Tracing Leonard Cohen’s Spiritual Footprints
Like a bird on a wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried, in my way,
To be free.
Those lines from the song “Bird on a Wire,” were written by Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen who died back in November 2016. His first album came out in 1967 when I was a very impressionable young teenager in the midst of the so-called “summer of love” of that year.
The Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had come earlier and this was now the fulfillment of a new wave of youthful revolution, that literally danced to a new beat as experimental bands such a Pink Floyd sprung up everywhere and the background beat of pop music of all kinds became the life blood of a new generation demanding change, any change, of the old established orders their parents had accepted as the norm.
LSD, ecstatic sunny summer concerts, Woodstock, young girls in beautiful flowing Indian dresses, love in the air and the beginning of a sexual revolution with old taboos challenged and ignored; the fashion hub of the King’s Road in Chelsea, Carnaby Street in the West End, Hippies galore, flowers in your hair, Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch, Che Guevara T-shirts, models Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy and working class photographer made good, David Bailey. Such an exciting time if you were young, full of hope and wild expectation.
The rather dismal black and white post war world seemed to be cracking up into a kaleidoscope of color with a youth revolution challenging old certainties. Even the then Editor of the very traditional Times newspaper, William Rees-Mogg, was to be found on TV in lively and acrimonious debate with the pouting Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones (between the latter’s prison visits for drug-related episodes) and writing editorial leaders about him and the iconoclastic generation he represented.
Of course that “summer of love” could not be sustained as the money men moved in, cynicism and disappointment began to prevail. The original spirit of hope, light, life and joyful expectation of a new era of peace and love that had sparked the wave in the first place, fast began to dim.
Amidst this euphoric atmosphere of 1967 the unknown Leonard Cohen’s first album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” appeared, with the tanned face of a dark haired handsome man with piercing eyes, pronounced nose, in his mid- thirties, staring out directly at you–with a hint of melancholy. Unlike his contemporaries, he looked smart, there was no long hair down to his shoulders, and the cover itself was framed in black and white–no sign of the wild technicolor, transcendental brightness of the times.
When you first listened to his deep and somewhat limited register monotonal voice, you were very aware this was something different. Above all, unlike much of the contemporary scene, the words were rich, the poetry sometimes startlingly beautiful and the images conjured up unforgettable, the musical rhythms haunting. Religious themes, intertwined with sexual imagery and a deep reverence and love ran through it all. Yes it was melancholic and the reputation his work gained for being the perfect companion for “bedsit depressives” and “music to slit your wrists to” was at least superficially understandable! However Cohen himself described his work as “the life of the heart” and that description far better reflects the power of his music to move the heart, albeit much of the time from a base of deep sadness, lightened by a dry wit and wisdom.
When he died, aged 82, I was moved to write a small “philosophical” piece based on four lines from one of his songs to friends within the Study Society and elsewhere:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering;
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
“The search for perfection and completeness is natural. But our True Nature as pure presence is perfect and complete and neither comes nor goes.
The “searcher” emerges out of the apparent chaos of circumstances that make up the story of “my life.” But imperfection and incompleteness as experienced by the body/mind or “person,” the flaws, the mistakes, the misjudgments, the irrational desires, the frustrations, the anger, the criticism, the feeling of separation, the love turning to hate, the sense of despair, the tears within or without, the regrets, and so on and so on, are all expressions of the same Life force and limitless Being that I Am.
The unchanging embraces the changing, dances with it invisibly into eternity. There are many colors and tones but only one Light. The “cracks” are perfect. In infinite Grace the ugliness, the pain, the terror, the anguish, the violence and the folly of the world drama we live out day to day can be experienced anew as doorways into the Heart.
The Light always gets in whatever we may think. Nothing needs to change and all resistance and attempts at control interrupt the exquisite brush stroke of every sacred moment.
We do not have to struggle to come up with a perfect offering and suffer the inevitable feelings of failure, of always falling short. The “falling short” is just another dream. Struggling against the current just reinforces the dream and the sheer immediacy of the Light is lost. The bells are ringing always. The cracks in the bells make the sound all the sweeter. Everything calls us Home.”
Cohen was no stranger to the advaita or nondual perspective. In 1999 he travelled to India to meet a well-known non-dual teacher, Ramesh Balsekar. Cohen spent around a year in Bombay going almost daily to sit at Ramesh’s feet. There are transcriptions of some of their conversations where Cohen talks of the difficulties in his life, his writing and the “chattering of the mind” that afflicted him, “sometimes in degrees of intensity that make one gasp or cry out for help.” He says that what he seeks most of all is “peace.”
As music journalist Mick Brown commented soon after his death: “It is Cohen’s misfortune that he goes to his grave as “the godfather of gloom.” But the question he was constantly asking in his songs, poetry and fiction was “Who is this I?” and what is this “I” supposed to be doing here, in this mess of dashed hopes, broken hearts and certain mortality.”
As it happens, Cohen came from a distinguished family of Montreal Jews and his grandfather was a respected rabbi. As Brown pointed out, the legacy of Jewish teaching, lore – and melancholia – infused his work in ways that might not always have been obvious.
During his life however, Cohen stretched his wings way beyond his strict, narrow Jewish roots. He experimented with LSD when he was quite young and living on the small Greek island of Hydra with his long term girlfriend and muse Marianne Ihlen after whom his famed song “So Long Marianne,” was named. “I took trip after trip,” he recalled, “sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God. Generally I ended up with a bad hangover.”
He also looked to Catholicism and even Scientology for answers. But by far the major influence on him was Zen Buddhism. For 30 years he associated with a Zen monastery in California and for almost six years in the 1990s lived there on and off as an ordained monk, under the tutelage of a Japanese Roshi, or distinguished teacher, named Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, rising at 2.30 a.m. each morning to perform his daily duties and to meditate.
He later said his years there: “provided a space for me to kind of dance with the Lord that I couldn’t find in a lot of the other places I went to.”
In his later years his search very much continued – he read deeply into the Zohar – the principal text of Jewish mysticism, Hindu philosophy and Buddhist texts.
One of his most famous songs is “Hallelujah” which in Hebrew means “praise God.” He saw this as an affirmation of his faith in life “with enthusiasm, with emotion” rather than in any specific religious context. He stated about it:
“The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say; “Look, I don’t understand a f——thing at all – “Hallelujah”! That’s the only moment we live here fully as human beings.”
His financial fortunes veered up and down – “I’ve never sold widely enough to be able to relax about money, he said, “I had two kids and their mother to support and my own life.” In later life he discovered that his long time manager had badly mismanaged his affairs resulting in the loss of millions of dollars from his retirement fund. This forced him for the first time in 15 years to launch a world tour in 2008 which along with other sell-outs that followed introduced him to a whole new generation of fans. Three new studio albums in 2012, 2014 and, just at the time of his death in 2016 followed.
According to Brown, Cohen once wrote: “a man or woman lays their work at the foot of their beloved – we do everything for love.” The overarching theme of all of his work could be seen as love in disorder. Sexual passion and love intertwined often giving his songs the air of a confessional: “I have one single plank in my platform,” he stated in 1970 – women will set us free. Just keep on repeating that.”
Song, women and wine had a “sacramental connection” for him and his old world charm, gravelly voice and well-cut suits often topped in later years with a slanted 1940’s gangster-type hat were a magnetic draw for his many female fans. His voice just got deeper and deeper–the decay in his voice actually suited him.
What was his effect on those of us who followed his career through 50 plus years.? One music critic, Neil McCormick, summed it up well: “He was a musical spirit guide through the biggest issues of existence, singing about love, sex, family, mortality, the impossible questions of how to live a moral life in a seemingly indifferent and uncaring universe. He made music to nourish the soul. You listened to Cohen sing and you knew he was in the struggle with you.”
In terms of his private meetings with Cohen, McCormick added: “Small and dapper, he comported himself with humility, treating everyone in his path with kindness and respect, the waitress bringing tea or the journalist probing him with questions. There was a consistent twinkle behind his eyes, qualities of sensitivity and humor that added up to a lively engagement with the moment. When you had his attention, you felt his complete presence. And when he spoke, he weighed his words with all the care you might expect. He came over like a cross between a sage Old Testament prophet and a wry comedian.”
Cohen was certainly no saint and would have laughed at the very idea. But he did come across as a man of deep compassion who had journeyed into the very depths of darkness within and come back out with a kind of gloomy joy and dry wit that he communicated in many ways. On hearing of his record company’s delight that his song “First we take Manhattan” had outsold all his others put together, he commented: “I’ve always been touched by the modesty of their interest in my work.”
There were many deep cracks in Cohen’s heart and mind, much pain and despair, but they did let the light in for many thousands of his fans. Each of us can point to similar cracks within. Embracing them rather than denying them or hiding from them seems to allow the radiance of our true being to come to the fore, bathing and healing all past hurt and disappointment in the indestructible and unmoving presence that sets anyone free.
Cohen would have appreciated the words of the French author and Nobel prize winner Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter, I found there was within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me there is something stronger – something better pushing right back.”
“I’m ready my Lord,” Cohen sang on the title track of what turned out to be his final album, You want it darker. Just before his own passing his own great love and muse Marianne Ihlen was on her death bed and he sent her a letter saying: “Well Marianne, its come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
The mark of the man was a courageous surrender. Out of his darkness came a shining light. Hallelujah!
Philip has been both a student and teacher of nondual teachings in the UK for over 40 years. While drawing on many nondual strands, his greatest influence was Sri Shantanand Saraswati, Shankaracharya of the Jyoti Math in Northern India till his death in 1997. Philip was a Trustee and Chairman of the Study Society in London and still runs a nonduality group there. He worked as a journalist for many years, including Reuters and the Financial Times. He is a Shakespeare specialist and runs workshops and week-long retreats at his house in Puglia, Italy. http://www.shakespeareinitaly.net