Sunday, August 10, 2008

on wind

The bluster and blow of Mother Nature's breath has inspired me to write a brief interreligious meditation on wind.

Most people who know me know that, when I hear the word "wind," my first thought is more likely to be "FART!" than something spiritual (though there's really no reason to see farting as somehow opposed to spirituality). But once my thoughts turn away from flatulence, I marvel at the linguistic, and therefore conceptual, connections that exist among the terms wind, breath, and spirit.

In Genesis, during the first creation story that occupies Chapter 1 and spills over into the first few verses of Chapter 2, the spirit of God moves* over the surface of the waters. The Hebrew term for "spirit" here is ruach (also romanized as ruah) which can also refer to breath. The Greek rendering, familiar to many Christians, is pneuma, which can also refer to spirit and breath. The Latin spiritus occupies almost the same semantic field: spirit and breath and blowing, as seen in words like inspired, aspiration, respiration, and so on.**

When you move into Asia, two terms with very similar semantic fields leap out at you. From the Indian tradition we have prana, a term that can refer both to breath/breathing and to life-energy; from the Chinese tradition we have qi (pronounced "chee"), rendered as ki in Japan and Korea.

Some people take these terms, prana and qi, to be interchangeable. I don't. The concept of prana is linked to a Hindu map of energy flow through the body; the Chinese map of qi flow is quite different, and throughout Chinese history the term qi has referred to different concepts. Nevertheless, both terms generally denote breath as well as vital force, and this is a similarity I find striking when we do a cross-cultural comparison with ruach, pneuma, and spiritus.

Qi and prana can be, per the ancient claim, manipulated through the use of breathing and meditative techniques.*** Here we see the notional connection with breath. In Korean, there is also the expression "kiga-makhi-da," literally, "the ki (breath) is blocked." A more natural translation of this expression might be something like "It took my breath away," an expression that can be used in negative as well as positive contexts, as when we anglophones say that something is "breathtakingly stupid."

This meditation was inspired(!) by wind, and while I think I've managed to illustrate how different cultures connect breath and spirit/life-force, I haven't done a good job of connecting these concepts back to wind.

On the monotheistic end, ruach can mean "wind" along with "breath" and "spirit." Spiritus comes from an earlier root meaning "to blow," so a connection with wind is at least implied. I don't remember whether pneuma also denotes wind.

I don't think prana and qi can be directly associated with wind, but one Chinese way of thinking about qi was to say that qi wasn't merely the vital force flowing along meridians inside living things and natural phenomena; it was, instead, energy-- period. According to this way of thinking qi is everything, and everything is qi. That includes the wind, which can be seen as one of qi's many forms.

To be clear, I'm not implying that all of the terms discussed here are totally synonymous. They aren't. They each arise from their own distinct histories, and should be treated with due caution. What I hope I've done in this meditation is merely to note some interesting conceptual and thematic similarities, connections I perceive that may be worth further exploration.

And now I'm off to Biggs. It's a short walk today, about eight miles.

*In the French Jerusalem Bible, the verb used is planer, which is to glide.

**Pneuma, as a root, appears in modern English in contexts having to do with air (e.g., something pneumatic) or breath (e.g., pneumothorax, pneumonia); I can't think of a spirit-related use of the word outside the context of Christian theology, where the term pneumatology forms a triad with theology and christology.

***Scholar Victor Mair has done a great deal of work on the influence of yogic traditions on Chinese thought. While qi and prana might be distinct concepts, it's likely that the evolution of Chinese thinking about qi was influenced by India. This is almost certainly the case by the time we get to the neo-Confucianism of Chu Hsi.



Paul said...

Speaking of wind... okay, this comment has nothing to do with wind. But if you're up for a little sightseeing that's only tangentally related to religion, you're coming up onto an interesting spot on the Washington side.

Maryhill State Park is named after the daughter of local eccentric Sam Hill. Sam was a bit strange; he built a full-scale replica of Stonehenge out there.

His intent was for it to serve as a World War I memorial. He thought that since the first Stonehenge was likely used for sacrifice that it somehow made sense, because WWI demonstrated that people were still being sacrificed to the gods of war.

I don't know how far up off the river the Stonehenge is, but there *is* a WA state campground there. It's immediately north from Biggs on the WA side of the river.

Anonymous said...

You've nicely documented the fact that breath and wind are invoked with the sacred around the globe--but to me the interesting questions are, Why is this so? What is it about breath and wind that gives rise to our (not always crystal clear and coherent, IMO) ideas about the spiritual and the sacred?

I have my own speculations on this, having to do with the dominance of vision as our primary mode of perception, the invisibility of air, together with the undeniable effects of the wind and the obvious relationship between breath and life in land animals. Hence, spirits are invisible and yet affect the physical world in ways the mechanics of which are mysterious, even magical. Yet now we know that air (wind, breath) is just as physical as everything else around us, and even understand the physics of wind, and biology and chemistry of breath, fairly well. So, more questions: Does this mean that we abandon our ideas of the sacred that come from wind and breath? Or do we build on them, perhaps metaphorically, to push past the physical explanations of wind and breath to gain new insights into just what might "sacred" or "spiritual" mean? Can we add together the religious uses and understanding of wind and breath and the scientific explanations of them, reach beyond, and gain new spiritual wisdom? I'd like to think we can, and are even beginning to grope in that direction, but it's still pretty murky to me.

Anonymous said...

Farting is definitely not diametrically opposed to religion. In fact, St. Thomas was famously fond of bodily humor.