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Leonard Cohen’s rules for living well


“Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act.” – Leonard Cohen.

For some reason, it is quite a comical motif to picture Leonard Cohen playing tennis, but when he absconded to a Buddhist Monastery that is exactly what the monks sent him to do. Their goal was to get him to take life a little less serious. He had been informed that he “knew how to work but not how to play.” This all led Cohen to celebrate the mantra which he continued to extol long after he hung up his racket: “Lighten up! That’s what enlightenment means, to lighten up.”

His songs may sound like they’ve been written by a man of a thousand lives, and, in a way, he had a wealth of wisdom that made such a comic book feat seem possible. Thus, we’ve collated together various comments on mindfulness, fulfilment and simply how to live well in general that the wily Leonard Cohen dished out alongside his tower of song. He was the first to admit that he was far from perfect, so these nuggets of counsel do not come from a deity who is holier than thou, and what’s more, Cohen would also concede that the old line ‘it’s better to learn from other people’s lessons than your own’, reads better than it plays out; nevertheless, his hard-earned insight is a boon to brighten our daily lives. 

On his birthday, we not only say thanks for the songs Leonard Cohen but also thanks for the salve of your sagacious words. From the wholesome to the wholehearted please enjoy the words of the man himself below, by looking at the central tenets of his artistry and the things he has said about them away from six-string or the scrapbook. 

Leonard Cohen’s rules for living well:

On the boon of creativity…

Whilst Cohen’s back catalogue might not be comparable to the upbeat realm of chic, his hard-luck dirges were a way to seek salvation from the suffering that spawned them. Alas, not all of his songs were cut from the downtrodden cloth either, so he was quick to disavow the notion when it was put to him that good work comes from the suffering itself. 

In an interview during his period living as a Buddhist monk, he remarked: “It’s a popular notion that it is exclusively suffering that produces good work or insightful work, I don’t think that’s the case. I think in a certain sense it’s a trigger or a lever, but I think that good work is produced in spite of suffering, as a victory over suffering.”

He took this point even further in 1976 when he told the Guardian: “A cry of pain in itself is just that. It can affect you or you can turn away from it. But a piece of work that treats the experience that produced the cry of pain is a different matter altogether. The cry is transformed, alchemised, by the work by a certain objectivity that doesn’t surrender the emotion but gives it form. That’s the difference between life and art.”

On facing mortality…

We all have to face mortality to some degree, but with Leonard Cohen’s long-drawn battle with illness, he had time to stare it down and transpose the face-off in song. His album You Want It Darker saw him look unflinchingly at the subject and slay it with golden prose. 

Speaking with PBS in his later years, he said: “We’re all dying of this incurable disease called age. Of course, you feel it. My friend Irvine Leighton, the greatest Canadian poet said it’s ‘the inescapable lousiness of growing old’.” But later, when facing death, he told The New Yorker: “In a certain sense, this particular predicament is filled with many less distractions than in other periods of my life and it actually enables me to work with a little more concentration and continuity.”

Adding: “You’re dying but you don’t have to cooperate so enthusiastically with the process. It’s very compassionate at this stage. I mean, more than any time in my life I don’t have that voice that says ‘you’re fucking up’. That’s a tremendous blessing.”

On being scholarly…

Leonard Cohen was a tremendously open-minded person. He sought to see the value in most things and seemingly gave everything a weighing up. All of these adventures, for want of a better word, seemed to be underpinned by an almost studious view of what can be learnt from experiences and as such, he took a scholarly approach to life and the arts. 

On this front, he humorously remarked: “I am an old scholar, better looking now than when I was young. That’s what sitting on your ass does to your face.” And while sitting, he poured over just about everything, explaining: “Every time I pick up a magazine, I read some writing that is distinguished. My pace and viewpoint is being influenced continually by things I come across. You recapitulate the whole movement of your own culture.”

Adding: “Occasionally we are touched by certain elaborate language, like the language we associate with the Elizabethan period, with the King James translation of The Bible, or Shakespeare. In certain moments you are influenced by very simple things. The instructions on a cereal package have a magnificent clarity. You’re touched by the writing in National Geographic — it represents a certain kind of accomplishment.”

Before concluding: “Occasionally you move into another phase where you are touched by the writing of demented people or mental patients. I get a lot of letters from those kinds of writers. You begin to see it as the most accurate kind of reflection of your own reality, the landscape you’re operating on. There are many kinds of expression that I’m sensitive to.”

On love…

It would seem from albums like Songs of Love and Hate, that Cohen spent a fair chunk of his time reflecting on the ways of love. In fact, it is the central protagonist in his life’s work. Despite this, he did declare that he wasn’t an authority on it, joking: “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke that caused me to laugh bitterly through the ten thousand nights I spent alone.” 

From the outside looking in that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case and as such he is a pretty reliable source on the subject. And of all the open love letters he has extolled, it is the following piece of Poems and Songs that seems important to him, and it pertains to the humble matter of accepting the condition for what it is: “We are not mad. We are human. We want to love, and someone must forgive us for the paths we take to love, for the paths are many and dark, and we are ardent and cruel in our journey.”

And as he told the Guardian in 2009: “This is the most challenging activity that humans get into, which is love. You know, we have the sense that we cannot live without love, that life has very little meaning without it.”

On fighting depression…

Throughout his life, Cohen dealt with depression as many people do. His hopeful message of working away from it is a hopeful salve to those that suffer or anyone who has been down for that matter. “When I speak of depression, I speak of a clinical depression that is the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse,” he said.

But joyously concluded: “I’m happy to report that, by imperceptible degrees and by the grace of good teachers and good luck, that depression slowly dissolved and has never returned with the same ferocity that prevailed for most of my life.”

On whether you should listen to his advice anyway…

Listen to the hummingbird
Whose wings you cannot see
Listen to the hummingbird
Don’t listen to me

Listen to the butterfly
Whose days but number three
Listen to the butterfly
Don’t listen to me

Listen to the mind of God
Which doesn’t need to be
Listen to the mind of God
Don’t listen to me

Listen to the hummingbird
Whose wings you cannot see
Listen to the hummingbird
Don’t listen to me