Contemplative writers and artists across religious traditions have used cloud imagery to describe a personal connection to god. The formless cloud is a meditative model for Contemplative Christians, Daoists, Buddhists, Hindus, Sufis, Transcendentalists and others.
Written by an anonymous English monk in the 14th century, The Cloud of Unknowing used clouds as a metaphor for getting closer to God: “(We need) a cloud of forgetting between us and the whole created world.”
The book is intended to be a journey away from all things familiar; abandoning all thought and reason, embracing blankness and nothingness, entering the cloud of unknowing. One practice described in the book has been linked to the Zen meditation technique of the mantra.
The Cloud of Unknowing advises the reader to “Take a short word … being like the working of the spirit … fix this word fast to your heart so that it is always there come what may. … With this word you will hammer the darkness above you … you will suppress all thought. … if ever you are tempted to think what it is you are seeking, this one word will be sufficient answer.”
Cynthia Bourgeualt, founding director of The Contemplative Society and author of Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, told me in a phone interview The Cloud of Unknowing was a very early attempt to conjure physiological changes in the brain through contemplative practice.
“The word you repeat becomes a placeholder for attention, to keep the mind from the multiplicity and maze of thinking but ultimately it’s only a stepping stone towards abandoning all thought,” Bourgeault said. “Our normal every-day faculties cannot comprehend the infinite. Anything you rest your mind on becomes an object. To keep the mind completely from objects of attention unlocks the physiological non-dual consciousness.
“The symbol of the cloud as blankness and nothingness is a way of expressing a state of non-dual consciousness,” Bourgeault continued. “There is nothing for the mind to attach to. You are looking for a diffuse awareness, an object-less awareness, tuning down your faculties to move in more subtle fields of intelligence, to give our spiritual faculties a chance to perceive … ”
Across religions and cultural traditions over the centuries, clouds have been a symbol of the spiritual experience.
A 2,200-year-old compendium of Taoist knowledge, The Essential Huainanzi, covers similar spiritual territory: “When (water vapor) ascends into the heavens … it dissolves into the realms of the Formless … When the mind is inalterably expansive, it achieves the perfection of tranquility.”
In Awakening: A Sufi Experience, author Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan wrote of the spiritual effects of a late-night thunderstorm: “ … I observed the dark clouds and heard the thunderclaps gradually receding into the distance, swept away by a raging wind. As if in sympathetic resonance, my consciousness began to melt away, scattering into an infinite, edge-less Universe.”
Finding god in a summer storm
The Hindu philosopher and statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan wrote in his essay “The Religious Experience”: “It is a condition of consciousness in which feelings are fused, ideas melt into one another, boundaries broken and ordinary distinctions transcended. Past and present fade away in a sense of timeless being. … ”
A Buddhist prayer calls upon clouds for spiritual sustenance: “O holy perfect lama, in the sky of the truth body, gather your clouds of love and wisdom, and pour down upon the land of deserving disciples the great rains of the profound and magnificent Dharma!”
Over time, repeated spiritual experiences tend to instill in people the widespread religious belief that the material plane is a honey-trap, a place where it’s all too tempting to indulge emotional hunger by satisfying transitory desires.
“From the vantage point of altered states of consciousness … we suddenly see the experience of human life as so precious, rare and poignant that we feel ashamed for having let ourselves be consumed by petty grudges and fleeting temptations,” wrote Khan.
In New England, the Transcendentalists and Unitarians consumed every new translation of Eastern religious texts as they became available in the 19th century.
Minister and chief spokesman for New England Unitarianism William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) wrote of finding god in a summer storm.
“Take, for example, the delight which we find in the … immensity of the heavens and the ocean, and especially in the rush and roar of mighty winds, waves and torrents when, amidst our deep awe, a power within seems to respond to the omnipotence around it.”
Ethereal clouds in Romantic poetry
Published in 1789, The Book of Thel was written and illustrated by William Blake, including a philosophical Cloud character with oratorical powers who tries to cheer up a young girl (Thel) upset that her youth will one day fade. The Cloud explains that the universe is a beautiful symphony of interdependence that never ends.
“‘O maid I tell thee, when I pass away it is to tenfold life, to love, to peace, and raptures holy; unseen descending, weigh my light wings upon balmy flowers; and court the fair-eye dew …’”
Blake and the later Romantics saw the beauty of nature as the perpetual manifestation of a creative and energetic spirit that was present in all things. The following excerpt from “The Cloud,” by Percey Bysse Shelley, portrays clouds as every-changing, but never dying.
I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
and the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
Like a child from the womb,
like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
After the horrors of World War I, Romantic poetry went out of style but soon enough clouds were back in the art world, used by surrealist painters to conjure an altered state of consciousness.
Salvador Dali painted hallucinatory clouds as part of his goal to break down the outward forms of ordinary objects, creating a state of mind that can no longer assign a name to what it’s seeing. Conversely René Magritte painted normal-looking clouds in otherwise bizarre tableaus, mixing tranquility and chaos to provide a glimpse of what Magritte called “inner mystery.” He believed “all people are driven to a greater or lesser degree to escape from the prevailing order.” As the forms of familiar things begin to break down, Magritte once said, they “shriek aloud.”
Salvador Dali once attended an exhibition in a diving suit to reflect his interest in the subconscious. He was compelled by art that “… can neither be explained nor reduced by logical systems or rational approaches.”
Six hundred years after The Cloud of Unknowing, Dali and Magritte used cloud imagery to break down the overactive discriminating mind that identifies subjects and objects, causes and effects, to aim instead for an altered state of consciousness. Even for just a moment.
The divine spark
Immanence is a word not often used in daily conversation, but its meaning has roots in most religious traditions – there’s an energetic presence in all things, at all times.
In the extra-canonical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said, “ …the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. … Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”
Sufi doctrine states that a divine essence recreates the entire material world in every millisecond. Mormons believe all material creation has a divine spark within it. A similar concept is found in the West African Yoruba religion and the related Orisa religion in the Caribbean.
“Alive all around you and inside of you is the sacred energy of the Supreme Being … no being, place or thing, visible or invisible, living or inanimate, is without holiness,” wrote Tobe Melora Correal in Finding Soul on the Path of Orisa: A West African Spiritual Tradition.
Perhaps the religious experience is a glimpse of the divine spark, between the milliseconds. A spiritual experience is usually intense and relatively short. Many return from the spiritual plane with a vaguely blissful feeling and a funny little smile. Artists are driven to capture the experience in words, music, painting or sculpture, to get back, somehow, to that ephemeral state of being.
“Like the inevitable swing of the pendulum, consciousness cannot remain in sublime transcendence … the seeker does not return empty-handed, but emanating the exotic perfume of his or her spiritual realization,” wrote Khan.
(Ben H. Gagnon is an award-winning journalist and author of Church of Birds: an eco-history of myth and religion, coming March 2023 from John Hunt Publishing, now available for pre-order. More information can be found at this website, which links to a YouTube video.)