180px-leonard_cohen_2181My husband and I spent a rapturous evening last week in the company of the inimitable Leonard Cohen at the Long Center in Austin. Even though Cohen is my hometown’s hero (like him, I was born in Montreal) and I spent my sullen late teen years listening to his music, I hadn’t stored up a whole lot of excitement in anticipation of the concert, thinking of it more as my husband’s night, as he is a huge fan. I knew I was in for a wonderful time, but I wasn’t prepared for the warm wave of love and admiration that swept over me the moment he stepped onstage: I was floored.  I went in an empty vessel, and was filled to overflowing. It was the kind of concert from which one emerges changed, with perceptions broadened and deepened.

What struck me the most, more than his impossibly sexy voice, his dapper suit & hat, his generosity and flawless showmanship, was the quality of his presence. Here is a man of 74 years, and alive, awake, visibly vibrating in every cell of his body. I wondered after the show, how many times has he performed “Suzanne”? How does he manage to bring such freshness, such immediacy of emotion to material that is over 40 years old? I knew I was looking at a man with a deep, deep practice.

In the late 1990s Cohen spent 5 years at a Zen monastery in California, where he was ordained as a monk. Though not a word about Zen was uttered during last night’s concert, I couldn’t help but think about it as I beheld a man of such intense, solid, rooted presence. As a practitioner of Yoga, I thought, I want some of that. I want to be that present and alive to what I am doing, grounded in the moment and shining as he was on that stage, though what I might be doing wouldn’t be to thrill and dazzle a theater full of people. It doesn’t matter what you do; it doesn’t matter what your practice is. Cohen himself once said that it wasn’t Zen that attracted him, it was his teacher; if his teacher had been a Benedictine monk, that is what he would have become. In the end what matters is that we choose a vehicle, stick with it, and go deep.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

These words from Cohen’s song “Anthem”, which I’ve seen quoted in various spiritual writings, echo through my head today. I’ve begun a study of the Bhagavad Gita, that ancient sacred Indian text, and have been reading closely the chapter on the Yoga of Action, or Karma Yoga. In it, the lord Krishna speaks to Arjuna, a warrior conflicted about having to do his duty, which is to fight his relatives,  saying:

It is better to do your own duty

badly, than to perfectly do

another’s; you are safe from harm

when you do what you should be doing

(Stephen Mitchell transl.)

The cracked offering of Cohen’s song chimes in with Krishna’s words. The light comes in when we are fully present to what we are engaging with in each moment–no matter how flawed we might perceive ourselves to be, however short we fall of our own expectations. If we can make of ourselves an offering, if we can make an offering of our actions, not only will we shine as Cohen did onstage, but also perhaps we can be a gift to others, as Cohen was to us that night. And, judging from the way he bounced in and off the stage like a kid, fedora and all, we’ll have a grand ol’ time doing so.