Clouds are not objects

 – About the phenomenon of illusion and how we need to quit asking when we really want to know –

Like the arms of a galaxy the first signs of a huge revolving weather system are moving in from the west.


 I believe the scientific term is Strato Cirrus, but we call them Baja clouds.

  Very strong winds in high altitudes clean out the sky.






 *   *   *

 Pictures often tell all that could ever be said about things.

I love to speak with my camera and sometimes trust pictures more than words, however, there are words too that can pick up the message. As long as I am this biological contraption, irresistibly real, that continuously excretes thoughts and manufactures seductive reality, I will like words too. So here are a few thoughts about clouds:

 Clouds are not objects

The problem with asking questions

Looking at clouds, I sometimes get carried away, sinking into the mystery of perception: When you look carefully, you can see that clouds come and go at the same time. They are not really objects with clear borders. Observing from the distance, such an impression is inevitable, but looking closer and more steadily, it is not difficult to see that such a notion of a moving object is quite misleading.

There is moving moist air, transparent, invisible. Depending on physical parameters like temperature, pressure, and content of water, the air gets into a state at a certain point in which the moisture in it condenses and becomes visible. At another point, often only moments later, it dissolves again because the conditions have changed back. Clouds are not really objects but visible conditions: the spatial dimension of a certain condition of air with the special quality of being visible.

When you look the shape of a cloud is continuously changing. When you watch a cloud you are watching change. But what you see as shape is not really physical shape. A cloud is not an object that differs from its surrounding by containing water. One might think what we see is the water, however, the content of moisture inside and outside of clouds is not necessarily different. The physical substance inside and outside of a cloud is the same. We imagine to see a thing, an object, stuff, but there is no thing, no object, and the shape we see is not the shape of stuff. It’s a mixture of special conditions that come together to create the effect of visibility, the appearance of shape and make the cloud. But we insist: clouds are drifting, they travel across vast distances, it’s plain to see. What we see and what is indeed traveling is an empty phenomenon, a condition, an effect. How can you really see a cloud? What we perceive as shape, as physical form, is just an idea, a concept. When we see clouds we see the idea of a cloud. And when you really want to get at them, touch them, hold them, they are nothing.

Clouds are nothing but a visible effect. And modern physicists tell us that it is actually quite the same with everything else we tend to call “real” objects. Those are also just visible or otherwise perceivable, measurable effects, not ‘things‘ at all, not material objects, but effects.  The conditions are often a little more complex and less accessible to our senses, mostly because the effects take place in subatomic dimensions, but the interpretation of solidity is also nothing but an illusion.

Matter doesn’t always appear to be solid, there are liquids and gases, but it all consists of solid particles – we used to think – we call them molecules and atoms. We imagined those to be solid until it was discovered that they, in turn, consist of things, which still were called particles but that also proved to be anything but solid. They come in a great variety of types, some with truly bizarre properties like ‘having no mass‘, they don’t weigh anything, or ‘non-locality‘, they don’t occupy space, some flash into and out of existence at lightning speed and still belong to the apparently permanent fabric of matter. Most of all – and this really makes the idea of solidity appear like a joke – what we think of as stuff is to an almost inconceivable extent just empty space. The distance between these semi-solid building blocks of matter in relation to their size is so vast, like a few scattered dust motes floating in the entire ocean, that it seems ridiculous to even call it something. When we touch something, a liquid or a rock, what there really is is just empty space and a cloud of bizarre events.

Newtonian physics embodied the premise that only matter is real. The more contemporary science of quantum physics teaches a very different lesson that “solid” matter is mainly empty space given form and substance by relational fabric of energy concentrations in continuous motion.

– Relationships are real; matter is an illusion. –

The great physicist Steven Weinberg said: ‘we create the concepts that allow us to perceive the world. Call them abstractions if you like. But they are as real as things get. When we say that a thing is real we are simply expressing a sort of respect to it.‘

I look at clouds and wonder what is real about them. They still cast a shadow on the earth, they influence the temperature, they discharge rain and snow. Science doesn’t give an answer. All science is the study of correlations between experiences.

What do you do with a cloud that’s not real, let alone with the fact that nothing is real? What changes when you know this?

J.Campbell said: ‘Look at things not as them being the things themselves, but as manifestations of a mystery: the idea of a mystery is what it’s all about.‘

It is the mind with which we perceive a relationship to reality. We don’t really see reality. We see only the shadows that it casts; those shadows are our concepts, our definitions, our ideas of the world. The mind paints pictures of reality, it writes stories about reality. The mind makes music out of unbalanced air pressure, it makes solidity out of concentrations of energy in empty space, it finds patterns in everything and makes sense out of nothing, it makes beauty out of chaos. And with its own creations the mind makes more patterns, it makes gigantic stories of infinite complexity. Out of comfort it creates desire, out of pain it makes aversion. And then it invents suffering and misery out of wishes not fulfilled.

The mind deals with its own creations as if they were real. Einstein once said something like: ‘you cannot solve a problem with the same system that causes the problem‘ or, like Parvin prefers to phrase it: ‘you cannot wipe out a wine stain with wine.‘ It is quite possible to understand that what we see is not reality; the mind still doesn’t know what reality is.

Sometimes I feel that all this is the story of my own life. I found out a lot of truths, but, in the end, it was what things are not, not what they are. If I know anything at all, I know a little bit of what things are not, but next to nothing of what they are. To leave it at that used to drive me crazy but feels a lot easier lately. It feels easier the less I remain entangled in the actual content of my question and the more I see the impersonal, hopelessly conditioned phenomenon of my asking. It feels easier the more I mistrust the actual usefulness of asking, of asking questions.

Are clouds real? It postulates that clouds can only be real or unreal and nothing else. Why do we climb mountains? It sounds as if there must be a reason. Every why assumes there must be a because. Every question assumes that there must be an answer.

But how can we stick to such an assumption when we see ourselves happily cruising through life with more questions than we can ever count persistently unanswered, particularly the burning big ones entirely open? What is it about questions that seem to lead us not to where we wanted to go but often back to ourselves? What is the secret of wise women and men we met in our lives who never answered our questions but replied with goddamned counter questions that left us not only speechless but questionless?

The very act of asking conditions any reply. By asking a question the mind demonstrates its disagreement with the entirely normal state of not knowing. A question is more a statement about ourselves than a tool to find the truth, it excludes and rejects more than it seeks. A question contains information about what we expect and thereby indirectly about what we don’t want to know. I’m sure the compulsion to ask questions is rooted in the innate structure of our minds. Perhaps the answers are, too.

When we really want to know, we have to quit asking and listen and observe instead.

I cannot really understand this. You cannot see your own ignorance; if you could it wouldn’t be ignorance. How could you ever understand an illusion? If you could it wouldn’t be an illusion. But I can understand the evidence; I can detect an illusion by observing inconsistencies and contradictions in my perception and by understanding the mind process itself.

Too much thinking? But only thinking can bump against the unthinkable. Only by thinking can we discover the limitations of thinking and begin to distrust it, not believe it, abandon it to a degree and withdraw our attention from it and direct it elsewhere, direct it nowhere, don’t direct it at all, liberate attention from any purpose, from the slavery to thinking. Isn’t it in the stillness of free, choiceless awareness, without agenda, without question, where we sometimes find answers to questions we never could even think up?

I watch clouds and let them show me the way.

* * *

                                                       Klaus February 23, 2008

This entry was posted in 2007/2008, Articles, Winters and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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