Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche: A Spiritual Perspective

Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche flashed me when I first heard it, and has done so every time since then. I always felt that it relates to a perspective well beyond my scope. Something about the song fascinated me in an almost morbid way. It arouses feelings of being at the mercy of a higher power.

It was released in 1971 on the album Songs of Love and Hate.

Leonard Cohen performs Avalanche

The Art of Starting a Song Spectacularly

Well I stepped into an avalanche
It covered up my soul

That sounds dramatic, and makes it clear from the very start that the song deals with inner processes. It reminds me of Bob Dylan‘s SeñorSeñorCan you tell me where we’re heading / Lincoln Country Road or Armageddon …

Crumbs of Love – At the Mercy of a Higher Power

Here’s another snippet of the lyrics that hit me hard:

The crumbs of love that you offer me
They’re the crumbs I’ve left behind

This does not exactly testify to a dialogue on equal footing: While one believes to have found a treasure, and generously wants to pass it on, the other labels it as garbage.

When I began to delve more deeply into spirituality, an image formed within me of a lower self and a higher self. The former is what we are used to regard as a human being: the figure who stumbles through life, more or less unconsciously, with all her goals, desires, thoughts, and emotions. The higher self, in contrast, holds the experiences of many (re-)incarnations – experiences which the ordinary human consciousness usually cannot access. This wealth of experience surrounds the human like a magnetic sphere and shapes his character, his preferences and fears, acting as karma. If this magnetic sphere, for example, has witnessed the death of one of its inhabitants by drowning, the next inhabitant will likely not feel so comfortable in deep water.

While the higher self prevails when a human’s physical body dies, it is not divine. On a spiritual path, the magnetic bindings can be gradually dissolved until finally the entire higher self is being overcome. For this reason, it can put up considerable resistance against a serious spiritual approach. The director in the great movie Truman Show may serve as an image.

Enough of theory – anyway, while listening to Avalanche, I used to think it was the higher self speaking to the human, and in an uncomfortable way to say the least. From that perspective, I thought it was a great song, albeit haunting.

Nick Cave recorded a very intense cover. It is a matter of taste, of course, whether you like it. I do, because Cave gives himself completely to the song.

Nick Cave doing a very intense cover of Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche

The Speaker as the Divine Soul Within

Not long ago I listened to some newer Nick Cave songs, including parts of L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S., and thus discovered a very spiritual side of this impressive artist – quite a contrast to the Murder Ballads, I thought. Against this background, I reopened to Avalanche. It hit me again, but quite differently this time! Now it makes much more sense to me to regard the speaker as the divine spark within. From this perspective, the song almost completely loses its haunting character and turns into a recipe for a very practical and sobering spiritual path. I’m really keen to hear and read about your views!

In line with Goethe’s famous words in Faust:

Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast,
And each will wrestle for the mastery there.

I regard man as two-fold, made up of both mortal and divine aspects. While the latter is, generally speaking, free of anything perishable, it finds itself bound to a mortal human being. From incarnation to incarnation it waits and hopes that one inhabitant of the abovementioned magnetic sphere (which we can also call microcosm) finally listens to the soft voice from within, entrusts himself to it, and paves the way for a profound transformation and transfiguration of the whole being, to recreate former glory. In other words, in its imprisoned state, the divine spark within requires help from its human host. The immense glory has been lost, the divine in man has shrunk to a tiny spark.

The Hunchback Talking to the Human

Cohen uses the image of a hunchback, which he also calls a cripple in the second verse. When the human is awake, the leeway of the divine spark is severly limited. The third and fourth line, however,

When I am not this hunchback that you see
I sleep beneath the golden hill

hint at inspiration flowing from a higher sphere at night. To further heal, the divine spark needs unearthly nourishment. The seeker already feels a calling – otherwise, there would be no conversation at all. He does not, however, understand how he can help the divine spark. Where I used to feel the tone of the song tormenting, I now see it as sobering advice on a spiritual path.

Pain and Suffering / Turning into a Servant of the Divine

The seeker already fulfils an essential precondition: He becomes more and more aware of his suffering and is actively looking out for a solution. The solution, however, does not mean he can enter an earthly paradise where anything inconvenient just magically disappears and all earthly desires are duly fulfilled. Rather, the solution revolves around understanding his task: to help the divine spark reclaim its freedom. The human needs to dedicate his life to this glorious goal.

You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn, learn to serve me well

You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn what makes me kind

Later on in the song, pain is addressed in the following way:

Your pain is no credential here
It’s just the shadow, shadow of my wound

A seeker suffering from world-weariness may regard this as a sign of maturity and may even be proud of that state of being. But there is no reason for pride. There is nothing liberating in being disappointed because you don’t get what you want. A liberating aspect may appear once the seeker realizes that it is not him suffering, but the divine soul within. At best, the human receives an idea (“a shadow”) of this higher aspect of suffering. If all is well, he will react by opening up for higher energies from the divine realm.

This brings about the need to let go of misconceptions. The divine cannot be nourished with earthly treasures, it requires a different kind of food and clothing. Only when earthly desires step back, the divine energies may penetrate to the innermost being, heal the cripple and weave a soul garment. Hints at such immaterial clothing can be found in songs such as Avicii‘s Wake Me Up, Harry Styles‘ Sign of the Times, Bob Dylan‘s Isis and, very elaborately, in the traditional Scarborough Fair, which was popularized by Simon & Garfunkel.

You strike my side by accident
As you go down for your gold
The cripple here that you clothe and feed
Is neither starved nor cold
He does not ask for your company
Not at the centre, the centre of the world

The delicate contact to the soft voice within remains unconscious at first, while the human pursues earthly goals. But the divine spark is not at home in this realm. (My kingdom is not of this world, said Jesus.)

Here’s a softer version of the song by Nick Cave:

The Pedestal: False Worship and Soberness

When I am on a pedestal
You did not raise me there
Your laws do not compel me
To kneel grotesque and bare
I myself am the pedestal
For this ugly hump at which you stare

Different laws apply to the divine spark than to the human. Jesus does not want us to worship him – he wants us to follow his example. It is about practical realization, not paralyzing awe. The stunted remnant of eternity is itself the pedestal on which the immortal man is rebuilt.

The God Within Needs the Help of Man

Now that the seeker at least tries to participate in the process, however clumsy, an almost impossible situation arises: The sublime divine depends on the unworthy earthly creature. Cohen has also found impressive images for that in Ballad of the Absent Mare.

I have begun to long for you
I who have no greed
I have begun to ask for you
I who have no need
You say you’ve gone away from me
But I can feel you when you breathe

Man may believe to be infinitely far away from the divine. But it lives within him, it is closer than hands and feet: “I can feel you when you breathe”.

Avoid both Self-Pity and Exaggeration

Do not dress in those rags for me
I know you are not poor
And don’t love me quite so fiercely now
When you know that you are not sure
It is your turn, beloved
It is your flesh that I wear

When the seeker accepts and painfully experiences his unworthiness, it’s no use belittling himself for it. There is a famous quote which has frequently been attributed to Nelson Mandela:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are weak. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world … As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Marianne Williamson, “A Return to Love” (1989)

Apparently, the quote doesn’t appear in any of Mandela’s Speeches, including his 1994 Inauguration.

Just like keeping oneself small, exaggerated devotion is also not helpful. Man is weak and may fall any time – staying alert and open for impulses from within is key.

Cohen’s line “It is your flesh that I wear” is another impetus to change one’s perspective. A seeker may feel that next to all his talents, he can now add an extended soul consciousness. In fact, it is the other way round: The physical body is an attribute of the soul. It is helpful to realize its position in the complex human condition, and not see more in it.

From that perspective, it is not the human that gets caught in an avalanche, as I wrongly assumed for a long time when listening to the song. It makes more sense to me now to assume the speaker remains the same throughout the song. So it is presumably the divine aspect being caught in the avalanche, buried in the snow (earthly bindings), and therefore prevented from unfolding its power. We as mortal humans are not victims of circumstances, but creators of our ungodly world – we have broken the connection with our innermost core.

It is your turn, beloved: it is no exploitative, superior power talking here – rather a loving ally who helps the seeker fulfil his task, and motivates him to do so, even though the seeker may not like to hear each piece of advice.

Here’s another cover version:

Janileigh Cohen singing Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche

Get more (disclaimer: paid links):

Songs of Leonard Cohen/Songs of Love and Hate

Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

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