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

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A Manual For Living With Defeat

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  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

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A Manual For Living With Defeat

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  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 []

Lessons From Leonard Cohen: “To keep our hearts open is probably the most urgent responsibility you have as you get older” – Growing Old & The Need For Deeper Love

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 #3: “To keep our hearts open is probably the most urgent responsibility you have as you get older” – Growing Old & The Need For Deeper Love

openheart-1The above quotation is from Leonard Cohen Interviewed by Anjelica Huston. Interview magazine: November, 1995. It is expanded in the following excerpts, the first from Q Questionnaire – Leonard Cohen (Q Magazine, September 1994) and the second is from Leonard Cohen als Zen-Mönch, a video shot during one of the several visits Leonard Cohen and Roshi made to a Zen Center in Austria from 1990 to 1996.

bestadvice4

My old teacher told me that the older you get and the lonelier you get, the deeper is your need for love. Like everyone else, I have looked for such deep love. And as you get older, you need this love to be grounded, until there is no difference between you and your love, or what you love or what you are. It’s just the one thing.

 

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A Manual For Living With Defeat

Lessons From Leonard Cohen: Dealing With Grief “You don’t avoid the situation – you throw yourself into it, fearlessly.”

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 #2: When Dealing With Grief “You don’t avoid the situation – you throw yourself into it, fearlessly.”

It is, I think, a matter of tradition. You have a tradition on the one hand that says if things are bad we should not dwell on the sadness, that we should play a happy song, a merry tune. Strike up the band and dance the best we can, even if we are suffering from concussion. And then there’s another tradition, and this is a more Oriental or Middle Eastern tradition, which says that if things are really bad the best thing to do is sit by the grave and wail, and that’s the way you are going to feel better. I think both these efforts are intended to lift the spirit. And my own tradition, which is the Hebraic tradition, suggests that you sit next to the disaster and lament. The notion of the lamentation seemed to me to be the way to do it. You don’t avoid the situation – you throw yourself into it, fearlessly.

From Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before: Leonard Cohen – London, June 1974 by Allan Jones. Uncut: Dec 2008.

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A Manual For Living With Defeat

Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat: “Let Your Lover (& Everybody Else) Off The Hook”

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.1

Lesson #1: Let Your Lover (And Everybody Else) Off The Hook

This is the lesson I’ve personally found most useful. It’s set forth in this excerpt from the original English questionnaire for Le Dernier Empereur by J.D. Beauvallet and Pierre Siankowski (Les Inrocks: Oct 19, 2016) forwarded to me from Leonard Cohen]:

Interviewer:
At the beginning and at the very end of the [You Want It Darker] album you mention a “treaty.” What kind of treaty is it exactly?

Leonard Cohen:
A treaty between your love and mine,
both these loves utterly impenetrable
and unknowable,
one to the other.

A man I studied with said: Love your neighbor? Difficult. How about, Try not to hate your neighbor. Unless the situation is life-threatening, let your lover (and everybody else) off the hook.

AKA “Everyone’s Up Against It”

In other instances, Leonard proffered the related notion that compassion can grow from the realization that “everyone’s up against it.” This passage is from Leonard Cohen interview With Stina Dabrowski (Mount Baldy Zen Center: 1997):

Note: The “French woman” to whom Leonard alludes in the final sentence is actually Simone Weil (thanks to Thelma Blitz for this information); the full quote is “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, “What are you going through?”

lcfileSimilarly, Leonard’s premise that “free will is overrated” leads to the understanding that injury caused by another doesn’t necessarily have to result in hatred. These words are from Life Of A Ladies’ Man by Sarah Hampson (Globe and Mail: May. 25, 2007):

You have to take responsibility because the world holds you accountable for what you do. But if you understand that there are other forces determining what you do, then there’s no pride when the world affirms you, no shame when the world scorns you. Also, when someone does something to you that you really don’t like or that hurts you, well, a feeling of injury may arise, but what doesn’t is hatred or enmity, because those people aren’t doing it, either. They’re just doing what had to be done.

 

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Cohencentric Lessons From Leonard Cohen
A Manual For Living With Defeat

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  1. For information about how this series differs from other collections of so-called lessons from Leonard Cohen, see Lessons From Leonard Cohen – Introduction. []

Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat: Introduction

Lessons From Leonard Cohen

Multiple articles and videos have already been published with titles like Lessons From Leonard Cohen, Things I Learned From Leonard Cohen, What Leonard Cohen Taught Us …. So why start a series of posts with the same goal?

Well, the problem with many of these pieces is that they include items which are not lessons as much as something along the lines of positive thoughts inspired by Leonard Cohen.

For example, the most recent specimen of this genre I’ve found is Lessons From Leonard Cohen at the World Jewish Congress Facebook Page, a video described as follows:

The late Leonard Cohen believed strongly in the virtue of modesty, and despite years of being in the spotlight, he always lived true to his believes. As we mark one year since his death, here are some of the timeless lessons the beloved poet and musician left behind. May his memory be a blessing.

And, it is an enjoyable video.

 

But, let’s consider one of the lessons from that recording:

The pertinent definition of “lesson” follows: a piece of instruction.1 I’m not convinced that “Be good at what you do” meets the minimal criterion of “lesson,” but even if that imperative does somehow qualify, it provides little in the way of direction. It would be as useful to instruct readers to “Become a legendary singer-songwriter-poet-novelist icon.”

And from Music legend Leonard Cohen left us plenty of lessons to guide us through our life troubles by Kathleen Noonan (The Courier-Mail: Nov 3, 2017), we read

Put your house in order: “It’s a ­cliche,” Cohen tells Remnick. “But it’s underestimated as an ­analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”

Now, putting your house in order strikes me as useful advice. But, from that same article, we are also instructed

Never underestimate the power of a sharp suit: Not every man can wear a fedora as fine as Cohen, but a good suit? Yes. All over the world, ageing rock stars still pour themselves into black skinny jeans, but Cohen wisely stuck to his family’s business roots and chose the well-tailored suit. Remnick writes: “He wore a well-tailored midnight-blue suit – even in the ’60s he wore suits – and a stickpin through his collar. He extended a hand like a courtly retired capo.”

“Never underestimate the power of a sharp suit.” Really, that’s one of Leonard Cohen’s “lessons to guide us through our life troubles?” It’s true that I wore suits throughout my professional life and believe they conveyed a certain gravitas and the notion that I took my work as a physician seriously. But, when Leonard calmed the riotous spectators at the Isle of Wright Festival, he wasn’t wearing Armani.

Yet, I’ve never come across the claim that a lesson to learn from Leonard is “Never underestimate the power of a safari suit.” Further, a sharp suit doesn’t seem an exclusive route to success; lots of tech professionals, for example, seem to do well wearing jeans and hoodies.

At this point, some of you are thinking, “So – do you think you could do better?” Well, my answer to that incredibly convenient rhetorical question is “Heck yes – without even donning that dark grey pinstripe double breasted suit that I’m pretty sure is still in my closet although I haven’t worn it in at least eight years.”

Lessons From Leonard Cohen
A Manual For Living With Defeat

Cohencentric’s Lessons From Leonard Cohen series focuses on those insights articulated or embodied by Leonard Cohen that are straightforward and pragmatically useful in everyday life.

The first Lessons From Leonard Cohen planned for posting (in the next few days) can be summarized, in Leonard’s own words, as follows:

quoteup2
Try not to hate your neighbor. Unless the situation is life-threatening, let your lover (and everybody else) off the hook.quotedown2

 

Pretty good, eh? So, stay tuned. This could be interesting.

Update – 20 November 2017: The first post in this series is now online at Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat: “Let Your Lover (& Everybody Else) Off The Hook.” All posts in this series can be found at

Cohencentric Lessons From Leonard Cohen
A Manual For Living With Defeat

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  1. Merriam-Webster []