The Clouds and Rain of our Thoughts

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Sunset over Humboldt Bay, California. The old Samoa pulpmill looms in the background, as godwits, willets and other shorebirds forage in the foreground.

Driving along the receding tides and awakening mudflats of the bay, I notice a tall and puffy cloud beyond the coastal mountains. Looks like a cumulonimbus cloud which might produce a thunderstorm I think. It could produce lightning, and with our already dry conditions that could result in yet another wildfire in an area that has already seen many this year. As I look both closer and wider (while trying to not drive off the road), I notice that this puffy cloud looks more like smoke than a cloud that there are no other clouds in the sky. Must be smoke from one of the fires up the Klamath River, I conclude.

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Mudflats appear as the tide recedes in the northern part of Humboldt Bay near Arcata, CA. The beginning of the Coastal Range of mountains are seen in the background.

At home that evening, I put on a flannel shirt as the coastal fog rolls in. This is not what I had envisioned earlier for our barbeque dinner and my enthusiasm for eating outside declines with the descending of the mercury on the thermometer. Damn this coastal fog, I say to myself. Fogust is the worst month of the year.

It is a moments like this that I remind myself that these clouds are but a very, very thin part of our atmosphere. If you were to draw an eight-inch circle to represent the earth, the pencil line would be the thickness of the entire atmosphere. The clouds, floating here and there, appearing and disappearing, all occur within that thin space. They can seem so vast, so all-encompassing, and yet high above the marine layer of fog and the entire atmosphere, there is always blue sky and a shining sun.

Rain, fog and lightning are just something happening under those miniscule clouds, but when the fog rolls in thick and wet, we think the entire sky is nothing but cold and gray. And when the clouds grumble and roar with thunder and lightning, we may become afraid. In both cases, we become overwhelmed.

Kosho Uchiyama-roshi once wrote:

In the same way, we are always covered with dark clouds of anxiety and sorrow, caught up in storms of anger and ambition, encounters with agony and despair. However, the clouds and rain of our thoughts are only happening within a pencil-thin atmosphere. This mental weather is simply happening within our thoughts that seek satisfaction. Outside of that sphere of thoughts, the sky is always blue, and the sun is always shining in it. When we can sit immovably like the encompassing sky, we can view and experience storms like pain and sorrow without being overwhelmed. 

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Coastal clouds roll in, filling up the valleys of the Siskiyou Mountains in Northern California.

With this thought in mind, I look at the western sky as the clouds momentarily part, revealing a rose and tangerine sunset. I am struck like a gong by the beauty of this moment. I breathe in and I breathe out and for a moment I am still and immovable in the vastness of the world.

May we always be reminded of the thin veneer of our thoughts and may we know the vastness of the universe and its all-encompassing sky!

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One Comment on “The Clouds and Rain of our Thoughts”

  1. Chris Beal says:

    Beautiful, Dave. I had the same thoughts as Uchiyama-roshi whenever I’d make that descent from summer in Willow Creek to winter in Arcata. But I actually miss Fogust!

    I love that picture of the Samoa pulpmill sunset. I’ve driven through that scene several times, and cursed myself for not having a camera. I can’t imagine getting a better one than yours, though; it’s a stunner.


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