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Tribute to Darlene Cohen: Finding Joy in the Heart of Pain


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Picture of Darlene Cohen
Photograph by Renshin Bunce

Darlene was one of the most authentic and inspiring people I’ve ever met, and our relationship truly transformed my life.

I first learned about her when I read her book, Finding Joy in the Heart of Pain (now called Turning Suffering Inside Out).

This was at a time in my life when I was still struggling enormously with chronic illness and pain, and reading her book was like a drink of cold water in the desert. Darlene was no stranger to illness and pain. She had rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune inflammatory condition affecting the joints, for more than 30 years. When the disease first struck her, she lost 40 pounds and was forced to stay in bed. She couldn’t dress herself, hold the phone receiver, or get up from the toilet unassisted. From her book:

In four months of deterioration, I lost everything that meant anything to me: reliance on a strong, young body; my achievements and the sense of self-worth they brought me; my pleasure in being a sexually attractive woman; my identity as a mother; and my ability to do the required practices and sustain myself in the community in which I lived as a student of Zen meditation. I became isolated from everyone I knew by my pain and fear and ultimately even by the consuming effort I had to make to do any little thing – like get up from a chair, pick up a cup of tea.

Although my illness wasn’t as severe as Darlene’s, I could certainly relate to the loss of function and the isolating effects of pain and fear she experienced. As I turned each page I felt as if Darlene was speaking directly to me. I finally felt that someone understood the struggles I had faced living with a chronic illness.

When I found out she was based in the Bay Area, I was ecstatic. I was already a student of Zen meditation, but was at that time without a teacher. I contacted Darlene and asked if she was accepting new students. She said (with characteristic candor) “It depends.”

We had our first meeting about a week later. It wasn’t what I expected at all. Mostly, we laughed. That happened a lot with Darlene. Before I met her, I didn’t know it was possible to be irreverent and sincere in the same moment. She was serious about ending suffering, but never took her suffering seriously. This was nothing short of liberating for me. From her book again:

How do we live through unbearable situations like a catastrophic disease without being destroyed? How do we deal with the mundane anguish of our everyday lives? How do we continue to live under crushing stress? And even further, how do we not just get through these things but have rich, full and worthwhile lives that we actually want to live – under any circumstances?

This is the question Darlene dedicated her life and her Zen practice to answering. She taught me (and many other students around the world) how to find joy in the heart of pain. How to stay present in circumstances that seem unbearable. And, most importantly, how to love and forgive ourselves through it all – whether we stay present or not, whether we are sad or happy, frustrated or at peace, sick or healthy.

A common pitfall on the spiritual path is the idea that meditation practice should produce a state of perpetual equanimity and acceptance – one in which negative feelings like anger, frustration and despair are never experienced. Darlene went out of her way to dispel this misguided notion wherever she encountered it.

In fact, one of the greatest gifts I received from her was learning the value of distraction. She had a special name for it: “down ‘n’ dirty comfort“. Here’s how she explains it in her book:

Even though it’s an ideal time to “embrace the suffering” or learn to “dance with disaster,” you don’t care. Furthermore, you don’t care that you don’t care. You’ve had it with trying to expand your consciousness. You hate your life and everybody in it. Nobody else cares, why should you? You’re at the end of your rope. It’s time for down ‘n’ dirty comfort. What you need is whatever will get you through the next few hours.

It might sound strange to hear a Zen teacher talk about the importance of distracting yourself. But that’s one of the things I appreciated most about Darlene: she didn’t fit the mold, and she didn’t try to. She constantly challenged conventional ideas about what it meant to be a spiritual practitioner and teacher.

One of my favorite stories she told illustrates this well:

One particular Friday, I was exhausted, miserable and resentful. I had worked hard all week, and it seemed to me that nobody appreciated me. Clients canceled their appointments, and nobody was taking any of my advice. My “poor me” tape started running, and my joints hurt. Although we were out of cookies, there were two Hagen-Dazs ice cream sandwiches in the fridge. I put them on a plate, curled up in bed under the thick comforter just the way I was, with my clothes and shoes on, and clicked on the TV. Geraldo was having a celebrity gossipfest with tabloid reporters telling all. I settled down into a blissful haze of pain, sugar and gossip.

I was actually pretty transported, feeling much better about life, when the phone next to my bed rang a half hour later. Since I didn’t want to go back into being-available mode, I had absolutely no intention of answering the phone or even listening to the message, but habit was stronger than gossip bliss. After the answering machine’s various clicks indicated someone was beginning to record, I muted the TV at the last minute. A woman I didn’t know began telling my machine she had heard me lecture and was very moved and impressed and wanted to study with me. I was such an inspiring person, she was sure forming a teaching relationship with me would help her cope with the pain she had in her life since I had set such an example with mine. She left her phone number. I clicked the TV mute button off and went back to Geraldo. In a few moments, I was laughing out loud. Here I was, the pain guru, the person people in pain want to emulate. I looked at myself huddled fully dressed under the bedcovers in the middle of the day, driven there by pain and self-pity, the plate full of ice cream sandwich crumbs sliding off to one side, my annoyance at having missed some Madonna gossip during the phone call, and thought “This is it. This really is my teaching.”

Darlene’s authenticity was refreshing. She was real. She let her students see not only her wisdom and strength, but also her humanity and pain. She taught me to continue to draw the circle of acceptance wider and wider, until it included everything – especially the “unacceptable”.

A few weeks before she passed, she said she wasn’t sorry to be leaving her painful body, and that the hardest part was leaving her students. I have similar feelings about her passing. I am glad she is finally free of her pain, after so many years of living with it. Yet I will miss her compassion, her insight, her sense of humor and, most of all, her humanity.

This morning I pulled out her book and read a few pages. I laughed out loud and I cried – all within a few minutes. That was Darlene. So full of life. So uninhibited. So immediate.

As I put the book away, I felt a strong sense of her presence. And with that, deep gratitude that she will live on in my heart and my spirit.

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Join the conversation

  1. I’ve not read Darlene’s book yet, but it’s definitely in my must-read list now. Thanks for introducing such a wonderful lady to me. But, I’m sorry to learn that I may never see her again, at least not in this life.

  2. I find the response of “Happy” unsettling. Sometimes, I think, people universalize their own experience and draw conclusions based on their own personal limited experience w/o any clinical training or understanding. Ignorance, arrogance, and immaturity allows us to believe we have all of the answers and that we can extrapolate our experience to all. Very irritating.

  3. Lovely tribute – so sad that she suffered so long from a disease that can be easily treated.

    I had severe rheumatoid arthritis, put myself in remission by manipulating my diet (no drugs), read about a study that found most people with RA are “adversely affected” by anything bovine, eliminated beef, all dairy, beef gelatin capsules (which are the norm) for complete remission on a VERY bland diet.

    THEN I discovered Dr. Ayers’ blog: http://coolinginflammation.blogspot.com/

    Following his advice, I can eat anything again.

    BECAUSE even if you achieve a delicate balance and go into remission, an elimination diet weakens the immune system which is centered in your intestines and dependent on healthy gut flora (bacteria). A strong immune system requires a diverse diet because some gut flora is dependent on other flora already being present before it can establish itself.

    I had unwittingly eliminated the foods that supported my ability to tolerate bovine, and more importantly, further weakened my immune system leaving me vulnerable to many other diseases.

    SOLUTION: To build up a tolerance to a particular food, eat a more diverse diet (especially strong plants like herbs and spices) and try the food again a week or so later to see if you’ve established the necessary gut flora, repeat if necessary. It works!

  4. A truely wonderful tribute. I understand and agree with her completely. My own life experiences have led me to understanding acceptance and distractions.