Leonard Cohen had an intimate relationship with despair. “I’ve seen the future,” he deadpanned, "Brother, it is murder.” But for many people, there is no one from whom we’d rather hear the news. In her harrowing essay “Facing Extinction,” meditation teacher and former climate journalist Catherine Ingram frames the catastrophe of climate change with Cohen’s lyrics and the many conversations she had with him before his death in 2016.
Cohen “understood human nature and assumed we would do ourselves in,” Ingram writes. Yet, with his razor-sharp gallows wit, he delivered his grim prophecies with deep love and concern. Confronting her own despair, Ingram asked the ailing poet for advice on how to wake up people who’d rather tune it all out. “There are things,” he said, “we don’t tell the children.”
Coming from someone else, this might sound supremely patronizing. From Cohen, it reminds me of what Japanese Zen master Dogen called “grandmother mind”—protective, unconditional compassion for others who may not, and may never, be ready to take in the facts. It also speaks of someone living with clinical depression, carrying the weight of the world. Cohen once called the condition a lifelong “background of anguish and anxiety.”
He met his suffering with meditation, practicing Rinzai Zen for decades and living as a monk for five years at the Mount Baldy monastery in Los Angeles. This period provides the inspiration for the new video above, directed by Daniel Askill, that dramatizes Cohen’s transformation from grief to "ordinary silence," the meaning of his Japanese ordination name, Jikan.
Askill calls the video a "quiet, symbolic narrative that charts the letting go of ego and the trappings of fame.” The interpretation is “straightforward—almost pious,” says Matthew Gindin at Tricycle, and also “an intelligent update and homage” to imagery from Cohen’s first album.
The song, "Happens to the Heart" is the first on “an unexpected harvest of new songs” released on the posthumous album Thanks for the Dance, coming November 22. “Happens to the Heart,” is a distillation of classic Cohen themes: the weariness of pleasure, cosmic absurdity, compassion, and despair.
I had no trouble betting
On the flood against the ark
You see I knew about the ending
What happens to the heart
Its title refrain turns each stanza into a case for how and why to care, investigating the mind’s lifetime of turnings from “the heart”—the constant splitting in two that Zen sees as the source of suffering. "I fought for something final," Cohen intones at the song's end, "not the right to disagree."
Cohen talks about his journey into the monastery in the interview further up. “Maybe this whole activity,” the formal practice of Zen, “is a response to a sense of despair that I’ve always had.... By and large, I didn’t have what it took to really enjoy my success, or my celebrity. I was never able to locate it. I was never able to use it.” He learned how to disassociate and quarantine himself.
In the prison of the gifted
I was friendly with the guards
So I never had to witness
What happens to the heart
In the austerities of the monastery, Cohen discovered “a voluptuous sense of economy that you can’t find anywhere else,” a daily practice “necessary to open the heart to the fact that you’re not alone,” even if, as he says wryly in “The Goal,” above—the first release from Thanks for the Dance—you “can’t stop the rain, can’t stop the snow.”