A little before Dunedin, heading south on State Highway 1, you can turn off the main road and drive a scenic coastal path to Warrington Reserve. Next to the free campsite is a tumbling beach that stretches the length of a narrowing peninsula, bordered – at its tip – by waters on both sides. Barefoot walking leads to this wild mock island, where seal tracks sluice through the wavy dunes.
Stand and cast your eyes left, where the water reaches far out into the Pacific Ocean and meets the dusk sky at an uninterrupted line. Now look right: here it forms an estuary with a tall forest, and the seam between heaven and earth is a jagged strip of pines. Clouds are drawn by the squiggle of a purple pen.
There are no waves on the sheltered side, and what seem to be ripples are mostly the reflections of the cotton canopy. The trees reach as far down into the languid water as they do towards the sky; you can see their bristly peaks far below. The dark blue water on this side contrasts with the light blue sea. This deeper shade is not a sign of depth: it’s a sign of stillness.
This stillness is elsewhere too. On a cliff overlooking Curio Bay, where penguins waddle home across shallow rock pools. By a lake pressed far into Fiordland, where pebbles crunch beneath you as you sit and stoke a fire. Standing in Aoraki National Park surrounded by white giants, the icy cliff-face of Mt Sefton looming over fields of green.
And elsewhere too. In a caravan beneath Mt Taranaki, as rain pounds the sheet metal roof and the bed vibrates through an impromptu earthquake. In Nelson city centre, watching a screen count down to New Year, with cheering and hollering all around. On a bus on your way to work, when it’s cold and dark and so early in the morning that reality still seems squashed out of shape.
You don’t always find stillness where you expect. Sometimes you find other things in its place. A quiet beach may be desolate; its lack of movement speaks of emptiness and endings. A bright sunny day can seem oppressive or insincere. Take someone with you to seek stillness and your conversation pushes it away; take only yourself and you find loneliness instead, the outer tranquility failing to calm your restless heart.
Find peace first and you can find stillness wherever you go, even on lurching public transport as you accompany fellow travellers through the fuzzy pre-dawn, sleepy snakes of rain wriggling across the glass. In a crowded mall, as you weave through shops and throngs, slowly starting to feel the rhythm behind it all. Breathe in time to the beat of life and stillness comes.
Still, it comes more easily in the open air. Here you have more perspective, a longer line of sight. Only here does it become evident that most things don’t move, most things have permanence, at least on any timescale we would need to comprehend. Here we can meditate with the great ancestors of our world: mountains and seas and skies.
There is no need to imbue any of these ancestors with life, nothing to be gained by invoking being in the name of religion or spirituality. Their innate inanimateness is what gives them their power. They chastise our craving for always wanting to go and they insist instead that we stay. They force us to confront our obsession with journeys and narrative, with always trying to outwit time by simply moving on. Stop, they say. Be still.
Maybe they have a point. If you’re forever running around looking for the answer and you never find it, perhaps it’s because it’s the only thing you can’t find while running around.