creativity memory nature wisdom Zen philosophy

what to “do” with clouds?


Thanks to the unsettled atmospheric conditions, today is a wonderful day for cloud gazing. But how? When a cloud glides overhead and casts a shadow below, how do you react?  In fear and loathing for the rain that might follow? Or in silent wonder at the changing shapes?

For those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the most likely thought about clouds comes through Joni Mitchell’s 1969 hit, “Both Sides Now.”  (As I watched the passing clouds during my morning meditation, that song materialized in my head and I’ve been singing it ever since.) Mitchell’s sad love song goes, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now / From up and down and still somehow / It’s cloud’s illusions I recall / I really don’t know clouds at all.”

But are there really only two sides to clouds? No!

As a spur to your mental liberation, consider three alternative ways to see clouds (and I welcome others!):

  1. Classify them. Consider the scientific classification of clouds from the World Meteorological Organization (pasted below). It includes no less than 38 ways to see clouds. Useful. But it is sort of a dead-end because once you’ve classified them and predicted the weather, then what?
  2. Use them to develop your MQ. In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp challenges readers to find at least three new associations with a passing cloud as a means of building up one’s Metaphorical Quotient (MQ, which is distinct from the intelligence quotient or IQ). As Tharp writes, “The process by which we transform the meaning of one thing into something different is an essential part of human intelligence. Without symbols, and the ability to understand them, there would be no writing, no numbers, no drama, no art. Everything you create is a representation of something else; in this sense, everything you create is enriched by metaphor.” One of the exercises Tharp suggests is this: “How many images and objects can you see in three minutes of cloud gazing? This is metaphor as visual translation. Metaphor is all around you. It’s never too late to raise your MQ.”*
  3. Embrace the stillness. If you seek a peaceful mind, you may like the ancient Chinese wisdom found in Mai-Mai Sze’s Tao of Painting (image below). “When the clouds parted, green summits rose. As the literati say, ‘In the midst of hustling activity, steal moments of quietness.’”**


What to “do” with clouds?  The choice is up to you.


*Tharp, The Creative Habit, pp. 157-159.

**Sze, The Tao of Painting, p. 217.