When I wake up and the sky is not blue: on joyfulness

When I wake up, the sky is blue. The sky is blue like a rose is a rose is a rose. And on the grey days like this, when I wake up, I see clouds. I keep my mind joyful. Still – the sky is the sky. It is like a joke played upon me. And if I am at peace with myself, I laugh.

“Always maintain only a joyful mind” is part of 59 slogans in Lojong or mind training. That is a practice in Tibetan Buddhism. Studying the slogans is a method to transform mind. Although this slogan in the sequence of presentation is somewhere near the middle of this collection, I think it is very helpful even at the beginning of the training. I would even say it is a perfect starter for every new day, so that you can start with light-hearted attitude. 

The Lojong teachings were originally secret and not widely taught. They are attributed to Atisha – the 11th century Bengali master who founded the Kadampa tradition in Tibet. Recently the Dalai Lama has taught this text on various occasions and there are many commentaries in book formats available. And when I look at the Dalai Lama – his smile and humor is a profound manifestation that he has mastered this slogan – and the slogans before and after – very well.

It is presented as the 21st slogan in the sequence as means of evaluation. “Working with it is not a matter of pressuring ourselves to feel joy all the time. When we aren’t joyful, when we’re depressed or bitter, we need to know that we feel that way, not cover it up with veneer of fake spiritual joy because someone says we should”, explains Norman Fischer in his book Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. Indeed, the joyfulness is a litmus test. You do not have to force yourself or judge harshly, but you know you’ve achieved something if you can experience more and more joy.

And here I do not mean the ignorant joy. Like Marie Minnich puts it in her book Dharma Woman: Reflections of a Modern Buddhist Woman: “Joyful doesn’t mean we have to be happy idiots who don’t acknowledge the suffering and pain in the world. As a matter of fact, just the opposite.” We perceive it very vividly and with a great intensity, we embrace the heaviness, the darkness, dullness, pain and sorrow. And if the mind is not trained, we end up in a scary reality. “Our natural tendency is to react to others on impulse in a haphazard and agitated fashion, becoming easily overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness, often for no apparent reason”, teaches Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche in the commentary The Practice of Lojong: Cultivating Compassion through Training the Mind. And if we can remain joyful in the face of all this, we have grown. “We can therefore assess our progress by asking ourselves whether we are less irritated and bothered by all the trivial things that go on in our lives and whether we’ve found some way to remain cheerful, despite our trials and tribulations”, explains Traleg.

 
When I wake up an the sky is not blue: New Orleans
When I wake up an the sky is not blue: New Orleans

Finding ways to escape the tendency to react in agitation is an exercise in everyday creativity. I remember a story from my cousin. She used to have her hair braided in hundreds of small braids and it was not the typical hair style in the post-soviet shuttle train. So, every day there was some old grandma or grandpa who asked billion questions about those braids. To remain chill, she would always agree to whatever idea presented. How many braids do you have there, hundred? YES. Did you make them yourself? YES. Can you wash them? YES. Are they artificial? YES. Do you make them every day? YES. Does it take long time? YES. It is your real hair? YES, have a nice day, next stop is mine.

My cousin lived in a beach town. From the train station it is a 5-25 minutes’ walk to the sea. Sometimes people who live there never actually appreciate it. But seeing the sea always fills me with peace and gives me space to breathe and to be. Unlike the blue of the sky that is kind of prerequisite to an inspiring morning, the blue vastness of the sea is visible most of the time. Open waters can pacify the mind and bring back the joyousness, cease the irritability even on grumpy grey days. Maybe it serves like a horizontal display of the vertical sky that I miss seeing during the prolonged cloudy season of the Northern climate.

Maybe seeing the sea feels like piercing through the claustrophobic veil of the low hanging stratus clouds. That is the scientifically name given to the clouds on a grey and gloomy day. Theoretically the perceived misery of a morning like this happens when air currents push cold air above a blanket of warm air and moisture quickly condenses. Those air currents that form the depression radiating clouds are usually light, and conditions are usually still. Which means nothing good for the average level of joy. Those clouds will hang around if conditions remain that way and that can be weeks and even months up here, funny, huh?!

When I generally think of clouds the association is a constant change of shapes and forms. Those are the fluffy ones. In the days before photography painters observed the clouds, wrote down notes and sketches. Well, in the case of stratus clouds they were in no rush obviously. I read a lovely article on clouds “A brief history of weather in European landscape art” written by meteorologist John Thornes, he also has published a book John Constable’s Skies: A Fusion of Art and Science. This turned out to be another unconscious technique of bringing the joy to the cloudy day – falling in love with the clouds. Study them, paint them, describe them, sit with them!

I was amused reading the article and going through the once so familiar European art history. Thornes mentions the German art historian Kurt Badt who is “highly critical of the clouds of the ‘old masters’ from Durer, Leonardo Da Vinci and Titian to Rubens, Nicolas Poussin and Claude who he believes painted clouds as isolated formations. Badt attributes the Dutch 17th century painters, as being the first to paint clouds that were integrated into an overall landscape.” I read on and vaguely remembered from my art lectures the idea that clouds were more of a symbolic representation in Middle Ages and how Renaissance painters brought more realistic depiction and the perspective which is very important if we think about the gloomy sky. I never thought exclusively about the clouds when learning art history but turns out that only 15th century “produced the first realistic skies painted with any recognizable precision. Generally the skies are idealized with individually sculptured clouds, high visibility and a passable attempt at aerial perspective. (..) The laws of mathematics could not [yet] be applied to the ephemeral sky.” We look at Titian paintings in awe but critics and “cloud experts” complain “that this method of filling large areas of the sky with tinged alto-cumulus is well suited to covering large areas of canvas with a minimum of time, effort and understanding”. Despite this, the cloud overdose might be the reason, why for centuries Titian was beloved in the foggy British Islands and there is abundance of his paintings in British art collections – Italian landscapes with excessive amount of clouds.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain]
Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain]

But the real thing that I am thinking about in a dark November (so called) morning, are the forever overcast skies as depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his winter scenes. Melt the snow away and not only the color of sky would match the ponds and frozen rivers but you would be left with no contrast and lose orientation. That is the dreadful scenery before the first snow and after the leaves have fallen, when currents push cold air above a layer of warm air and moisture condenses. But remember “always maintain only a joyful mind”. Ironically but Bruegel has filled his winter day pictures of low hanging clouds with cheerful crowds that are having fun in the snow or on the ice – skating, hockey, spinning tops, sliding on a cow bone, you name it. At the same time, it is a symbolic reminder of an inverted idea: “Despite the joys of winter, life, like ice, is dangerous and slippery. We are never safe from the risk of falling, getting hurt or worse.” When you suffer, think of joy as well. When you are joyful, remember suffering.

I poured a cup of tea and looked at the sky in the South East direction where the sun was totally hidden behind the dark and thick layers of stratus clouds without the slightest hint that you are watching at the sun. No light, no shadows, not even a halo, nothing. The corners of my mouth turned up with no apparent reason. I might have grasped something.

When I wake up and the sky is not blue: Riga
When I wake up and the sky is not blue: Riga

And it is interesting that scientists, artists and poets of early 19th century were preoccupied with clouds. In 1802 British scientist Luke Howard wrote “Essay on the Modification of Clouds” and explained the three principal categories of clouds – cumulus, stratus and cirrus, as well as their modifications. Meanwhile romanticism poets filled the sky with symbolism once again and clouds dominated the paintings of Turner and Constable. In the middle of that century photography was invented and the ever changing nature of skies was captured on film, the hardships of investigating something above the ground level slowly disappeared, meteorology developed. We forgot about the magic of clouds. Did they become boring, once conquered?

The observation is over, no sketches in notebooks, no wondering. Now I swipe, tap and pinch my smart-phone that tells me the weather forecast in an instant, cloud simulations included. It is impossible to imagine a conversation like the one between Turner and his friend – from documents mentioned in the catalogue of Turner’s exhibition at Tate Gallery: “Look at this thunderstorm! Isn’t it grand? – Isn’t it wonderful? – Isn’t it sublime?’ All this time he was making notes of its form and color on the back of a letter. I proposed some better drawing-block, but he said it did very well. He was absorbed – he was entranced. There was a storm rolling and sweeping and shafting out its lightning over the Yorkshire hills. Presently the storm passed, and he finished. “There”, said he, “Hawkey; in two years you will see this again, and call it Hannibal Crossing the Alps”. Maybe it is necessary to re-develop that pre-photography mind and sit with the storm, sit with the rain and the clouds and always maintain only a joyful mind.

When I wake up an the sky is not blue: Appalachian trail
When I wake up an the sky is not blue: Appalachian trail

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