letting go of illusions and distractions...

While waiting for another post on Leonard Cohen's music to ripen - a reflection on culture catching up to the artist's once despised but now respected so-called cynicism - I came across this poem. It hails from 1994 when Cohen realized he had to come to terms with a life out of control: four bottles of wine a day just to stop his stage fright, physical deterioration, no inner balance and too many broken hearts.
On the path of loneliness
I came to the place of song
and tarried there
for half my life
Now I leave my guitar
and my keyboards
my drawings and my poems
my new Turkish carpets
my few friends ad sex companions
and I stumble out
on the path of loneliness
I am old but I have no regrets
not one
though I am angry and alone
and filled with fear and desire.

For the next five years the artist lived as "the useless monk" at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center outside of Los Angeles. He described his extended retreat like this upon returning to performing again in 2008:

I wasn't looking for a religion," he says. "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...

Slowly, without ecstatic diversions or physical distractions, Cohen learned to be at peace within his own skin. Working with a Zen master who refused to "put whipped cream on his bullshit" Cohen came to realize the promise of the Incarnation - the Word become Flesh in real time and space - the inner rest of the Sacred "pitching a tent in our neighborhood and taking up residence within." This contemplative persona had often danced through his soul during the previous 60 years, but now it was grounded in his core. And the blessings of this peace were born of the quotidian mysteries: cooking, cleaning and staying in the kitchen rather than chasing illusions, fears, demons or lovers. As Merton and others have noted, contemplation invites us "to take a long, loving look at what is real." And in Cohen's most ordinary experiences he found the truth that set him free. Something happened on Mt. Baldy that was not really a mountain top experience, but more like a return from exile:

The black dog of depression, "a kind of mist, a kind of distress over everything", which had dogged Cohen throughout his life, finally released its hold. Senescence appears to have brought serenity and a new contentment with the simple things of everyday life. When not working, the man who took Manhattan with 1960s hell-raisers such as Janis Joplin and Lou Reed can be found preparing matzo-ball soup in a pair of slippers and a suit at the modest house in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles he shares with his daughter Lorca and several dogs. His son, Adam, a folk-rock singer like his father, is across town. His partner, the Hawaii-born singer, Anjani Thomas, lives down the street. Cohen has also gone back to his roots and now spends half a year in his native Montreal. "I feel tremendously relieved that I'm not worried about my happiness," he says. "There are things, of course, that make me happy: when I see my children well, when I see my daughter's dogs, a glass of wine. But what I am so happy about is that the distress and discomfort has evaporated."

I have long wondered what facilitated the public transformation of Leonard Cohen. It is my conviction that his world-weary honesty never changed. Nor did his abhorrence of sentimentality. But Cohen clearly had a change of heart that empowered him to practice acceptance. He sensed it in one of my favorite obscure songs back in 1970 and spent the next 35 years getting ready to embrace it. Hallelujah.


Jeffrey Perri said…
I think most of us who struggle with depression or accepting life as it is eventually come to the fork in the road where we can either continue on as we have to the bitter end or to seek out a radically different way of viewing our perceptions and expectations of the world around us (the world is an outward picture of an inward condition). Unfortunately, most of us in this boat never choose the seemingly more difficult path toward change and get to discover that it becomes so much easier and is infinitely more beautiful. I'm glad Leonard did and found some peace.

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