My wife and I were lying on the grass the other day, gazing up at daubs of clouds drifting across a canvas sky – we were looking for shapes.
“Look, look, over there,” she said, pointing an excited finger at a splash of cloud. “A bird.”
Sure enough, there it was, soaring cotton-wool white in the shifting sky.
“A phoenix!” I gasped. In the blink of an eye, the shape had altered. Then, almost as quickly, it dissolved again into the heavens so it could be reborn, arising later in another form.
We saw a host of worldly and mythical faces, animals and abstract forms – sometimes spotting them together, at other times needing a guiding finger to point the way.
I’m sure a psychiatrist could make something of the patterns we drew in the sky with our minds. I suppose the game was similar to the inkblot test devised by Hermann Rorschach to reveal patients’ unconscious thoughts.
What I like most about this game is that you play it best by not trying: it is essential to let your mind relax and become receptive, like an empty cup waiting to be filled with clear, spring water. Then shapes start to appear. As soon as you start trying to control the patterns, the imagination retreats and the clouds lose their mystery.
Seeing clouds as clouds is, of course, good science and seeing things as they are is generally the best way to get through everyday life. But life needs to be more than just “getting through”. And it is our ability – our need, even – to see shapes and patterns... and meaning... in the world around us that makes the mind so extraordinary. And makes human life worth living.
We all do it, even if we don’t realise it – whether we use religion or science or culture or hand-me-down wisdom from our parents as the filter. From the day we, as babies, smile at a curved line drawn on a piece of paper, we create our experience of the world by finding patterns in seemingly unconnected events in our lives, in order to give life meaning.
There are bushes overhanging a wall in our garden which are full of faces, each with a different expression – it’s easy to see how our forebears saw in nature a spirit, the Green Man. Gaze idly at a bush or tree and you’ll probably find him gazing back, as your mind seeks familiar shapes in the foliage. A tree near our house is like a leafy heraldic shield, with an elephant’s head and a rearing horse either side.
These words, too, have a pattern, as does music: I sometimes stand in the garden and listen to the wind chimes. Seemingly played by the breeze, the tubes cause random vibrations in the ear which are transformed by the mind into a harmony, a pattern.
“Life is like something written in water with a stick,” says the Buddha. It is a pattern of experiences which fade almost as soon as we have drawn them, leaving faint ripples which merge slowly back into the stream of time flowing to a timeless sea.
Patterns – in this colourful, transient mandala we call life – are all around us if we open our minds and let our imagination out to breathe the fresh air.
After all, some of the greatest breakthroughs not just in art but also in science have been achieved through a leap in imagination. You might like to let your imagination roam free for a while now and again – I can certainly recommend a woodland walk... or lying on the grass gazing at the sky with the vast, open canvas of your mind. You might learn something about yourself, or make a life-enhancing leap, or simply have fun.