Watch the Buddhism-Inspired Video for Leonard Cohen’s Newly-Released Song, “Happens to the Heart”

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Leonard Cohen’s Final Inter­view: Record­ed by David Rem­nick of The New York­er

Leonard Cohen’s Last Work, The Flame Gets Pub­lished: Dis­cov­er His Final Poems, Draw­ings, Lyrics & More

How Leonard Cohen & David Bowie Faced Death Through Their Art: A Look at Their Final Albums

Hal­lelu­jah!: You Can Stream Every Leonard Cohen Album in a 22-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist (1967–2016)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.