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It is not the Cohen of his lyrics or of his sullen self-portraits who moves about this house of austere aesthetic. He is a gentleman to his partner, the friend in the neighborhood, a gracious host. It is in his humanity, his feet of clay, that he is most comfortable.
He talks easily about his earlier years, unburdened by nostalgia. “My constitution is what saved me,” he says of the time he used a lot of drugs, especially during the writing of Beautiful Losers in 1966. “I’m not a really good drinker or a really good junkie. My stomach just doesn’t permit it. I was very lucky in that respect, because a lot of people I know, especially in those turbulent times, just didn’t survive it.”
Similarly, he displays no longing or fondness for his time on Mount Baldy. He left the monastery in 1999. Not because he couldn’t find what he was looking for. Rather, he says, “I had completed that phase of my training.”
He had gone there to cure himself of his excesses. He worked in the kitchen and as a secretary to Roshi. But it was not all about serenity. “They’re not saints, and you aren’t either,” he says of his fellow monks. “A monastery is rehab for people who have been traumatized, hurt, destroyed, maimed by daily life that they simply couldn’t master. I had been studying with Roshi for thirty or forty years, but when I actually decided to live with him and really commit myself to the daily life—I always did that for several months of every year—but when I decided to do it full-time, I had just come off a tour in 1993, and yes, I felt dislocated. I had been drinking tremendous amounts on the road and my health was shot.”
He discovered what he was looking for. “What happens in meditations that last ten, fifteen hours is that you run through your top ten erotic fantasies, ambition fantasies, revenge fantasies, global ratification fantasies. You run through them all until you bore yourself to death, basically, and the faculty that produces opinions and snap judgments and unrealistic scenarios for your own prominence, after you run through them for a number of years, they cease to have charge. They bore themselves into non-existence. You see them as diversions from another kind of intimacy that you become more interested in—and that is what Socrates said: Know Thyself.”
Cohen, who has two grown children from his long-term relationship with Suzanne Elrod—not the Suzanne of his famous song—is a grandfather now. Cassius Lyon Cohen was born a few months ago. Still, there’s something more at play beneath his palpable equanimity. And it might be as simple as this: The man is happy.
“I always had a background of distress, ever since I was young,” he admits. “What part that played in becoming a writer or a singer or whatever it was that one became, I don’t know. I didn’t have a sense of an operational ease,” he continues. About life? “Just about one’s work or one’s capacity to earn a living; a capacity to find a mate or find a moment of relief in someone’s arms,” he says, trailing off.
He looks up. “I don’t know what happened,” he says sweetly. “Something very agreeable happened to me. I don’t know what the reason is. That background of distress dissolved.” He leaves a small silence, then offers a mischievous smile. “I’m worried now that my songs are too cheerful because I’m feeling well. I think I may be irrelevant pretty soon.”
Has Thomas, who is forty-eight, played a part in that happiness? “That might very well be,” he allows. He met her in 1984, when she was singing backup for him. They didn’t become lovers until 1999. “When the background of distress dissolves, you’re able to see people more clearly.”
“People who love you, you mean?”
“Yeah, or don’t,” he says. “You’re able to appreciate the authentic situation. You can just see things more clearly. It’s a veil that drops. You’re not looking at everything from the point of view of your own suffering.”
Relationships are often difficult, he says. “I find that people want to name it. The woman is saying, ‘What is our relationship? Are we engaged? Are we boyfriend and girlfriend? Are we lovers?’ And my disposition is, ‘Do we really have to have this discussion, because it’s not as good as our relationship?’
“But as you get older, you want to accommodate, and say, ‘Yeah, we’re living together. This is for real. I’m not looking for anyone else. You’re the woman in my life.’ Whatever terms that takes: a ring, an arrangement, a commitment, or from one’s behavior, by the way you act. You make it clear by minute adjustments. A woman goes by. You can look, but you can adjust so that it’s not an insult, an affront, or a danger. You’re with somebody, and you want to make it work. I’m not interested in taking off my clothes with a woman right now.”
He and Thomas live together, but they have separate bedrooms on different floors of the house. “I like to wake up alone,” Cohen explains. “And she likes to be alone. We are both impossibly solitudinous people.”
If advancing age and his love of Thomas have promoted happiness, so too has Buddhism. What Cohen has developed is a practice of detachment. “You have to take responsibility because the world holds you accountable for what you do,” he explains at one point. “But if you understand that there are other forces determining what you do, then there’s no pride when the world affirms you, and no shame when the world scorns you. Also, when someone does something to you that you really don’t like or that hurts you, well, a feeling of injury may arise, but what doesn’t is hatred or enmity, because those people aren’t doing it, either. They’re just doing what had to be done.”
Just like this interview. It has been arranged, and so he will do it, graciously, without hesitation, annoyance or impatience. Finally, when you insist you must leave, he worries if you are dressed warmly enough for the cold weather. He gives you one of his scarves, and goes upstairs to retrieve an old Gap sweater he wants you to wear. He calls you darling. He finds a pin for the Order of the Unified Heart and gives you one, and a ring, too, with the same design.
Earlier, he had explained that even if despair has lessened, challenges remain. “This isn’t very different from the monastery,” he says, referring to his current situation. “It’s the same kind of life, which is sometimes difficult, like everybody else’s. It’s a struggle for significance and self-respect, and you know, for righteous employment, to be doing the right thing.”
Part of that, clearly, is inviting people, strangers even, into his house of unadorned walls, simple white curtains, and old wood floors, nourishing them with food and ideas and hours of delightful conversation, and then sending them back out into the world, the one with the smokers and the drizzle and the pain.
Sarah Hampson is a writer and columnist with Canada’s Globe and Mail. She has written for magazines in Canada and the United Kingdom on a variety of subjects.
Originally published in the November 2007 Shambhala Sun magazine.
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