The Unfinished Painting, by Mark Nepo

Lascaux Cave Paintings, ca. 15,000 BC
Lascaux Cave Paintings, ca. 15,000 BC

Dreams and art are the smoke signals connecting the one tribe over time. Stories and myths do the same. Often we are so greatly taxed by circumstance that we lose the larger view of time and how we are always related, not only to those around us but to those who came before us and those who will come after us. Often when I’m thrown out of my own complications, I feel a sense of this larger tribe that I can never quite name or place. When tossed into great loss or wonder, I feel compelled to understand this unnamable community.

Like last night when Susan and I went with our dear friends Bob and Eileen to an old, small theater in Three Rivers, Michigan, to see Werner Herzog’s luminous documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which explores the paintings discovered in 1994 in the Chauvet caves of southern France. These are the oldest cave paintings we know of, dating back 32,000 years. The Chauvet caves are located on a limestone cliff above the former bed of the Ardèche River.

The cave is carefully preserved and the general public is not allowed to enter. Herzog received special permission from the French minister of culture to film inside the cave. The paintings discovered there, the efforts to understand and preserve what happened there, and Herzog’s commitment to film this—all speak to a sense of community over time that we often suppress or dismiss, because of the investment of being it takes to understand and participate in all things larger than us. But this is where the meaning of time resides. And more, where the resources of time wait like iron to be shaped into tools we can use.

Replica of Painting of Lions
Replica of Painting of Lions (Wikipedia)

What is most remarkable about these cave paintings is the immediacy they evoke. There is a softness conveyed in the horses and bison drawn on rock that is convincing of both the moment of aliveness that existed in these long-gone creatures and the ability of these early, anonymous artists to feel that which moves through all life. It makes our notion of what is primitive highly arrogant and dismissive, as if only what is close to us in space and time can bear intelligence and feeling.

Carbon dating has been able to determine that markings overlay each other on certain walls. There are bear scratches overlaid by human drawings from another time, followed some 5,000 years later by more human drawings. It suggests that though each of us thinks we are creating by ourselves, for ourselves, in a complete effort within our own lifetime, there is an unfinished painting that joins us over time and we are—aware of it or not— adding to each other’s expression, scratching the same wall of experience; creating an ever-evolving mandala of what it means to be alive.

Given this, how are we to understand literature across the eons? Or philosophy? Or art? Or translation? Is each work a cave painting, complete unto itself and at the same time another layer of strokes, adding to the unfinished painting that keeps emerging, generation after generation? And if this is possible, how do we learn the art of deciphering the pictures that grow from all of our experience, the sum of all our strokes?  What wisdom waits there?

There is a story in the film of an archeologist who accompanies an Aboriginal man into similar caves in Australia, and coming upon an old cave painting that is severely worn, the Aborigine begins to touch it up. The archeologist, stopped in his Western museum thinking, is stunned. His companion explains that it is “that which moves through me” that keeps painting and that his people believe it is their job to keep the paintings alive. What sense of community does this way of thinking bring to life in us? How does this form of responsibility deepen our understanding of what it means to be a global citizen? What does this say about living, emerging heritage?

One of the scientists interviewed in the film makes an important distinction about how we’ve named ourselves in history as Homo sapiens, which is Latin for wise man or knowing man. In this way, we have given ourselves primacy and dominion over other life, declaring we are the only life form to have a highly developed brain, capable of reasoning, language, introspection, and problem solving. We are also the only living species with the arrogance to set ourselves up as separate and superior.

Chauvet Horses
Chauvet Horses

The problem is that the difference between knowledge and knowing is that we can generate and catalogue uncountable bits of information, like grains of sand on shore, without ever experiencing the sea. Given how buried we are in our dunes of knowledge and given how little we truly know, the scientist suggests that we might do better to name ourselves as Homo spiritus, Latin for spirit or breath. Better for us to go about our quest for true knowing by acknowledging that we are the spirited beings most aware of this common life force that moves through everything. Then knowing is how we engage this common life force, not how we describe it. Then community becomes the art and science of understanding and engaging the life force that moves through everything. All other communities are functioning organs of this bodiless body we call the living Universe. Our forgetfulness of this elemental connection causes much suffering.

Of all the paintings shown in the Chauvet caves, I was most touched by the one that features four horses neck to neck. They are part of a larger scene with bison and rhinoceros. I wonder what made the prehistoric artist journey to the depths of this cave and paint this moment on the cold stone? What did he or she see in how they were running in an open plain that they couldn’t let go of? Was it the light on their necks or the thunder of their hooves or those big glassy eyes taking in everything? Was it the cave person’s want to run as free? The freshness of the connection between the four horses and their seeming awareness of each other echoes the breath of being that moves through everything.

On the way home, we talked at first quickly, enlivened by seeing the paintings of Chauvet, and then as the sky streaked its evening blue, we went silent as hundreds of fireflies mirrored the stars in the highway grasses. I was glad to be with my loved ones, glad we saw the freshness of the horses painted on the cave wall, glad for the evening sky and the fields of fireflies flaring their small lights, like us. Glad we are forever drawn to this breath of being, to feel it, to know it, to sing it, to paint it, to dig it up once it is buried, and thankful it remains unfinished in us. Who would want the wind to finish or the sea to lose its waves or the sun to stop emitting its light?

Chauvet (France) Cave Art. Engraving of an owl.
Chauvet (France) Cave Art. Engraving of an owl.

The next day I tried to draw the four horses myself, not to replicate them, but to see if I could feel their freshness by joining in, by touching something that was begun so long ago. And now I think the things that matter are unfinished paintings that everyone creates and no one owns. Rather we are created each time we touch the breath of being, and we are connected to everyone who ever lived each time we add a stroke. And sometimes we are briefly aware that we are living parts of the most elemental community of all, the community of life force that moves through everything.

And what of the unfinished painting we call relationship? Can it be that pain is an unfinished painting that our compassion softens? Can it be that feeding the hungry is an unfinished painting that we must add our markings to every chance we get? Is sheltering those in exile an unfinished painting of nature at work? Is healing the ill an unfinished painting that we must touch up and repair whenever we see it breaking down? Is stopping the violence and making peace an unfinished painting of that which moves through everything? Is caring for each other the one tribe we all belong to? All things are connected. The art of community is discovering how.♦

—Mark Nepo opens a doorway into the world beyond the known in “The Unfinished Painting” from our Winter 2011 issue: “Many Paths, One Truth.”

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By Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo is the author of twenty books including the #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening.