The Gaelic dé or déo, the Sioux Wakan Tanka, the Latin spiritus, the Greek anima mundi, the Christian Holy Spirit, the Taoist qi, the Hindu Atman-Brahman, they all mean the same thing.
“Listen to the air,” says Lame Deer. “You can hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it. Woniya waken—the holy air—which renews all by its breath. Woniya, woniya waken—spirit, life, breath, renewal, it means all that.” As it does for so many cultures throughout the world. Breath, life, wind, light, and spirit often congeal into a single word to express the vital force which moves through all life. This is the ancient source of all the dances of nature, it is the wind which breathes life into the earth. It runs through us all, through all the plants and trees, through the sun and stars and all the cosmos. It is beyond magnetism, gravity, and any other force yet explained by physics. To try to attain it is like trying to see your own eye, for it has attained you. It is the great life of the world, the soul of the earth. And so many today have forgotten it, this vital essence, and lost the truth of their embodiment of this spirit in a labyrinth of ideas about who they are or who they’re supposed to be. “Oh me? I’m just little old Joe Richards, born June 5th 1981, dead in a few odd years, not the one, the everlasting, the indestructible.” But since Joe has forgotten who he truly is, he has forgotten how to walk on the land, how to drink of the rains, and how to eat of the plants. After all, no one ever told him they were his family.
Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1:
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.”
But this transience is not a matter of futility and hopelessness as Solomon seems to imply. It is a matter of endurance of the spirit beyond form, and what is that but a cause for celebration! That which has seen its days in one body–whether a body flesh or a body of cloud–the spirit turns around and refreshes its youth. From rotten fruit comes the sapling. That’s why Chuang Tzu beat his drum joyously over his wife’s grave. He knew that nothing had ended. But his students looked at him in horror, because they were holding onto something within which too would pass (their own bodies), instead of focusing on that which endures.
The spirit which furnishes our breath does not cease when we stop breathing. No! It continues to move through all things, as it always has. Perhaps when Chuang Tzu’s students finally came to “death” they found that while they were busy being an “I” the entire universe in truth was speaking through them, and all of existence was nourishing him like a generous loving family, and they weren’t returning the favor. They were too busy for that.
This is why Buddhists put such emphasis on compassion for all life. By nourishing all that lives, all through which the spirit moves (not excluding rocks, trees, plants, and of course ourselves), the delicately balanced dance of this eternal force is preserved from generation to generation.
But insistence on superficial form, the obsessive vanity that Solomon talks about (rather than a focus on the breath behind it) creates little mistakes like, oh, industrial civilization, where instead of nourishing the world we push it around with our big egos, trying to tell existence what to do rather than learning from it and realizing that we, along with all beings, came from and will return to its womb.
The illness that is civilization is an identity crisis. We’ve forgotten that we are the great Self, and in the process forgotten what life means in the first place, and how the whole shebang works. The night, the day, the autumn and spring, flowering prickly pears, flowering pine cones, breathe in, breathe out, holy air… Nothing is ever lost, the energy of the spirit abides forever, but if it doesn’t go down then it cannot come up. Renewal. Life. Breath. The anima mundi. All the beauty of the eternal spirit is lost behind our (mis)conceptions of what it means to live.
Solomon’s use of “vanity” rings a bell with the Sanskrit word “maya,” from which we derive the words matter and measure. In Sanskrit, it essentially means illusion. In other words, when we measure things, we are only measuring form. You can’t measure what is eternal, the spirit. Again, that’s the eye trying to see itself. So, since you can’t measure it, most people don’t believe in it. And when you measure matter and leave out spirit you’re going to run into illusions—invisible walls in which you find something that doesn’t fit your calculations.
Science tends to just throw these things out—things like ghosts or telepathy or reincarnation—even though they show up time and time again and seem to be absolutely undeniable phenomena. But because they defy measurement, they don’t fit the Newtonian pattern upon which academia today as based. So, according to the maya of science, these
“super-natural” (as if there’s such a thing!) phenomena don’t exist.
And it’s all the fault of missing the forest for the trees, thinking that form is what-is-really-there when in fact all forms are transitory. Science continues to get around that because patterns repeat themselves—if one tree dies then its seeds will grow another and a scientist will say, “Hey! There’s that tree again!” because they’re only concentrating on the form, and they’ve missed the point entirely. The true nature of that tree, which it would be happy to tell them if only they’d listen, is in-finite, un-measureable. The holy air.
Rumi wrote, “The body is a device to calculate the astronomy of the spirit,” because the same power that moves the stars and planets through the endless sky is breathing through us, through every plant and animal, and through the winds that sweep the valleys, the mountains, the grasses and waves. We must remember that this spirit is our guide, our wisdom, and our very lives, or risk getting stuck in the illusion of vanity. And considering where those illusions have taken us, so far from the natural world which is the true theatre of spirit, it would be wise for us to take another look at what our vanity is worth.