Introduction: I am republishing selected posts from Cohencentric (my former Leonard Cohen site) here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at ). Guest posts are at the top of this very limited category. And, among the crème de la crème are the contributions made by David Peloquin and Martin Ferrabee. This entry was originally published Oct 19, 2018 at Cohencentric.
Leonard Cohen has often been called a mystic, and ruminations on mysticism have always revolved around him and his work. This essay will not address the question of whether he was or was not a mystic. What I offer here a way to place the work of Leonard Cohen within the context of the great spiritual traditions by simply pointing out that much of his visionary art is resonant with the timeless perennial insights of the ages. I will offer examples where Leonard Cohen’s songs and poetry can be correlated with the traditional levels or stages of higher consciousness given by these wisdom traditions. As a unifying theme, we will follow the thread of Leonard Cohen’s lifelong relationship with the feminine Muse through initiation, communion, and union.
The Stages or Atmospheres of Consciousness
The metaphor of a Jacob’s Ladder to higher consciousness, with several rungs on which the seeker climbs in a specific sequence, is a familiar motif in the wisdom schools. Stage models are helpful as long as we remember that they are maps of the ascending order; not the actual territory itself. The depths or heights of spirit are often described as landscapes because they are, as Cohen explained, inhabitable. Here is a quote from Cohen the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca:
[Lorca] was the first poet who really touched me. I remember coming upon a book of his when I was fifteen or sixteen, and the universe he revealed and the lands he inhabited seemed very familiar. I think that’s what you look for when you read poetry; you look for someone to illuminate a landscape that you thought you alone walked on. Lorca did that for me.1
When these landscapes are entered personally, as with Leonard Cohen’s discovery of Lorca, they can feel like atmospheres that are experienced, paradoxically, as dark light or luminous darkness.
In a breathtaking sunset, with its glorious bands of color, there is no line that separates the sun’s fading light from the orange, or from the purple that shades into the darkening blue. So too, landscapes of the inner world, with all their varied colors, are known finally as one infinitely spacious sky of luminous, dazzling darkness.
Ken Wilber, one of the most important and prolific spiritual writers of our time, will be our guide to stages of consciousness .2 He honors all the stages given by the fully developed traditions, and he offers a concise synthesis for the modern reader. These inner landscapes of spirit are beyond the conventional sense of time and space as experienced by the ego; the small self with a name and a story. They are trans-personal, beyond the thinking mind, and therefore largely transcendent of thought and of ideas. Wilber’s model gives four stages: psychic, subtle, causal, and non-dual. We will take them one at a time.
The Psychic Level
Also known as nature mysticism, Emerson’s Over-Soul, Chesed/Geverah of Kabbalah, ‘subtle consciousness’ of Tantra, the sixth chakra; ajna or the third eye of yoga, djinn or vision of Sufism.
The psychic level, the first of the transpersonal landscapes, is characterized by feelings of awe and of oneness with the natural manifest world, with Gaia. This is why the psychic level is often described as nature mysticism. This level is the home of visionary creativity and higher intuition. Some of these aspects fall into the category of actual psychic abilities. This landscape has the feeling tone of spaciousness; of centered stillness. Cohen’s poem/song, As the Mist Leaves No Scar has the sense of the atmosphere and spaciousness of this level. The “body” in this poem is not the physical body, but the “subtle” body as will be made clear as we proceed:
As the mist leaves no scar
On the dark green hill
So my body leaves no scar
On you, nor ever will
The subtle body, as the traditions call it, is infinitely lighter than the gross physical body. This is why open sky and mist are so often used as metaphors to describe this landscape. Like the mist, the bodies of the lovers in this poem are weightless, ethereal and formless. The sense is that the physical body can be transcended, and that the lovers, aware that love is part of the experience of their more subtle selves, can meet there, in that invisible, intimate space.
In the psychic level, we have one foot in the physical world, and one in the inner world. Cohen captures this in a breathtaking description of the physical and subtle intimacy experienced in transcendent lovemaking. In the song, Half the Perfect World, two transparent, weightless, and luminous souls entwine in what is essentially a tantric union of the physical and the subtle.
The candles burned
The moon went down
The polished hill
The milky town
Transparent, weightless, luminous
Uncovering the two of us
On that fundamental ground
Where love’s unleashed,
And half the perfect world is found.
“Mystery has a narrow entrance”
Another important aspect of the psychic stage is that it is the gateway to the deeper landscapes of the soul. In Kabbalah, this gate is called Malchut, which is the lowest sefirot in the Tree of Life. Daniel Matt, a leading authority on Kabbalah, points out that it is here that the seeker must enter the sanctuary to meet the feminine divine, the Shekhina: “[The] Shekhina is the opening to the divine. One who enters must enter through this gate.”
The song Suzanne is such a gate, which is why Cohen always tried to approach it with deep humility and respect. Cohen in his own words about singing Suzanne:
It’s hard to sing it. It’s hard to enter it…in my own curious magical universe it is a kind of doorway
The song is an exquisite description of a direct experience with the divine feminine as the gateway to the inner world. Any wonder why Suzanne is the first song of his first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen? The narrator in Suzanne is initiated into a visionary space of dark luminosity that has the fragrance of the psychic. He is clearly aware that Suzanne is the Muse, and is humble and grateful to be in Her presence. Note the play of light and dark in these two lines of the lyric:
You can spend the night beside her….
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbour…
She has always been his lover. She gives him a glimpse of non-duality “among the garbage and the flowers.” The children are “leaning out for love, and they will lean that way forever/as Suzanne holds the mirror.” The song itself is a mirror. Insights into the dark and light are thus revealed for those who have found the narrow path into the mystery. Many aspects of Cohen’s songs are like mirrors, which accounts for the sense of immediacy that occurs when you catch a glimpse of your formless self as you are ravished by the song.
Once broken-open by the process of soul work, the authentic life in the spirit can begin, with the Muse as the guide. The poet has learned that the singer, the singing, and the song, belong to Her. He has been initiated into Her world.
Update: “Leonard Cohen’s Landscapes of the Spirit” Continues
David Peloquin is a lifetime artist, sound engineer, writer, and internationally known folk musician. He teaches Insight Meditation in seminars, talks and in private instruction. His work draws from the well of the all the great wisdom traditions. He is an independent Herman Melville scholar focused on spiritual themes and symbolism in Moby-Dick. David offers talks and seminars on the songs and poetry of Leonard Cohen, and offers a concert program, Songs of the Unified Heart: The Music and Poetry of Leonard Cohen. David can be contacted at: [email protected]