Give and Take: The Pleasures of Pain
Andrew Cooper chats with Zen priest pain
counselor Darlene Cohen
you share some of the benefits of chronic pain
that you've discovered in your twenty-five years
of dealing with rheumatoid arthritis?
Nobody begrudges you even your most politically
incorrect pleasures; conventional
standards of social courtesy may be violated
indiscriminately; you begin to be intensely
grateful for the invention of things like
spoons, foot-stools, and electric toothbrushes;
and with minimum exertion, you can make
able-bodied people who park in handicapped spots
wish their parents had never met.
Name something you thought at the time was a
cool insight but on later inspection turned out
to be really dumb.
People have told me for years how my pain is a
gift, blessing me with insight, appreciation,
gratitude, and wisdom. Frankly, I'd rather be
Does misery really love company?
What misery really loves is a soft bed, a couple
of really fluffy pillows, endless fragrant tea,
docile attendants, competent help, comfortable
but gorgeous underwear, flannel clothes, gentle
caresses from people who know how to keep their
mouths shut, chocolate in an exhaustive variety
of innovative forms, an obscenely extravagant
vase of bedside flowers, expensive toilet paper,
a young person neurotically attracted to Byronic
illnesses but who is too shy to enter the
sickroom so writes passionate love letters
instead, dappled sunshine outside the window,
soft lighting, hallucinogenic medicines, and a
couple of Judy Davis videos.
Have you ever considered going to Lourdes?
I have thought of visiting Lourdes, but for twenty-five years I have been
wending my way through healing experiences in
the Bay Area. At Harbin Hot Springs I was
spontaneously, albeit temporarily, healed by
observing a constellation of penises bobbing in
the warm water. I immediately lost interest in
Lourdes. Besides, one could take a nasty fall
over all those abandoned crutches.
As a Buddhist priest, which do you find more
salutary, misery or agony?
Agony, of course, is more dramatic. Not only
can you describe horrendous circumstances to
your friends without fear of interruption, but
you can also write it down in books, and people
will thank you for suffering so that they can
have the experience vicariously. Misery is
another story. People avoid us miserable ones,
possibly tired of the complaining, the twisted
features, the special diets. As a Zen priest,
the basic thing that has been helpful to me is
other people's misery. It makes them willing to
come keep me company.
How come you never
hear about anyone getting enlightened while
receiving a nice relaxing massage?
Actually masseurs and masseuses tell us this
all the time, and it's absolutely true. You do
get enlightened from having a relaxing massage.
But just as Dogen wrote in "Only Buddha and
Buddha," [though he was not exactly addressing
the post-massage experience], we don't realize
that the very next moment [when you put your
clothes back on] is enlightenment too.