“There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen died in 2016 at the age of 82. He was known the world over as a singer and songwriter, but his career in music didn’t begin until he was 33 years of age. He achieved stardom, although fame never suited him and he would eventually turn his back on the lifestyle, only to find the small fortune he’d amassed for his retirement had been embezzled by his manager. The story of how Leonard coped with this turn of events is one we can all learn from. He was in his 70s and facing dark times, but far from living out his days bitter and resentful, he focused on the crack that would let the light get in, and he moved on.
Poet to Writer to Singer
Leonard saw himself as a poet first and foremost. In 1956, he published his first book containing poems he’d written between the ages of 15 and 20, and then followed this in 1961 with another collection of poems that won him some critical acclaim in his native Canada. However, recognising that poetry alone was unlikely to keep a roof over his head, he moved to the Greek island of Hydra and began channelling his passion and energy into writing novels. His first novel was published in 1963, followed by his second in 1966. His reputation as a writer was growing, but he still wasn’t earning enough to make ends meet. He once said in an interview: “I’d published two novels and two or three books of poems. I didn’t expect to make a living out of the poetry, but I thought that I could make one writing novels. But there were only maybe 3,000 copies of Beautiful Losers worldwide… Living in Greece most of the time, I had been completely unaware of the whole renaissance in music that was taking place in the early and middle 1960s. Still, I was playing a lot of guitar and I thought, ‘It’s all right being a writer – I always want to be a writer – but I think I’d like to go to Nashville and make some country-western records… I decided, ‘That’s going to build me up.’ I had some songs sketched out.”
Stardom to Buddhist Monk
Stopping off in New York on his way to Nashville, Leonard discovered his work was already being appreciated by the likes of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. He said: “All these guys knew what I had written… They were me; that’s what I was, drifting around the world, speaking from the heart and occupying a certain mythological life. I felt very close to them.”
In 1966, his song-writing career was given a kick-start when Judy Collins sang “Suzanne”, and then in 1967, she persuaded Leonard to take to the stage himself. He later commented that he was very reluctant to sing, considering himself barely capable of carrying a tune, but festival crowds loved him, and the following year he was signed to Columbia Records and his debut album was released. Several albums followed and his fan base continued to grow, then in 1988, the release of I’m Your Man took his popularity to new heights and he became a best-selling artist at the age of 58.
Leonard was a worldwide success, but he chose to turn his back on it all and took up residence in a Zen centre, staying there for six years. In later years, when asked why he chose to walk away from it all just as the world had come to recognise his talent, he would say: “There was no sense of dissatisfaction with my career. On the contrary, if anything, it was, ‘Well, this is what it’s like to succeed,’ but the predicament, the daily predicament, was such that there wasn’t much nourishment from that kind of retrospection… By the time I finished my tour in 1993, I was in some condition of anguish that deepened and deepened.”
No stranger to depression, Leonard once said: “Depression has often been the general background of my daily life. My feeling is that whatever I did was in spite of that, not because of it. It wasn’t the depression that was the engine of my work, that was just the sea I swam in.” However, his decision to enter the Zen centre was the result of not feeling at ease with his life of stardom. He said: “I wasn’t looking for anything exalted or spiritual. I had a great sense of disorder in my life of chaos, of depression, of distress, and I had no idea where this came from. The prevailing psychoanalytic explanations at the time didn’t seem to address the things I felt, so I had to look elsewhere.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t somewhere he found, but someone. The someone Leonard bumped into just happened to be a Zen master – a man who seemed to be at ease with himself and others, and it was this sense of ease that attracted him to the Zen centre.
Back to Boogie Street
After six years as a Buddhist monk, Leonard left the Zen centre. To explain his decision, he once said: “It was the man I followed, not the religion, and if he’d been a teacher of physics in Heidelberg, I would’ve learned German and studied physics in Heidelberg.”
Leonard came to the conclusion that life in the monastery wasn’t addressing the real problem of distress – he was still on Boogie Street. In his words: “Boogie Street is what we’re all doing. We’re all on Boogie Street. We believe that we leave it from time to time. We go up a mountain or into a hole, but most of the time we’re hustling on Boogie Street one way or another. A monastery is just part of Boogie Street. In fact, on Boogie Street, you go back to your flat or your apartment and you close the door – you kind of eliminate the rest of the world – so there’s really more respite from Boogie Street on Boogie Street than there is in a monastery because a monastery is designed to eliminate private space. There’s a saying – like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another. In that kind of situation, you’re always coming up against someone else, so in a certain sense, coming up against someone else all the time is Boogie Street.”
After leaving the monastery, Leonard finally found a way to be at ease with himself through studying the work of Indian writer, Balsekar. He said: “The model I finally understood suggested that there really is no fixed self. What happened to me was not that I got any answers, but that the questions dissolved.”
On the Road Again
In effect, Leonard found a way to be at ease with himself and others by learning how to let go of the past and stop dwelling on negative thoughts of what might have been or what might happen in the future. Instead, he chose to be in the now, the present moment, and to take each next step as it presented itself to him. In other words, to go with the flow.
Never was this newfound ease more evident than when he returned from his six-year hiatus to discover his manager had embezzled his entire savings – a sum of around 5 million dollars. This turn of events could have plunged him back in to the depths of despair, but he chose a different response: he recorded a brand-new album and went back out on the road. He’d been away from touring and performing for many years and couldn’t be sure he still had an audience, but he took that step anyway. He began with just a couple of buses to get himself back on the road, but he discovered a world that still loved him, and he was soon jetting around the globe riding high on success once more.
His belief that there’s no fixed self had allowed him to change from being a man full of anguish and anger to being a man at peace with himself and the world around him – including his manager. In an interview, Leonard commented that he was still “rather fond of her” and that he should perhaps be more worried about the situation she’d put him in, but he wasn’t. He recognised that dwelling on what had already happened or fretting over what may or may not happen in the future as a result would only serve to keep him trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts. He chose to see things differently and to be different by keeping his thoughts in the present moment. In this way, any actions he took would simply be the steps that presented themselves in the present – steps fuelled by positivity and hope rather than anger or worry.
Letting the Light In
Leonard once said, “You don’t always get what you want. You’re not always up for the challenge. But in this case, it was given to me.” He may not have chosen to be up for the challenge, and he was no longer chasing success as he had done in his younger years, but his resilience and ability to maintain a positive outlook from one day to the next brought success his way. The return to touring may have been forced upon him, but as he said himself, “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”
Are you letting the light into your life?
Don MacNaughton is a High-Performance Coach, Mentor and Key Note Speaker.
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