Leonard Cohen: Different Sides

Different Sides was released in 2012 by then 78 year old Leonard Cohen on the album Old Ideas. I particularly like this song because it addresses an issue I find crucial on my spiritual journey.

We find ourselves on different sides
Of a line nobody drew

What are these different sides? At the Leonard Cohen Forum various interpretations are suggested:

  • Religious right wingers vs. religious liberals: one side judges more strictly about sexual preferences
  • Conflicts between Israel and Palestine: They agree on rules (“laws to obey”), but do not arrive at peaceful co-existence
  • Differences between Judaism (and Christianity?) vs. Islam
  • Relationships between women and men: split-ups in spite of ongoing love, as goals in life evolve in different directions
  • Two sides within one human: the strict “You” which condemns one’s shortcomings (conscience), and the “I” which takes life more lightly and is more benevolent towards itself
  • The ocean of life, between cold moon and hot sun, a life between opposites, between I and You, until finally wholeness is achieved – then there will be no more different sides

“All is one” vs. “There are two fields of life”

Pursuing a spiritual path, seekers may stumble upon what looks like contradictions in spiritual teachings and books of wisdom – at least to the rational mind. One such apparent contradiction is that between the notion “All is one” (we are all connected, God lives in every atom) and the notion “A sharp distinction is to be made between the divine realm and the world of opposites”.

Cohen offers a beautiful resolution of this apparent contradiction in two concise lines by showing which of these insights applies to which field:

We find ourselves on different sides
Of a line nobody drew
Though it all may be one in the higher eye
Down here where we live it is two

At the level of our physical existence in the world of life and death, love and hatred, peace and war, day and night, …, everything appears bipolar. We perceive ourselves as separated from our fellow human beings. It is fundamental to recognize: This world of opposites is not divine. In the divine realm there are no competing opposites, no enemies, nor hatred. This higher field is for real, but we cannot easily dive into it. “Where we live it is two.”

Those who immerse in the divine field experience its reality: an all-embracing unity. In this state-of-being there is no separation: “it all may be one in the higher eye“.

Shankara (8th century!) wrote a wise booklet on this topic called Crest-jewel of discrimination (Vivekachudamani).

Before diving into divine unity, the seeker needs to develop an ability to distinguish between appearance and reality, between the different fields of life. Another writer with a strong sense of discernment was Jakob Böhme. And Jesus says in John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world.

What are the Different Sides?

“A line nobody drew” suggests, in my view, a border not made by man, i. e. not a political border and not a separation between formally defined organizations.

How are the two sides characterized?

I to my side call the meek and the mild
You to your side call the Words
By virtue of suffering I claim to have won
You claim to have never been heard

Cohen places the “I” on the side of the meek, the “You” on the side of words.

Rules apply to both sides – apparently, though, these rules differ.

Both of us say there are laws to obey
Yeah, but frankly I don’t like your tone
You want to change the way I make love
(But) I want to leave it alone

The “side of the words” wants to impose rules regarding love, but the side of the meek does not agree. How do the sides differ? The song hints at the attitude towards suffering.

Down in the valley the famine goes on
The famine up on the hill
I say that you shouldn’t, you couldn’t, you can’t
You say that you must and you will

You want to live where the suffering is
I want to get out of town
Come on, baby, give me a kiss
Stop writing everything down

Anita Rée - canyon at Pians (1921)
Anita Rée – canyon at Pians (1921). Source: Wikimedia Commons

People suffer everywhere – denoted as famine in the valley and on the hill. The “side of the words” feels attracted, it wants to live there. The “side of the meek”, however, wants to “get out of town”.

Ever since mankind came into existence, it fought against suffering – but no end to this fight is in sight. It is impossible to win this battle for good.

Humanism and spirituality

The following image may serve as an interpretation: A deep, unwelcoming valley, with many people lingering in its gloom. Many are injured, many are cold, they sit and lie on the inconvenient rocks.

Two groups of people feel strong enough amidst this misery to work beyond their own survival.

One group helps the wounded, freezing, hungry people. They care for the wounds and distribute soup and blankets. This could be the side of “You” in Cohen’s song, the humanists – “You want to live where the suffering is“.

A second group greatly appreciates this hard work of alleviating the suffering – many of the wounded only manage to get up at all thanks to this help. However, a different longing is pulsating in the hearts of the second group. They are aware that this gloomy valley is not intended to be a permanent residence for man. They have discovered the exit, they have experienced life in full sunlight. Their longing drags them to the light – and they offer help to all who are open for it: “Come with us!” This may be the side of the “I” in Cohen’s song – ” I want to get out of town“.

The pull of the moon, the thrust of the sun
Thus the ocean is crossed
The waters are blessed while a shadowy guest
Kindles a light for the lost

The people in the canyon feel lost, but there is a light that leads them. Pale moonlight is but an indirect reflection of pure, bright sunlight. The ocean that separates the two sides, the two fields of life, can be crossed.

Laws and rules according to one’s state of consiousness

Each human being reacts to an inner urge – however different these reactions may be. Some strive for a career, some for knowledge, some for fame, for wealth, for enlightenment. Each field of activity is controlled by specific principles. Thus, each field of life follows its own principles as well: Life in the canyon is subject to different principles than life in bright (divine) sunlight.

One last image: Master and student walk by a river. Suddenly the student hears a drowning man cry out for help. The master keeps walking steadfastly. The pupil is confused, but follows his master. After a while, the cries stop – apparently the man has drowned. The pupil asks: “Master, why didn’t you help him?” The master replies calmly: “I knew his karma. But why didn’t you help him?”

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