Common steps and sub-activities

Cloud of Unknowing

All the following quotes provide helpful additional pointers as to how to still the chattering mind.

The Cloud of Unknowing

St Denis said that the most divine knowledge of God is that which is known by not knowing.

The Cloud of Unknowing

If you wish to …. take up the contemplative work of love as I urge you to, there is something you must do.

Just as the cloud of unknowing lies above you, between you and your [higher spirit], so you must fashion a cloud of forgetting … between you and every created thing.

The cloud of unknowing will perhaps leave you with the feeling that you are far from [your higher spirit]. But no, …., only the absence of a cloud of forgetting keeps you from him now.

Every time I say ‘all  creatures’ , I refer not only to every created thing but also to all their circumstances and activities. I make no exception.  You are to concern yourself with no creature whether material or spiritual nor with their situation and doings whether good or ill. To put it briefly, during this work you must abandon them all beneath the cloud of forgetting.

For although at certain times and in certain circumstances it is necessary and useful to dwell on the particular situation and activity of people and things, during this work it is almost useless. Thinking and remembering are forms of understanding in which the eye of the spirit is closed upon things as the eye of a marksman is on his target. But I tell you that everything you dwell upon during this work becomes an obstacle to union with [your higher spirit].  For if your mind is cluttered with these concerns there is no room for him.

Yes, and with all due reverence, I go so far as to say that it is equally useless to think you can nourish your contemplative work by considering God's attributes, his kindness or his dignity; or by thinking about our lady, the angels, or the saints; or about the joys of heaven, wonderful as these may be.

I believe that this kind of activity is no longer of any use to you.

And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know. 

The Cloud of Unknowing

It is inevitable that ideas will arise in your mind and try to distract you in a thousand ways. They will question you saying,

 “What are you looking for, what do you want?”

 To all of them you must reply,

"My higher spirit alone I seek and desire, only him”.

Say to your thoughts. "You are powerless to grasp him. Be still”.  …………..

If you pay attention to all these ideas they will have gained what they wanted of you, and will go on chattering until they divert you even more

Soon you will be thinking about your life and perhaps in this connection you will recall some place where you have lived in the past, until suddenly, before you know it, your mind is completely scattered.

And yet, they were not bad thoughts. Actually, they were good thoughts,

But a person who has long pondered these things must leave them behind beneath a cloud of forgetting if he hopes to pierce the cloud of unknowing that lies between him and his higher spirit.

The Cloud of Unknowing

For I tell you frankly that anyone who really desires to be a contemplative will know the pain of arduous toil……..he will feel keenly the cost of constant effort until he is long accustomed to this work.

But tell me, why should it be so difficult? Surely, the fervent love continually awakening in the will is not painful.

Then why is this work so toilsome?  The labour of course, is in the unrelenting struggle to banish the countless distracting thoughts that plague our minds and to restrain them beneath that cloud of forgetting which I spoke of earlier.  This is the suffering.

All the struggle is on the man’s side in the effort he must make to prepare himself for [his higher spirit’s] action, which is the awakening of love and which he alone can do.

One of the more interesting aspects of this technique is the author’s perception of what sin really is. 

Sin is thinking thoughts that get in the way of spiritual experience…..

And I suspect that that is originally what most sins were. 

The Cloud of Unknowing

… if you allow your thoughts to go unchecked to the point where you willingly dwell on them with full consent, then you do commit a deadly sin, For it is a deadly sin when, with full understanding and consent, you dwell on the thought of any person or thing which stirs your heart…...

  • If you brood over an injury, past or present, you will soon feel the painful desire and thirst for revenge. This is the sin of Anger.
  • Or should you conceive an evil disdain for another and the kind of hatred for him full of spite and rash judgment, you have fallen into envy.
  • If you yield to a feeling of weariness and boredom for good works, it is called Sloth.
  • If the thought which comes to you (or which you invite) is full of human conceit regarding your honour, your intelligence, your gifts of grace, your status, talents, or beauty and, if you willingly rest in it with delight, it is the sin of Pride.
  • If it is a thought of some material thing, that is, of wealth or property or other earthly goods that people strive to possess and call their own and, if you dwell on it with desire, it is the sin of Covetousness.
  • If you yield to inordinate desire for delicacies of food or drink or for any of the delights of taste, it is called Gluttony.
  • And finally, illicit desire for carnal indulgence or for the favour and flattery of others is called lust.

If your vagrant thoughts recall any pleasure, past or present, and if you rest in it letting it take root in your heart and feed your carnal desire, you are in danger of being overwhelmed by the delight of passion. Soon you will think that you possess all you could ever want and that this pleasure will satisfy you perfectly.

At times in the description there is just the hint of desperation about the description which led me to suspect that the author had been through this very same battle………..

The Cloud of Unknowing

There is another strategy you are welcome to try also. When you feel utterly exhausted from fighting your thoughts, say to yourself  “It is futile to contend with them any longer” and then fall down before them like a captive or coward. For in doing this you commend yourself to [your higher spirit] … and admit the radical impotence of your nature.

I advise you to remember this device particularly, for in employing it you make yourself completely supple …... And surely when this attitude is authentic it is the same as self knowledge because you have seen yourself as you really are, a miserable .. creature less than nothing.

Thus is, indeed, experiential humility. When [your higher self] beholds you standing alone in this truth he cannot refrain from hastening to you and … then like a father rescuing his small child from the jaws of wild swine or savage bears, he will stoop to you and gathering you in his arms, tenderly brush away your spiritual tears.

Although one may have done one’s level best to  purify your memory before you even attempt this stage, the author states that there may be the equivalent of suppressed perceptions that do arise at this stage.  And because they have been suppressed, there is every likelihood that they will be the worst of the perceptions and memories that you have hidden away.  The purification process used need be no different to that used in the active stage – you have to confess and then forgive.

The Cloud of Unknowing

How wonderfully is a man's love transformed by the interior experience of this nothingness and this nowhere. The first time he looks upon it, the wounds of his whole life rise up before him. No hurtful thought, word, or deed remains hidden. Mysteriously and darkly they are burned into it. No matter where he turns they confront him until after great effort, painful remorse, and many bitter tears he has largely rubbed them away.

At times the sight is as terrible as a glimpse of hell and he is tempted to despair of ever being healed and relieved of his sore burden. Many arrive at this juncture in the interior life but the terrible, comfortless agony they experience facing themselves drives them back to thoughts of worldly pleasures. They seek without for relief in ‘things of the flesh’, unable to bear the spiritual emptiness within. But they have not understood that they were not ready for the spiritual comfort which would have succoured them had they waited.

He who patiently abides in this darkness will be comforted and feel again a confidence about his destiny, for gradually he will see his past hurts healed by grace. The pain continues yet he knows it will end for even now it grows less intense. Slowly he begins to realize that the suffering he endures is really not hell at all, but his purgatory.  Then will come a time when he recognizes in that nothingness no particular wound or hurt  but only the lump of hurt itself, which though but a formless mass is none other than himself; he sees that in himself as  the root of hurt.

When at other times he begins to feel a marvellous strengthening and untold delights of joy and goodness, he wonders if this nothingness is not some heavenly paradise after all. And finally there will come a moment when he experiences such peace and repose in that darkness that he thinks surely it must be God himself.

Yes, he will suppose this nothingness to be one thing and another, yet to the last it still remains a cloud of unknowing.

The Cloud of Unknowing

Do not try to withdraw into yourself, for to put it simply, I do not want you to be anywhere; no, not outside, above, behind or beside yourself.

But to this you say ‘Where then shall I be?  By your reckoning I am to be nowhere!’  Exactly.  In fact, you have expressed it rather well, for I would indeed have you be nowhere.

Why?

Because nowhere, physically, is everywhere spiritually. Understand this clearly: your spiritual work is not located in any particular place. But when your mind consciously focuses on anything, you are there in that place spiritually, as certainly as your body is located in a definite place right now. Your senses and faculties will be frustrated for lack of something to dwell on and they will chide you for doing nothing. But never mind. Go on with this nothing…

Never give up but steadfastly persevere in this nothingness, consciously longing that you may always choose to possess [your higher spirit]  through love, whom no one can possess through knowledge. For myself, I prefer to be lost in this nowhere, wrestling with this blind nothingness, than to be like some great lord travelling everywhere and enjoying the world as if he owned it.

Forget that kind of everywhere and the world's all. It pales in richness beside this blessed nothingness and nowhere. Don’t worry if your faculties fail to grasp it. Actually, that is the way it should be, for this nothingness is so lofty that they cannot reach it. It cannot be explained, only experienced.

Yet to those who have newly encountered it, it will feel very dark and inscrutable indeed. Bur truly, they are blinded by the splendour of its spiritual light rather than by any ordinary darkness. Who do you suppose derides it as an emptiness? Our superficial self of course. Certainly not our true self; no, our true, inner self appreciates it as a fullness beyond measure. For in this darkness we experience an intuitive understanding of everything material and spiritual without giving special attention to anything in particular.