Friday, October 3, 2014

The Domesticated Breath

Note: The following post also appears on Communiques of the Suburban Liberation Front's original post on the topic of "spirit". As this topic is of particular interest to me and to Chinese philosophy, medicine, art, and culture in general, I have reproduced my comment below. Please read the original post here.

"I found this to be an interesting post in light of what I think I have detected from reading your blog to be at least a partial respect for Cartesian philosophy, as I think the current associations people make to the word “spirit” mostly derive from having to rearrange definitions around the Cartesian dualistic framework. Spirit went from being something like a vital motive substance to a far less tangible essence, ghost, or permeation due to the fact that, upon vivisecting a dog, for example, no such material matching the notion of spirit was found. Spirit, then, in order to be salvaged, was recast as an intangible quality whose existence became highly questionable, unlike blood, bile, etc. So you didn’t find the spirit upon cutting open a live animal? That’s okay! We’ll just say it’s invisible/intangible from now on! Of course, in the wake of the scientific revolution of Descartes and Bacon, belief in spirit became less and less respectable.

I personally believe that a major reason why European civilization, and not just any/all other types of civilization, became dominant and rapidly started to destabilize the biosphere and other societies, is because of the conscientious rejection of intuitive and received knowledge that has been so characteristic of Western civilization since the Enlightenment. As Jared Diamond points out, during the 15th century you had (at least) four loci of civilization that were comparably developed: the Far East (China, Japan), Southern Asia (India), the Middle East, and Medieval Europe (Diamond doesn’t count the civilizations of North and South America, but I think you arguably could include some of them in this example). If you think about it, none but the last really seemed to even have an ambition to spread across the oceans the way that the Europeans eventually did, and certainly not for lack of ability, at least in the case of China. It was more like a lack of desire that seems almost incomprehensible to the Westernized mind. I believe that the non-Western civilizations could never have produced a Descartes, and, prior to Christianity’s institutionalization in Europe, neither could Western civilization (this argument needs to unfold in its own post on Wilderness Before the Dawn, and I promise it will). As it happens, I believe that looking at the terms for “spirit” and “breath” in any given culture gives a reliable reading of that culture’s level of connection with the natural world. In addition to the examples you’ve mentioned above, I would add the Eastern terms qi/ki and prana and the Polynesian concept of ha. Qi is the Chinese word for “air” or “breath”. You may know it from the term Qigong, which essentially means “breath training”. Ki is the Japanese pronunciation of the same word. Qi is a common word, spoken every day in Chinese, in various compounds. It literally refers to the air that fills up your lungs, but also to the air (oxygen) that circulates inside the bodies’ channels to give you life, and also to a person’s spirit or mood, as well as the same qualities in non-human entities as well. Thus, the term for weather is tianqi, which translates to “sky’s air, sky’s mood”, similar to the way “air” is sometimes used in English to describe an attitude or other intangible quality: an air of superiority, a mischievous air. This English usage in itself either derives from or makes reference to a time when the word meant essentially the same thing in English and Chinese–the spirit that animates you was as mundane as the air everyone breathes, and the breath in your lungs was as numinous as your spirit–they were one in the same. The definitions become problematic today only because we have to artificially separate the ‘physical’ meaning of air as the substance in our atmosphere from the originally related, almost synonymous meaning of air as an intangible aura or permeation. As a result, you’ll see a lot of crazy, mystical, abstruse, or absurd definitions for qi in English, when one could simply define it as “air/breath, the way we used to mean it in English before Science”. Interestingly, the very first instance of the word qi in writing is in the Mencius, a 4th century BC Confucian text, in which qi is described as sort of a viscous, almost sludgy substance that courses through the body during exertion. Prana is the sanskrit term for vital force, and in Indian traditions of healing and tantric practices, it is considered the primary vayu (wind/air) that gives rise to the other life-supporting functions of the body. As in the concept of qi, prana is thought to enter the body as breath and gets sent to every part of the body via the circulatory system. It’s noteworthy to remember that the speakers of Sanskrit derived from speakers of Indo-European, strongly suggesting an ancient underlying tradition common to both Hindi speakers and speakers of most European languages regarding the connection or even identicality between breath and spirit. The Polynesian concept of ha also corresponds to both the prosaic notion of breathing as well as the idea of spirit in the metaphysical sense that modern English commonly denotes, e.g., foreigners are known as ha’ole in Hawaiian–those without spirit."

I would add to my original comment that the splitting of meanings for the terms that originally meant both spirit and breath that occurred in English and other European languages seems to precisely mirror the dualism that came to infect Western thought after Descartes. In other words, our extraction of two terms, breath and spirit, from an original whole concept, reflects the mental delusion and cultural sickness that characterizes Western civilization. We lack a fundamental connection with the rest of the world that we no longer even recognize as missing not just linguistically, but conceptually. Civilized breath is now stifled, halting, constrained, tense, nervous, and paltry compared to the breathing one can readily witness in non-domesticated peoples, and Westernized cultures have the most breathing problems of all, and not simply from air pollution. If the breath is also the spirit, then the spirit of the West is diseased indeed.

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