The Cloud Of Unknowing: A Summary For Mystics

I’d like to summarize some of the main points about the Christian mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing, that is, the points that are germane to adept meditators.

The Cloud of Unknowing and the Cloud of Forgetting: Sat and Asat

The “cloud of unknowing” refers to that state of being that is not of the sensible or the mental nor is it unified with God. Zen calls this samadhi, a largely thought-free state in which all is gathered into one. Most new meditators, catching a brief glimpse of this state, will report that it’s “neutral” or “calm” or that “they feel nothing.” That is accurate enough, given that most are accustomed to operating with the bodily and mental senses.

In time, this “cloud of unknowing” is experienced as being peaceful, restful, and almost full. (Almost full because it is not yet union with the divine.)

To get this existential inquiry underway, the Cloud author also suggests, quite reasonably, that we set aside all ideas about the creation, all worldly actions, and, as he often repeats, all the bodily senses. In fact, even the intellect cannot attain to the heights of union with the divine (God is “beyond the reach of all created intellectual faculties” [The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. A.C. Spearing, p. 23]). Quite simply, we are “to forget” everything temporal so as to “remember” only God in himself.

In Advaita Vedantic language, we would say that only God is sat, all else–the finite mind, the physical body, and the various worlds–being asat. That is, only God is truly real; everything else only borrows its apparent existence from God and, in this sense, is unreal.

In short, the genuine seeker is to long so deeply and so steadily for the Real that she can learn to “forget” for a time all that is unreal. The “cloud of unknowing” is, as it were, midway between the Real and the unreal, between God and all that is to be forgotten.

Intellect vs. Love

One thing I especially appreciate in The Cloud of Unknowing is the author’s remark about the intellect’s tendency to be proud. While he doesn’t proffer reasons why the jnana path (the path of knowledge) is to be ruled out (for him, it is simply taken to be self-evident), he does provide us with a good reason to be careful here. The path, for him, begins with the “humble stirring of love,” and, as such, it is a path of eros (when understood properly–see also Song of Songs).

So, he writes,

Here is how to understand in brief the nature of this work [of contemplation], and to recognize clearly that is far from any fantasy, false imagining, or strange opinion; for these are produced not by any such devout and humble blind stirring of love, but by a proud, ingenious and fanciful intellect. Such a proud, ingenious intellect must always be overcome and firmly trodden underfoot if the work of contemplation is to be truly undertaken in purity of spirit. (p. 25)

Let me pull out the first assumption here. It is that the intellect, insofar as it rests on its own strengths or powers, is prone to pride. Why rest in God if I can rely fully on my own powers of understanding? What room can there be for “original sin,” my ontological split and metaphysical weakness, if I can “see it all” clearly myself?

The second assumption, of course, is that love implies ontological dependence. For me to love God is also for me to desire the wholeness that I lack. I, as a mystic, desire what I love, and I love what is truly Real and completely Whole.

When asked in Chapter 6 how one is to think about God, the author’s Groucho Marx-meets-Zen answer is essentially: “Don’t think–love!” After all, we learn from the Book of Job that God in himself cannot be thought because God in himself (his “naked being” [p. 27] or “bare existence”) is, strictly speaking, unthinkable.

Naked Intention: Two Mantras

You can see how Father Basil Pennington and Father John Keating could have found great inspiration in The Cloud when they were coming up with Centering Prayer. This is because Centering Prayer can easily be “pulled out of” The Cloud.

For The Cloud author tells us that we must begin, and maintain, a “naked intention directed to God” (p. 29), an intention which is “sufficient” (p. 29). Elsewhere, I’ve described how difficult it is to capture the energy, attitude, disposition, or openness of the aspirant. Nisargadatta calls it “earnestness.” Zen speaks variously of “humble openness” and of “great determination.” The way one comes to meditation (or, in The Cloud‘s language, contemplation) is at once delicate and gentle, determined, persistent, kindhearted, humble, and sweet. It is like a warrior meeting, and becoming one with, a lover.

This naked intention takes “form” in two related mantras. First, the aspirant might gently intend “sin” or gently say to oneself “sin” with a view to “fastening this word to your heart” (p. 29). Second, the aspirant may do likewise with the word “God.”

But why both? The author doesn’t say, but it’s clear from his use of spatial metaphors (a veritable Great Chain of Being) that the former is meant to purify the heart while the latter intends to signal to God one’s humble desire for unification. In the case of “God,” one comes to rest on the doorstep of God.

Here, in a mantric form, we see, perhaps, the Three Spiritual Ways of purgation, illumination (the cloud of unknowing), and unification (unio mystica).