Lessons From Leonard Cohen: “You’re on the front lines of your own life, and you really don’t have too much opportunity for making grand plans.”

A Manual For Living With Defeat

Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat is a collection of Leonard Cohen’s observations that offer insight into living in this imperfect world. (For information about how this series differs from other collections of so-called lessons from Leonard Cohen, see Lessons From Leonard Cohen – Introduction.)

Lesson #11: “You’re on the front lines of your own life, and you really don’t have too much opportunity for making grand plans.”

“It’s hard to develop a strategy, especially in this accidental life. Contrary to what Wordsworth said, I never felt my life was ‘recollected in tranquility.’ It seems like you’re on the front lines of your own life, and you really don’t have too much opportunity for making grand plans.”1

Leonard Cohen

“I’ve never had a strategy. To me it was perfectly natural that my work would penetrate and find an audience in the popular culture and I think you can approach it in any way you want. I think it’s important not to let it tyrannize you. I don’t think we’re completely creatures of that culture and neither are we creatures of our own personal culture. We’re continually moving back and forth between those two areas. I never had a strategy because I never felt alien from popular culture. You just set the thing up in the way you can handle it. I don’t have the kind of mind to do anything else. I think Irving Layton once described my mind as ‘unblemished by a single idea.’ I never had a plan. I had a certain kind of faith although. I would never have given that word to it. If the work was good enough or, more specifically, if the work was appropriate to move into the world, it would move into the world. There are certain kinds of work that stay with you. You don’t develop any kind of chip on your shoulder because that kind of work doesn’t move out or gain hundreds of admirers. I have a clear idea of the process, of a song say, in the popular realm. The world can use certain kinds of work at certain times and at certain times it can’t.”2

Leonard Cohen

Someone observed that whoever marries the spirit of their generation will be a widow in the next. I never married the spirit of my generation because it wasn’t that attractive to me. And I’ve since moved further and further from any possible matrimonial commitment. As you get older, I think you get less willing to buy the latest version of reality. Mostly, I’m on the front line of my own tiny life.”3

Leonard Cohen

“You must do the thing you want most. We are all our own crash test dummies.”4

Leonard Cohen

“I find that more and more I inhabit the front line of my own life, with missiles and shrapnel flying through the air. You really don’t have the opportunity to develop much of a strategy about things. Certainly not about your career, and not even about your loves or dreams. So there’s a certain urgency to the moment and how to negotiate from one instance to the next.”5

Leonard Cohen

“I don’t have a spiritual strategy … Occasionally, your back is against the wall, and you cry out for help and that becomes a type of song. Events surround you. You develop a sense of resignation. That becomes a song like ‘If It Be Your Will.’ … You’re provoked, you’re feeling somewhat demented. That becomes a geopolitical manifesto full of menace like ‘First We Take Manhattan.’ But these statements develop with a sense of immediacy although the process of refinement is very long. The impulse for the work is immediate and stunning.”6

Leonard Cohen

“I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”7

Leonard Cohen

 

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A Manual For Living With Defeat

___________________________

  1. November 9, 1988 interview with Ralph Benmergui, Massey Hall in Toronto (Broadcast live on CBC radio and rebroadcast on March 11, 1990 on The Entertainers) []
  2. Leonard Cohen: Working for the World to Come. The interview (probably from 1982) was published in the book In Their Own Words: Interviews with fourteen Canadian writers, by Bruce Mayer and Brian O’Riordan, 1984. Found at LeonardCohenfiles. []
  3. Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician: July 1988. []
  4. Leonard Cohen, Patricia Rozema, & The How To Be Happy Documentary []
  5. Leonard Cohen, The Lord Byron of Rock-and-Roll by Karen Schoemer New York Times: November 29, 1992. []
  6. November 9, 1988 interview with Ralph Benmergui, Massey Hall in Toronto (Broadcast live on CBC radio and rebroadcast on March 11, 1990 on The Entertainers) []
  7. Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker by David Remnick (New Yorker: October 17, 2016) []

Lessons From Leonard Cohen: “Growing up involves forgiving – not using relationships as an alibi”

A Manual For Living With Defeat

Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat is a collection of Leonard Cohen’s observations that offer insight into living in this imperfect world. (For information about how this series differs from other collections of so-called lessons from Leonard Cohen, see Lessons From Leonard Cohen – Introduction.)

Lesson #10: “Growing up involves forgiving – not using relationships as an alibi”

“It’s a mistake to blame things on other people, especially your parents. Everybody suffers, but growing up involves forgiving – not using relationships as an alibi”1

Leonard Cohen

“I don’t think about my childhood much. I don’t think that it’s a legitimate explanation of one’s life. I think that in order to survive one must be reborn, one must overcome one’s childhood, the injustices, and recognize the privileges. You can’t use your past as an alibi. In the Orient they say ‘to awaken.’ The Christians say ‘to be reborn.’ Whatever the metaphor, I think there comes a moment when we must do it if we want to survive, have self-respect, and take advantage of our new circumstances that we have not yet even touched. The people who die are those who refuse to recognize their new life circumstance and continue to use the old one as an excuse for their shame or laziness. Of course one learns strategies and techniques of survival as a child and I’m not saying one must throw away all they have acquired. But I think there comes a time when the old strategies stop working and life crumbles.”2

Leonard Cohen

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Cohencentric Lessons From Leonard Cohen
A Manual For Living With Defeat

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  1. Leonard Cohen: Thoughts Of A Ladies’ Man by Elizabeth M. Thomson. 1979 interview reposted to FolkTracks: Jan 12, 2017. []
  2. Comme Un Guerrier by Christian Fevret (Throat Culture magazine, 1992) []

Lessons From Leonard Cohen: Your Children Are Your First Priority

A Manual For Living With Defeat

Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat is a collection of Leonard Cohen’s observations that offer insight into living in this imperfect world. (For information about how this series differs from other collections of so-called lessons from Leonard Cohen, see Lessons From Leonard Cohen – Introduction.)

Lesson #9: Your Children Are Your First Priority

Until you have children and live with a woman, it’s just dating for the junior prom.1

Leonard Cohen

We are very large beings wheeling through existence, who aren’t even shaped the way we appear. You catch the lint of another’s being on your wheel. And she does the same, and you get tangled up inextricably. The tangle is like a cocoon, out of which another being emerges. My feeling is that until you have children, until you really get stuck, it’s like dating for the junior prom. I believe that in a certain way, having children is the only activity that connects you to mankind and makes a serious assault on the ego.2

Leonard Cohen

It is only when you have children that you’re truly forced to give up looking only at yourself and start worrying about some other lives. If you attempt to respond to a child, you can never think of yourself in the same way again. You stop being the center of your drama, which becomes very secondary in light of your children’s needs, of their urgency. I understood right away that the trap had slammed shut (laughs)… There are many marvelous aspects of course; the beauty is indisputable. But the destruction of your self image is inevitable. There were many things that I didn’t like about myself. I was very selfish, I was only concerned with myself. I wouldn’t admit that other beings were legitimately worth my attention.3

Leonard Cohen

Adam Cohen in arms of his mother, Suzanne Elrod, with father, Leonard Cohen, & grandmother, Masha Cohen – Montreal 1972 . Posted Feb 13, 2014 by Adam Cohen at Leonard Cohen Facebook page

Adam Cohen in arms of his mother, Suzanne Elrod, with father, Leonard Cohen, & grandmother, Masha Cohen – Montreal 1972 . Posted Feb 13, 2014 by Adam Cohen at Leonard Cohen Facebook page

Leonard Cohen’s history as well as his words evidence his love and sense of obligation for his children.

In the early 1980s, for example, he repeatedly traveled from his homes in Montreal, Los Angeles and Hydra to live in a trailer he installed at the bottom of a path leading to the home in the south of France where Suzanne Elrod had moved with their children following their breakup.4

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  1. Unful’phil’ed: Cohen & Spector’s Looney Tunes by Hugh Seidman. Crawdaddy: Feb 1978. []
  2. Leonard Cohen Obscured…A Haunting by Spector by Stephen Holden. Rolling Stone: January 26, 1978. []
  3. Comme Un Guerrier by Christian Fevret (Throat Culture magazine, 1992). []
  4. I’m Your Man – The Life Of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. Ecco: 2012. P 327 []

Lessons From Leonard Cohen: “Unemployment Is The Great Affliction Of Man”

A Manual For Living With Defeat

Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat is a collection of Leonard Cohen’s observations that offer insight into living in this imperfect world. (For information about how this series differs from other collections of so-called lessons from Leonard Cohen, see Lessons From Leonard Cohen – Introduction.)

Lesson #8: “Unemployment Is The Great Affliction Of Man”

I think everybody, or most people, work hard and I’ve always been happy to be employed… I think that the real poison, if there is one, it’s unemployment, even for the people who have jobs, there are so many people I know who have jobs but they aren’t really employed, they don’t feel they can really throw themselves into their work and I’ve had the privilege in my life to have been able to throw myself into my work.1

I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed. 2

I think as long as you can crawl into the workshop, you should do the work. I always saw those old guys coming down to work, whatever job I happened to be in. Something about that always got to me. I’d like to be one of those old guys going to work.3

“If you could offer the young people of today one piece of advice, what would it be?”

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Cohencentric Lessons From Leonard Cohen
A Manual For Living With Defeat

____________________

  1. Interview With Leonard Cohen. France-Inter: October 6, 1997.Transcription of the radio program Synergie With Jean-Luc Esse And Leonard Cohen. Translated from French by Nick Halliwell, UK. Accessed at LeonardCohenFiles. []
  2. 1992 interview with Leonard Cohen published in Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo. Da Capo Press: 1997. []
  3. No Mercy – Leonard Cohen’s Tales from the Dark Side by Anthony DeCurtis. Rolling Stone: January 21, 1993. []

Lessons From Leonard Cohen: Not Running The Show Is “No Alibi…You Have To Stand Up & Say Hallelujah”

A Manual For Living With Defeat

Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat is a collection of Leonard Cohen’s observations that offer insight into living in this imperfect world. (For information about how this series differs from other collections of so-called lessons from Leonard Cohen, see Lessons From Leonard Cohen – Introduction.)

Lesson #7: The realization “that you’re not running the show” in an imperfect world is “no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities”

I wanted to write something in the tradition of the hallelujah choruses but from a different point of view. I think the other song that is closely related to that is ‘Anthem.’ It’s the notion that there is no perfection–that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say hallelujah under those circumstances.1

That is the background of the whole record [The Future]. If you had to come up with a philosophical ground, that is it. Ring the bells that still can ring. It’s no excuse. The dismal situation and the future, there’s no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards your self and your job and your love. Ring the bells that still can ring. They are few and far between. You can find ’em. Forget your perfect offering. That is the hang-up. That you’re going to work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea, we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution, of perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect. Neither your marriage nor your work nor anything. Nor your love of G-d nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect, and, worse: There is a crack in everything that you can put together — physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But, that’s where the light gets in; and, that’s where the resurrection is; and, that’s where the return — that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation with the brokenness of the thing.2

The evidence accumulates that you’re not running the show. You still have to make choices as if you were running the show. But you make your choices with the intuitive understanding that it’s unfolding as it must. And that’s why I use that phrase ‘a thousand kisses deep.’ That’s the intuitive understanding of the fundamental mystery. And if you can relax in that, or if you can even touch it, or if it asserts itself from time to time, then the invincible defeat is transcended.3

Somehow things are given and they are given powerfully. You’re stuck with them. Your own nature is one of those things. You don’t wake up in the morning and choose the sort of guy you’re gonna be. Maybe you can in a really superficial way. Like in Rhinehart’s Dice Man. I loved that book very much, as a wonderful escapist idea. I think you’re kind of stuck with who you are and that’s what you’re dealing with. That’s the hand that you’ve been dealt. To escape from the burden of decision is a delightful notion…but nothing more.”4

More Lessons From Leonard Cohen

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Cohencentric Lessons From Leonard Cohen
A Manual For Living With Defeat

___________________________

  1. Robert Hilburn Interviews Leonard Cohen by Robert Hilburn (Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1995) [emphasis mine] []
  2. Leonard Cohen’s The Future Interview by Bob Mackowitz (a radio special produced by Interviews Unlimited for Sony Music, 1992). [emphasis mine] []
  3. Our Poet of the Apocalypse: In the wake of September 11, Leonard Cohen reflects on love and death — and the war on America by Brian D. Johnson. Maclean’s: Oct 15, 2001 [emphasis mine] []
  4. From Having Lunch With Leonard Cohen by Jon Wilde, Sabotage Times. Dec 3, 2015 (the quote itself is taken from a 1988 interview).   []

Lessons From Leonard Cohen: “Our Duty Is To Transcend Sorrow”

A Manual For Living With Defeat

Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat is a collection of Leonard Cohen’s observations that offer insight into living in this imperfect world. (For information about how this series differs from other collections of so-called lessons from Leonard Cohen, see Lessons From Leonard Cohen – Introduction.)

Lesson #6: “Our duty is to transcend sorrow”

I don’t think you can regard whatever condition you are in as an experiment. When you’re in it, you are in it and our duty is to transcend sorrow. Nobody wants to stick around in these places. If you’ve got ways of getting out of them, I think it’s your responsibility to do so. As far as joy is concerned, the more the better. At the moment? I have a few laughs.1

I feel that, more and more, I need to be strong and cheerful, to greet the daily events, the daily abrasions that seem to greet me.2

More Lessons From Leonard Cohen

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Cohencentric Lessons From Leonard Cohen
A Manual For Living With Defeat

______________________

  1. Posted at Having Lunch With Leonard Cohen by Jon Wilde, Sabotage Times. Dec 3, 2015 (the quote itself is taken from a 1988 interview).  Sabatoge Times 22 March 2011 although the quote itself is taken from a 1988 interview). [emphasis mine] []
  2. Leonard Cohen…What’s Your Problem? Doom and Gloom by Patrick Humphries (Vox: February, 1993) [emphasis mine] []

Lessons From Leonard Cohen: Good Things Happen When You “Stop Thinking About Yourself”

A Manual For Living With Defeat

Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat is a collection of Leonard Cohen’s observations that offer insight into living in this imperfect world. (For information about how this series differs from other collections of so-called lessons from Leonard Cohen, see Lessons From Leonard Cohen – Introduction.)

Lesson #5: Good Things Happen When You Stop Thinking About Yourself

My teacher’s school places much emphasis on work and ordinary life, and is very structured, severe and strict. What happens is that you stop thinking about yourself. It worked for me. [emphasis mine]1

[Roshi] became someone who really cared about-or deeply didn’t care about who I was. Therefore, who I was began to wither. And the less I was of who I was, the better I felt. [emphasis mine]2

We all want to dissolve. We all need that experience of forgetting who we are. I think that’s what love is — you forget who you are. Forgetting who you are is such a delicious experience and so frightening that we’re in this conflicted predicament. You want it but you really can’t support it. So I think that really what our training, what our culture, our religious institutions, our educational and cultural institutions should be about is preparing the heart for that journey outside of the cage of the ribs. [emphasis mine]3

[Interviewer: You’ve said having sexual intercourse is the greatest peace. Is that zero?] The sexual embrace is beyond self. You don’t exist as you. Your partner doesn’t exist as your partner. That is the place we all come from. Then we come back to life. That zero or emptiness or absolute is when we don’t have any questions. The self we have is just the result of a question. The question is who am I? So we invent a self, a personality. We sustain it, we create rules for it. When you stop asking those questions in those moments of grace, as soon as the question is not asked and the dilemma is dissolved or abandoned, then the true self or absolute self rushes in. That’s our real nourishment. A real religious education makes that experience available to people. The kinds of religious education available today are mostly concerned with a very specific definition of what God is. Just to define God specifically is a great mistake. It’s better to have a kind of education that doesn’t even mention God, that allows people to experience that absolute or the dissolution of the particular self. [emphasis mine]4

More Lessons From Leonard Cohen

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Cohencentric Lessons From Leonard Cohen
A Manual For Living With Defeat

____________________________

  1. An Intimate Conversation With…Leonard Cohen by Elena Pita. Translated by Marie Mazur (using translation software) and aided by Guadalupe Baquero. Originally posted in Spanish at Magazine, Sunday Supplement to El Mundo: September 26, 2001. []
  2. Being True Love- Sasaki Roshi, a founding father of American Zen, turns one hundred by Sean Murphy (Tricycle, Fall 2007). _ []
  3. Leonard Cohen Interviewed by Anjelica Huston. Interview magazine: November, 1995. Accessed at Remembering Leonard Cohen by Anjelica Huston (Interview: Nov 11, 2016). []
  4. Interview / Leonard Cohen by Alan Twigg. Essay Date: 1979, 1984, 1985. ABC Bookworld. []

Lessons From Leonard Cohen: Stop Whining

A Manual For Living With Defeat

Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat is a collection of Leonard Cohen’s observations that offer insight into living in this imperfect world. (For information about how this series differs from other collections of so-called lessons from Leonard Cohen, see Lessons From Leonard Cohen – Introduction.)

Lesson #4: “Put Your Own Feelings In Perspective” – “Stop Whining”

Leonard Cohen spoke about his residence at the Mt Baldy Zen Center where he was ordained a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk [emphasis mine]:

The first and most discernible lesson is to stop whining. And I don’t really need to go much beyond that. It was sort of like boot camp. It’s a rigorous life, it’s cold and it’s above the snow line. Four-thousand feet was the snow line, and we were up around 7,500 feet. A lot of it is involved in surviving the winter. There’s a lot of shoveling of snow. There is very little private space. There’s a saying in Zen: ‘Like pebbles in bag, the monks polish one another.’ Those rough edges get smoothed out.1

And, he described this attitude toward his own life:

How could I dare to complain [about my life]? Because I think the appropriate and legitimate response would have been, ‘What have you got to complain about?’ When you recognize that you’re living in this incredibly privileged, tiny pocket of mankind, where there is the luxury to discuss these questions, one dare not complain — except in a good, sad song, 2

And, he expressed the same notion in the context of growing older [emphasis mine]:

One of the things about getting older is that you stop whining. One of the reasons you stop whining is because your experience conveys to you that your trouble is tiny compared to lots of trouble around. Once you feel that clearly, that your trouble is tiny and that there are people at this moment really being tortured, really being strapped to chairs, really having electrodes pasted on their bodies, that there are situations which are truly hellish that thousands, maybe millions of people are in at this moment, then even though you do not wish to deny the truth of your own feelings, once you put your own feelings in perspective, then there is an invitation never again to whine about your own situation.3

More Lessons From Leonard Cohen

All posts in this series can be found at

Cohencentric Lessons From Leonard Cohen
A Manual For Living With Defeat

_____________________

  1. Leonard Cohen reborn in the U.S.A. by Geoff Boucher. L.A. Times Pop & Hiss: February 27, 2009, []
  2. Angst & Aquavit by Brendan Bernhard. LA Weekly: September 26, 2001. []
  3. Leonard Cohen: A Portrait in First Person. Interviewer: Moses Znaimer. CBC, 1988 []