“All problems are either clouds or clocks,” said the eminent philosopher Carl Popper. There are two different kinds of systems, he meant. To understand a clock you can take it apart, examine its individual pieces, understand it or fix it. A cloud is different. You can only observe it as a dynamic, shifting, morphing whole. As David Brooks notes in his wonderful book The Social Animal, we tend to assume that all problems are clocks. We prefer a rational approach to things. We like taking things apart, “breaking things down” to understand them. It gives us a sense of power and control—that we have mastered this thing. Usually, though, we’re using clock thinking to address cloud problems.
The truly challenging issues we face everyday are clouds. Why am I so unhappy at work? What is wrong with my daughter? How did I drift so far from my wife? Why can’t I lose weight?
These are relational issues. To understand them I need one thing: awareness. I need to be aware of myself as a delicate and complex creation of body, mind and spirit. I need to watch myself, observe myself as if I were lying in a field of grass looking up at a drifting cloud. What moves me? Why am I having these feelings? I wonder if the problem I’m having with my body is related to my soul craving right now.
When you’ve been taught to regard yourself as a machine—an eating drinking sexing working mothering fathering machine—you don’t allow yourself much time to lie back and watch the clouds.
And I need to be aware of other people, especially those closest to me. Not as clocks to be wound up or adjusted or fixed, but as clouds to be reverenced in their dynamic wholeness. I need time to watch my husband, observe my son, notice my friend—see them as they actually are and not as the stick figures lodged in my brain. Why does he push all my buttons? (And why do I let him?) I wonder if his bitterness and anger are really just a lot of fear and anxiety.
Taking time to be aware like this is the essence of spirituality. This is why many people grow tired of “going to church,” or “saying your prayers.” It’s rote. It’s clockwork. You can do it and never be aware, never lie on your back in that field and just notice things . . . about yourself, about others, about the world. The spiritual masters have always told us that this is the essence of prayer—not rattling off a string of words, but being quiet for a moment in the Presence. Knowing God, they tell us, is as simple of knowing this moment, now, here.
So take a moment today. If you can actually lie back and follow a cloud, do it—and call it prayer. Find a minute of empty time and space. (To say, “I don’t have time for that” is a clockism.) Be still. As the Psalm counsels, “Be still and know that I am God.” When you do, the clocks will fade into clouds.