Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Music can communicate the most unspeakable emotions, but instead of using words, it speaks with rhythm, melody, and harmony. Or rather: music does not speak; it moves.
Not all music is exactly the same. Music sounds differently in every culture, felt and expressed in remarkably diverse ways, all emanating the character and passion of that culture. But even though the style of sounds may be different, it is still music. A Sikh friend once told me that music is one of the five mysteries that break into the borders of this world from the divine outside. Music is somehow transcendent, somehow wholly other, while also being immanent, a transforming presence, whether in gentle ripples or in undulating waves. Music can be haunting, a lingering in the heart, soul, and mind that remains present even in its absence. Music domesticates the chaos of noise to create rhythm and harmony. But music can also be jarring and dissonant, allowing room for some of the chaos to remain. Discordant notes can communicate the unspeakable emotions just as well as the harmonious.
I can’t quite put my finger on the way music moves me, but I know when it does. Music cannot be grasped, but in some way it does the holding.
In many of the world’s religions (including the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions) ritual baths of pure water cleanse the body of impurity, giving new life. Water revives and water refreshes. We cannot live without water because water is living. Usually, where water is, there life will be growing also. Food can be ignored for days, but water is essential to our survival, especially as we wander in the desert places.
Water flows in many forms. Rivers move and change the land around them, following a way even as they make new paths. Rain leaves the heavens to wash and cultivate the earth. Oceans are vast and broad and deep. Water is within us, but also something that we can move within, ungraspable as it slips through our fingers.
But the water sometimes dries up, and all we are left with are stagnant pools and small ponds, sometimes with nothing at all and we can die from our devastating thirst. Sometimes the water we are offered is undrinkable. Like an ancient mariner, we may often find that though we are on a sea, there is not a “drop to drink.” But we set out swimming toward that distant unreachable shore, even though our arms and legs soon tire and leave us “as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” Sometimes we have to struggle in that space between swimming and drowning. Sometimes the only thing to do is float.
In Greek, Hebrew, and, to a certain extent, Latin, spirit and wind and breath (nouma, ruach, spiritus) are the same. When people said one, they said all three.
All things breathe and must breathe, because breath is the source of life and the ground of being. In the beginning, God formed a shape from the created dust and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and man became a living soul,” (which is a thoroughly non-dualistic understanding of humanity). The soul is what arises when the spirit/wind/breath of God inhales and exhales in and through the dirt. Creation lives because of breath . . . spirit, wind that hovered over the waters.
The one who is like spirit and wind and breath is “over all, in all, and through all,” and the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Like music, we cannot hold spirit, wind, and breath, but we are held by it as it moves within us and around us, literally in-spiring us. Our spirit begins with the breath of God that embraces us like the wind.
Sometimes for most of us, most of the time for some of us, it feels like Someone is holding their breath and we suffocate in its absence. The barren and desolate places that we enter, or that we make, are where the wind stops blowing and the spirit feels dead and we gasp at the shortness of breath. But breath is present, even if it is only our own, whispering like a small wind, a barely perceptible spirit.
Maybe the only way to touch spirit/wind/breath is by touching those stirred by it and filled with it. To touch the world.