—that, like his 1984 collection of psalms, Book of Mercy, express absolute submission. Apart from his 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year-old daughter, Lorca, the Japanese roshi seems to be the one still point in Cohen’s endlessly turning life, and now he accompanies the man he calls his friend to Zen centers from Vienna to Puerto Rico, and goes through punishing retreats each month in which he does nothing but sit zazen, twenty-four hours a day for seven days on end.
The rest of the time he works around the Zen center, shoveling snow, scrubbing floors, and—most enthusiastically—working around the kitchen (he tells me, with mischievous pride, that he has a certificate from the county of San Bernardino that qualifies him to work as waiter, busboy or cook). For the monk here known as Jikan (or "Silent One"), the things he’s famous for—a command of words, beautiful suits, a hunger for ideas, and a hypnotist’s ease at charming the world—are thrown aside.
"In the zendo," he tells me, not unhappily, "all of this disappears." ("This" referring, I think, to his name, his past, the life he carries around within him.) "You don’t notice if this woman’s beautiful or ugly. If that man smells or doesn’t smell. Whoever you’re sitting next to, you just see their pain. And when you’re sitting, you feel nothing but the pain. And sometimes it goes, and then it’s back again. And you can’t think of anything else. Just the pain." He pauses (and the chanteur/enchanteur slips out again). "And, of course, it’s the same with other kinds of pain, like broken hearts."
The icon who’s been entertained and idolized by everyone from Prince Charles and Georges Pompidou to Joni Mitchell and Michelle Phillips, the regular visitor to the top of the European charts who’s inspired not one tribute album (like most legends), but a dozen worldwide, the Officer of the Order of Canada recently described, in The United States of Poetry, as "perhaps the continent’s most successful poet," seems to thrive on this. He’s too happy to write anymore, he tells me soon after I arrive (though, one day later, he’s showing me things he’s writing, toward a new Book of Longing). And, though the face is still strikingly reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s—especially if he were playing Harold Bloom—he’s well hidden in the bobble cap that his roshi "commanded" him to wear. "This whole practice is mostly about terrifying you," he says happily. "But there’s a lot to be gained in those terrors. It gets you so efficiently into a certain place."
And the place is one that Cohen has been journeying toward all his life, in a sense. "There’s a bias against religious virtue here," he assures me, grinning one morning, as bells toll outside and I smell sweet incense in the air and hear clappers knocking in the distance, "and it’s very appealing. So you never have the feeling that it’s Sunday school. And you never have the feeling that you’re abandoning some cavalier life, or getting into some goody-goody enterprise. Not at all. Not at all." When a Buddhist magazine recently asked Cohen to conduct an interview with Sasaki, he gladly agreed, provided they could talk about "wine, women, and money." And to be sure, we’ve hardly been introduced before the disarming sinner-songwriter is using "pussy" and "shunyata" in the same sentence.
It’s not so much that Cohen has given up the world—he still has a duplex that he bought with two friends in Los Angeles, and when I visit him at two o’clock one morning, I hear the crackle of a transistor radio in his bedroom. The man with a gift for being in tune with the times is still providing the songs that are heard on the sound track of Oliver Stone’s state-of-the-art "Natural Born Killers," appearing at Rebecca De Mornay’s side at Hollywood functions not so long ago, and inspiring a new generation of grunge poets—to the point where Kurt Cobain famously sang, "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally." But he’s nonetheless managed to come to L.A., archetypal center of surface and self-absorption, and turn it into a high, cold mountain training more rigorous than the army.
In some ways, he’s been there since the beginning. His songs, after all, have always been about obedience and war, pain and attention and surrender, and he’s always seemed a curiously old-fashioned, even forbidding figure who abhors clutter and goes it alone and yearns to be on his knees as well as on his toes—focused and penetrating and wild. The dark skies and spare spaces and mythic shapes around Mount Baldy feel uncannily like the landscape of a Leonard Cohen song.
Besides, the self-styled "voice of suffering" has never chosen to diversify his themes; he just goes deeper and deeper into them. The refrain that lights up his recent song "Democracy" actually appears in his novel Beautiful Losers from thirty years ago; the poem he recited as a prologue to volume one of "Rare on Air," the KCRW compilation-album series, was one he wrote for his first book, composed in part when he was in high school. Even thirty years ago, when he was known as a woman-hungry, acid-dropping, enfant-terrible provocateur, he was writing, "Prayer is translation. A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered."
And for nearly half a century he’s been slipping in and out of view, playing games with the entity known as "Leonard Cohen." There’s the short, upper-middle-class Jewish kid taking lessons in hypnotism, forming a country-and-western band called the Buckskin Boys and, while studying English at McGill, reciting verse over jazz at midnight like some wintry Kerouac. There’s the slightly older figure, scrupulously dissolute, and already the author of six books when he sang his poem "Suzanne" over the phone to Judy Collins and she eventually persuaded him to sing it himself, this uncertain-seeming theologian, appearing at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Isle of Wight Festival, and on the client list of John Hammond (the man who discovered both Dylan and Springsteen). There’s the leading young poet in Canada not only delivering "Loneliness and History" lectures and composing a whole opera in the sixteenth-century verse-form of The Faerie Queene, but also losing his rights to "Suzanne," with the result that his first and most famous song to this day brings him no money at all.
He lived on the Greek island with his Norwegian love in the sixties. He acquired a "small, cupboard-sized room" in the Chelsea Hotel, where Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix came through now and then. He took over a 1,200-acre homestead in Franklin, Tennessee (rented from the writer of "Bye, Bye Love" for $75 a month)—and posed for photos in a Stetson. He got dissected by the novelist Michael Ondaatje in a book-length work of literary criticism; sold excerpts from his work to Cavalier, the skin magazine; appeared at one concert riding a white horse, and greeted an audience in Hamburg with the cry, "Sieg Heil!"
Cohen showed, in fact, an almost disquieting readiness to live out every romantic myth, from staying in a garret to moving to Greece (for its "philosophic climate"), to telling all his women that being true to them meant being untrue to his Muse. What this provoked, understandably, was a sense in many quarters that he was brashly courting success by pretending to ignore it. "If you listen carefully," The New York Times said in 1973, "you are sometimes rewarded with a poet’s profound thoughts, sometimes with a pop star’s put-on."
Undeterred, Cohen continued to subvert his success with puckish gestures, following a book of poems called The Spice-Box of Earth with another called Flowers for Hitler, scribbling up aphorisms on walls—"Change is the only aphrodisiac"—and then ascribing them to the Kama Sutra. Even his career seemed a game he was playing, as he teamed up with, of all people, Phil Spector, for a 1977 album, "Death of a Ladies’ Man," in which dark and serious inquiries into the nature of the soul got buried under a foot-thumping Wall of Sound (Cohen himself called it "a grotesque masterpiece"). The final irony of all was that this overblown Vegas casino of a production actually may have paved the way for the fuller, richer sounds of later albums that brought Cohen surging back onto the charts in his mid-fifties.
Indeed, Cohen always seemed to have a gift for the last word. By the 1990s, such skeptical magazines as Entertainment Weekly, which had always found him an irresistible target for put-downs, were entitling articles "Seven Reasons Leonard Cohen Is the Next Best Thing to God." The head of one of New York’s most prestigious publishing houses was telling me that Cohen has "the best design sense of anyone I’ve ever met," and the man who hadn’t performed live in New York for ten years was No. 1 in Norway for seventeen weeks. Even The New York Times, his unwearying opponent for twenty-five years, was concluding, in 1995, "He is pretty extraordinary, when all is said and done."
Now, as we sit in his cabin one cold December morning, a string of Christmas lights twinkling sadly from the roadside shack across the street, "Mike loves [heart symbol] Suzie" scrawled into the pavement, he’s telling me that he makes no claims to piety or knowledge: his training here is just a useful response to the "predicament of his life." This "connection—the unavoidable presence of the Other—has driven us to religion," he says, explaining why he thinks "the great religion is the great work of art." We "form ourselves around these problems," he goes on. "These problems exist prior to us, and we gather ourselves, almost molecularly, we gather ourselves around these perplexities. And that’s what a human is: a gathering around a perplexity."
He sips some coffee from a cup with the logo of "The Future" on it, beside him the thick notebooks where poems hundreds of verses long will get condensed, often, into a single six-verse song. Around us, as we sit, almost nothing else except a bottle of Sparkletts water, a few candles, a toothbrush and, tucked into a light switch, a picture of the Winged Victory. Cohen has not slept, most likely, for six days. "It’s driven us to art," he says, returning to his theme of the Other. "I mean, it’s so perplexing—the humiliations, the glories that are so abundant—and it’s such a dangerous undertaking. I was just looking through my notebooks, and I saw something nice. It was: ‘I set out for love, but I did not know I’d be caught in the grip of an undertow. To be swept to a shore, where the sea needs to go, with a child in my arms, and a chill in my soul, and my heart the size of a begging-bowl.’ "
And even on this lofty perch, with nothing visible but rock and tree and the occasional sign prohibiting the throwing of snowballs, he doesn’t deny the "fixed self" that awaits him whenever he comes down from the mountain, and in fact goes out of his way to downplay his presence on the mountaintop. "Everyone here is fucked up and desperate," he says brightly. "That’s why they’re here. You don’t come to a place like this unless you’re desperate." Yet over and over, amid the calculated irreverence, the gamesmanship, and the crazy-wisdom subversiveness—one of the reasons he became a monk two years ago, he says, was "Roshi wanted me to do so for tax purposes"—I see something touching and genuine truly coming through. Leonard Cohen, I realize, is really, really trying, with all his body and his soul, to simplify himself as strictly as he does his word-drunk verses.
One morning at dawn, as we talk about Van Morrison and Norman Mailer and how "living in England is like living in a cabbage," Cohen gets to talking of Cuba, and the time, just after the revolution, when he was walking along the beach in his Canadian Army khaki shorts with his camping knife, imagining himself the only North American on the island, and got arrested as the first member of an invading force.
"So anyway, there I was, on the beach in Varadero, speculating on my destiny, when suddenly I found myself surrounded by sixteen soldiers with guns. They arrested me, and the only words I knew at the time were ‘Amistad de pueblo.’ So I kept saying, ‘Amigo! Amistad de pueblo!’ and finally they started greeting me. And they gave me a necklace of shells and a necklace of bullets and everything was great."
Then, suddenly, he stops. "What time is it?" I tell him and he says, "I shouldn’t be talking about my adventures when we’re about to listen to a wonderful teisho." And Leonard Cohen disappears into the black-robed disciple again, and into a reverent silence.
Another day, another tale as short and abstract and mythic, almost, as any of his ballads about worshipping at the altar of beauty, as he suddenly volunteers to tell me about his last girlfriend. "When I met Rebecca [De Mornay]," he says, "all kinds of thoughts came into my mind, as how could they not when faced with a woman of such beauty? And they got crisscrossed in my mind. But she didn’t let it go further than that: my mind. Except it did. And finally she saw I was a guy who just couldn’t come across."
"In the sense of being a husband and having more children and the rest." He stops. "And she was right, of course. But she was kind enough to forgive me. I had breakfast with her the other day, and I told her, ‘I know why you forgave me. Because I really, really tried.’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ "
End of story, end of song.
At times, as I listened, spellbound against my will by this man with beautiful manners and a poet’s rare diction, moving back and forth between hippie existentialist and Old World scholar, now referring to "bread" and "tokes" and "beating the rap," now talking in a high-pitched tone of "ancient" and "dismal" and "predicament," I could see the coyote trickster who’s been working the press for three decades or more. I felt disconcerted, almost, by his very niceness, his openness, his courtesy, as he continually kept thanking me for "being kind enough to come here," and tended to my every need as if I were the celebrity and he the poor journalist and referred to "what you’re nice enough to call my career." I felt there was something excessive to his modesty, his unusually articulate and quick-witted sentences bemoaning his lack of articulateness and sharpness ("I’m sorry. You get this kind of spaciness at moments in retreats. They say zazen brings short-term memory loss."), his claiming not to know, after twenty years in L.A., how long it takes to drive to Santa Barbara.
I saw the seasoned seducer whom his friend Anjelica Huston recently called "part wolf, part angel," and discovered how he could put "confidence" and "artist" together as easily as "pilgrim" and "mage." Certainly a man so meticulous in clothes and manner was not going to be careless in his verbal presentation of self.
Yet the trouble was, Cohen seemed more wise to this than anyone. "Secretly," he told me cheerily, "the sin of pride as it’s manifested here is that we feel we’re like the marines of the spiritual world: tougher, more reckless, more daring, more brave." Asked about his early years, he confesses, "I think I was more interested in the poetic life and everything around it than the thing itself." Nominating himself as "one of the great whiners," he says that the roshi looks at him sometimes and says, "Attention to the world: need more Buddhism!"
And so, as time passes, I really do begin to feel I am watching a complex man trying to come clear, a still jangled, sometimes angry soul making a heroic attempt to reduce itself to calm. As day passes into night and day again, he comes into focus, and out again, like the sun behind clouds, now blazing with a lucent high intensity, now more like the difficult brooder you might imagine from the records. "He’s a tiger," I remember a woman in New York telling me, "a very complicated man. Complicated in a very grown-up way. I mean, he makes Dylan seem childish." The first time she met him, he congratulated her on a book she’d written. As their meal went on, he added, "Your writing is a lot more interesting than you are."
Cruelty has always been as disconcerting a part of his package as perversity. Yet when I talked to the people who tour with him, I felt I was speaking to the Apostles. "I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as gracious, as graceful, as generous as Leonard," says Perla Batalla, who has been singing with him for ten years. "Once I’d been out on the road with Leonard, I couldn’t go out with anyone else." His other backup singer, Julie Christensen, left a newborn baby at home to go out on tour with him—having seen her friends who’d been in his band come back "changed, philosophically changed, really on this kind of heightened awareness level." His longtime vocalist, Jennifer Warnes, recorded a whole album of Cohen songs she wanted to bring again before the public.
All of them talk of how Cohen the singer seems of a piece with Cohen the Zen practitioner—how he made them sing and sing and sing the same song until sometimes they’d break into tears, and wore them out with his indefatigable three-hour, twelve-encore concerts. But all speak of his tours as if they were a kind of spiritual training. "He’ll give the same attention to the president of the country, or to someone who’s just walked up to him on the street," says Batalla, recalling how he rode on the bus like just another technician. Others mention his racing off to buy aspirin for them when they’re sick, or inviting them to his hotel room at night to drink hot chocolate made from the sink.
"In the ancient concert halls of Europe," says Christensen, "you got this feeling that you’d really have to run if you weren’t telling the truth. It was a mystery bigger than me, and if I’d figured it out, I would be bigger than it." Then, almost sheepishly, she adds, "I thought that kind of thing was corny before I toured with Leonard." Batalla sometimes visits his home just to sit in absolute silence with her boss.
And so the days on the mountain go on, and every day at dawn young monks with beautiful faces appear at my door with trays of food, and every day, when I visit Cohen in his cabin, he gives me green tea in a wineglass, or shows me paintings—flowing nudes and haggard self-portraits—he’s done on his computer, or reads me poems about the dissolution of self from a book he is collecting, which, like all his best work, sound like love songs and prayers and both, addressed to a goddess or to God.
One morning, in his bathroom, I come upon The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen.
"I like the fact they distinguish between Buddhism and Zen," he says when I come out.
"What is the difference?"
He disappears—good Zen solution—into the bathroom to clean cups. Another day, as the retreat is drawing to a close, the sky above my window gray and shriven and severe, he shows up with his hands dirty from fixing his toilet, and I try to get him to talk about his writing. "For me," he says, his voice soft and beautiful, with a trace of Canada still hiding inside it, "the process is really more like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey-cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it. And it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful"—you can hear the cadences of his songs here—"and yet there’s something inevitable about it." But most of the writers he admires, pre-empting one’s criticism again, "are just incredible messes, as human beings. Wonderful and invigorating company, but I pity their wives and their husbands and their children."
A crooked smile.
As for the songs, "I’ve always held the song in high regard," he says, "because songs have got me through so many sinks of dishes and so many humiliating courting events." Sometimes, he goes on, holding me with his commanding eloquence, his ill-shaven baritone compounded of Gauloises, Courvoisier and a lifetime of late nights, he’ll catch a snatch of one of his songs on the radio, "and I’ll think: these songs are really good. And it’s really wonderful that they have been written, and more wonderful that they should have found a place in the heart. And sometimes I’ll hear my voice, and I think: this guy has got to be the great comedian of his generation. These are hilarious: hilariously inept, hilariously solemn and out of keeping with the times; hilariously inappropriate."
A line he’s used for years, I know, but still more than you’d expect from a man whose songs are covered by Willie Nelson and Billy Joel. "To me," he continues, scraping at his sneakers with a knife, "the kind of thing I like is that you write a song, and it slips into the world, and they forget who wrote it. And it moves and it changes, and you hear it again three hundred years later, some women washing their clothes in a stream, and one of them is humming this tune." His conversation is like the outline of a ballad.
At last, as the 168 hours come to an end, I walk up the mountain to join the students in what will be their final session of zazen, the stars above the pines thicker than I have seen in thirty years of living in southern California. By now, nearly all of them are exhausted to the point of breakdown—or breakthrough—some of them with open wounds on their feet, others nodding off at every turn, still others lit up and charged as electrical wires.
And then, at two in the morning, on the longest night of the year, suddenly the silence breaks, and people talk and laugh and return to being math professors and doctors and writers once again as they collect the letters that have been accumulating for them and drink tea, and in the great exhalation you can hear a woman saying, in exultation, in relief, "Better than drugs!"
In his sepulchral cabin, Cohen breaks out the cognac and serves an old friend and me gefilte fish, Hebrew National salami, and egg-and-onion matzohs from a box. The two of them look like battle-hardened veterans—"non-commissioned officers," as the friend says—and it’s not hard to see how this celebrated lady-killer called an early backup band the Army and one of his sweetest records "an anti-pacifist recording."
Yet even at his most ragged here, he seems a long way away from the one who cried out so pitifully, on his 1973 live album, "I can’t stand who I am." Leonard Cohen has always seemed, or tried, to inhabit a higher zone of sorts, and his parable-like songs, his alchemical symbols, and his constant harking back to Abraham and David and Isaac only compound the stakes. In trying to marry Babylon with Bethlehem, in reading women’s bodies with the obsessiveness of a biblical scholar, in giving North America a raffish tilt so that he’s always been closer to Jacques Brel or Georges Mousstaki than to Bob Dylan, he’s been trying, over and over, to find ceremony without sanctimony and discipline without dogma. Where else should he be, where else could he be, than a military-style ritualized training that allows him to put Old Testament words to a country-and-western beat and write songs that sound like first-person laments written by God?
"I feel," says Cohen a little later, when we’re alone, "we’re in a very shabby moment, and neither the literary nor the musical experience really has its finger on the pulse of our crisis. From my point of view, we’re in the midst of a Flood, a Flood of biblical proportions. It’s both exterior and interior—at this point it’s more devastating on the interior level, but it’s leaking into the real world. And this Flood is of such enormous and biblical proportions that I see everybody holding on in their individual way to an orange crate, to a piece of wood, and we’re passing each other in this swollen river that has pretty well taken down all the landmarks, and pretty well overturned everything we’ve got. And people insist, under the circumstances, on describing themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ It seems to me completely mad."
Of course, he says impatiently, he can’t explain what he’s doing here. "I don’t think anybody really knows why they’re doing anything. If you stop someone on the subway and say, ‘Where are you going—in the deepest sense of the word?’ you can’t really expect an answer. I really don’t know why I’m here. It’s a matter of ‘What else would I be doing?’ Do I want to be Frank Sinatra, who’s really great, and do I want to have great retrospectives of my work? I’m not really interested in being the oldest folksinger around.
"Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Well, I hated it when it was going on"—signs of the snarl beneath the chuckle—"so maybe I would feel better about it now. But I don’t think so.
"What would I be doing? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.
"I think that’s the real deep entertainment," he concludes. "Religion. Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available to us is within this activity. Nothing touches it." He smiles his godfatherly smile. "Except if you’re courtin’. If you’re young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement."
Before I leave, he catches my eye, and his voice turns soft.
"We are gathered here," he says, "around a very, very old man, who may outlive all of us, and who may go tomorrow. So that gives an urgency to the practice. Everybody, including Roshi, is practicing with a kind of passionate diligence. It touches my heart. It makes me proud to be part of this community."
Before I leave the following morning, the roshi invites me, with Cohen, to his cabin for lunch. It’s a typically eclectic meal, of noodles and curry, taken quietly and simply, in a small, sunlit dining area. As ever when the roshi is around, Cohen sits absolutely humble and silent in one corner, all the tension emptied out of his face; everything about him is light, like a clear glass once the liquid’s drained.
Then he tells me a little about how he was once fascinated by Persian miniatures. He talks of the intensity of "living in a world of samples." He cleans up around the kitchen and asks his old friend, very gently, if he’s tired When we go out into the parking lot, a woman comes up and starts telling him how much his songs have meant to her, and Cohen gives her his warmest smile and leaves her with a kind of blessing.
"A practice like this," he tells me, "—and I think everyone here would say the same thing—you could only do for love."
"So if it weren’t for the roshi, you wouldn’t be here?" I ask.
"If it weren’t for the roshi, I wouldn’t be."
And as I set off down the mountain—listening with new ears to the old songs, and seeing the shadow of an old Japanese man in the love songs and the ballads about "the few who forgive what you do and the fewer who don’t even care"—I realize that the whole stay has affected me more powerfully than anything I’ve done in years. Why? Mostly, I think, because of a sense of the deep bond between Sasaki and Cohen, and the way neither seems to need anything from the other, yet each allows the other to be deeper than he might be otherwise. "Roshi knows me for who I am," Cohen had said, "and he doesn’t want me to be any other. ‘International Man,’ ‘Culture Man,’ he calls me; he knows I am an ‘International Man.’ " And, by all accounts, he will take everything Cohen brings him—his selfishness, his anger, his ambition, his sins—and, while holding them up to him, accept him.
It’s touching in a way: The man who has been the poet laureate of commitophobes, who has never found in his 63 years a woman he can marry or a home he won’t desert, the connoisseur of betrayal and self-tormenting soul who claimed 25 years ago that he had "torn everyone who reached out for me," and who ended his most recent collection of writings with a prayer for "the precious ones I overthrew for an education in the world"—the man, in fact, who became an international heart-throb while singing "So Long, Marianne" and "That’s No Way to Say Good-bye"—has finally found something he hasn’t abandoned and a love that won’t let him down.
"Roshi said something to me the other day that I like," Cohen tells me just before I leave." ‘ The older you get, the lonelier you become, and the deeper the love that you need.’" For the old and the deep and the lonely, change, it seems, may not be the only aphrodisiac.
Originally published in the September 1998 Shambhala Sun magazine.
The Man Who Found the Flow
The Man Who Found the Flow
"What is happiness?" asked psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He found it in a state of mind beyond results and rewards and called it "the flow." A profile of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi by Andrew Cooper.
"To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame,
to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."
In 1963, a young doctoral student in psychology at the University of Chicago noticed a most intriguing phenomenon. In the course of his research on the creative process, he had spent hundreds of hours observing artists at work and interviewing them about the nature of their experience. What he was most struck by was their intense and total involvement as they struggled to bring their vision to life on canvas. Immersed in their work and oblivious to outside obligations, the passage of time, and even their own hunger and fatigue, the artists seemed to be seized in a kind of trance. Curiously, once a painting was finished, this highly focused state quickly dissipated and the artists simply set aside the very thing they had labored so hard to create.
The researcher was an immigrant of Hungarian descent named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "CHICK-sent-me-high-ee"). After witnessing this process again and again, he realized that it was the activity itself-the work of painting-that so enthralled his subjects and not, as he had expected, the anticipation of its outcome. Whether or not a finished painting produced significant extrinsic rewards-money, praise, fame, even a sense of achievement-the act of creating was intrinsically rewarding. It was worth doing-indeed, it was done-simply for the sake of doing it.
This ran, and still runs, counter to the prevailing wisdom of the field. Most psychological theories of motivation assert that we act either to assuage an unpleasant condition-hunger, say, or anxiety-or to achieve some desired end. Even activities that are enjoyable in themselves are assumed to serve some socially adaptive or biologically practical function: children play to discharge aggressive feelings; sex is nature's way of getting us to pass on our genes. Such views contain much truth, of course, but they are incomplete.
The observation that some things are autotelic-worth doing for their own sake-is hardly earth-shattering. But the simplicity of this observation can obscure the richness of its implications for the understanding of who we humans are and how we may evolve. For Csikszentmihalyi, it pointed to the deep and elusive question of the nature of happiness. What, he wondered, do people feel when they are most happy? What is their state of mind? Why do certain activities bring enjoyment and others do not? What can we do to enhance our capacities to find enjoyment throughout the events of daily life? For almost thirty years, right up to the present day, he has devoted himself to the patient, rigorous and thorough study of such questions.
In the course of his investigations, he has identified a dimension of human experience that is common to people the world over, regardless of culture, gender, race, age or nationality. Elderly Korean women, Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, Navajo shepherds, assembly line workers in Chicago, artists, athletes, surgeons-all describe the experience in essentially the same words. Its characteristics include joy, deep concentration, emotional buoyancy, a heightened sense of mastery, a lack of self-consciousness, and self-transcendence. Employing an image used frequently by his subjects, Csikszentmihalyi gave to this optimal human experience the name "flow."
According to Csikszentmihalyi, moments of flow occur when our physical or mental capacities are stretched to their limits in pursuit of a worthwhile goal. In fact, just about any activity can be made autotelic. As Csikszentmihalyi told me, "Talking to a friend, reading to a child, playing with a pet, or mowing the lawn can each produce flow, provided you find the challenge in what you are doing and then focus on doing it as best you can." Flow, then, is not something that happens to us; it is something we make happen. It is not dependent on external events: it is the result of our ability to focus, and thus give order, to consciousness.
Based on their research into flow, Csikszentmihalyi and his associates at the psychology department of the University of Chicago have over the years produced dozens of articles for scholarly journals. In the late 1980's, he decided to gather together two decades worth of findings on the subject and present it in a book accessible to the lay reader. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was released in 1990 and was an instant success, a critically acclaimed national bestseller whose popularity caught its author entirely by surprise.
Csikszentmihalyi has become that rarity in the human sciences: a distinguished academic whose work has significant impact on the cultural mainstream. Newsweek reported that Flow was a favorite book of President Clinton (who, it seems, may be unclear on the distinction made in the book between pleasure and happiness). A recent article in the London Times discussed the favor Flow has found among British Prime Minister Tony Blair and members of his cabinet. Winning coach Jimmy Johnson credited Flow with helping him and his Dallas Cowboys prepare for the 1993 Superbowl.
In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi describes eight "elements of enjoyment"-the factors that characterize or contribute to the flow experience. First, flow is likely to occur when one confronts a challenging task that requires skill. Here, there must be a balance between the demands of the activity and one's ability to meet those demands. If the activity is too easy, boredom will result; if it is too hard, it will cause anxiety.
The second element is the merging of action and awareness, in which one is so absorbed in the task at hand that the activity becomes spontaneous and one ceases to be aware of oneself as standing separate from it. Third and fourth, optimal experience is more likely to occur when one's task has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.
Fifth is a high degree of concentration, which limits the dissipation of energy caused by extraneous concerns. The sixth element is called the paradox of control: one feels a sense of control without actively trying to be in control. More precisely, it might be said that one ceases to worry about losing control. Seventh, preoccupation with the self disappears.
The final element is an altered sense of time. Hours may seem like minutes, or conversely, one may experience a sense of what sports psychologists call "elongated time," in which things seem to move in slow motion. Not all these elements need be present for flow to occur, but in the course of thousands of interviews, Csikszentmihalyi and his associates found that virtually every account included at least one of them, and often most.
Of the eight elements, one in particular emerged as the most telling aspect of optimal experience: the merging of action and awareness. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence sounded a similar theme, when he wrote that "happiness is absorption." As the thirteen-century Zen master Dogen pointed out, in those moments when the world is experienced with the whole of one's body and mind, the senses are joined, the self is opened, and life discloses an intrinsic richness and joy in being. For Csikszentmihalyi, this complex harmony of a unified consciousness is the mode of being toward which our own deepest inclination always points us.
The New York Times called him "a man obsessed by happiness," but for Csikszentmihalyi happiness is a far more subtle and profound state than what most people mean when they use the word. In describing the happiness associated with flow, Csikszentmihalyi cites Aristotle's term eudaimonia, a state of being "well-favored" within oneself and in one's relation to the divine. Eudaimonia connects happiness with such characteristics as virtue, prosperity and blessedness. Flow and eudaimonia are not identical notions, but the link between the two is made clear in Flow's opening sentence: "Twenty-three hundred years ago Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal-health, beauty, money, or power-is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy."
For Csikszentmihalyi, as for Aristotle, it is our human folly to mistake the means to happiness for the thing itself. As he is the first to point out, the "discovery" of flow and its workings is not a discovery at all, "for people have been aware of it since the dawn of time."
The enthusiasm with which his work has been received is no doubt gratifying, but for this soft-spoken and private family man, public recognition has required some adjustment. For as his ideas grew in popularity, the man who discovered flow found he was experiencing less of it. Popular acceptance brought with it new and unwanted distractions from his work, the main activity in which he experienced the very thing that was the source of all the fuss. The humor of the situation is not lost on him, and when he spoke to me about it during a recent interview, he did so with a weary chuckle.
The qualities that characterize his writings are also evident in conversation: clarity, eloquence, wit and erudition that is, blessedly, unencumbered by academic smugness. In lightly accented English, he speaks with a confidence that manages to be both unassuming and undefensive. His broad face, framed by a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, appears urbane yet slightly rugged. Deep-set eyes look out from beneath dark, bushy brows and a high, strong forehead. Although Csikszentmihalyi's writings make only sparing use of biographical details, the creases on his well-worn face speak of a life much-traveled.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in 1934 in the Adriatic harbor town of Fiume, a town that has seen much instability in this century. The young Mihaly's father served as the Hungarian consul in the city, which was then Italian (and is today Croatian). After the Second World War, the elder Csikszentmihalyi was appointed Hungarian ambassador to Italy and the family moved to Rome. In 1948, following the communist take-over of Hungary, he was fired from the ambassadorship.
Rather than return to Hungary, the family opened a restaurant in Rome. Now an adolescent, Mihaly attended school and spent evenings helping his father at the restaurant. Following high school, he worked as a photojournalist, a travel agent, and, foreshadowing his later work, tried his hand as a painter.
But all the while, his main focus was on trying to understand the strangeness of human nature as he had witnessed it during and after the war. "I saw so many people just disintegrate from the loss of status, income, and other extrinsic sources of meaning or support," he says, "and yet I also met some, just a few, who had a kind of inner strength that allowed them to take their misfortunes in stride."
Eventually he stumbled on the writings of Carl Jung, which convinced him that the field of psychology might be the best place to look for answers to the questions that beset him. Unfortunately, it was not the practice of European colleges in the fifties to teach psychology as a separate discipline. Rather, it was offered in isolated courses taught within departments of medicine or philosophy. So Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi decided he would pursue his studies in the United States.
Around this time, he encountered a new stimulus to his questioning. Following Khruschev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Csikszentmihalyi met a number of former prisoners recently released from the gulags. Among them were a small number "who spoke with a sort of nostalgia about living in conditions that, by most any standard, were of the most horrible type." These people were able not only to keep their sanity but to achieve a kind of serenity. "The very oppressiveness of their situation," he says, "forced them to question what was really valuable and meaningful in their lives, and somehow, in that process, they came to find a measure of inner peace."
Years later, Csikszentmihalyi came to see that his findings on flow went a long way toward explaining what it was that allowed some people to enrich their lives in the midst of the most wretched circumstances. Such people, he found, have a highly developed "autotelic self." They could transform their experience, and thus find enjoyment in it, by focusing their attention on the tasks of the present moment.
Csikszentmihalyi was accepted at the University of Chicago, but shortly before he was to leave for the U.S., the family encountered another setback. One of the restaurant's employees had swindled them and they were without funds to help Mihaly pay for his education. And so in 1956, at the age of 22, Mihaly arrived in Chicago with little English and next to no money-a dollar-twenty-five to be exact.
The next two years were tough. Days were devoted to study; nights were spent working as an auditor at a downtown hotel. But more difficult was the disappointment he felt about the content of his studies. There was no Jung or Freud or Ferenczi; instead, there were rats and mazes and the blunt tools of behaviorism. Nevertheless, Csikszentmihalyi persevered, and by his junior year things were looking up. A scholarship relieved much of the financial pressure, and he hooked up with several professors in the department whose interests matched his own. With their encouragement, he decided to pursue a doctorate.
One professor in the psychology department was especially interested in the study of creativity, and it was under his tutelage that Csikszentmihalyi undertook his dissertation on the subject. The intense involvement of his research subjects in their work resonated with his own experiences while rock climbing, playing chess or painting.
But another resonant chord was struck as well. The instability he had experienced and the suffering he had witnessed predisposed Csikszentmihalyi to regard happiness as a virtue to be cultivated and treasured, for clearly "the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind." While there was at the time no shortage of work being done on creativity, only one person, Abraham Maslow, was seriously studying states of deep enjoyment. As Csikszentmihalyi freely acknowledges, he benefited greatly from Maslow's study of peak experience. "But," he says, "Maslow regarded peak experience as a kind of epiphany that happens spontaneously. I wanted to find out how optimal states of being occur and what people can do to bring them about."
At first, Csikszentmihalyi's research attracted the interest of only a small group of graduate students, who assisted him in administering interviews and questionnaires. Needing a more rigorous and systematic means of gathering data, the team developed the Experience Sampling Method, in which research subjects wear an electronic paging device that is activated at random intervals throughout the day. At the sound of the pager, a subject writes down what he or she is doing, feeling and thinking at that moment.
Following the introduction of the ESM, interest in Csikszentmihalyi's work began to increase dramatically. More and more students signed up to join his research team. Flow increasingly gained attention in professional circles, and colleagues at other institutions began to study the experience in their own research projects. "People," he says, "love gizmos."
Csikszentmihalyi's work is perhaps best understood as an attempt to find through science a basis for a life well lived. Toward this end, he seeks to affirm and to integrate the wisdom of the past with "our most trustworthy mirror of reality"-that is, with scientific knowledge. He is trying, one might say, to work out a response to the problem of modernity posed by T. S. Eliot in "The Rock": to find the knowledge that is lost in information, and to find the wisdom that is lost in knowledge. Science has been especially successful at generating knowledge about the workings of matter; its successes have been far more modest when it comes to understanding the realm of human experience, where, more often than not, it has been a source of that information that obscures knowledge and of that knowledge that conceals wisdom. Seen in this context, Csikszentmihalyi's work is all the more impressive for its intent, its originality, and its quality.
Because they have emerged from and been subjected to empirical scrutiny, Csikszentmihalyi's ideas speak with the power and authority that belong to science alone. But simply passing muster with the standards of science is in and of itself no great accomplishment. His work is significant because it tells us valuable things about important questions. Using the tools of science, Csikszentmihalyi abstracted an essential and defining human experience-flow-from the countless activities that elicited it. In addition, he discerned the conditions, internal and external, that are most likely to give rise to the experience and the factors that obstruct it. Further, he interprets his findings in such a way as to address convincingly the place of flow in matters of meaning, value and purpose in human affairs.
Today, the study of the applications and implications of flow has spread worldwide, and major research programs exist in Germany, Canada, Italy, Japan and Australia. Study of the subject is not confined to the field of psychology. Flow is being used by sociologists, for example, to better understand alienation and by anthropologists to shed light on the effects of ritual and religious experience.
Csikszentmihalyi is, of course, devoted to his work and pleased with its success. But he also notes a certain absurdity in the whole enterprise. "It's kind of ironic," he says, "that so many people need the trappings of scientific methodology before they'll pay attention to what they already know in their gut. When people hear about flow, they say, 'Oh yeah, I know that!' But unless you can quantify and measure something, it's not seen to have much significance." After a pause, he adds wryly, "Anyway, I have a lot of fun crunching the numbers."
As with any worthy scientific endeavor, as work on flow proceeded, new questions and avenues for research arose. In time, Csikszentmihalyi found that a comprehensive understanding of optimal experience required that empirical research be supplemented by knowledge from fields other than psychology: philosophy, religion, literature, and other branches of science. The apparent ease with which he reaches across disciplines and weaves together diverse strands of knowledge into an integrated whole enhances the effectiveness of his ideas and the appeal of his writing.
Among the dour puritans of academia, moving beyond the boundaries of one's particular discipline is most often deeply frowned upon. But for Csikszentmihalyi, doing so seems to be a natural outgrowth of a personal inclination to seek understanding of the world from a variety of perspectives. "It saddens me," he says, "to see people who are great at one thing but have no interest in anything else." About himself, he adds, "I am myself uncomfortable being pigeonholed in one professional category-such as psychologist-as though that designation exhausted my being." In applying science to questions that are traditionally taken up within the humanities, while drawing upon the humanities to elucidate the findings of science, Csikszentmihalyi found himself assuming the role of an academic outsider, a role for which his earlier life had prepared him well.
Among the questions to arise from the research on flow, two were particularly significant. The first was moral. Optimal experience is morally neutral. In applying his skills to the challenges of his work, a burglar is likely to experience flow, as is a con artist or an assassin. Adolph Eichmann, writes Csikszentmihalyi, "probably experienced flow as he shuffled the intricate schedules of trains, making certain that the scarce rolling stock was available where needed, and that the bodies were transported at the least expense. He never seemed to ask whether what he was asked to do was right or wrong. As long as he followed orders, his consciousness was in harmony."
The second problem follows readily from the first. It is a problem of meaning. One might attain excellence in a particular field, and thus experience a high degree of flow, yet be hopelessly inept or boorish in every other way. Ernest Hemingway once called Ty Cobb "the greatest of all ballplayers-and an absolute shit." For optimal experience to extend throughout one's life, one must, according to Csikszentmihalyi, "have faith in a system of meanings that gives purpose to one's being."
It was in response to these two problems that Csikszentmihalyi turned to the idea of evolutionary complexity. Complexity, he believes, can serve as the foundation for a viable faith at a time when the traditional cosmologies no longer can. Although he began to explore this proposition in Flow, it was not until the publication of The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium that he described it fully.
"The thesis of this book," he writes, "is that becoming an active, conscious part of the evolutionary process is the best way to give meaning to our lives at the present point in time, and to enjoy each moment along the way. Understanding how evolution works, and what role we may play in it, provides a direction and purpose that otherwise is lacking in this secular, desacralized culture."
Csikszentmihalyi subscribes to the view that evolution proceeds in the direction of increasing complexity, that is, toward continuous differentiation and integration. The realization of complexity, therefore, is the benchmark for measuring evolutionary success. "Differentiation" refers to the degree to which a system is composed of parts that differ in structure or function from one another. "Integration" refers to the extent to which the different parts communicate and enhance one another's goals. A system that is more differentiated and integrated than another is said to be more complex. For example, a person is differentiated to the extent that they have many different interests, abilities and goals; they are integrated to the extent that harmony exists between various goals, thought, feelings and action.
Both these tendencies are evident in optimal experience. Finding new challenges,developing new skills, opening oneself to novel experiences-these are all differentiating functions. The incorporation of skills and experiences into the wholeness of one's being brings order to consciousness and harmony to actions; that is, it enhances integration. In this way, the enjoyment that flow brings is the manifestation of our evolutionary predilection for complexity.
The movement toward complexity is not inevitable, however. "The course of evolution," Csikszentmihalyi writes, "appears to be exceedingly erratic, full of false starts and temporary reversals." The development of complex structures, whether biological, psychological or social, takes place against the backdrop of entropy-the tendency of systems to decay and dissolve into randomness.
It is precisely because complexity is so tenuous that its cultivation and sustainment can serve as a meaningful basis for ethical action. For Csikszentmihalyi, this means that the ethics of flow require that it not be pursued solely as an isolated, individual event but as something that enhances complexity throughout one's relations with the larger world. The idea that through flow one can become an active participant in the great unfolding drama of evolution recalls Aristotle's notion of eudaimonia, of being well-favored not just within oneself but also in one's relation with the divine.
With The Evolving Self, Csikszentmihalyi joins the tradition of "grand theorists"-those thinkers who attempt to work out a comprehensive understanding of human nature and human goals that is grounded in the very structure of life. As grand theories go, Csikszentmihalyi's manages to be bold without being arrogant. It is both broad and flexible. Still, for all its merits, it is not able to outrun the problems that inevitably accrue to grand theories.
Chief among these problems is that in attempting to subsume so much under a single scheme, grand theories give short shrift to much of the rich detail of human knowledge. Important distinctions get blurred or lost altogether as symbols, ideas, and practices are removed from the organic context in which they are rooted and recut to fit the designs of a new one. While viewing yoga, say, or Zen Buddhism through the conceptual lens of flow and complexity can be valuable, it is still a far cry from understanding them from within their native framework. This calls to mind a Haitian saying: when the anthropologists arrive, the gods depart.
To my surprise, when I mention this perspective to Csikszentmihalyi, he is not at all uncomfortable with it. We have, he says, various ways of relating to the world that predate systematic reason, and they are part of our heritage. "Just because science is dominant," he says, "to dismiss all forms of knowledge that went before would be hubris. It would be like kicking out the ladder upon which we have climbed." If science is to help us live fuller and better lives, the knowledge accumulated through scientific endeavor must, in his view, be integrated with the wisdom of the past.
America's most eminent evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, rejects the view that evolution possesses a sensible directionality toward complexity, dismissing such theories as "spin-doctored" views designed to bolster our sense of human importance. Csikszentmihalyi, of course, disagrees, but he is not adamant; the argument, he says, is not resolvable at this point, and may never be. Complexity seems to him to be a good interpretation of what we know, but accepting it is a choice. And even should one accept it, one should hold the idea with a kind of playful provisionality. In this regard, complexity is a kind of faith.
So if we set aside arguments about competing theories of evolution, the power of the idea remains, for we are story-telling creatures and evolution is our creation story. In placing flow within the context of evolution, Csikszentmihalyi is following a tradition going back to prehistory of linking certain aspects of human experience to the larger designs of the cosmos. Thus the story of who we are and the story of what the universe is are bound together.
In "The Rock" Eliot asks, "Where is the Life we have lost in living?" This is a question that human faith and wisdom must address. Discovery of that secret life requires what Aristotle called "the virtuous activity of the soul." For this, flow is the ground and the fruition.
Sympathy for the Devil
Sympathy for the Devil
The prosecutor called Gary Davis a devil for the brutal murder he had committed. But lawyer VICKI MANDELL-KING discovered that on his long journey toward the death chamber, Gary Davis had profoundly changed. In this gripping story from the Shambhala Sun archives, she talks about the power of forgiveness and a redemption on death row.
Driving down Colorado State Highway 115, that curving road cut between red sandstone cliffs, I did not know what to expect in meeting Gary Davis. Because I knew about his terrible crime, I confess I conjured up a monster's visage. Instead I found a reticent human being, a shy man, one who knew I knew the worst thing he had ever done. He did not know whether I would see that he was far better than that. He did not know I believe that when we trust in the basic goodness of others, we bring it forth.
This is how we began our relationship. As Gary put it, "You used to come in as a lawyer and leave like a lawyer. Later, you came in as a lawyer and would leave as a friend." Throughout the course of his appeal, with each loss, Gary would say, "Well, I didn't give you a lot to work with," referring to the fact that the courts ultimately denied our appeals by relying upon Gary's own self-damning words at his trial.
But for the clemency process, Gary did give us a lot to work with. Although we couldn't point to new evidence or racial distortion of the process, Gary was not the same person who committed the crime for which he received the death penalty. He had rehabilitated and redeemed himself.
Robert Grant, the district attorney who prosecuted this case, was in the habit of calling Gary Davis a "devil." I say Gary Davis was a murderer become mystic. This could sound like naivete or exaggeration, but if you look at Gary's terrible crime you can see how long was the road he traveled.
In 1986, Gary Davis and his third wife, Rebecca Fincham, kidnapped, sexually assaulted and shot Virginia May to death in a field outside Byers, Colorado. The following year, at his separate trial, Davis testified and took full blame for the crimes. In the penalty phase, the jury sentenced him to death. Rebecca Fincham received a life sentence.
In further proceedings in state and federal court, Gary Davis challenged the representation he had received at trial, the Colorado death penalty statute, and related instructions to the jury. His new attorneys, Dennis Hartley and I, presented evidence of equal culpability and mitigation. This evidence was meant not as an excuse, but as something approaching an explanation for this terrible crime.
Comparing background records of Davis and Fincham, experts concluded that Davis' passive personality made it unlikely he was the instigator of the crime. The testimony of family members and experts portrayed Davis as having come from a dysfunctional family and suffering from severe alcoholism. Gentle and hard working when sober, Davis had two ex-wives and children who cared about him. But when drunk, Davis committed increasingly serious crimes.
While incarcerated for a sexual assault conviction, Davis became acquainted with Rebecca Fincham, who wrote and visited him. They were married while Davis was still in jail. Upon his release, Davis realized he had made a mistake in marrying Fincham. They spent nearly the first year of his parole miserable with each other, drinking and delving into sexual perversion. Virginia May was murdered on the last day of Davis' parole.
When our appeals proved unsuccessful, we sought clemency from the Governor of the State of Colorado in the summer of 1997. In wrestling with our clemency petition, Governor Roy Romer acknowledged that Gary had changed, but just not enough to justify mercy.
What did that mean? For those who are judged to have changed, but not yet enough, they simply need a longer life, not an earlier death. Gary appreciated that the governor thought he had changed, and he agreed that his changes did not make up for what he had done-after all, nothing he could do could bring Virginia May back to life. Short of that, Gary's own awareness of how he had changed was enough for him.
During his ten years in prison, Gary Davis had recovered from alcoholism and sexual perversion. He had moved from self-loathing to accepting responsibility for what he had done. He had replaced self-pity with real empathy for the many victims of his crime. Once a danger to society, Gary Davis had become a man capable of serving life imprisonment without parole, as a means of making amends. Once a man who, when drunk, thought he could take a woman's body and her life, Gary Davis would die a man grateful for a four inch patch of sky glimpsed through his cell window.
As Gary described it, it had taken him years to stop thinking like an alcoholic, long after he had stopped drinking like one. Sober, he felt more free than he had on the street, imprisoned by his disease. Along the way, he came to some understanding of how he could have done what he did to Virginia May. Gary did not want to blame his family members for things that had happened in the past-he was glad for their support in the present-but the reality was that the dysfunctional background he could not overcome had twisted Gary's natural personality-thus the follower image and passivity diagnosis. Alcohol released in him the desire to inflict the kind of pain he himself had suffered.
Despite his testimony at trial that he had done the shooting, in subsequent years Gary had been vague about his role in the crime and his memory of it. Last summer Gary admitted that he remembered that he, and not Rebecca Fincham, had done the shooting. He made this admission, trusting that it would make no difference to us, but would make a difference in the peace with which he could face death.
The empathy Gary Davis felt for Virginia May's family was not contrived because of the then-pending clemency request. It was the direct result of the death of his daughter, Janelle, of brain cancer. Gary said that when he heard Janelle's voice on the phone saying, "It hurts, Daddy," it was like a stake through his heart. He could not stop the pain, cradle her head in his arms, or go to her. In that moment, he better understood how the May family must have felt, knowing what had happened to Virginia May in that field in Byers and being unable to protect her or stop it.
Along with insight into himself and the crime, Gary expressed a simple wisdom, a sense of spirit. After I saw the Dalai Lama when he visited Colorado last summer, I told Gary that a friend had expressed mild disappointment that this spiritual leader had not seemed as wise as she had expected. For a relatively uneducated man, Gary had a way of turning a phrase: "Seems to me your friend was listening with her ears instead of her heart."
At the start of another visit, Gary was bursting to tell me something he had experienced. He had been looking out the window when suddenly it seemed as though the sky, the mountains, the trees, the sound of jack hammers in the road, the clang of the door cell, the bug climbing on the wall-all were one, all somehow connected.
One day Gary was watching a golf match on his cell television. During the silence as the golfer concentrated on his shot, a meadowlark began to sing. Gary had not heard its song in years. Rather than wish to hear more or yearn to be in the fields free, Gary said the song was "mighty pretty," and it made him happy to hear that song again before he died.
What could work these profound changes in Gary Davis, this healing of a human being? It was solitude; stripped of everything, Gary had nowhere to turn but inward. It was lawyer Dennis Hartley, whom Gary knew he could trust as being direct, honest and real. It was love and support from his family and friends, with whom Gary had become reunited through the investigation of this case. Most of all, the sincere belief in a compassionate God gave Gary Davis the courage to face himself and to face his death.
As the execution date drew near, I asked Gary whether he was being his typical passive self in going along with the execution, in not wanting to fight. Gary was adamant that he did not want us to do anything merely for delay, or even for the sake of establishing a positive precedent. Without hesitation, he replied, "No, for the first time I feel in control of my life, and I can control how I face my death."
During his last weeks, Gary probably had more visits, more human companionship, than he'd had in the entire ten years of his imprisonment. Prison officials granted Gary's request for contact visits with Rita, his pen-friend from Ireland, and with family members-one of his ex-wives, his two surviving daughters, and two of his three sons. At the end of long days with us, Gary seemed alternately drained and invigorated by the effort of reassuring his family and keeping up a brave front. I worried about the disruption of his solitude, for it was in solitude that he found not just sobriety but his strength. He would need all his strength in his final hours.
I saw Gary on the morning of the execution. He knew what he had come to mean to me. As he said, "Now you come as a friend and you leave as a friend." As I started to go, Gary stood, leaning over, his hands on the ledge in his familiar pose, and said, "See ya' later." I turned, and using a phrase of his that has become part of my own lexicon, smiled and said, "That's for sure."
The night of the execution, prison officials came to the hotel to transport Dennis and me to the prison. It was all quite cloak-and-dagger, very high security. As we walked through the gate, I wondered what I could say to the May family. I had written them a few years before and received only a bitter response, one that of course I understood, but that made me feel so sorry for their pain. Although prosecutor Robert Grant had angered me often over the years, this night he graciously introduced us to Virginia May's father and brother.
Once inside, we milled about waiting for the execution to begin. The media representatives were in one area, the prosecution and victim's family in another. Those in blue shirts, the guards, came to talk with Dennis and me. One told us how honored he was to have sat with Gary the night before, how brave and kind Gary had been. Another voiced his opposition to the death penalty. As the witnesses began to line up-I was designated to be first-another officer squeezed my hand and whispered, "Be strong."
When we walked into the witness room, the curtains were closed. I was directed to the second, higher, row of seats, and to the seat closest to the wall. I was praying for strength and grace for Gary and myself. When the curtains parted, I could see that my seat was parallel to Gary's head. All he had to do was turn his head to the right to find me. Doing so, he nodded lightly, closed his eyes, and slowly turned away.
I had thought Gary would say a few last words, but later I learned he had decided not to-he had said all he needed to already. Waiting, at first I did not realize that the poisons had begun to flow into his arms, traveling to his lungs, finally reaching and stopping his heart. But as his face changed color I knew. With this execution, the state of Colorado had resumed, after a thirty year hiatus, killing those it judges to be the worst among its citizens.
People ask, "Do you think Gary Davis suffered?" I know he suffered for his crime. It pained him to know that many people thought he was so terrible that they wanted him to be killed. He was naturally apprehensive about the method and hoped the poisons would work swiftly and surely.
The sterile, antiseptic, hospital-like scene of Gary Davis' execution was horrifying in its blur of healing and harmful images. How else would we have it? An execution would be less ambiguous if death came by firing squad or public hanging-easier to tell the good from the bad-but it was Gary lying there strapped to the table, and I would not have had him endure more fear and pain, just to teach proponents of the death penalty about its inhumanity. Instead, it was the way Gary Davis faced his death that demonstrated the senselessness of such a punishment.
The day after the execution, the warden and I talked. She told me that, up to the very end, Gary was reassuring her and the staff that they should not feel badly for what they were doing. Gary had hoped his knees would not betray him walking into the execution chamber. They did not-the warden said he was strong and calm.
Short of saying, "I cannot and will not do this," prison staff defined their duty as treating Gary with kindness, respect and dignity. I am grateful for this. On one level Gary made the process easy for them-no unseemly outbursts or last minute appeals-yet the way Gary conducted himself may have made it harder for many of the staff. Some of them had come to care.
The family of Virginia May could not forgive Gary Davis. He understood and accepted that they could not do so. He hoped that his death would give them the closure they sought, though he doubted it would serve that purpose. How can we judge? They are justified in their rage, grief and bitterness. After all, what would we do were we to lose a loved one?
Yet there are family members of victims, like members of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation nationwide, who have found another way. They have asked, "What would my loved one want?" After listening, they have taken the stand, "Not in my loved one's name." These courageous people feel challenged to heal through forgiveness, and to celebrate their loved ones in acts of compassion. I don't know if I could do this. While I hope I could, mostly I hope that I am never so terribly tested.
There is a way in which the phrase "death penalty" is an oxymoron. Death is part of life, a release, a gateway to another life. But death is a penalty, whatever our private way of dealing with it, when it is imposed with the intention of punishing. To use death for such a purpose is wrong. Its purpose is far holier than that.
Death is a teacher. If we accept that change is constant and death undeniable, if we see death's hand weaving a pattern of shadow and light in our lives, if we allow the certainty of loss to enrich rather than detract from our experiences-then in facing death, we learn how to truly live. We come to believe that our task is not to judge ourselves and others but to practice forgiveness.
Many have suggested that, if it is true that Gary had changed, that change occurred because he was facing his execution. For them, Gary's rehabilitation becomes a justification for the death penalty. It may be that as death approaches there is a quickening, a clarity. But the changes in Gary Davis began long before this summer and had their origins not in fear of death, but in the forgiveness he found in his conception of God, in the eyes of others, and within himself. At the same time, the pending execution motivated people to show concern and support in a way they had not done before.
At present a majority in our society supports the death penalty. It does so for a variety of reasons-the right to retribution, the perceived inadequacy of protection without this penalty, and the biblical, legal and economic references. Common to all these reasons is lack of faith in the power of forgiveness and compassion. The belief that a God could forgive him is what enabled Gary Davis to start down the long road of admitting responsibility, feeling remorse, gaining insight, suffering consequences, and making amends.
I believe compassion can change the perpetrators, and it can help to heal those who have been harmed. I believe forgiveness can overcome fear, and that compassion breeds courage-but then I have held the hand of a murderer. Doing so, I am better able to embrace myself and others. Thank you, friend.
Vicki Mandell-King works at the Federal Public Defenders Office for Colorado and lives in Boulder County with her family. Originally published in the September 1998 Shambhala Sun magazine.
Ordinary Mind is the Way: A Zen Discourse
Ordinary Mind is the Way: A Zen Discourse
Given at Mount Baldy Zen Center, February, 1998.
Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?”
“Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied.
“Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.
“If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.
“How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu. Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?”
With these words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.
—“Ordinary Mind is the Way,” translated by Katsuki Sekida
This koan called “Ordinary Mind is the Way” is a beginner's koan, a koan made for beginners to study. For the old students just reading it once, immediately you should know exactly what’s going on.
As I always say, there is nothing other than activity of mind. And when we ask what mind is, it is the very activity which forms all of our selves, and it is also the activity which forms the entire cosmos which is the home of the self. When we talk about this activity which forms the very way of being of the self and of the entire cosmos, and we give it a character, we personify this activity—we call it the activity of mind, or the activity of heart.
But in Zen we ask you very severely, “Okay, you’ve personified this activity which forms the entire cosmos and called it the activity of mind, but who is it that is doing that calling?” In Tathagata Zen we say it is the enlightened person who calls it this. This enlightened person is the one who has manifested for themselves the wisdom which clearly sees into this very activity which forms the cosmos. If it weren’t for the appearance of enlightened people there would be no need to think about things such as “Why did the cosmos come into being?” and “Why did all of us come in to being?” Without understanding and investigating deeply the condition of the origin itself, then you won’t be able to understand this “Ordinary mind is the Way” koan.
So when you ask “What kind of things did enlightened people say?”, what enlightened people talked about was the story of how a long, long time ago—countless, numberless kalpas ago—there were two activities called plus and minus that were mutually opposing one another, and repetitively unifying and facing one another. The Enlightened One said that these activities, plus and minus, are doing this cyclic, repetitive activity of facing one another and unifying with one another, and other than that, there is nothing else.
When we ask where this activity of alternating facing and unifying over and over again came from, it came from this very activity of plus and minus unifying and facing one another over and over again. From the world of the result comes the world of the origin. The world of result will be manifest from this activity of unifying and facing, and finally, the absolute expanse, the greatest cosmos, will be manifest. Then, taking this result as a new cause, as a new origin, the absolute expanse ends up arriving at the absolute contraction, the smallest point. This activity which forms the universe repeats, manifesting the absolute expanse and the absolute contraction over and over again.
Even though you don’t understand this, you are clearly manifesting the cause and you are also clearly manifesting the result. Whether we want to call this condition the source, the cause or the origin, this is the condition in which plus and minus are repetitively unifying and facing, and there is nothing more obvious, nothing more clear than this condition. And within the process of going from the smallest to the biggest, an uncountable, numberless number of different universes are manifest until finally the greatest universe is manifest.
There is an uncountable number of different universes existing, and all of these different universes are included in the content of the great cosmos. That is what we mean by the appearance of the great cosmos. But the great cosmos never tarries in itself; immediately it begins manifesting again, and arrives at the absolute small condition.
We are told in our tradition that the Enlightened One taught his disciples using this word “zero,” and he said the zero condition is this perfect complete condition in which plus and minus are unifying with one another and then facing one another over and over again. Plus and minus unify and face, unify and face, but there is no will—it’s a totally will-less activity. Of course human beings have will, but this activity of plus and minus is will-less. The Enlightened One taught his disciples that the activity which forms the universe is always acting will-lessly, and even though it makes many universes and then contracts all of those universes down to the smallest point, there is always simply one singular, unique cosmos.
Plus and minus doing their repetitive activity is the complete condition, and this appears at the smallest point, the very origin. But that smallest point is not fixated, and then again a new condition of the origin is manifest. The plus and minus activity without fail will cause the cosmos to develop, will cause the cosmos to expand, and manifest the zero condition at levels one, two, three, and so forth.
We are also told in our tradition that whether it’s level one, two, three, five or ninety, they are all the complete condition and therefore all zero. The disciples have traditionally been taught that the smallest universe, the absolute origin, is zero, and the greatest cosmos also is zero. The reason why we say “zero” is because in the complete condition there is no need to think. That’s why it is zero.
The activity of zero manifests new conditions of zero at levels two and three and so forth. So here’s the question: of what kind of activity, under what conditions, does the activity of zero give rise to the thinking self? In the process of the condition of the origin, the activity of zero going from level one to level two—within that process is when the world of thought appears. The in-between-level-one-and-two thinking-self does appear, but just as inevitably that self will disappear, and when it disappears the level two condition of zero, complete condition, complete cosmos, complete world, appears. And this is when everybody will realize for themselves that the problem is “I must do Zen practice for myself.”
Plus and minus are acting without will, and because they are acting will-lessly we call it the activity of emptiness. So if you are intending to study Zen, the first thing that you should place carefully in your head is that the activity of zero is the activity of emptiness, and the activity of emptiness is a will-less activity. The complete self is zero. The complete self is zero. The complete self is an activity of zero, and this zero activity has no will. This complete condition is the condition in which plus and minus are repetitively unifying and facing over and over again without will.
The activity of mind inevitably manifests the complete condition, but always within that process, selves—that is, existences—appear, and those existences not only do the activity of appearing, they also do the activity of hiding themselves, or disappearing. In this way the function of consciousness progresses and develops, and finally develops to the point where the function of consciousness attaches to itself—it recognizes a thing called a self. It’s okay. It’s okay for we existent things to do this activity of recognizing a self. But to fixate this way of knowing, this way of recognizing, that is what enlightened people have told us is the mistake.
The reason why this is a mistake is that if, for example, you fixate the activity of living, then you will fixate the self which has appeared, and you will never be able to do the activity of hiding or disappearing. Another way that we explain this in our teaching is to say that when you fixate the activity of living, then you begin to dislike the activity of dying. The activity of appearing can be called the activity of living; the activity of hiding can be called the activity of dying. Then you come to think in terms of only what is convenient for the appeared self, the living self, and you avoid the activity of dying. You simply want to exist eternally.
The activity which forms the cosmos is continually, one after the next, causing worlds to appear and then causing them to disappear. And every time a new world is manifest, all of the existent things which appear during this process, doing their activity of being born and dying, inevitably go one step towards maturation, towards developing and growing. Buddhism undoubtedly recognizes this condition and acknowledges as valid the activity we call evolving, this activity we call incarnating. Birds and animals and of course human beings—we all will meet up with the season in our lives when we manifest the complete self. Without fail you will meet the dharma activity.
Another way The Enlightened One taught his disciples is to personify the activity of time as the dharma activity, as the activity of mind. All of you have all been born into this human world, and as humans you have to learn the activities of appearing and disappearing. So finally it’s time to practice.
Joshu Sasaki Roshi was born in 1907. He began monastic training in Japan in 1921 and was ordained a priest and abbot before his arrival in America in 1962.
He Likes to Watch the Trees
He Likes to Watch the Trees
According to Barry Boyce, if you start to look at trees more, you start to notice things. Their lordly, meditative pace can slow you down and stop you.
Remember Chauncey Gardner?
Chauncey was the automaton-like nature freak masterfully portrayed by Peter Sellers in the 1979 movie "Being There" (from a Jerzy Koscinski novel and screenplay). He was actually Chance the Gardener, a middle-aged man whose entire life had consisted of gardening, channel-surfing, and gracious manners.
Let loose on the world, he quickly became a phenom. A walking I Ching, he enthralled the president and millions of TV viewers with his simple horticultural pronouncements: "As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden.... In a garden, growth has its season. First comes spring and summer, then we have fall and winter, and then we get spring and summer again. There will be growth in the spring."
We often think of this kind of easy profundity as silly, like bad ad copy, or the president’s speech in "Being There": "We must appreciate when the trees are bare as well as the time when we pick the fruit." Yeah, right. Let’s leave nature as the backdrop that it should be and not go around trying to learn things from it, shall we?
So, I began to feel insufficiently serious as winter made its way into spring and summer and I became so captivated by trees, stopping in mid-stride during a perfectly good business day to gaze at them from top to bottom. As sentences containing seasonal shifts formed in my head, the specter of Chauncey Gardener loomed, but I couldn’t help myself. I went to the nature store, and there it was: the Eyewitness Handbook of Trees.
As I read about the ten basic leaf shapes, the parts of a flower, the varieties of fruit, and the types of bark, it occurred to me that the last time I had looked at anything like this was eighth grade or so. It didn’t make it in eighth grade, but now it was captivating. I discovered that a good stand of trees can be an amusement park, if you’re in the right frame of mind.
You start to look at trees more, you start to notice things. They are always reaching out. They tenaciously seek to anchor their roots, no matter how precarious their position. They will uproot sidewalks and fenceposts if necessary. Once those roots are there, the trunk and branches will reach and reach. They’re adaptableÑwhen they can’t reach in one direction, they’ll go in another. A whole forest is like a tug-of-war between earth and sky.
If you want to see diversity at work, look at the trees. Some trees are bulbous, like lollipops, while others are slim and conical, and still others free-form and wind-swept. They provide great relief. They shade us from a punishing sun and breathe out fresh air. Their lordly, meditative pace can slow you down and stop you. They’re dancing to the music of the spheres.
While their taller counterparts, buildings, are so inefficient, trees are the picture of efficiency, with a two-way nutritional system of light, water and gasses that is an engineering marvel. The flowers, fruits, burrs, cones, nuts and pods "devised" to communicate the seed combine utility and beauty in a way that practically defines creativity. And given the chance, they’ll cover the earth with it. They are an organic "art in the streets" program.
If the substructure of a tree is chaotic, its overall look is always of order. The wild fashion it presents to the world by way of the needles, ovals, hearts, and lances on its surface defeats any attempts to impose conformity, and yet each tree has its complete integrity. Trees are democratic in their chaos and imperial in their orderliness.
When an old tree dies, much like a good person, its trunk and branches remain for a while, as a monument and reminder of what they were, until even that falls and they become nutriment for a future generation.
The story of trees in the twentieth century, of course, is that they get in the way and when you cut them down you can do things with them. We live in clearings and we use tree products on a daily basis. Is that all that trees are good for?
As usual, Arbor Day came and went this year without much ballyhoo, a silly, Chauncey Gardner-like thing, not even worthy to be called a "holiday." Next year, though, I’m taking the day off and going to the woods.
Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.
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