In 1994, Leonard Cohen found himself on the brink of losing his sanity following an exhaustive tour which made the Canadian turn to Zen Buddhism out of desperation. The practice played a sacred part in his life for several years, then one day, he had an epiphany and left it all behind.
Cohen’s battle with mental health was a struggle that forced him to spend his life searching for coping mechanisms. At times, it made the poet drink, or womanise to excess, just to occupy his mind and momentarily distract him from the overbearing torture that resulted from his depressive thoughts.
He was overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness after touring his album, The Future. During the run of shows, Cohen was drinking four bottles of wine a day just to numb himself from the vigorous pain in his knees. However, he was conscious living in this way was unsustainable, and he sought sanctuary in the Mount Baldy Zen Buddhist monastery in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel mountains.
“I wasn’t looking for a religion,” Cohen once reflected. “I already had a perfectly good one [his Jewish faith]. And I certainly wasn’t looking for a new series of rituals. But I had a great sense of disorder in my life, of chaos and depression, of distress.
“And I had no idea where this came from. The prevailing psychoanalytic explanations of the time didn’t seem to address the things I felt. Then I bumped into someone who seemed to be at ease with himself and at ease with others.”
The five years that Cohen spent living in Mount Baldy, under the strict instructions of the monastery’s founder, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, was intended to cure him of his mental health woes. While it added much-needed structure to his life, Cohen found an unlikely drinking buddy in Roshi, and they enjoyed late-night whiskey sessions together. However, his search for inner peace ultimately came to no avail, and in 1999, Cohen decided to walk away.
“I felt it wasn’t doing any good,” he later told NPR about his exit. “It wasn’t really addressing this problem – distress – which is the background for all my activities, feelings and thoughts. It was a lot of work for very little return.”
“I began to feel that this is a lot of work for very little return,” he continued. “That was a kind of – the kind of feelings – the kind of superficial feelings I had. There were other feelings that are ambiguous and too difficult to describe. They deserve or probably should be described in song or poetry rather than conversation.”
Perhaps, Cohen didn’t feel like his regimented time in the monastery improved his life in the way he initially envisaged, yet, it undoubtedly enriched him in other areas. It reinforced his relationship with his Jewish faith and made him realise that he didn’t need material luxuries to survive. Agonisingly for Cohen, the half-decade as a mog couldn’t prevent the black dog clouding his brain, and the poet’s search for longing continued.