Today’s post is from Hailey Kaufman. Hailey is a student of philosophy, biology, and religion at Webster University in St. Louis, MO, where she also organizes the school’s secular student group, encourages interfaith dialogue, and furthers scientific understanding. You can find more of her work on Tumblr and on her personal blog.
What are the origins of the word “spirit”? Middle English borrowed it from the Old French word espirit, which could have referred to a variety of things but overall expressed the life essence, the vibrancy of life or something resembling life. Espirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which means breath.
Breath. Let’s think about that for a second. At its heart, to be spiritual means to exchange a life-giving wind with something, in some way. Breath is a fundamental constituent of a living being. When we breathe, we exchange particles with the world around us. To breathe is to ingest one thing for ourselves while chemically changing it into something else, then releasing it back. It’s cyclical, simple but powerful at the same time.
One of my religious studies professors once pointed out to me the resemblance some holy words have to the act of breathing. Amen, a kind of exhale to a prayer. Ra, the Egyptian sun god. Yahweh is a powerful word, so mighty that saying it has historically been taboo.
Think of the way we use the concept of breath in everyday language. We might say something about which we are passionate “breathes life” into us. When we feel existentially stressed or cramped, we say we need to “take a breather” or find “room to breathe” To return to our senses during a panicky moment, we “take a deep breath.”
This all indicates that for us, breath is to some extent associated with a much-needed sense of peace. Whether that peace comes in the form of relaxing us during our suffering, or whether it comes when we feel a connection to something meaningful, the principle is the same: breath is an orienting force, something that stills our worries and brings us into homeostasis.
Gods, prayers, angels, ghosts, fairies, alternative medicine…none of these things are necessary for a sense of spirituality. What is necessary is breath. What fills us with spirit can be anything that leaves us feeling tremendously small yet linked to a larger picture, like a knot in a net. There’s a fire in the heart that stirs us as that breath passes through. Spirituality is nothing more than that fire, and it burns somewhere in all of us.