Maybe Thoughts Aren’t Like Clouds

by Dan Nussbaum

This post picks up where the the last one left off.

In the land of meditation, thinking is not always regarded as similar to a pack of delinquent monkeys bent on torment and malfeasance. There’s also a popular metaphor that as far as I can tell comes from Zen that says the mind is like sky and thoughts are like clouds that trail off and disappear.

In Zen the image means that people are endowed with Buddha nature, empty, vast and sky-like, which is always present even when hidden by clouds. This disagrees or doesn’t disagree with early Buddhist teachings about impermanence, depending on who you ask. At the very least the premise behind the imagery illustrates that the metaphor was carefully chosen to impart this particular philosophical belief.

Today the same imagery is offered as an instruction to those learning meditation. Watch your mind and let the clouds pass by. Frequently the emphasis is on the contrast between the unchanging clarity of a still mind and the  supposedly constantly changing nature of thoughts. (But for many people bothered by thoughts, the problem is they don’t seem to change at all.) Therapists will sometimes tell clients to see the clouds not as thoughts but as gauzy envelopes to put their thoughts into and let them be carried off into the beyond. Perhaps this allows clients to feel agency in what otherwise is presented as an entirely passive act of observing. But the idea is the same. Thoughts come and go. No need to hang onto any of them.

Clouds constantly disappearing in an empty sky. What about thoughts that don’t skitter away? Are they hopeless thoughts that won’t get with the program? Or perhaps they have the misfortune to have appeared in a defective sky, one that doesn’t conduce to rapid thought dissipation.

Instead, let’s imagine that thoughts are not like clouds. They may be as different from clouds as shooting stars are from Chicklets. I offer some new metaphors that allow for different possibilities.

  • Thoughts are like a soaking drizzle.
  • Thoughts are like someone climbing the slopes of Denali riding backwards on a caribou.
  • Thoughts are like a spoonful of cottage cheese left over in a plastic tub.
  • Thoughts are like a 600 year-old oak tree with expressive, twisted limbs, hemmed in by a suburban housing subdivision called Noble Oaks.
  • Thoughts are like a pair of life-sized chess pieces, a devious black queen and a sly white queen, playing a game of chess with pawns, knights, bishops and rooks that walk off the chessboard to snatch morsels from a peanut bowl when no one is looking.
  • Thoughts are like a friendly body builder who gives hugs that last a little too long and make recipients feel self-conscious.
  • Thoughts are like an old dog that repeatedly nudges a napping owner with her nose.
  • Thoughts are like a message written on a mirror in crayon that’s hard to erase.
  • Thoughts are like a UPS guy stepping onto the field during the world pogo stick championship games intent on making a delivery to a bouncing contestant.
  • Thoughts are like the voice of a narrator from a 1930s newsreel which leaves listeners wondering whether it was meant to be ironic or not.
  • Thoughts are like clouds, ones drawn by Saul Steinberg, including a cloud that looks like bread dough floating in the sky, which supports a ladder featuring an ascending Abraham Lincoln and a pair of skyscrapers nestled above.
  • Thoughts are like a chef picking the best green pepper from a pile.
  • Thoughts are like a man who grew a beard for a prank, kept it for eighteen years and then shaved it off by whim, discovering the face he thought was underneath had disappeared.
  • Thoughts are like ants striding up the arm of someone lying in the grass, down her collar, onto her shoulder and up her neck all the way to the cavity of her ear.

Metaphors for thinking, even venerable ones like those of monkey mind and floating clouds, should be taken lightly. Whenever the use of a metaphor too predictably corrals experience, it needs to be questioned, whatever it is. Otherwise you may end up on the back of a caribou surrounded by bouncing pogo sticks with nothing to eat but a green pepper.

steinberg clouds 015

Thoughts are like clouds drawn by Saul Steinberg.