Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Leonard Cohen's "Here It Is": A Dark Eucharist of Zen

Leonard Cohen once noted, referring to his time at Mt. Baldy -the Zen monastery he lived in during the 1990s - that one of the difficult things about sitting long hours in silent meditation was having to accept that everything in his life could have gone differently. For any seeker, hours of breath and stillness lead invariably to a more palpable sensitivity of one's own innermost fears.  And in the song, "Here It is," we see some of Leonard Cohen's more intimate concerns.    The words that come arise like thoughts in sazen, the verses like in and out breaths.  Some of the imagery is no doubt  unique to Cohen the man, while other stanzas reach the listener as the universal bitter pills we all must swallow along the ugly path to inner peace.

Spiritual teachers from Eckhart Tolle to John of the Cross have suggested that the most common path to enlightenment lies, unfortunately, through embracing one's own suffering.  Often called "the way of the cross,"  in the Christian tradition, the road of sacred suffering has equally strong parallels in both Cohen's native Judaism, as well as in the teachings of Zen.   The track "Here It Is" from his album Ten New Songs, gives us the chilling stanza: 

"Here is your cross,
 Your nails and your hill
 And here is the love
 That lists where it will."

The first two lines echo the harshness of facing one's own personal "crucifixion" as a means to shed the outer layers of ego and sin, but the second two lines may appear more vague and difficult, even to an advanced student of Rabbi Leonard.  Here, though, I myself am reminded of a line I read from Don Miguel Ruiz, the author of the best-selling self-help book, The Four Agreements (of all things!).   Love is there or it is not there, but trying to understand love or rationalize it is futile, Ruiz noted. What and whom we love is beyond our control, or as Cohen puts it: love "lists where it will."

I suppose any good writer can string some phrases together, and if the chosen words seem spiritual and abstract enough, the phrases can pass for genuine wisdom.  But Cohen fans are not always so quick to bite; we often tend to want our hero's experience to have some tangible connection to our own.  The gift of Cohen is his ability to dive into each listener's personal mythology by artfully articulating his own.  Alas, LetUs Compare Mythologies, was the name of one of his books, and the title speaks volumes when it comes to understanding his ultimate poetic mission.  But literary skills appear to be merely tools that the bard will discard when he no  longer needs them.  His vision looks through words, to the realm behind them.  Likewise, when we hear him sing certain lines we believe he is actually feeling what he speaks, not coming up with words as a mere exercise of language.:

"Here is the night
 The night has begun
 And here is your death
 In the heart of your son."

These lines are especially chilling in the wake of the singer's recent death, not to mention the fact that Leonard Cohen's son, Adam, produced the final album, You Want It Darker.    Yet one gets the sense that whatever painful emotions Adam Cohen is currently negotiating, his father had a full taste of them years ago.

-Clint Sabom is an award-winning writer and former aspirant monk. The Graveyard Cowboy At Midnight is a blog and podcast.