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Monday, June 23, 2008

Beach on Cohen on anger and the positives of pizza

My old buddy and office mate Gabriel Cohen came back to New Haven Tuesday to read from his new book about Buddhism and divorce and to talk about anger.
Cohen gazed at the two dozen people who had assembled in the basement of Labyrinth Books and remarked, "This is like a time machine for me."
He lived in this town from 1982 to 1988, writing for the New Haven Advocate and playing guitar for the popular band Valley of Kings. For a small part of that time, he and I worked together at the Advocate, which was then headquartered in a small building on Chapel Street. We shared the place with a herd of mice.
"It’s condos now," he said of our old office. "Everything looks different around here."
He noted with relief that the Anchor and Copper Kitchen restaurants have survived, along with Toad’s Place. He lamented the passing of the Yankee Doodle Coffee Shop.
But Cohen, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and uses the first name Gabriel instead of Gabe, wasn’t there to reminisce about New Haven; he needed to promote his latest book, "Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce."
Cohen said he would have stared in disbelief "if you’d told me five years ago that I’d write a book about Buddhism and divorce.
"Being divorced is an odd identity," he told us.
He opened the book at the first page and began to read: "At seven in the evening on June 25, 2005, my wife suddenly got up and walked out the door.
"She never came back.
"It was the worst thing that ever happened to me.
"It was also, oddly enough, one of the best."
Cohen’s memoir of that time is a search for meaning amid great heartbreak and, yes, anger.
But first in that introduction he recounts writing an article for the Advocate about a program founded by Dr. Bernie Siegel, author of "Love, Medicine and Miracles."
While Cohen was interviewing patients with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses in Siegel’s support group, some of them told Cohen they considered their diseases a gift. They had learned to focus on what was truly meaningful and important in their lives.
Cohen didn’t get it at the time. But he said when his marriage fell apart and he began to suffer, he started to understand.
"I don’t think of myself as a particularly angry person," he wrote in the first chapter, entitled "Punching Holes." But he said as his marriage deteriorated, "I got angry. Big time."
During their arguments about searching for a new apartment in New York, he found himself shouting at her, storming out of the room and slamming the door.
Shortly afterward, she walked out and didn’t come back.
"There’s a lot of anger that goes along with this experience of divorce," Cohen told us. "I was cursing my wife and her friends and her therapist. But it wasn’t doing me any good."
Cohen added, "If you are angry at your spouse or friend or kid or mother or father, the problem is not that person. The problem is your anger." And the result of your yelling, he noted, is almost always something negative.
How did he come to realize this? It came about by using Buddhism as a practical method for easing one’s suffering. And it started when, amidst his troubles with his wife, he spotted a small sign on a bulletin board: "How to Deal With Anger." It was for a talk about Buddhism.
Cohen was very skeptical, but it cost just $10 for two hours.
After he pursued this path, he said he learned to be more patient, more compassionate and less angry.
An example: one day while he was trying to write at his Brooklyn apartment, a guy parked a Lexus nearby. Minutes later, the car’s alarm sounded, and it kept on going. Cohen got so angry that he put a note on the windshield, laced with obscenities.
But when he returned to his desk, Cohen thought about the anger he had unleashed and how little good it had done. So he replaced the angry note with this one: "Excuse me, your car alarm needs to be fixed."
Cohen concluded his talk by saying, "Three years ago I couldn’t see anything good about my divorce. But now, here I am. I was able to transform a totally negative experience into something positive."
Wow. The kid went and got wisdom. He’s telling the rest of us how to deal with our anger, too.
After his reading, a few of us who had known Cohen in his New Haven days took him out for pizza. And although we had to wait 1½ hours at Sally’s, it was OK. We got into a zen state. We talked, told stories and turned a negative into a positive.
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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