Sometimes, stillness must be sought out like a needle in a haystack. It’s elusive, hard to catch, as intangibly difficult a concept as visualizing someone else’s dream. Other times, it settles upon us easily, a mantle of peace suddenly wrapped around our shoulders.
Tonight was the annual Earth Hour, when the world collaborates on a global mission of using less energy. Those who participate turn off all power in their homes for one hour. No lights, no television, no anything that needs a cord and an outlet to work. This is the third year I’ve participated in this event, and the stillness it creates always seems to take me to a different place. I suppose that’s because each year, I’m in a different place. Not physically, but mentally and spiritually. And Earth Hour encourages me to take one hour out of an entire year and just sit. Reflect. Be. Don’t try to do anything by candlelight, but to just sit for a while with my thoughts. Observe the candlelight. Observe the soft glowing aura that surrounds it, how it contrasts with the neighboring darkness. Walk slowly through the house, noticing how different my surroundings appear in the absence of artificial light. Imagine my house is a cave, my hallway a long dark tunnel. My senses respond to this new world: fingers touch the wall, feeling their way along. I can anticipate what will come next: the coolness of the stair rail, the ridges of a doorway, the feel of tile becoming carpet under my bare feet as I pass into a new room. In the dim light, my art appears mysterious, seen only in small lit sections, surrounded by a warm red glow, like the ancient graffitti of long ago.
I’ve always been keenly interested in the art found deep within the earth's hollows, evidence of the need to be creative scrawled on the walls of caves thousands of years ago. The paintings of Lascaux in particular make my soul feel ignited. Some of these images are estimated to be between 10,000-20,000 years old, and scientists all over the world spend quite a lot of time debating the intention behind the works. Were they spiritual, part of ancient prayer rituals? Or were they talismans intended to bring luck to hunting parties? But no one knows. We see these paintings through the filter of time and the power of artificial light…each large animal, each glyph, each handprint on the wall, all at once. But this is not how the ancients would have seen these images at all. They’d have seen them the way I see my paintings on the wall during Earth Hour: by the light of a small flame, whether it was a torch or simple grease burning lamp. They’d have taken the images in one by one, holding their light to the walls, watching each painting appear in the glow of their lamp’s soft, flickering aura. They would have created the works in near darkness as well, not in the glow of artificial lights that I feel I must bask in every time I pick up a brush.
There is a sense of stillness that the absence of bright lights can bring about. But what about the absense of sound? Or should I say the absence of the sounds we are so conditioned to as modern humans. It is a universal truth that a state of chaos tends to generate more chaos, and yet we have grown so habituated to the continuous presence of artificial sound in our lives that we keep it going. We revel in the ‘mind chaos’ that these sounds bring about. We leave the television on for ‘background noise’, or we need the radio’s ramblings to fall asleep. We raise our voices over the sound of our appliances droning and run to the chirp of our cell phones like lackys to a bell. We don’t even realize what it does to our physches when chaos takes the place of stillness, when sounds, any sounds at all, are preferable to silence.
During Earth Hour, I hear the soft rhythmic breathing of my son while he sleeps. I hear the sound of rain striking the glass top of my patio table. I hear an owl call out, and I hear his mate respond. I hear my cat, obviously angry, emitting a low growl at some trespasser. An occasional car passes in the night, tires slick on the wet roads. A nieghbor laughs as they unlock the door of thier home. Otherwise, the world is still, my den an ancient cave.
I’ve explored caves, following their trails deep under the earth. They are quiet places where the only sound tends to be that of the explorers' footsteps and voices. I can imagine the Lascaux artists of long ago creating in the halls of those great caves, firelight flickering nearby, the sound of low voices occasionally piercing the stillness. If chaos generates more chaos, then stillness certainly generates more stillness…stillness of the mind, which allows us to connect with the deeper levels of our creativity. What thoughts went through the ancient artists’ minds as they scratched pigment onto stone, spread color with their hands, watched as animals came to life in startling detail by the power of their own hand? Were they considered sorcerers? Alchemists? Were they thought to possess special abilities?
I found a place of complete stillness once, stumbling across it in the Alaskan backwoods almost two decades ago while enjoying a youthful adventure. It was a clearing outside of a small town, tucked away between the mountains, somewhere along the road to other places we were heading towards. It was a pit-stop, a diversion, not an intended stop along the journey...but there, in that clearing, I experienced not silence, for the natural world was alive with life that day, but stillness. True and total stillness. No cars passed by, we were too far from the road for that. No cell phone could even get a signal, much less ring. The only sounds to be heard were those of the earth itself. I stood for a long time in that moment, knowing I was being given a rare gift. I was being allowed to hear what my ancestors had spent thier lives hearing. I don’t mean the cry of the hawks or the soft rippling of wind through the trees, but what those sounds carry with them. How they speak to our souls when we allow stillness in.
A world away from Lascaux, ceramic shards litter the floors of the ancient cave-like dwellings the mysterious Anasazi once inhabited. The shards form parts of pottery, functional items used for carrying water and storing grains. But closer inspection reveals that the shards are decorated. Whirling lines, dramatic stylized animals, repetitive patterns, all carved or painted onto the clay surfaces. Unnecessary for function, yes, but necessary to the ancient artists who rendered them in the same stillness that surrounded me in Alaska’s wilderness. In a workshop on creativity, the teacher encourages us to find time each day to sit in stillness. I think of how rarely I actually do this. I wondered if I even can.
But now, as Earth Hour ticks slowly by, I find myself sitting alone in my den, my candle flickering down to nothing as I thumb through a book on the cave paintings of Lascaux. I have a book on the intricate designs of Anasazi pottery, but I don’t need to look at it. I can see the images clearly in my mind as if creating them are my own memories. And it is in this Earth Hour stillness that I realize I will never need a team of other people to explain to me why ancient folk created art, made musical instruments, or had intricate storytelling traditions. I do not need someone else to tell me that the need for creative expression is as primitive as life’s origins, as essential to our souls as food is to our bodies. It is the reason someone painted on a clay pot, or hollowed a flute from a limb, carved a stone into a bear, or told stories around a fire at night a thousand lifetimes before mine.
In the stillness of their ancient world, they found their creative voices, voices that still speak to us today.
And if we make time to sit in stillness, we will find ours as well.