Looking up into the sky, we see a constantly changing vista. Some days, the sky is clear blue, or at night, blue/black and star-filled from horizon to horizon. More often, there will be formations and layers of clouds, drifting and changing. Some days, there is no clear sky at all; the vista is filled with darkness, cloud layered upon cloud, or one cloud, seemingly endless from horizon to horizon.
Buddhism has long found the sky to be a useful metaphor for the mind, and the way we experience our mind is really quite analogous to this metaphor of the sky. Sometimes clear and bright, sometimes dark and stormy, while most of the time some mix of clarity interspersed with drifting, morphing, changing content.
Following this metaphor, as regards mind and our sense of self and identity, we live in a culture that causes us to confuse the clouds of mind – thoughts and emotions – with the essence of mind. As a result, we experience our minds pretty much constantly filled with this drifting, morphing, changing content. We believe the thoughts and emotions that fill our mind are the essence of our mind, and this is a fundamental error. We then compound the error by believing that who we are is this collection of thoughts and emotions, when this is only one dimension of mind, the ego, and it is a rather limited dimension at that. This causes problems in our relationship with ourselves and the world because then our sense of self is based in this drifting, morphing, changing content of the mind. There is no stability, reliability, predictability to our experience of self or the world.
To make matters worse, although we identify this mental content with ourselves, the source of the vast majority of this content is, of course, from other people. Our minds are filled with what has been told and taught us by our parents, the people we grew up around, our friends, teachers, society, culture, media, etc. Even our emotions are often learned, in that angry parents will likely generate angry children, anxious parents will generate anxious children, etc. It’s quite remarkable that we tend to be so defensive about our opinions and emotions when, in a very real sense, they are not ours at all.
When we believe that our minds, and who we are, is the content of our minds, it’s no wonder our minds are filled with constant and obsessive chatter. This ego-self sustains itself with a wall of mental activity. One rather paranoid person I worked with accused me of trying to make a fool of him for suggesting there could be moments when the mind was quiet, for such a concept was impossible for him to grasp. Most of us aren’t that totally identified with the contents of our minds, but we aren’t far from it. This illustration is important because while we don’t all tend toward paranoia, the ego-mind is always defensive to a greater or lesser extent, and the wall of thought is the primary line of defense for the ego.
Most people when they begin a meditation practice find it difficult to believe that their mind could be quiet a significant amount of the time. How wonderful it is when they discover truth in the assertion that the basic essence of our mind is like the vast, open sky but also, like the sky, its nature is to have contents within it. Just like there are clouds in the sky, there are thoughts and emotions in the mind, but these thoughts and emotions are no more the essence of mind than the clouds are the essence of the sky. Also, as it is the nature of the sky to contain some measure of clouds most of the time, so it is the nature of the mind to contain some measure of thoughts and emotions most of the time.
Our experience is really quite pleasurable when there is some limited dimension of thought and emotion giving texture and dimension to our experience of life just like the weather is quite pleasurable when there is some cloud structure giving texture and dimension to the sky. This marks an appropriate and effective relationship to our minds, but from our mistaken perspective that thought and emotion is the mind, we compulsively fill our minds from horizon to horizon with content, and so our experience of life is like a stormy day when clouds fill the sky, sometimes erupting into thunder, lightening and rain. We live far too much of our lives in a cloud-filled and often stormy climate. It does not have to be this way.
The metaphor continues when we explore what the optimal experience in relationship to our minds truly is. Pleasant weather is a mix of clear sky and clouds, and for our day-to-day lives, a mix of spacious clarity, interspersed with thought and emotion is also the best relationship to mind. It could also be said that just as we must have rain for the world to be lush and fertile, times that are the mental equivalent of rain are necessary to bring us the darker, more soulful experience of life. These stormy times challenge us and nourish our basic, earthy humanity, helping us to grow in understanding, skill and wisdom. After all, is it not Life’s challenges that cause us to stretch and evolve into more complex, aware, resourceful, and hopefully, compassionate people? A well-known Zen saying tells us, “obstacles do not block the path, they are the path.”
But, oh those days we call glorious, when there isn’t a cloud in the sky! This is the same as the open, clear experience of mind that makes for the spiritual connection, the experience of far-seeing clarity and deep insight, and it is this ability that can be deliberately cultivated through meditation and mindfulness. This is egoless awareness, what Zen calls No-mind.
Likewise, as the vast, clear sky is always above and below the clouds, no matter how stormy it may be, so too, behind, beneath, surrounding the thought-clouds of mind can be experienced the crystal-clear realm of awareness. This requires the knowing that we are the awareness and the cultivation of awareness-of-awareness. With this knowing, peacefulness and clarity are always available to us. It isn’t that the turbulent content isn’t there, but that we no longer identify with it or get lost in it. Instead, we realize that the clarity of pure awareness, like the clarity of the deep sky, is our true self. We are no longer lost, identifying with the unstable and changing nature of our cloud-mind, our thoughts and emotions, but rather, with the unclouded awareness that witnesses the passing phenomena of mind and life.
The legend of the Buddha is of a man, Siddhartha Gautama, living 2500 years ago in India, a prince who left the comfort of his palace and discovered the vast stormy world of humanity. He saw suffering and required of himself that he understand its cause, nature and cure. Like a physician, a scientist, he embarked on a journey of exhaustive research. He spent many years as an ascetic mastering the meditative arts, living with a mind accustomed to deep quiet and profound insight. Intuiting the ascetic life however as another egoic pose, a reaction to the suffering of human society, he left it, to find a “middle path.” Neither materialistic and worldly, nor in scorn of the world, this path is deeply, subtly aware of both the beauty and tragedy of the world. Realizing they create the intricate dance of unity, it maintains perspective and insight; in compassionate love with humanity and existence.
In deep meditation Buddha penetrated through all “clouds” of mind into the realm of pure awareness, even beyond the cloudless sky, for even the blue sky is not empty of particles, but is an illusion of emptiness, filled with atoms and molecules and the energy that connects all phenomena; and its placement as “up there” is likewise an illusion, for in truth, we live within the sky. It is as much beneath the clouds as it is above, it is all around us. We are in it as is this Earth we live upon. It is as if Buddha penetrated beyond the concept of sky and mind, completely breaking past the boundaries of the Earth into the true realm of our existence, the Universe that we are all within and expressions of. There he discovered the true nature of our existence, a more profound sense of emptiness, that is, empty of the delusions of certainty and separateness that this world of cloud-thoughts tell us about itself and us.
He went beyond all “illusions” of a sky or mind that confines us to realize the Universe “out there” is mirrored perfectly “in here,” in the vast clarity of human consciousness not obscured by the false belief in individual separateness as the only reality. There is and there isn’t an “out there” or “in here.” There is just This. This world of separateness, this world of egoic clouds of thought and emotion that morph and drift, often racing through our awareness is not who we are. We are the awareness, the clear open “sky” of pure consciousness. We are, as the great Orientalist, Alan Watts once wrote, “The Universe looking into itself.” We are – just This.
This was Buddha’s “awakening” and the word “Buddha” translates as “awakened one.” For this, millions worship him like a god, but he absolutely insisted he was merely mortal and that this ability to see clearly, to realize we are that which sees, is in every human being. The physician diagnosed the sickness of “egoic delusion” and prescribed the cure. He taught us how to transcend the boundaries of human perceptual and cognitive limitation and achieve true clarity, to awaken beyond the clouds of mind into the essential realm of Being.
Yes, our mortal form lives like clouds in the sky, being born, morphing, drifting and sometimes racing across the sky of our lifespan, then disappearing. Yet there, within the forms of the world and the suffering that comes with form, we can realize as did Buddha, the cure to suffering, to realize enlightenment into our true nature as awareness – that which is eternal, like the vast sky itself, which holds, witnesses, and does not judge, does not react to or resist the moment as it is, and sees its perfection as the truth of who we are.