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The Air We Breathe

Komodo National Park, Indonesia

As I write, the globe remains in the grip of the pandemic. There is so much that is unknown about the novel coronavirus––and what is unknown breeds fear. Within that bubble of uncertainty events continue to morph so fast we hardly have time to catch our breath; an apt metaphor, as the one thing we do know about Covid-19 is that it steals your breath away.

The first principle of life is the breath: Greek pneuma, Sanskrit prana, Latin spiritus––what God breathed into Adam to give him life . . . (Joseph Campbell, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce, 152)

Life outside the womb for every human begins with that first breath. Every breath thereafter marks our existence as a separate, individual being growing into our own conscious awareness of the world around us.

The association of breath to spirit is reflected in our language. The Hebrew word for soul in Genesis is naphesh: “a breathing creature.” Corresponding terms in Indo-European tongues parallel this derivation: in Latin, for example, anima means “breath” and “soul” (etymologically then, an animal is a being “having a soul,” or “a being which breathes”). Similarly, atman, in Sanskrit––often translated “soul” or the “divine Self”—comes from the root an (“to breathe”), and is related to the German Atmen (“breath”) and the English atmosphere. The Greek terms pneuma (spirit) and psyche (soul, mind) are also related to wind or breath; similarly, prana, chi, and ki are, respectively, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese terms for the subtle breath, spirit, or energy that infuses the universe. In English we find the term spirit itself embedded in respiration, inspiration, expiration, and other breath-related terms; clearly a common thread, no matter the language or culture.

But the metaphor of breath extends beyond the individual to the world we share.

Earth’s atmosphere provides the context for all life. The air we breathe is the same air our fellow creatures breathe. Even the plants and trees mirror this dance, breathing out as we breathe in. Air, Wind, and Breath are subtle expressions of a universal archetype common not just to preliterate cultures, but a source of imagery found across all mythologies.

It’s no surprise that Creation Myths often open with the wind stirring the waters. In Genesis 1:2 we read that “the Wind [or “Spirit”: ruach, in Hebrew] of God moved across the face of the waters”; among the Dine’ (or Navaho), n’ilch’i—the Holy Wind—existed first; in Babylonian myth Anu begets the four winds on the surface waters of Tiamat, disturbing this Dragon Goddess of Chaos whose Being forms the substance of all that is; and, Joseph Campbell often points to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which likens the forms of the phenomenal world (as experienced through the senses and the organ of mind) to the surface of a pond rippled by the breeze.

This is an essential image.

The wind is air, the highest holy power of the universe, Brahman, the life-force of the world; for the wind persists in its blowing when all the other powers of the body of the universe have temporarily ceased to exist . . . (Heinrich Zimmer, Myths & Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, ed. Joseph Campbell, 171)

Covid-19 kills by blocking an individual’s ability to take in the oxygen needed to survive, focusing the whole world’s attention on the importance of breath. Beneath waking world concerns––infection rates, PPE shortages, stay at home orders, death counts, efforts to “flatten the curve,” re-opening the economy, and so much more––this core mythic image simmers in the collective psyche. 

But there is another unanticipated consequence to this pandemic: the economies of China, India, Europe, the United States and, indeed, the whole industrial world, have been offline for months. Factories, automobiles, jet planes, cruise ships and more have taken a break from spewing hydrocarbons into the atmosphere––and the whole world has noticed. Skies have cleared, long murky waters now sparkle, and, whether they want to or not, every nation has been meeting its carbon reduction targets. By the beginning of April, Los Angeles, legendary for its pollution, ranked number two on the World Air Quality Index, enjoying its longest stretch of clean air in a quarter of a century. And residents of Jalandhar, in India, have discovered the snow-capped Himalayas, over 200 kilometers away, visible for the first time in decades (many have lived their whole lives without ever before catching sight of the mountain range from their own homes).


Is there a resonance between what Covid-19 does to our lungs and what human activity is doing to the atmosphere? Metaphorically, the answer would seem to be yes––and now the entire population of Earth has together witnessed that impact with their own eyes.

There are several takeaways here related to that other global existential crisis, climate change. One is that it really is possible to reverse course. Already we are learning that society can change; as we power back up, we have the opportunity, and the means, to consciously and intentionally embrace new approaches to the ways we travel, work, and live.

Another realization, brought to my attention by a friend, mythologist Catherine Svehla, Ph.D., is that it does not take long for the Earth to heal when given the chance. 

And then we are learning that individual action, multiplied a billion times over, can make a difference. 

These realizations come at a high human cost––which is why it’s important we not waste this mythogenetic moment. Could this be the boon we bring back from our collective death-and-rebirth experience on this worldwide Hero’s Journey? 

Only time will tell.

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