The Breath of Ghosts

Across cultures, the equating of ghosts and breath is a constant, apparent in language, in ritual and in belief systems. In a number of the stories which make up “Ghosts and Other Tales”, breath plays an important role.  But why breath, when a ghost is – surely – beyond breathing?

Breath in normal circumstances is invisible. It takes cold and damp conditions to render it visible. And yet this barely extant phenomenon is the vital force of a living being. In that breath are the memories, the fears, the loves and – literally – aspirations of a human being.

In meditation one focusses on the breathing. It is the force which signifies living in its most visceral sense. The meditator concentrates on the mechanics of breathing, to center their being, to become aware (in a higher sense) of their life and living. As an act, it encapsulates what it means to be alive. It focusses and calms the mind. Such a powerful, and yet simple, force keeps every one of us alive. It is not too surprising therefore that of all elements of the living being, breath should be viewed as an essential component in so many understandings of spirit.

Nonetheless, it is curious that something so obvious, so real and so human as breath could find itself paired with an aspect of life considered “esoteric”, “mysterious” and “unknown”. This may be down to how people have difficulty comprehending blurred and hazy boundaries. Liminal states – for example, marshes, the shoreline, evening/dawn, ruined buildings, mist and fog – don’t sit neatly into one category or another. They elicit feelings of confusion, rejection and fear. They remind us of our own dissolution. And so it is with breath. It is neither of us, nor “out there”. It is our intermediate self. It inhabits us, and we project it. It both belongs to us and to the world. Breath is therefore the perfect locus for our spirit selves, both real and metaphorical.

We are breathing creatures in life. Is it so outlandish to imagine we might continue so afterwards?

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