The wisdom in Leonard Cohen’s “Hineni.”
Posted Jul 25, 2020
Lyrics You Want it Darker; Leonard Cohen
Source: Tanya Cotler
The messages embedded within Leonard Cohen’s moving (and even slightly eerie) “You Want it Darker/Hineni” are particularly relevant right now as we collectively experience a global trauma due to COVID-19.
Within the song, we find themes related to the primary coping skills that most parents have cultivated since the start of the pandemic, the same ones that we will continue to rely on as this pandemic continues to ripple through communities around the globe.
The poem centres around the word “Hineni,” which means “here I am” in Hebrew and is replete with biblical references to the fundamental human quest: to surrender — through pain, confusion, fear, anger, sadness, and when moral responsibility trumps reason. It speaks to the surrender of superhero narratives, benevolent worldviews, and the unknown in faith, anchored only in the moment there is.
We are experiencing a call to surrender of this kind right now. It is an impalpable ask to surrender — to good and bad, impermanence, chaos, isolation, vacillating emotion, and to the loss of all that was known. We are being called to surrender to discomfort, but, at the same time, to the (anomalous) potential of greater meaning and hope.
In this way, I see COVID-19 as our version of Hineni, and I believe there are many valuable lessons to be found within Cohen’s famous piece:
In mindfulness, presence refers to the skill of peaceful abiding: cultivating intentional awareness so that the mind is undistracted by conscious thoughts and remains focused and anchored in breath (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).
Through the hymn, Cohen vacillates through a range of emotions suggestive of the inner dialogue that occurs in times of distress. He ends with grace, finding his center despite the flux.
In this turbulent time, it is often hard not to dwell on our future-oriented anxiety. We obliterate hope, confidence, and resilience with fears of what is to come — taken prisoner by our future projections.
You know you are in this place when you catch yourself asking questions like: How will I endure this? How will my children return to school? What was the impact of “sheltering home” on my ( and my children’s) mental health? What if I get sick or my child or loved one falls ill?
Here’s an exercise to try: As these thoughts take over, place your hands on your belly and breathe. Notice your belly filling up like a balloon as you inhale. As you exhale, notice your belly deflating, a balloon losing air. With each breath, say to yourself: I am inhaling, I am exhaling. Once your breath deepens and slows, observe five things you can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. Name them. Notice your capacity to intentionally be here, anchored in the breath, and the power of your mind to choose present-centered awareness to quiet the inner turmoil in this moment. Whisper a silent affirmation to yourself, “ I am here now, I am safe, and I can do and feel hard things.” Remember that all we have are present moments; past and future only exist in our minds.
2. Impermanence and compassion
Cohen’s use of sound in the song “Hineni” evokes the experience of oscillating emotions. He rhythmically blends his signature raspy, haunting, baritone voice with the mesmerizing sound of Cantor Zelermyer’s choir, a reflection of the fact that feelings, thoughts, and experiences are not permanent. Emotions flow through us and come and go as long as we do not cling too strongly. Listen here.
There is no need to judge our thoughts or feelings — or have feelings about our feelings (guilt, anyone?). So often, especially as mothers, we feel crippled by our “not good enoughness.” Yet, vulnerability, fear, anger — all feelings — deserve to be met with compassion.
Here’s an exercise to try next time you (or your child) experience a big feeling: Draw your awareness to the feeling you have and where it “lives” in your body. Observe and describe the feeling as a narrator (“my chest feels heavy, I am scared,” or “I see you’re angry, you’re kicking the sand”).
Practice active coping through breath. As the breath enters the body, the vagus nerve will remind your brain to calm (exit fight-or-flight and welcome rest-digest). Like a Teflon pan, practice present attention and compassionate acceptance towards your (or your child’s) feeling without clinging to it too strongly. You might say to your child, “I am here with you. You are allowed to be angry. When you’re ready, we can… (breathe, hug, insert any active coping strategy).” Notice how the feeling will rise and fall and give way to the next feeling all on its own.
Over time, we become increasingly aware of the power of sensations coming and going. When validated, each feeling gives way to another; sorrow to joy, sad to anger, worry to calm. Nothing lasts. So often, we brace ourselves for the storm of emotion, unsure if we can weather its intensity. But when we learn the power of being with feeling without rushing to change, fix, or stop, we get to witness that trust in the constant flow can settle and calms us.
3. Practicing gratitude and finding meaning
The final teaching of “Hineni” is to accept what is and trust that moving through discomfort is the impetus to growth. We are (paradoxically) being taught patience: to wait, to wonder, to be open, and to find moments of gratitude, purpose, and meaning.
A daily practice with children of naming the “cookies” or sweetness of the day or developing your own gratitude journaling practice can help to foster resilience. Research shows that making a point to highlight even the small tasks or moments such as making your bed (clean sheets day!) or cooking and eating a delicious meal helps to energize and elevate your mood. How does this work? the brain is a muscle and like any other muscle in your body, it strengthens through repetition. With practice, we can re-adjust the storyline we tell ourselves.
Moreover, through gratitude journaling and therapeutic writing, we open the possibility to find meaning and purpose — the keys to resilience. As psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankel writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of his human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one’s way” (1959).
What will we learn through this experience beyond lessons of economic strife and the importance of supporting small businesses? Perhaps in an age where we have become turbines of consumerism, this will bring a healthy pause to our insatiable cities. Perhaps it will be an invitation to savor the moments with loved ones in slow motion. Perhaps we will awaken to the power of bearing witness: not of fixing or solving, but of being present with big feelings, both our own and others.
On a policy level maybe we’ll realize that mental health doesn’t discriminate, that trauma is a subjective experience of helplessness and fear, and that there is danger in perceiving mental health issues as unique to subgroups of the population. Perhaps we will come to appreciate the value of public funding for mental health so that therapists can continue to hold the salve of emotion without compromising their financial earning and so that support could be more widely available to those in need.
Maybe we’ll surrender to our independent responsibility to defend human rights and human dignity, to protect our abused and vulnerable populations, to free our wrongfully convicted, to house our homeless, to provide accessible medication, treatment, and vaccines globally and equally.
Maybe we’ll re-examine our practices around conception, birth, and death. Maybe we’ll realize that we need a complete revamp in our thinking about human agency. Perhaps we’ll come to appreciate the universal human need for connection in spite of fears of vulnerability and judgment.
Maybe. For now, all I know is that we have this moment to see the natural beauty that surrounds us, to listen to those speaking to us, to feel the clean breeze on our skin and the earth beneath our feet.
If we move through the helplessness, powerlessness, grief, and fear that deplete us and “magnify the flame,” we might begin to see the light creep in: the surrender to mindful presence with compassion, to impermanence and interconnectedness, to meaning. Can we collectively surrender? Can we say it — in a whisper and then more audibly — Hineni.