For the mind of Man alone is free to explore the lofty vastness of the cosmic infinite, to transcend ordinary consciousness, to roam the secret corridors of the brain where past and future melt into one… And universe and individual are linked, the one mirrored in the other, and each contains the other.
— Michael Moorcock
Body like a mountain
Breath like the wind
Mind like the sky
— Tibetan Meditation Instruction
One of the first things I do in the morning is step outside and look up at the sky. It seems to be a sure fire way of lifting me out of whatever thoughts are spinning in my head and putting me in touch with the wider world. Breathing in fresh air is probably a part of it, but there is something about the vastness of the sky that seems to open my mind out beyond my usual everyday preoccupations.
During the day too, I can often notice that if I am stuck with the same thoughts going around in my head, getting outside can relieve me of that. When I am enclosed by four walls my brain seems to mirror those and take a very narrow and self-obsessed view of the world. The opposite happens when there are no barriers between me and the rest of the universe. Mind opens and thoughts drop away. Notice how differently you feel by looking at the picture of the wall below, and the above image of the sky.
I imagine that this effect was well known in Tibet, which has majestic skyscapes, the like of which I can only dream of. Sky gazing practice is one of the basic techniques used in Dzogchen meditation to open out both the gaze and mind and Mahamudra practice similarly exhorts the practitioner to ‘Elevate your experience, and remain wide-open like the sky’. The notion that our thoughts are like clouds passing through the sky is a common metaphor in meditation teaching and while if we have a confined view, we may only see cloud, expanding our mind out like the sky sees thoughts for what they are. Looking at the sky can often accomplish that feat by itself. Allowing the gaze to travel beyond its normal resting place seems to have an opening effect on the mind which has probably been natural for most of human existence but is now tempered by so much of our lives being spent indoors.
Zen Buddhism often talks about big mind and everyday mind. For example in Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Zen cook):
“In preparing food never view it from the perspective of usual mind”.
Usual, or everyday, mind sees things from our own, partial perspective, rather than viewing life in its totality, with each part both being perfect as it is and interconnected to everything else. Continuing the example of cooking in a Zen kitchen, we may find that the greens we are given to make the soup are less fresh than we would like. Everyday mind would worry about this and maybe start a blame game towards whoever bought the greens and did not check them over carefully, and whether the soup will taste okay. Big mind will look at the greens just as they are, using the right parts and discarding the remainder, doing what needs to be done and giving thanks for the sun, rain and care of the farmer in bringing this food to the kitchen, and then the table. Thoughts about the freshness of the greens and the person who purchased them may still arise, but they can be allowed to arise and fade in their own time.
From the perspective of our own problems we often hold on to each cloud-like thought as it come up, and follow wherever it leads, rather than being the sky and letting each thought arise and fade in its own time. Trying to hold on and control each thought is like trying to tame a wild horse. Instead, we could give the horse room to move freely by expanding our mind. In her excellent book, Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck calls this having A Bigger Container (ABC). By widening our perspective and giving our thoughts an open field to wander in, each individual thought loses some of its power and gives us the chance to respond effectively rather than blindly react.
Having problems with thoughts is not a new phenomenon in meditation practice and many students feel they are ‘doing it wrong’ if thoughts continue to arise. However, how often is the sky totally empty and does the sky mind whether it is empty or full of clouds? When Milarepa’s patron and student, Lady Paldarboom, is told to “Take the sky as an example, practice without any sense of limit or position”, she replies, “I was happy practicing with the sky, but a little uneasy about bringing clouds into the practice.Please give me instruction on practicing with clouds.” Milarepa immediately recognises that Lady Paldarboom is fixating on the clouds/thoughts rather than the sky/awareness so reassures here with the further instruction, “If you are happy practicing with the sky, clouds are the sky’s magical creations. Be the sky itself.” In essence, he is saying to look for the open clarity of awareness rather than the fleeting thoughts with which it makes contact.
That the sky is often used to indicate awareness in Buddhism is not surprising. I wonder, though, if it because of its vast openness or the effect it has on the mind that observes it? Perhaps the two are inseparable as one serves as a reminder to the other of its true potential and looking at the sky brings our mind back in touch with its true nature of unceasing spaciousness and clarity. If we can then stay with this sky-like mind during the day rather than follow each thought as it arises, we can see life for what it is – a series of passing clouds in a vast, ever-present sky of awareness.
“When you look into space, seeing stops.
Likewise when mind looks at mind
The flow of thinking stops
And you come to the deepest awakening.
Mists arise from the earth and vanish into space
They go nowhere, nor do they stay.
Likewise, though your thoughts arise,
Whenever you see your mind, the clouds of thinking clear.”
— Tilopa ‘Ganges Mahamudra’