Written around the year 1375,The Cloud of Unknowing was written as a letter of advice to a young novice just setting out on the path of contemplation. The author, believed to have been a country parson, writes in a personal, direct style, hoping to share his knowledge of contemplation with the young would-be monk.
The theme of the Cloud of Unknowing is of turning one’s attention within, away from the mind and its objects. The attention is turned inward upon itself, and since it is now focused on nothing the mind can understand, sees only a ‘cloud of unknowing’, a seeming nothingness. For most seekers, this can be frustrating, if not impossible, for it gives no immediate reward, or even an object or image for their mind to grasp. To simply aim one’s attention at its own source is to look back up the ray of one’s awareness, where the mind and ego cannot go. This also takes the attention off of the body and its desires and fears, along with the senses and outer environment.
For when you first begin to undertake it, all that you find is a darkness, a sort of cloud of unknowing; you cannot tell what it is, except that you experience in your will a simple reaching out to God [a naked intent unto God]. This darkness and cloud is always between you and your God, no matter what you do, and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason, and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection.
– You are to smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love. -… no man can think of God himself. Therefore, it is my wish to leave everything that I can think of and choose for my love the thing that I cannot think. Because he can certainly be loved, but not thought. He can be taken and held by love but not by thought. – Cloud of Unknowing
The gift of The Cloud is its simple message of going beyond the mind. We cannot find our Source, or “God”, by thinking, or through worded thought, but only through what it calls love or longing. This may be called a vector, a direction we follow through our intuition, even after we have gone beyond our mind. It leads us into an uncharted realm, a cloud of unknowing in the back of beyond, where we lose our ‘self’. If we continue into this Great Unknown, guided by this longing, perhaps we will meet our Self, and find we have been there all along.
For whoever hears or reads about all this, and thinks that it is fundamentally an activity of the mind, and proceeds then to work it all out along these lines, is on quite the wrong track. He manufactures an experience that is neither spiritual or physical. He is dangerously misled and in real peril. – Cloud of Unknowing
“The daily remembering and clear admission of our internal angst is key to the eventual ability to face the moment. It gives us energy and incentive to separate from being identified with the psychological manifestations of personality in the drama of the sleepyhead-knucklehead, and how this misidentification traps our attention in the illusions of the mind. Once relaxed, we can jump straight into the still, aware silence: the listening attention. In other words, we go straight from personality right back up to what we really Are. We gofrom being a very complicated psychology, to being a very simple two-way seeing. We learn how to listen, to just look at the facts always in front of our vision, while simultaneously looking back at what we really Are. Psychological work is used only to show us that we don’t have a quiet mind, no freedom of attention, and thus cannot tell the real from the false. Once we realize that having a quiet mind is something you simply find, it’s always there just under the surface, you no longer have to think about it, put effort into it, build it up.
It’s a retreat from complicated error and projection back to the simple truth of ourselves as aware capacity, indescribable and real”.
Trap: complete hypnotic identification with the current character in our life-drama. For every situation we encounter in life, we create a fitting character, and become identified with ‘it’, calling it “I”. We do not see the change that occurs in our ‘self’ when the situation changes, as we switch our sense of “I” into the new character, or ego. The mind blurs or hides this change-over, creating a seemingly seamless flow through the many egos and their parts in our personal drama.
Trick: creation of an observing “I”. To break the spell of the mind and its reaction-creations, an impartial point of reference is needed, an unattached observer. This “I” does not take sides, is not a judging or naming function, but simply an aware link between the many other “I’s” which lead us around by our nose everyday, and night. The trick within this trick, is that we are already this pure “I”, but have lost touch with our Selves through identification. Through the ‘creation’ of an observing “I”, we get a glimpse of something greater, of possibility, a taste of our natural freedom.
Whatever I had been doing was serving me. Robert Adams has said “Every desire every urge is a search for the Self. But we’re misdirected”. I’d agree as it seems my path has turned out to be one of reorientation. Finding my way now to a point that must be reconciled with myself. – Tim Howell
“It is absolutely essential that we actually get in touch with the eternal Child.” –William Samuel
I’ve found dreams to be a valuable source of self-knowledge through the years, and a great trick to get around the ego’s ruthless tactic of editing out anything truly useful in our search. The following dream is no exception. I was inisolation, a spiritual retreat, and had a curious dream. I wrote it down, and later, when back from the retreat, took the time to research the information. Even now the dream stands out, for it describes a fundamental aspect of us all, one that I continually find described by others in their own words, too.
The dream revolved around a character called the ‘gumb ‘. This term was accepted by me, as witness to the dream, being part and parcel to the world the dream presented. Only later in so-called waking life did I find the term curious. The character it described was an ordinary sort of fellow, of average height, build, and appearance, but his manner was most unusual. I was shown a series of vignettes where these characteristics were illustrated, as the dream narrator filled in the details.
In the first scene, the gumb was attacked with spears by a swarm of meanies. Being outnumbered and with no visible means of defense, I was flabbergasted at the result. He was able to simply wave off the spears, and continue on his way unharmed. Next, his bug-like adversaries built a series of walls from cement blocks in attempts to hem him in. Again, he simply waved his way through, never breaking stride. He never lost his cool or reacted emotionally in any way to these situations. He didn’t indulge in having his feelings hurt or stop to place blame, he just kept moving. He did not attack or retreat but held to his way, without hurry or delay.
While I watched in amazement, the narrator filled in the story. He told me the man was called the gumb. The reason he could not be hurt or stopped was because he did not carry a watch, and was not afraid to gamble. I remembered these words, and later, back in the world of organized information, I wrote them down and began the search for this word ‘gumb’.
While later on I found several different versions and roots of the word, the initial search was by far the most informative, and I believe, the most accurate. It resolved the dream for me. I found the word ‘gump’ in a large dictionary, and was surprised at the result. The word was Scottish in origin, and originally meant fishing in the dark, to search for with the hands, to grope and catch fish under banks or stones. It was said it later came to mean searching for insights, having no fear, and not being overly concerned with the outcome. To muddle through difficult situations thanks to a series of lucky chances. It is the root of the modern term ‘gumption’, meaning the courage to act, and the practice of common sense and presence of mind. The meaning of not wearing a watch and not being afraid to gamble began to make sense.
The gumb’s way of living contrasted heartily with my own, for I was fear-based and living from a state of mind handed down through generations having lived in fear and desire as their basis, too. Now, don’t get this wrong, no one in this line of misfortune is to blame, for no one was aware. They were not aware that they were identified with a particular state of mind. This state of mind called the shots, and even defined perception at a basic unseen level. It gradually covered over the innocent perception of the children of each succeeding generation with a fog of fear, judgment and desire, and transformed them into identified, reactive-oriented robots, each with a pride-based ego that they were aware individuals with a handle on their lives, and the meaning of it all. What a trap, and what a joke. No wonder the image of the gumb and his way of action was so appealing.
As time went by, I discovered this path or way of being in the writings of others, and in the actions of a few. William Samuel’sChild within, Richard Rose’s between-ness, Douglas Harding’s headless seeing, the Puer or Intermediary ofMaurice Nicoll, and many other examples of this pure state of being. While this listening attention, as I’ve come to call it, is not the final state, it is the door. It is the timeless portal between the manifest and the unmanifest, the gateway to within. It is how to live in the world, but not be of the world. The ego state of mind may be good at managing the world of daily affairs, but it cannot go beyond. The child within us transcends the world, being our link to the formless. We then see why the ancients called it the Son, and that the Son and the Father are One.
The path to becoming the listening attention begins with self-observation. The hard work of ‘seeing’ what we really are, and what we are not. Later, we may find that we were the Child all along and had just become lost, but without this journey into time and space, we would not value our true state. To begin the homeward journey, look quickly, subtlety, without the editing of states of mind. In the moment of perception there lies a door, an attention that does not define, but simply sees. The nostalgic longing we feel at times for a better life, a real home, is a thread back to this child within. Follow it, and discover your own inner child, the gumb.
No matter how subtle or astute our meditation may be, we will never realize nirvana by using yet another facet of samsara. A different level of seeing is needed, a pure awareness that is not itself a product of the world or mind, but primary to the reaction pattern we call ourselves. A looking which is attentive, yet not reactive. A listening which is not affected by circumstance and the constant changes of the mind. Such an attention would lie outside of time and space, beyond circumstance, yet be aware of them as well as itself. Such a Listening Attention would also be directly connected to the formless inner realm of our True Self, and provide a Gateway to Within.
Meditation is the destruction of the sense of ‘self.’ This self has been created by the mind through ignorance, a sort of learned hypnosis, and can be destroyed by the very act of staring it in the face. This is better described as the act of observing ourselves. Thinking we observe ourselves already, we must somehow first become convinced that what we are doing is no such thing, but instead we are blindly creating our own version of the Frankenstein monster, then stepping inside our creation and taking it to be us. This created act of the imagination is never questioned until disaster strikes and the peasants with their torches are banging at the door.
We may actually begin to observe ourselves and find we are a stranger. If we are still intrigued and the intuition awakened, we may be tricked into looking for the problem inside our own head. This revelation that something might be amiss in our own interior, coupled with a bit of intuition and grace, may lead to an interior questioning. Awareness breeds more awareness and soon we may find we have reversed our direction. The creating mind with its compensating imagination may be glimpsed just enough. We may find we are hooked on this self-observation thing. But watch out. The ego and animal nature won’t like this one bit, and will do everything to bring back the good old days of dissipation, drama, and self-created misery. If we are still a tad lucky, we will see through this and have discovered another layer of that which is not us. We place meaning and value on the continual act of observing, the inward listening with attention.
Meditation also involves finding a stable point within. The body/mind is in constant flux; happiness or pleasure are fleeting at best. By sorting through and retreating from this, we eventually go beyond body/mind and find a Place of No Concern, a deep stillness. Thus we find meditation to be a changing process, different at every stage, but final in its result. Eventually we look at the looker, and even look at looking itself.
“The path to Truth begins with the self. We cannot properly isolate, identify, or analyze the self, because it is the subject about which we know the least.” – Richard Rose
The conscious attention, or ego, sits on the doorstep between two worlds: that of the outer country of our senses commonly called reality, and the world of the mind, our inner realm, the undiscovered country. While much can be said of the outer world of the senses, little is known by most of us of our inner country, a world of automatic responses and unquestioned beliefs, hidden in darkness, projected onto our hapless neighbors.
Even those of us on the spiritual path, professed seekers of truth, rarely enough venture into the unknown country behind our eyelids. We tend to avoid this inner space, side stepping it in favor of imagination. We create a conceptual idea of ourselves in our head, one which fits our needs and fears, and then believe in it. The true state of our mind and emotions is avoided and exiled, an active but unconscious shadow in the darkness within.
This refusal to look at our inner state is not only because we are cowards, ignorant, and/or blind. It is necessary. The mind could not go on about its business in day-to-day affairs in the hustle of modern life if it questioned itself. Things could come to a halt.
One of the ways we avoid the inner realm is through what I call the game of ‘stay away’. We refuse to look at anything about ourselves that doesn’t fit the script. An extreme example of this is found today in neo-advaita types, while a generation or two ago it was seen in the radical side of Hare Krishna’s, and even earlier with ‘Jesus freaks’. The game is played by having a tight 5-10 minute circle of unbreakable logic which is repeated over and over, both to oneself as well as others. This is a very effective form of self-hypnosis which enables it’s practitioner to stay away from all consciousness of any inner emotional turmoil.
Another trick is that of placing the ego in an intangible form so that it cannot be attacked. These folks have no practical ego to speak of, meaning they have no real skills, no career, no interest which is actually carried out in the world. But to function the ego has to have an object, so if they are unwilling or incapable of identifying with a practical aspect of life, they find a concept, an archetype, or an image with which to identify. These images are invisible and intangible, so there is no risk of failure or success associated with believing in them. The trap is almost fool proof and extremely hard to break free of. Examples are seen often in New Age archetypes, such as the ‘goddess’, the ‘warrior’, the ‘sage’, etc. Even political and religious concepts can be effective shields against our personal truth, such as being politically correct or morally self-righteous. The common thread is an inability to handle tension or resistance. There can be no failure or questioning of an inner goddess, it can’t be seen or corroborated, so the person has an excuse not to face themselves, no matter what.
The trick of transference is seen in those who avoid their inner country by projecting it onto others. They have nothing to work on in themselves (being perfect, the ego’s main characteristic) so they spend their time helping others less fortunate (the rest of us). In this manner, they never have to see themselves as they are, for all imperfection surely lies in others, out there. They feel they are fortunate to be able to spend their time in helping, while their victims, their unlucky friends and acquaintances, must bear the burden of the ‘helpers’ unresolved inner conflicts.
An example of this was driven home to me when I worked at a ski resort. A group of blind cross country skiers came for a week, from the wonderful organization Ski for Light. There were over a hundred of the blind skiers, along with their guides and coaches. I assumed that the skiers, being blind, would be in need of much help, and their guides must be selfless saints to volunteer for such an undertaking. I had it exactly backwards. The skiers were the ones with the greater being, and needed no help traveling freely about their inner country. The guides on the other hand, while sighted in the outer world, were, perhaps unknowingly, being taught humility, faith, patience and wisdom by their unsighted charges.
I’ll never forget this surprising contrast: the guide bragging at dinner how she had been blessed not to have to work so she could give her time to ‘helping’ the less fortunate. The resort staff soon became fully aware of who was helping who. Her blind student was easy to wait on, not at all demanding, while the guide required constant attention, everything had to be prepared to her individual specifications, running us ragged for no real reason other than her inability to act in any way other than self-centered. The blind skier (the true guide) spent the week in infinite patience, a shining example of courage and wisdom, expecting nothing in return.
While these examples may illustrate our ignorance of our own psychology, it also serves to show how our values are reversed by life and its demands. The inner country, the basis for our character, is undiscovered and lacking in meaning, while our outer life of body and ego is given first priority and the highest value. The soul, with its connection to our inner self, is discarded in favor of saving face and ego. Only when the inner atmosphere is clear and quiet can we hear the true message from our Self. A long and hard journey within to clear the air and underbrush may be arduous, but in the long run, worth any price.
He cared deeply, lived carelessly, and couldn’t care less, and he died in the same obscurity into which he was born.Yet he remains the greatest leader and most remarkable man I have ever met. Everything that is best in me I owe largely to him.