Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums

Would you say that Leonard's lyrics are influenced by Buddhist thought?

Yes, throughout his career
26
76%
Yes, since Mount Baldy
5
15%
No, not even after Mount Baldy
1
3%
I have no idea
2
6%
 
Total votes: 34
holydove
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Sat Apr 24, 2010 12:12 am

"Ring the bells that still can ring": In Vajrayana Buddhism, hand-held bells are used in rituals as part of the practice. The sound of the bell represents a few things: the Buddha's speech in transmitting the dharma (dharma = teachings); the principle of wisdom/emptiness, an aspect of enlightened mind; it is said to have an auspicious sound & therefore used to drive away spirits/entities that might want to disrupt the practice (it is an ongoing discussion as to whether those (disruptive) forces are external or internal, but since self & other don't really exist, the answer to that might be both or neither - it's all one world). The bell is rung at various points, specifically when invocation, offerings, or praises are chanted; it is also said to summon "protector deities", thereby protecting the sacred space of the practice from any disruptive forces (again, the protective & disruptive forces are also seen as aspects of one's mind and/or actual entities - one can decide that for oneself). In the context of LC's lyric, a possible interpretation might be: your mind may be twisted, the world may be broken, but you can still ring whatever bell of wisdom/enlightenment you can summon up, be it a small fragment, or a twisted fragment - just keep ringing it.

"Forget your perfect offering": physical offerings of various kinds are made during ritual practices, e.g. certain type of cake (called torma); also, symbolic offerings are made during many practices, for instance, there is a practice where one offers the whole world & all its wealth (of course, the offering is made to empty space - the essence of enlightened mind); & ultimately, one offers all of oneself (body, speech & mind) for the sake of liberating all sentient beings from suffering. So, in terms of LC's lyrics, he would be saying: offer whatever you can, from wherever you are, in whatever condition you find yourself or the world - it doesn't have to fit any concept of perfection - in fact, offer up that concept too.

"There is a crack . . in everything/ that's how the light gets in": I mentioned this somewhere else, maybe in another thread, but Buddhism teaches that it is by transmuting the energies of our "neuroses" into the wisdom side of that same energy, that we can attain liberation (for example, the other side of the energy of greed, is generosity, etc.) - so it would be through a turning around of the energy of greed (the imperfection), that we can give entry to the "light" of generosity. Buddhism also teaches that the world is not solid, as it seems; it is really very fluid & spacious - it is really empty space, & it's our concepts that cause it to appear solid; physics confirms this on a physical level, by stating that most of what we see as "matter" is really empty space - either way, there are "cracks" everywhere - in fact, there are more "cracks" (empty space) than anything else - in fact, the whole thing is really one big "crack", filled with light, if only we could see it. But when we develop the skill to see a little bit of the "crack", that's when we can see a little bit of the light. Those are just possible interpretations that have crossed my mind. .

I only have a little time left, & I want to say:

Tinedoes: I agree that the catching & selling of the dove, among other possibilities, definitely represents betrayal - thank you for pointing that out.

Humbled: I wrote a reponse to your post, but it somehow disappeared (!) - I probably forgot to hit the submit button. For now, I just want to say that I wasn't implying that the the images in LC's lyrics mean exactly what they do in any given religious text - I think he takes language & images from various sources (including his own brilliant mind) & uses them in ways that create multiple meanings & layers of meanings. I do think his knowledge is, to say the least, quite vast, & he is probably aware of many religious/mythological/historical texts - much more than I or any of us are aware of (but I don't presume to speak for anyone else) - we obviously can't know exactly what he was thinking at any given moment. When I cited the various representations of the holy dove/spirit, I was trying to say that it is not necessarily only a Christian image; & looking at what certain images have represented in various texts/systems of thought is something I find helpful in trying to sense what an image can project, & the various meanings it could imply in the context of LC's lyrics. But LC's messages, and the way he transmits them, are always very unique, original, complex, multi-layered, & from His Unfathomable & Beautiful Heart. . . I just love to discuss possible interpretations & I think we all do this out of love for LC's Exquisite & Sacred Art. . .

Edit - just want to say I am going away for a few days - will return on Tues. - so if I don't respond to someone, it's nothing personal - I will respond when I get back. . .
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Sun May 09, 2010 11:12 pm

It struck me today how much "The Smokey Life" seems to be about the Buddhist ethos. I don't have time to explain why right now, but I was wondering if it was obvious to everyone, or whether it could be understood completely outside the Buddhist perspective...
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Tue May 11, 2010 1:05 am

Hi Remote1 - yes, I see Buddhist teachings in The Smokey Life too (though I'm sure it can be understood in other ways also); I don't have time to write more now either, but let's come back to this when we can - I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. . . hope you are feeling better. . .
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Wed May 12, 2010 1:23 am

Thanks for your good wishes Holydove. Will be back soon with my thoughts on the Smokey Life...
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby TineDoes » Wed May 12, 2010 1:51 am

remote1 wrote:Will be back soon with my thoughts on the Smokey Life...

Remote1 and Holydove, I am Very much looking forward to your posts about The Smokey life and Buddism. To me the chorus of this song is like a mantra that can be used to free oneself from difficult thoughts and situations. So I imagine it to refer to meditation.
I absolutely love these wonderful lines as I have quoted earlier in this thread
Take a lesson from these Autumn leaves
They waste no time waiting for the snow
These surely have a link with Buddism; acceptance that one cannot hold on to things.
"There’s no forsaking what you love ...."

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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Mon May 17, 2010 8:58 pm

Tine, thank you for your beautiful comments. I totally agree with you about the "autumn leaves" lyric - the lessons given to us by nature, about letting things go when it's time for them to go (Buddhism definitely gives teachings about not holding onto things). . . & what you said about the chorus being a mantra - that's perfect.

I was laying low, to give others the space to express their thoughts, but since noone else (except Tine - thank you again) has jumped in yet, I will say a few words about some of the lyrics in The Smokey Life (I've had some private requests for comments, so I hope noone minds me jumping in here, yet again)

I saw interview video where Leonard makes a very brief comment, in relation to Smokey Life, about how everything in life is really so intangible & transient - this is very much a Buddhist principle. I've mentioned this before, but Buddhism teaches that our ordinary perception causes us to believe that things (situations, objects, even concepts) are solid, or even that things can be permanent; but the teaching is that this is not the true nature of reality; that nothing is really solid or permanent, & we spend so much energy trying to make solidity & permanence a reality, but it can never be that. Therefore, it's really important to become aware of the transience & intangibility of our experience in this realm, & to see how things arise & dissolve, & not pretend that we can hold onto things ( this is very much in line with the idea of the autumn leaves lyric). And the "light enough to let it go" lyric - it reminds of "we are so lightly here" from Boogie Street - the nature of reality is, by nature, very light & fragile - much as we think our experience is so solid (heavy), & it seems like it takes great effort, at times, to let it go; but it's our mental constructs (which are also quite fragile & intangible, in reality) that create the appearance of solidity - the nature of it all is really quite "smokey" - & if we can penetrate into the true nature of our mental constructs - we will see how things naturally, & lightly, come & go - & our "letting go" will also be very natural - there would be no "trying" or "holding on" involved.

"Remember when the scenery started fading; I held you till you learned to walk on air. So don't look down, the ground is gone. . ." I see this as a most incredible expression of love & compassion - the narrator is helping his friend/lover/whoever it is, navigate the experience of groundlessness. I've spoken of this before, too, but Buddhism teaches to embrace the reality of groundlessness - the uncertainty of everything in life, the unreality of our perceptions of things being fixed/solid/permanent - so I see the "scenery starting to fade" as an experience of penetrating past the usual perception of things really "being there" (reminds me of "it's coming from the feel/that this ain't exactly real. . .") - & this experience of the true groundlessness/emptiness of this world of "appearances" can be extremely disorienting - so he's helping his lover/friend work through the experience, until she/he can deal with it on her own. Every time I hear this line, I think "wow - wouldn't that be wonderful, to have someone to hold me "till I learn to walk on air" (especially if that someone would be Leonard)!
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby TineDoes » Wed May 19, 2010 1:40 am

Holydove, So good to read your thoughts on The Smokey life. The connection to Buddism in the lines both you and I quoted is clear and you have explained it beautifully.
holydove wrote:"Remember when the scenery started fading; I held you till you learned to walk on air. So don't look down, the ground is gone. . ." I see this as a most incredible expression of love & compassion - the narrator is helping his friend/lover/whoever it is, navigate the experience of groundlessness.
But I also see or rather feel this song also to be about a more worldly type of love, of sexual love. See the first stansa. The way I have always understood this is that the narator is proposing a night of love in total feedom and abandonment. I would be interested to hear other views on this.

I've never seen your eyes so wide
I've never seen your appetite quite
this occupied
Elsewhere is your feast of love
I know ... where long ago we agreed to keep it light
So lets be married one more night
It's light, light enough
To let it go
"There’s no forsaking what you love ...."

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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Wed May 19, 2010 12:01 pm

Many thanks for this Holydove and Tinedoes! Really enjoyed reading your posts.

As promised, here are my thoughts, although at the end of the day they are probably all taken from your own posts... ;-)

I think that as is often the case with Leonard Cohen, the spiritual and the sexual are merged, so that virtually every verse has a double meaning and can be read or heard in one way or the other, or in both ways simultaneously. Ultimately, it is possible that the most essential “message” of Cohen’s lyrics is that sexuality is a spiritual act.

This is how I understand “The Smokey Life”, although I am aware that the text is somewhat ambiguous and I am not wedded to this particular interpretation. I think that the “smoky life” is the life of the confused, chaotic mind, which we all experience, for it is part of the human condition. We spend our lives striving for greater clarity, trying to order the world for ourselves, trying to see beyond the smoke, because we are also in need of reassurance, grounding, and we do not usually like the feeling of being lost. So in a sense we move through life “wide-eyed”, looking for sense and meaning. We have this appetite for whatever is beyond the fog, the smoke, and sometimes this appetite can become overwhelming, all consuming [and perhaps this is when we encounter difficulties, when we refuse to let go of this appetite and allow the quest for a clarity which does not exist, to direct and control our lives]. So the person whom the narrator is addressing imagines that her “feast of love”, or perhaps in other words her ultimate happiness, is to be found somewhere else, beyond the smoke, on the other side of life. As Tinedoes suggests, the narrator is offering to give her a taste, in the here and now, of the elusive bliss which she is looking for somewhere else.

“Light”, of course, here can be understood in both senses of the word, as in “there is enough clarity”, don’t look for more, we do not need to see more, we can let go of this desire to see more; and as in “there is no heaviness anymore”, because the sexual act is leading us to the spiritual realm of lightness. So, in the refrain, the narrator is saying at the same time that she can let go of her wide-eyed appetite for illusory clarity away from the smoke, because there is no need for more light, and at the same time that the sexual reunion in which they are engaging is making them feel light, is ridding them of the weight of existence, and allowing them to let go of it, and experience the spirituality of life now.

The narrator is a teacher encouraging his friend to give up the concept of light, of clarity, of a seemingly safe grounding in this world, and to adopt lightness, groundlessness. This can be scary, but he is here for her, allowing her to feel safe until she is ready to fly, or rather “walk on air”. He is suggesting to her that there is no point in “waiting” for something else (“waiting for the miracle” so to speak), for something as illusory as a safe, clear, grounded reality. The smoky life is practiced everywhere because everyone is experiencing the same smokiness of life, the same chaos, lack of clarity, confusion. In a sense, life is the practice of this. There is actually nothing to look for, nothing to find, nothing to investigate; this is what life is about, period. Acceptance of this is, as I understand it, a central aspect of Buddhism, as is the realisation of our common humanity and the compassion that comes with it.

Any questions? Looking forward to them, or to alternative interpretations.

Cheers! :)
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby TineDoes » Thu May 20, 2010 1:49 am

Remote1, Again a very clear explanation of your interpretation on the Smokey life. So nice to hear from you. I've no questions just some comments.
remote1 wrote:I think that as is often the case with Leonard Cohen, the spiritual and the sexual are merged,
Yes surely, and the lyrics will therefore speak to whichever of these two sides a listener is most receptive. The sexual side and the moving towards the lightness therein is how this lyric speaks to me. The spiritual side has always just been a wordless supposition. (Both you and Holydove have given this side words.)
So my interpretation of the persons 'eyes so wide' and 'occupied appitite' is linked with sexuality linked with a 'feast of love' in, perhaps a third person.
If I understand you correctly your interpretation of 'wide eyes' has to do with a tense/strained way of moving through life, maybe hunger for acknowledgement always somewhere else but never at hand.
remote1 wrote:I think that the “smoky life” is the life of the confused, chaotic mind, which we all experience, for it is part of the human condition.
The 'lover' is taking the person up high above away from reality, to look at life from a another perspective. 'See how untransparant 'smokey' and unstable life is' - it is ok you might as well let it go. I see how this could work from this:
holydove wrote:if we can penetrate into the true nature of our mental constructs - we will see how things naturally, & lightly, come & go - & our "letting go" will also be very natural - there would be no "trying" or "holding on" involved.
"There’s no forsaking what you love ...."

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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Thu May 20, 2010 10:48 am

TineDoes wrote:The sexual side and the moving towards the lightness therein is how this lyric speaks to me.
Hi TineDoes, Thanks for your quick reply. I agree with your comments and just wanted to let you know that I will answer more fully soon. I'm off to work now and back after midnight tonight etc... etc... yawn... :D
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby TineDoes » Thu May 20, 2010 2:30 pm

Hi Remote1, The quickness of the reply had everyting to do with the time difference an my morning off. Hope your work went ok and you'll have a good sleep. Will look out for your reply.
"There’s no forsaking what you love ...."

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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Thu May 20, 2010 9:56 pm

TineDoes wrote: But I also see or rather feel this song also to be about a more worldly type of love, of sexual love. See the first stansa. The way I have always understood this is that the narator is proposing a night of love in total feedom and abandonment.
Hi Tine, I also see a sexual relationship in this song, esp. the first stansa, & like remote1 said, in the world of Leonard Cohen (as in reality), sexuality & spirituality are intimately interwined. And I also interpreted the "elsewhere is your feast of love, I know" as possibly referring to a third person, perhaps someone that his lover has become interested in, & he is aware of this new interest. But I also like remote1's interpretation - that it could refer to her inclination (an inclination we all seem to have) to always look "elsewhere" for answers, for happiness, rather than just being where she is - as Buddhism teaches, if you can develop the skill to really be where you are, that's where you will discover what you were seeking. I think both those interpretations can co-exist quite nicely.

I also wanted to add, about the lines: "Remember when the scenery started fading; I held you 'til you learned to walk on air. So don't look down, the ground is gone. . . " I wonder if these lines might also be a reference to what is known as "subspace"; in a dominant-submissive relationship, it is said that the "sub" enters a trance-like state, because of the hormones & chemicals released by the intense pain/pleasure triggered by the scenes they engage in. The "submissive" starts to feel detached from reality, & "out-of-body" (the scenery fading?). Alternate terms for subspace are "flying" or "floating" (walking on air?). It is the role of the "dominant" to give the "sub" whatever care he/she needs, during & after the experience of "flying, so that the "sub" will be safe while in the experience, & also come down safely afterwards (I held you 'til you learned to walk on air?). This kind of interaction requires a very intense level of trust, otherwise it could be dangerous. So these lines could refer to a very specific kind of sexual interaction, which could produce a very intense sense of groundlessness for one of the partners. Just a thought. . .

Remote1, I love your explanations of the Buddhist connections in all the lyrics you mentioned; esp. what you said about "there is nothing to investigate"- you got it - THIS, whatever is happening right now (as confused, dark, & impossible as it may seem) - is what it's about - there's no place else to look, nothing else to find - the cracks, where the light gets in, are right here - within the panic, within the loss.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Fri May 21, 2010 4:30 pm

First, I will start with an embarrassing confession: I know nothing about esoteric forms of love-making. :oops:
However, your idea Holydove is very interesting and could work here. As for me, I don't think I want to try it out... :D

I had a bit of time to think about TineDoes's post on the train yesterday, and I am going to try and put together a few ideas, but I fear that you will find them pompous and laboured. So I apologise in advance if this turns out to be the case.

I think that paradoxically love-making can also be regarded as a spiritual experience for several reasons. First, it is, with sleep, one of two essential human activities which require an altered or weakened state of consciousness, and it is interesting to think that both sleep and orgasms have been referred to in the past as “little deaths”, i.e. states which are halfway between life and death. Love-making can be seen as a conduit, a channel between the experience of the corporeal and the incorporeal. The fact that sexual pleasure is also sometimes described as a form of voluptuous transport is significant. The OED defines the word “transport” in this sense as: “The state of being ‘carried out of oneself’, i.e. out of one's normal mental condition; vehement emotion (now usu. of a pleasurable kind); mental exaltation, rapture, ecstasy”. So, while being intensely focused on the self (and the other, which is sometimes considered to be the same thing), sex is a journey out of the self. At the same time, the experience of deep physical pleasure, if one is at all spiritually enclined to start with (i.e. interested in the idea of supernatural or religious realms beyond the pure experience of existence, which is not my case) can be conceived as the interference of these eternal realms in the here and now, as insights into the blissfulness of heaven. For instance, Jacob Boehme’s description of heaven in The Signature of All Things, includes the idea of sexual rapture: “Thus likewise is the eternal generation of the holy mystery in great power and reprocreation [or paradisical pullulation] where one divine fruit of the great love-desire stands with another in the divine essence; and all is as a continual love-combat or wrestling delight”...

So to come back to “The Smokey Life”, I think that you are right about the sexual side. The song I believe is about the fading of a couple’s love. Unlike you I would say that the first stanza seems to suggest that the narrator’s partner is eagerly looking for someone else to love, but has not found them. I don’t think there is a third party involved because if there was, she would not be waiting, and he would not be offering one more night of love. It looks as if there was an agreement between them not to have an exclusive relationship (to have it “light”, not particularly serious), and she is operating within that agreement (“somewhere else is your feast of love”, “where long ago we agreed”). It seems as if she is looking for a kind of love which he believes does not exist (“So set your restless heart at ease / Take a lesson from these Autumn leaves / They waste no time waiting for the snow). However, he selflessly helped her in her quest when her love for him started to fade (“Remember when the scenery started fading / I held you til you learned to walk on air”). Here again, he is offering to help her, by welcoming her back or introducing his friends to her (“Come on back if the moment lends / You can look up all my very closest friends”). The “smoky life” in this context would be the life of unclear, fuzzy, nameless relationships, which is indeed practiced everywhere.

To finish, I am not absolutely convinced that “the spiritual side has always just been a wordless supposition”. I think that gaps in both the strictly spiritual and the strictly sexual interpretations suggest that these two readings are equally present and equally absent; and that they are intricately intermingled. Leonard is a weaver of words. This is probably why it takes him more than five minutes to write a song!

Phew! That turned out to be even longer than I thought! Sorry!
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Sun May 23, 2010 12:23 am

Remote1, no need to apologize - you gave a wonderful explanation! I agree that the lyrics indicate a relationship where the partners agreed from the start to not be exclusively, or permanently, tied to each other (to "keep it light"), & that now the relationship is dissolving. "Elsewhere is your feast of love, I know. . .": It occurs to me that perhaps this is a kind of encouragement - that she is seeking (with eyes wide, appetite occupied) for new love, fulfillment, etc., but does not believe she will find it (thus she is arguing, waiting, etc.), & he is telling her that it does exist somewhere, & encouraging her to go forth & find it. Or he could just be saying that he knows she is seeking a kind of fulfillment that he is not able to give her, therefore that fulfillment, if it exists, would be "elsewhere". I like your interpretation that the third person does not exist at this point - I think that's very possible, because of her waiting & arguing, like you said, & also because it seems that he is more ready to let her go (even help her go), than she is to let him go.

I must return to "Remember when the scenery started fading; I held you till you learned to walk on air; so don't look down, the ground is gone, there's noone waving anyway, the smokey life is practiced everywhere" - these lines are very powerful for me. The smokey life could refer to nameless, unclear relationships, like you said. But I think, simultaneously, it could refer to something bigger, that is, the intangibility & transience of life & "love itself" -( "or that love is like smoke, beyond all repair" from the Absent Mare comes to mind). We feel this transience & intangibility especially during transitions (though it's really always like that) - & I'd say that the lyrics of Smokey Life obviously suggest a time of transition (I know everyone already knows that). I think perhaps the narrator is not only helping his lover with this transition, but has helped her through other, maybe many, transitions/disorienting experiences (because of the words "remember when. . .") And the ground being gone - there's nothing to even stand on. There's noone waving - there's noone there to show you where to land (I picture those light sticks that they wave to help airplanes in landing). The scenery fading - there are no reference points at all. Everything that is familiar to you is gone.

I've always wondered why he would tell her to "look up all his very closest friends" when she comes back, instead of looking him up. I thought perhaps it was because he knew that he would not be able to give her what she needed/wanted, or he knew that he would be gone, & so his friends would be the closest that she could ever get to him, in the future. But I like your interpretation that this is another way in which he was helping her - by offering her the potential love of his friends.

Anyway, thank you for your post - I like your interpretations very much.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby TineDoes » Sun May 23, 2010 3:12 am

Holydove, Remote1, Thank you both for explaining your ideas about this song so extensively. So good to read.
Remote1 for your explanation about sex being predominantly a spiritual experience and about the 'little deaths'. As regards the spiritual side being 'a wordless supposition'; you are of course right the spiritual is undeniably present in the song, it is just that I, with spirituality not being part of my life, could not name it.
Holydove, may the kind of lovemaking you refer to have anything to do with Tantra sex and/or meditation? In which I believe the partners have long periods of arousement but its aim is not to reach climax? I can see that in relation to: 'I held you till you learned to walk on air'.
As regards the 'Wide Eyes and occupied appitite' I prefer to see this in that present moment and in connection to the narator with 'lets be married one more night', not in connection with "the feast of love that is elsewhere'.
Even though this doesn't make any difference to your credible explanation as regards the 'transition' in this song, but I think the lines read:'the ground is gone, there is no one waiting anywhere'. which seem to say: stay 'up-high' be just here (with me). These lines are also powerful to me; don't we al long for times that we can 'let go', be 'light', be in the moment, be aware and let the whole world just fade. This song can be a reminder that it is ok to do just that. Thank you Leonard Cohen for this wonderful song.
"There’s no forsaking what you love ...."

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