Listening to Leonard: Relishing Our Defeats

170px-Leonard_Cohen17b-170x204The following blog post was originally posted on the William Alanson White Institute’s blog, Contemplative Psychoanalysis.  Polly will be speaking there on February 5 as part of the White Society Colloquium, giving a talk titled Taking Our Selves Less Seriously: Buddhist and Psychoanalytic Views of Subjective Freedom.  Anne Harrington will also be speaking at the Colloquium.  For more information, visit their events page.

In my car on a sunny Vermont winter morning, I am listening to Leonard Cohen sing his view of reality: a Zen teaching on how to relish defeat. He says you can’t be a hero in your own life and, more important, you can’t be happy until you know how thoroughly broken life itself is, everyone’s life, not just yours. He sounds sexy and ironic and wise. There really is no one else quite like Leonard.

I am also thinking about what a therapy patient said to me yesterday:  that he’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on four different psychotherapies, which have extended over most of his adult years. He is a minister and he’s in psychoanalytic psychotherapy with me. ALL this therapy, he said, was “a fucking hopeless cause.” He’s never had the relationship he’s really wanted or a job that expresses his creativity or the self-confidence he should have. I work hard to understand his feelings and I delight in this man as a human being (flaws and all) and admire his dedication to his work. I praise his strengths and am interested in his weaknesses. I don’t have a “fix it” attitude towards him or his life.

As I think about my patient, I recall a teaching I heard from a Tibetan Buddhist monk.  He noted that North Americans rarely appreciate the enormous privileges they enjoy every day: that we are free to talk and write about our ideas, feelings, and opinions. We are educated and encouraged to have our own points of view. By contrast, Rinpoche says, eighty percent of Tibetans are illiterate. Those who live in China are not free to speak their native language or to express their feelings and opinions about many things, including their own Tibetan culture and religion. I found Rinpoche’s reflections on American culture fresh and interesting. He did not criticize American materialism or our “fast” style, but he noticed how much we take our individual rights for granted.

Just as I am having warm thoughts about Rinpoche, Leonard is singing:

I fought against the bottle,
But I had to do it drunk –
Took my diamond to the pawnshop –
But that don’t make it junk.

I know that I’m forgiven,
But I don’t know how I know
I don’t trust my inner feelings –
Inner feelings come and go.

Of course, as a Zen practitioner myself, I know about Leonard’s distrust of inner feelings and of the Buddha’s cautionary teachings on the importance of watching our feelings arise and pass away instead of becoming invested in a narrative about them. This skill of “simply experiencing” our feelings – instead of discharging or suppressing them – is something I have incorporated into my psychotherapeutic work. I sit with people as they watch their shame, envy, joy, sadness or anger arise and pass away. This leads to a new kind of freedom. But there is something more in what Leonard is singing. He’s not ashamed that he fought against the bottle while he was drunk.

Admittedly, Leonard is a scoundrel and a hard man to pin down. After I read his biography, I stopped romanticizing him as my perfect soul mate! More than a handful of beautiful, kind, talented women have tried and failed to have a long-term love relationship with him. He has fought against commitment. His struggle with depression is legendary. And yet, his conviction that there is no ideal way to live conveys a remarkable grace, strength and freedom. This perspective–no ideal way to live–is often absent in my patients and in my psychoanalytic colleagues, as well.

We psychoanalysts can still sound as though there is an ideal way to live. Look closely into the lives of many great masters of art, literature, and spiritual practice and you will find abundant tribulation. Human beings who are challenged, even at a young age, to make sense of a world that is deeply disappointing and frustrating can become resilient and insightful in a way that supports a lifetime of transformation. The importance of anxiety, suffering, and difficulty cannot be overestimated in helping us appreciate how little is under our control.

My therapy patient is relentlessly and bitterly disappointed, even though he has meaningful creative work, a grown daughter who is doing well, and lots of friends. He often explains his bitterness in terms of his parents’ self-absorption, a narrative he developed as a result of years of psychotherapy. Instead of observing his inner feelings just coming and going, he relies on a particular story about his life: he has low self-esteem and lacks confidence due to his parents’ shortcomings. He ignores the richness he has developed in his inner life as a result of his freedom to examine his thoughts, feelings and life story – freedom he has engaged over years of psychotherapy.

What I adore in Leonard Cohen is he is NOT advising us to grieve our losses and our flaws. He wants us to celebrate them. He wants us to develop a sense of humor about them and to see how they link us to one another. We are not gods. When you have to pawn your diamond because you run out of money, your diamond is not “a fucking hopeless cause.”

What is most appealing about Leonard is not his accomplishments or perfections, but his poetic account of his peculiar failures and weaknesses. He teaches us, too, that our peculiarities can become our cherished particularities when we embrace our selves with lightness and friendship.