Blue-sky thinking

A cloudy blue sky: a metaphor for the mind

I remember being in a maths lesson one day when I was about 10. We were asked to rate the probability of certain things happening on a scale of one to 10.

One of the eventualities we were given was something along the lines of “the sun will shine tomorrow”. I argued that the probability was almost certain, because unless the sun exploded and disappeared overnight, it would still be there shining away tomorrow, just as it is today. My team agreed, that was our argument.

The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore

My teacher disagreed with us. He argued that it might be a cloudy day tomorrow. We said that was nonsense; the sun is always shining, whether you can see it or not. In retrospect I’ve come to realise that the statement the teacher should’ve given us is: “I will see the sun shining tomorrow”.

Thinking outside the box

There’s a lot of meaningless terms bandied around in the business world by people who are desperate to impress others. ‘Blue-sky thinking” is one of those classics. But I never cared to find out what it actually meant until today:

Creative ideas that are not limited by current thinking or beliefs.

Collins English Dictionary

The dish ran away with the spoon

How often do you allow yourself to indulge in unbridled thought? If you’re anything like most people (myself included) you probably let your mind to run away far too often. But those thoughts are probably still tied in to your other thoughts and feelings – they’re almost certainly not novel ideas.

Most likely you’ll end up thinking about something that’s been troubling you, or something you’re looking forward to. But it probably won’t be a life-changing, eureka moment. All you’re actually doing by allowing these thoughts to run amok is reinforcing those ideas and building your own little nest of humdrum thoughts.

The path of least resistance

These thoughts become well-worn neural pathways in your mind, and you probably find yourself coming back to them time after time: worries, insecurities, anger, regret. It’s an unpleasant cocktail that we all subject ourselves to, purely out of habit.

But what if we were to break those habits, and to replace them with something else? What if we could train our minds to recognise when we are wandering down these well-trodden paths and gently guide ourselves back to neutral territory?

I’ve been meditating now for several months off and on. I wouldn’t say it’s become a well-rehearsed habit yet. But I do feel much calmer, and much more able to cope with the ghosts of the past, worries about the future, and the stresses of the present moment.

And a video I watched today as a preamble to my meditation lead me to one of those breakthrough moments. Suddenly it all makes a lot more sense.

The sun is always shining

The video taught me to imagine the mind as a sky, and the thoughts (good or bad – it doesn’t matter in meditation) as clouds. Some days the sky is clear, and you haven’t a care in the world. The blue sky is plainly evident. It’s there to enjoy and life is easy.

On other days however, the sky is full of clouds, some of which might be heavy and dark and raining down upon you. During your worst moments it might feel like this situation is inescapable, like you’ll never see that azure sky again.

But the truth is that blue sky is always there – it never goes anywhere. Even on the darkest cloudiest day, the sun is still shining, refracting through our atmosphere and adding that beautiful blue tint to the sky. Even if you can’t see it right now (and if you live in the UK, that’ll be a familiar experience), it is still there.

All this helped me to understand a fundamental psychological truth: I’ve already found what I’m looking for. I don’t need to search for peace of mind; I don’t need to try to stay calm. I am calm. Calmness is the natural state of my mind, and I don’t have to worry about the clouds. They will pass, given time.

Here’s the video from the Headspace team (narrated by Andy Puddicombe). He does a better job of explaining this concept than me:
Blue sky thinking with Headspace

Featured image by FarbenfroheWunderwelt (Own work) [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr