I’ve recently added a rainbow-spiral wind-dancer to my balcony. I love watching it hang quietly when the air is still, and dance in its spiraling way—creating the illusion of vertical movement—when it’s windy.
Air In Motion
Its presence has caused me to reflect upon the phenomena of wind—which really is just air in motion. Being essentially nothing other than air, wind—like air—is invisible. We know it only by the effects that it creates.
When leaves ripple, we infer the presence of wind. When the rainbow-spiral wind-dancer dances, I infer the presence of wind: of air in motion. A certain sensation on my skin—or a howling sound outside my window—I might also attribute to the presence of wind.
Even though the functioning of the human body depends profoundly upon the existence of air, when air is still we tend not to notice it. In such a case we’re much more likely to refer to it as “space”—the space between perceived objects. We think of it—when we do—as an absence more than the presence of an essential (albeit invisible) substance.
It’s only when air moves—and in its movement causes visible objects to move—that we acknowledge its existence, but only halfway: We rarely say, “Oh, the air is moving now.” Instead, we say: “It’s windy today.”
By observing the effects of wind we can infer (if not directly perceive) the existence of air. In a sense, then, we might say that wind (via its perceivable effects) proves the existence of air.
Flag ~ Wind ~ Mind
There’s a Zen story about two monks observing a flag rippling in the wind. One monk insists that it is the flag that is moving. The other monk argues that it is the wind that is moving. When their teacher walks by and overhears the debate, he pauses to say: “It is neither the flag nor the wind that moves. Rather, it is your mind that moves.”
In this parable, mind is the invisible substance which—like air in the discussion above—is so often overlooked.
The Source of Movement
Now, to say that it is only the mind that moves can be an expression of philosophical idealism (viz. all phenomena are nothing other than mind-stuff) or it can be an expression of the insight that the substance and true perceiver of all phenomena is Pure Awareness.
If the latter, then we might also say:
The flag is moving, wind is moving (aka air is moving), mind is moving—and, most essentially, I-Am moving (while still, somehow, paradoxically, remaining also unmoved).
While we tend to ignore the presence of air, the sounds and physical sensations associated with breathing—with the creation of a kind of “wind” internal to the body—can remind us of its existence.
Like the act of observing the movement and hearing the rustling of leaves on the branches of a tree, the sounds and physical sensations associated with breathing can lead the mind to infer the presence of air—whose movement accounts for these sights, sounds and sensations.
And yet, similar sights, sounds and sensations might appear within a dream. Upon waking, we could still affirm the appearance of these sights, sounds and sensations (even though we now know them to be only dream-sights, dream-sounds, and dream-sensations). But what happens to our inference of the existence of air? Does anything remain of that, in our moment of waking? What is the “atmosphere” of a dream?
I’m reminded of this scene from the original movie Matrix, in which Neo is fighting Morpheus not in an actual waking-world physical studio, but rather within a computer-generated virtual space.
During a pause in the fighting, with Neo breathing deeply, Morpheus poses the question: “Do you think that’s air you’re breathing now?”