The Songs of Leonard Cohen are not his Primary Legacy

Like a US drone missile hovering mercilessly for days over a Pakistani village, Lord Yama, the Personification of the Conditions for Death, hovers over the Earth daily targeting young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick.

Lord Yama selected on November 7, 2017, the beloved Canadian poet/song writer, Leonard Cohen.

In the world of the Dharma in the West, Leonard stands in the company of the Gods, such as Rumi, American poet Mary Oliver, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Kabir, who are regularly quoted on Buddhist retreats. The Gods are mortal. Lord Yama lords his power over them.

The hovering presence of Lord Yama over Leonard was unmistakable. With the singer’s co-operation, the tobacco industry successfully directed their weapon of mass destruction at the lungs of Leonard. The notification of his impending mortality revealed itself in his last and darkest album.

The front and back cover of “You want it Darker” shows Leonard on TV with himself posing in a dark hat and sun glasses while his arm dangles outside the screen.  The weapon of mass self-destruction hangs from his fingers in the real world and outside the fictional world of the television screen.

Tobacco addiction had destroyed the breathing of other Gods, such as George Harrison and David Bowie, who had also stood before the Lord of Song.

A few days before his death, Leonard Cohen spoke to a small group in Los Angeles to announce his 14th studio album. “I said was ready to die recently. I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatisation. I intend to live for ever.” Ah, the master of self dramatization.

Viewers watched the three-minute clip with Leonard visibly gasping for air as he spoke. Despite Leonard’s abundance of self-deprecating humour, there was little to smile about.

A walking stick was propped up beside him in the clip and a photograph was visible in the background of the album cover hung in the background.  Lord Yama clearly had Leonard in his sights determining days later his descent to select “the Man with the gift of a Golden Voice.”

Rasping rather than golden, the very same voice bore the announcement of his upcoming departure from this world. Leonard knew the hand of death was close but then recoiled from the knowledge. The Gods have their human side.

Lord Yama had the eloquent, kindly and humble Leonard in his sight. On the night of  7 November, 2016, the Lord of Death laid his hands days on Leonard in his modest home squeezing from him his last out breath, thus ensuring Leonard’s life transformed into a corpse during the middle of the night.

“If it be your will

That I speak no more

And my voice be still

As it was before

I will speak no more

I shall abide

until I am spoken for.”

Lord Yama had spoken. “Leonard, you are 82 years old. Your time is up.”

Depression, Drugs and Leonard Cohen

To his everlasting credit, Leonard spoke to interviewers briefly from time to time about his 60 years of battling with ongoing depression. His legacy offers inspiration to make the journey through suffering with exceptional grace and fortitude.

“My depression, so bleak and anguished, was just crucial, and I couldn’t shake it; it wouldn’t go away. I didn’t know what it was. I was ashamed of it, because it would be there even when things were good, and I would be saying to myself, ‘Really, what have you got to complain about?’ But for people who suffer from acute clinical depression, it is quite irrelevant what the circumstances of your life are.”

On another occasion: “It’s not really depression, it’s a kind of mental violence which stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next.

“You lose something somewhere and suddenly you’re gripped by a kind of angst of the heart and of the spirit.”

In despair and desperation, he once visited a psychotherapist in St. John’s Health Centre in Santa Monica. He said he could only drive “at about five miles an hour,” The therapist asked him to describe his feelings.  After listening, she said, “How can you stand it?”

At his renowned London concert, (recorded for DVD and CD) in the summer of 2008, he referred his use of pharmaceutical drugs to try to rid himself of his depression.

“I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin. I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”   He could make light of his years of nightmares prior to the tour.

He used prescription drugs, recreational drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex for decades to escape the horror of his depression that robbed him of real enjoyment of daily life. Nothing worked. Every cigarette would postpone for another day a possibility of freedom from despair. The clouds of inhaled smoke covered up and suppressed  the desperate unhappiness embedded in his emotional life.  Drugs and cigarettes weakened his immune system and inhibited his capacity for realising liberating realisations. His songs often reflected his darkness.

Not surprisingly, the media labelled him “the Poet Laureate of Pessimism” and the “Godfather of Gloom.” Some fans believed his personal despair enabled him to create such precious lyrics with their lingering eloquence. His songs  certainly revealed a spiritual intimacy between the exploration of suffering and the sacred.

It is far more probable that his fight with depression frequently crippled for periods his imagination, blocked his creativity and limited his capacity to address a wider range of human issues. There are no virtues to depression. Those who attempt to find meaning in depression fail to realise the violence it inflicts on the inner life.

Leonard’s depression did not support his precious offerings as a singer but limited them. No wonder Leonard had suffered in the past terrible outbursts of stage fright. Depression can destroy your sense of worth.

Light for Leonard in the Darkness

“I did my best, it wasn’t much

I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch

I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song.”

Leonard said: “I was involved in early medication, like Desipramine. And the MAOs [monoamine oxidase inhibitors], and the new generation — Paxil, Zoloft, and Wellbutrin. I even tried experimental anti-seizure drugs, ones that had some small successes in treating depression.

I was told they all give you a ‘bottom,’ a floor beneath which you are not expected to plunge.

“I plunged. And all were disagreeable.”

“I was taking things like Prozac for depression, but none of those antidepressants worked.”

“”The recreational, the obsessional and the pharmaceutical – I’ve tried them all. I would be enthusiastically promoting any one of them if they worked.”

Elsewhere he said: “I was in a car, on my way to the airport. I was really, really low, on many medications, and pulled over. I reached behind to my valise, took out the pills, and threw out all the drugs I had.

“I said, ‘These things really don’t even begin to confront my predicament.” I figured, If I am going to go down I would rather go down with my eyes wide open.”

It was the start of change. He dedicated himself to Buddhist meditation practices. He spent increasing lengths of time with his teacher. Sasaki Roshi, at Mount Baldy Zen Monastery in California. Leonard travelled to India on a number of occasions, where he spent months listening to the Advaita (Non-dual) teacher, Ramesh Balsikar in Mumbai.

Ramesh (the student of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, author of I AM THAT,  a spiritual classic) shared much the same view as the Buddhist tradition about the self.

The self (I, me and my) is empty, not in control, a product of circumstances, insubstantial, without any permanence, without essence. There is no true self as distinct from a painful self.

The being of Leonard Cohen began to wake up by the end of the 1990s. We could feel the cheerfulness breaking through in some of his songs in his 2001 album, Ten New Songs.

“The light came through the window,

Straight from the sun above,

And so inside my little room

There plunged the rays of Love.

In streams of light I clearly saw

The dust you seldom see,

Out of which the Nameless makes

A Name for one like me.”

He told another interviewer.

“My experience is that there is no fixed self. There’s no-one whom I can locate as the real me, and dissolving the search for the real me is relaxation, is the content of peace. But these recognitions are temporary and fleeting, then we go back to thinking that we really know who we are.

“I know that I’m forgiven, but I don’t know how I know;  

“I don’t trust my inner feelings,

“Inner feelings come and go.”

“I think that psychological explanations can be valuable and that psychotherapy can be valuable for some people, but the fundamental question of how and why people are as they are is something that we can’t penetrate in this part of the plan, that we simply cannot grasp, and the feelings that arise – we don’t determine what we’re going to see next, we don’t determine what we’re going to hear next, taste next, feel next or think next, we don’t determine, yet we have the sense that we’re running the show.

“So if anything is relaxed in my mind it’s the sense of control, or the quest for meaning.”

He also said:  “For one reason or another, I didn’t have any confidence in the therapeutic model. Therapy seems to affirm the idea unconditionally of a self that has to be worked on and repaired.

“My inclination was that it was holding that notion to begin with that was the problem — that there was this self that needed some kind of radical adjustment. It didn’t appeal to me for some odd reason.

Leonard reported his depression lifted.

‘There was just a certain sweetness to daily life that began asserting itself. I remember sitting in the corner of my kitchen, which has a window overlooking the street.

“I saw the sunlight that shines on the chrome fenders of the cars, and thought, “Gee, that’s pretty.”

‘I said to myself, “Wow, this must be like everybody feels.” Life became not easier but simpler. “

‘When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you. It happened to me by imperceptible degrees and I could not really believe it; I could not really claim it for some time.

“It’s like taking a drink of cold water when you are thirsty. Every taste bud on your tongue, every molecule in your body says thank you.’

After 60 years of depression, severe unhappiness and personal torment, he became disillusioned with drugs, took a radical different course and found peace of mind, happiness and experience “normal levels of unhappiness.”

“But I know what is wrong

And I know what is right

And I’d die for the truth

In my secret life”

Leonard Cohen’s struggle with severe depression and his quiet determination to find a way out of depression serves as a powerful reminder of suffering and resurrection, the triumph of the human spirit over years of experiencing a living hell, amidst the public glorification of the self of Leonard.

Everybody, who has suffered various depths of unhappiness, despair and depression, can take heart from Leonard Cohen. He realised that drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex were ineffective or, at best, a very temporary relief.

Bound up in that painful world, the self then began to crumble, to lose it significance. He went on to spend years as Buddhist monk living a with some real measure of contentment in the service of his Teacher, the Dharma (Teachings) and the Sangha (Noble Practitioners).

Not surprisingly, he gave his greatest concerts in the last years of his life after the dissolution of much of  the inner darkness and  the benefits of his years as a Buddhist monk.

Leonard Cohen leaves for us his immense triumph over depression, one of the most painful states of mind that cripples the lives of millions of humans beings.

He is an inspiration for all to find a way out of various depths of ongoing despair.

Oh like a bird on the wire,

like a drunk in a midnight choir

I have tried in my way to be free.

Leonard. You could not have left a bigger legacy.

THANK YOU LEONARD. THANK YOU THANK YOU.

 



  • Lovely piece Christopher! My wife Chris and I had the good fortune to see Leonard and his band in 2009 and 2011. Absolutely fantastic shows.
    I find myself reflecting on some lines from his faiurly recent song Going Home
    Going home without my burden
    Going home behind the curtain
    Going home without this costume that I wore


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