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.