Pneuma, Simple and Complex

The word Pneuma (πνεῦμα) is a rather interesting study of what could possibly be the only thing that defines “life.” We briefly touched on this subject in discussing Epictetus/Stoicism, but the concept itself is far more expansive than just that.

The use by Anaximenes of aer (ἀήρ, “air”) as the foundation of all other elements could be very worth exploring. Considering this idea shows up around 550BC, we’re not breaking any new ground. Anaximenes spoke of not only this, but that the entire Universe was in constant motion and transition. The more that we learn about atomic and subatomic structure, the more true this holds. Even things that appear “still” are quite vibrant with motion when looked at deeply enough. He also is the earliest example of using “pneuma” as a synonym for “breath of life.”

In what would eventually be a choice, much of the translation of “pneuma” coming from the Septuagint into what would be the modern day Bible was placed onto the Latin word “Spirit/Spiritus.” Why in the translations to English this word was not made into “breath” confuses me still. I believe it has caused much more confusion than it has helped. If someone tells you they see “spirits” the last thing most of us would assume is that they meant they could see the effects of the wind.

Looking at this from a very literal scientific sense, though, we can define much of life by the capacity to breathe. Animals breathe in what plants breathe out, and vice versa. It’s through this process that we arrive at a type of balance that continues the cycle of life. There is almost no system that did not emphasize this fact.

All of these concepts are both used as a metaphysical word for life-force and also translate quite literally as “air.” Perhaps there really isn’t a great difference in the usages, but there may be some very applicable information to glean here.

If our emotions are getting away from us, we may hear “take a deep breath” or “slow your breathing and count to 10.” When we are stressed out, our breathing becomes more shallow. Interestingly, breath is also both an automatic impulse and directly under control by will. If you forget about it, you will still breathe. On the other hand, you can control the rate at which you inhale, exhale, or hold your breath. This has been studied.

By exploring the breath, such as in the Wim Hof method, qigong, or pranayama, we find our emotional state is strongly affected by our breathing. Through regularly exercising control and observation of our breath, we can actually learn to directly alter our emotional state. This fascinates me greatly.

Perhaps if we examine our understanding of spirit as being both the essence of God and also our very breath, we may unravel deeper understandings of our own mechanical nature, and how to gain conscious control over it.

וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” – Gen 2:7

καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον· “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.” John 20:22 (ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΗΝ 20:22 Greek NT: Westcott and Hort 1881)


Exercise = Hatha Yoga, Diet = Sandwiches and Holiday food, Notables = Wim Hof breathing, 4 rounds followed by cold shower.

“Breath of Life” by is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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