I was recently celebrating my friend Darlene Cohen’s life by re-reading one of her books, Turning Suffering Inside Out. Darlene was a wonderful, brilliant, outrageous person, and long-time Zen teacher. She suffered much of her life from severe rheumatoid arthritis. She embodied her teaching through working with and learning from her difficulty, and exuded both joy and wisdom.
I often think about my plans and my future. I imagine we all do. In Darlene’s book she writes about the time in her life when she and her husband and son left residence in the San Francisco Zen Center. Darlene was a teacher for many students and also had a practice of helping people who were in physical plan. Many of her clients began to be concerned about her and asked about her financial plans and her life plans. She began to feel irresponsible, especially since she had a family, and decided that she did indeed need to develop a five-year and ten-year plan.
This task was so important that she decided to spend an entire day devoted to this exercise. (Yes, this made me laugh!) So, on this special day, a warm spring Sunday in San Francisco, she and her husband packed yellow legal pads and pens in their backpacks and went off on a bike ride. They stopped for coffee and pastries and rode through beautiful places along the bay. Finally by late morning they were ready to take up the task at hand. They sat down in a coffee shop, got out their pads and pens, and readied themselves for the task at hand — writing their five and ten year plan. But, nothing happened. There was tremendous resistance.
Then, Darlene says, she realized that she became clear about her five and ten year plan during the bicycle ride. For the next five and ten years she would do exactly what she had done for the past five and ten years — meditate, work with her students, and continue working with clients who were in physical pain.
Darlene goes on to say that this doesn’t mean that you should ignore money and finances and financial planning. Of course we all need to take care of our financial lives. However, what she learned was to see and appreciate the life she was already living, to embrace what she loved and appreciated about her life. She did not need to sacrifice the present by worrying unnecessarily about the future.
Darlene died several weeks ago after a long battle with cancer. Now, looking back at her life, when she began to work with cancer, she didn’t have as much money as she needed to pay for alternative treatments. Her friends and students gave her money. When she moved from San Francisco she didn’t have enough money to build a meditation hall in her home. Her friends and students supported her and provided funds for this as well.
I miss my dear friend. And I’m grateful to have her spirit and her teachings of courage — the courage to work with suffering and physical pain, the courage to appreciate the gift of our lives, and the courage and wisdom to turn suffering into joy.