This morning, Twitter entries drew my attention to Pico Iyer on What Leonard Cohen Teaches Us about the Art of Stillness by Maria Popova (Brain Pickings: Nov 10, 2014), a post based on portions of Pico Iyer’s book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (Simon & Schuster/ TED: November 4, 2014). In that volume, Iyer uses Cohen’s experience as a monk at the Mount Baldy Zen Center to introduce and support his “case for the unexpected pleasures of ‘sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.’”
The following selection from The Art of Stillness is excerpted in the Brain Pickings post (emphasis mine):
Sitting still, he [Leonard Cohen] said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.”
Was he kidding? Cohen is famous for his mischief and ironies.
He wasn’t, I realized as he went on. “What else would I be doing?” he asked. “Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”
This sounded familiar. And, it turns out that Iyer has previously used a nearly identical quote, albeit in somewhat reorganized form and with one important word added. The following excerpt is from Leonard Cohen: Several Lifetimes Already by Pico Iyer (Shambhala Sun, September, 1998. Retrieved 11 November 2014 from Speaking Cohen)1 (emphasis mine):
Of course, he says, impatiently, he can’t explain what he’s doing here … “I don’t think anybody really knows why they’re doing anything. If you stop someone on the subway and say, ‘Where are you going–in the deepest sense of the word?’ you can’t really expect an answer. I really don’t know why I’m here. It’s a matter of ‘What else would I be doing?’ Do I want to be Frank Sinatra, who’s really great, and do I want to have great retrospectives of my work? I’m not really interested in being the oldest folksinger around.
“Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Well, I hated it when it was going on” – signs of the snarl beneath the chuckle – “so maybe I would feel better about it now. But I don’t think so.”
“What would I be doing? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”
“I think that’s the real deep entertainment,” he concludes. “Religion. Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available to us is within this activity. Nothing touches it.” He smiles his godfatherly smile. “Except if you’re courting. If you’re young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement.”
Leonard Cohen On the Mount Baldy Zen Center Experience
It is clear, especially in the 1998 Shambhala Sun article, that the issue being discussed in these excerpts is not “sitting still” or meditation but instead the more general topic of what Leonard Cohen is doing at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, i.e., “What else would I be doing [if I weren’t at the Mount Baldy Zen Center]?” As Iyer himself puts it, “Of course, he [Cohen] says, impatiently, he can’t explain what he’s doing here.” (emphasis mine)
And, while Cohen’s experience on Mount Baldy included hours of sitting meditation, it also included other elements:
My teacher’s school places much emphasis on work and ordinary life, and is very structured, severe and strict. What happens is that you stop thinking about yourself. It worked for me. I never really understood the Zen philosophy. What kept me coming back was my friendship with Roshi. Like all great teachers, he accommodates all students who come to him. Some seek a teacher, others discipline. I needed a friend and he gave me a great deal of affection. He did not try to give me spiritual instruction, but a solution to the pressures of my life, and it didn’t matter to me if it passed for religion, the kitchen or philosophy.2
Leonard Cohen On Religion
Of more concern is the omission of the word “religion” in the quote from The Art of Stillness:
Sitting still, he [Leonard Cohen] said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment”
“Religion” was an important part of the quote in the 1998 Shambhala Sun article:
“I think that’s the real deep entertainment,” he [Cohen] concludes. “Religion. Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment.
Now, it is certainly possible that “sitting still” (which appears to be similar if not identical to meditation in the post about Iyer’s book) is subsumed in Cohen’s use of the word “religion,” but – and here’s the rub – it is also possible that Cohen had some other facet of religion in mind.
Heck, Cohen once noted that meditation freed one from religion:
Buddhist meditation frees you from God and frees you from religion. You can experience complete at-homeness in this world.3
He has touched on religion in other interviews as well:
Religion is one of the art forms of mankind – perhaps its greatest art form.4
The relation between man and the divine represents a hunger that humans have. So there’s always going to be some kind of effort to make sense of the whole affair, and religion seems to have been, until quite recently, the technology with which we tried to comprehend the whole affair.5
I don’t ever want to set myself up as an enemy of organised religion because those churches, those mosques, those synagogues, they give comfort and solace to millions and millions of people – real comfort and real solace. I don’t think it serves anything or anybody to become an enemy of organised religion.6
We sense that there is a will that is behind all things, and we’re also aware of our own will, and it’s the distance between those two wills that creates the mystery that we call religion. It is the attempt to reconcile our will with another will that we can’t quite put our finger on, but we feel is powerful and existent. It’s the space between those two wills that creates our predicament.7
I am not attempting to repudiate the thesis that Leonard Cohen supports the concept of meditation/sitting still (that proposition seems reasonable enough – just unproven). I do, however, object to the manipulative use of a partial quotation by Leonard Cohen to make a point.
- Also found at Sun After Dark By Pico Iyer. Penguin Books India, Jul 1, 2005 [↩]
- An Intimate Conversation with…Leonard Cohen by Elena Pita. Translated by Marie Mazur (using translation software) and aided by Guadalupe Baquero. Originally posted in Spanish at Magazine, Sunday Supplement to El Mundo: September 26, 2001. English translation posted at Speaking Cohen. [↩]
- The Profits Of Doom by Steve Turner. Q Magazine: April 1988 [↩]
- Leonard Cohen Press Conference: Reykjavik, 1988 [↩]
- Aurora Online With Leonard Cohen by Marco Adria. Aurora: July, 1990 [↩]
- Leonard Cohen in His Own Words by Jim Devlin. 1998 [↩]
- An Interview with Leonard Cohen by Robert Sward & Pat Keeney Smith. The Malahat Review: No. 77 (1986) [↩]