This is an excerpt from a chapter in Matthew Pallamary's most recent book, "The Center of the Universe Is Right Between Your Eyes But Home Is Where the Heart Is."
Elemental spirits are universally revered in shamanistic cultures and one of the most respected among them is the Wind, an invisible force that can be harnessed as well as storm out of control, leaving death and destruction in its wake. The fact that it is capable of delivering so much power, yet has no substance, defines it as not only a direct link to spirit, but spirit itself; formless, invisible, energy. If we remain still, we have no perception of air when it is at rest and we perceive and characterize it as nothing as it registers nothing with any of our senses, making it a perceptual enigma.
Air is the most pervasive presence we know. It surrounds and caresses us both inside and out, moving across our skin, between our fingers, around our arms and thighs, sliding along the roof of our mouths and down our throats to fill our lungs to feed our blood, which keeps us alive.
We cannot speak, act, or think without the participation of this fluid element and we exist in its depths the same way fish live immersed in the ocean. We can feel it moving against us and often taste, smell, and hear it as it swirls in our ears or moves through whispering leaves, or when it changes the shape, moves shifting clouds, or sends ripples along the surface of a lake. The fluttering feathers of a hummingbird, a spiraling leaf as it falls, and the slow drift of a seed through space indicate the presence of the air, yet we can never see the air itself.
This unseen enigma holds the mystery that enables life to live and unites our breathing bodies to the world around us and to the interior life of all that we perceive in the open field of this living presence, and what the plants breathe out, we and the animals breathe in, and what we breathe out plants breathe in. In shamanic thought, the air is the soul of the visible landscape that constitutes the secret realm where all beings draw their nourishment from. As the mystery of our living present, it is that most intimate absence felt as nothing where the present presences, providing a key to the forgotten presence of the earth.
Nothing is more common to the diverse indigenous cultures of the earth than a recognition of the air, wind, and breath as aspects of a singularly sacred power. By virtue of its pervasive presence, it's invisibility and its influence on all manner of visible phenomena, the air for oral people is the archetype of all that is ineffable, yet undeniably real and efficacious. Its obvious ties to speech in that spoken words are structured breath, and broken phrases take their communicative power from this invisible medium that moves between us lends the air a deep association with linguistic meaning and thought. Its ineffability is similar to the ineffability of awareness itself. Many indigenous people construe awareness or mind not as a power that resides inside their heads, but as a quality that they themselves are inside of along with the other animals, plants, mountains, and clouds.
In his book, Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy, James Mikhail McNely asserts that the Navajo term nilch'i, meaning Wind, Air, or Atmosphere, suffuses all of nature and is that which grants life, movement, speech, and awareness to all beings. Additionally, the Holy Wind serves as the means of communication between all beings and elements of the animate world, making nilch'i central to the Navajo worldview.
For the Navajo nilch'I is a single unified phenomenon of the Wind in its totality comprised of many diverse aspects of partial Winds, each with their own name in the Navajo language. One of these - nilch'i hwii'siziinii, or the "Wind within one", refers to that part of the overall Wind that circulates within each individual. The Wind within one is in not autonomous, but a continual process of interchange with the various winds that surround us, and is a part of the Holy Wind itself.
When referring to the multiple Winds like Dawn Man, Dawn Woman, Sky Blue Woman, Twilight Man, Dark Wind, Wind's Child, Revolving Wind, Glassy Wind, Rolling Darkness Wind, and others, the Navajo are not speaking of abstract or ideal entities. These entities are not palpable phenomena like gusts, breezes, whirlwinds, eddies, storm fronts, cross currents, gales, whiffs, blasts, and breaths that they perceive in the fluid medium that surrounds and flows through their bodies.
The Navajo conviction that all of these subsidiary Winds are internal expressions of a single, inexhaustible mystery comes from the observation that the multiple vortices made by their own breathing, heat rising in waves, or the branches of trees as they sway in the surging air. All these currents and eddies swirling around and inside them are not entirely autonomous forces, but momentary articulations within the vast and fathomless body of Air itself.
For the Navajo the air in its capacity to provide awareness, thought, and speech has properties that European alphabetic civilization traditionally ascribe to an interior, individual human mind or psyche, yet by attributing these powers to the Air, and insisting that the "Winds within us" are continuous with the Wind at large, with the invisible medium that we are immersed in, Navajo elders suggest that what we call "mind" is not ours, and therefore not a human possession. Mind as Wind is a property of the encompassing world that humans and all other beings participate in. One's individual awareness and the sense of a personal self or psyche is simply that part of the enveloping Air that circulates within, through, and around one's body, so one's own intelligence is assumed from the start to be entirely participant with the swirling psyche of the land.
Our English term psyche and its modern offspring psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy are derived from the ancient Greek word psychê, which denoted not just the soul or the mind, but also breath or a gust of wind. The Greek noun was itself derived from the verb psychein, which meant to breathe or blow while another ancient Greek word for air, wind, and breath, pneuma, gives us pneumatic and pneumonia, while signifying that vital principle which in English we call "spirit".
The word spirit itself, despite all its incorporeal and non-sensuous connotations is directly related to the bodily term respiration through their common root in the Latin word spiritus, which meant breath and wind, as well as being the root of the words inspire and inspiration. Similarly the Latin word for soul, anima gives us animal, animation, animism, and unanimous, which is being of one mind or one soul. It also signified air and breath. These were not separate meanings. Anima, like psychê, originally named an elemental phenomenon that comprised both what we now call the air and what we now term the soul. The more specific Latin word animus signified that which thinks in us was derived from the same airy route, anima, itself derived from the older Greek term anemos, meaning wind.
We find an identical association of the mind with the wind and the breath in numerous ancient languages. Even an objective, scientifically respectable word as atmosphere displays its ancestral ties to the Sanskrit word atman, which signified soul as well as the air and the breath. A great many terms that refer to the air as a passive and insensate medium are derived from words that once identified the air with life and awareness. Words that now seem to designate a strictly immaterial mind or spirit are derived from terms that once named the breath as the very substance of that mystery.
For ancient cultures the air was a singular sacred presence. As the experiential source of both psyche and spirit, it appears as if that the air was once felt to be the very matter of awareness, the subtle body of the mind, and that awareness, far from being experienced as a quality that distinguishes humans from the rest of nature was felt as that which invisibly joined human beings to the other animals, plants, forests, and mountains as the unseen common medium of their existence.
Like so many other ancient tribal languages, Hebrew has a single word for both "spirit" and "wind", the word ruach, the spiritual wind, which is central to early Hebraic religiosity. Its primordiality and close association with the divine is evident in the first sentence of the Hebrew Bible:
When God began to create heaven and earth - the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind (ruach) in God's sweeping over the water...
At the beginning of Hebrew creation, God is present as a wind moving over the waters, and breath, as we learn in the next section of Genesis, is the most intimate and elemental bond linking humans to the divine. It is that which flows most directly from God and man, for after God forms an earthling (adam) from the dust of the earth (adamah), he blows into the earthling's nostrils the breath of life, and the human awakens.
Although ruach refers to the breath, the Hebrew term used here is neshamah which denotes both the breath and the soul. While ruach generally refers to the wind or spirit at large, neshamah signifies the more personal, individual aspect of the wind, the wind or breath of a particular body like the "Wind within one" of the Navajo. In this sense neshamah also signifies conscious awareness.
The ancient Hebrews were among the first communities to make sustained use of phonetic writing and the first bearers of an alphabet. Unlike other Semitic peoples they did not restrict their use of the alphabet to economic and political record keeping. They used it to record ancestral stories, traditions, and laws, possibly making them the first nation to so thoroughly shift their sensory participation away from the forms of surrounding nature to a purely phonetic set of signs that made them experience profound epistemological independence from the natural environment made possible by this potent new technology. To actively participate with the visible forms of nature came to be considered idolatry by the ancient Hebrews. For them it was not the land, but the written letters that now carried their ancestral wisdom.
Although the Hebrews renounced all animistic engagement with the visible forms of the natural world, whether with the moon, sun, or animals like the bull, which were sacred to other peoples of the Middle East, they retained a participatory relationship with the invisible medium of that world with the wind and the breath.
The power of this relationship can be inferred from the structure of the Hebrew writing system, the aleph-beth. This ancient alphabet, in contrast to its European derivatives had no letters for what we call "vowels". The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew aleph-beth were all consonants, so to read a text written in traditional Hebrew one had to infer the appropriate vowel sounds from the consonantal context and add them when sounding out the written syllables.
One of the primary reasons for the absence of written vowels in the traditional aleph-beth has to do with the nature of vowel sounds themselves. While consonants are shapes made by the lips, teeth, tongue, palate, or throat that momentarily obstruct the flow of breath and gives form to our words and phrases, vowels are those sounds made by unimpeded breath itself.
Vowels are nothing other than sounded breath, and the breath for the ancient Semites was the very mystery of life and awareness inseparable from the invisible ruach, holy wind, or spirit. Breath was the vital substance blown into Adam's nostrils by God himself who granted life and consciousness to humankind. It is possible that the Hebrew scribes refrained from creating distinct letters for the vowel sounds in order to avoid making a visible representation of the invisible. To fashion a visible representation of the vowels of the sounded breath would have concretized the ineffable and make a visible likeness of the divine. It would have created a visible representation of a mystery whose essence was to be invisible and unknowable - the sacred breath, the holy wind, so it wasn't done.
The absence of written vowels marks a profound difference between the ancient Semitic aleph-beth and the subsequent European alphabets. Unlike texts written with the Greek or the Roman alphabets, a Hebrew text could not be experienced as a substitute for the sensuous, corporal world. The Hebrew letters and texts were not sufficient in and of themselves. In order to be read, they had to be added to, enspirited by the reader's breath. The invisible air, the same mystery that animates the visible terrain was also needed to animate the visible letters to make them come alive and speak. The letters themselves remained dependent upon the elemental corporeal life world that they were activated by, the very breath of that world, and could not be cut off from that world without losing their power.
In this manner the absence of written vowels ensured that Hebrew language and tradition remained open to the power of what exceeded the strictly human community, ensuring that the Hebraic sensibility would remain rooted, however tenuously, in the animate earth. While the Hebrew Bible became a kind of portable Homeland for the Jewish people, it could never take the place of the breathing land itself, upon which the text manifestly depends, hence the persistent themes of exile and longed-for return that reverberate through Jewish history down to the present day.
The absence of written vowels in ancient Hebrew entailed that the reader of a traditional Hebrew text actively choose the appropriate breath sounds or vowels and different vowels frequently varied the meaning of the written consonants.
The apparent precision and efficiency of the new alphabet was obtained at a high price. For by using visible characters to represent the sounded breath, Greek scribes effectively desacralized the breath and the air. By providing a visible representation of that which was by its very nature invisible, they nullified the mysteriousness of the enveloping atmosphere negating the uncanniness of this element that was both here and yet not here, present to the skin, yet absent the eyes, immanence and transcendence all at once.
Plato and Socrates were able to co-opt the term psychê, which had been fully associated with the breath and the air, employing it to indicate something not just invisible but intangible. The Platonic psychê was not at all a part of the sensuous world, but of another non-sensuous dimension. The psyche was no longer an invisible yet tangible power continually participant, by virtue of the breath, with the enveloping atmosphere, but a thoroughly abstract phenomenon now enclosed within the physical body as in a prison.
I am very grateful to Matt for sharing this excerpt with Think Wilder. Be sure to check out his website and new book here. If you liked this excerpt, you might also enjoy reading my review of The Center of the Universe and an interview with Matt that explores psychedelic history, shamanic exploration, and Palenque.