By John Pendall
There I was, a socially awkward 16-year-old trying to find his place in the world.
Riddled with anxiety and depression, enamored with the Beatles and all aspects of the 1960s counterculture, I set my sights to the East. Finding no refuge in Western philosophy and spirituality, I picked up a tattered old copy of the Upanishads. Among the driving storm of pubescent hormones and hierarchical mind games, I found a safe harbor in OM.
OM has a multitude of meanings attached to it, but none of them quite stick. Above all else, it’s a focus for meditation. I bet we’re all acquainted with the prototypical, droning, “OOOMMMMMM,” mantra. I’ve met Westerners who have no inclination toward Eastern Wisdom traditions who are familiar with OM. My Roman Catholic grandma could probably form a mudra with her hands and chant, “OM,” if I brought it up.
The long form of OM is AUM. It symbolizes the genesis, synthesis and dissolution of all things. OM uses sound to represent these three natural stages.
When we say OM, the first thing that happens is a slight click in the throat, an initial puff of air that precedes the sound itself. Some people fully voice the A sound (Ah-Oh-Mmm), and others don’t. The vowel and M smoothly merge together. As the mantra drones on, the vibrations seem to move up from the throat, through the mouth and finally end near the teeth.
So while we drone OM, we’re actually witnessing the principle of rise, stabilize and decline in our own mouths—we’re witnessing the Dharma in action. OM is considered the cosmic sound because all things follow this pattern.
I stuck with that interpretation while I was practicing with OM, though there are numerous other ways to think of it. Some practitioners consider it Brahman, different aspects of the soul, phases of time, or even a literal all-pervading primordial tone. Another meaning of OM that I’m fond of is that it represents something that can’t be named.
I can only properly name something that I can differentiate from something else. “That’s the sky, this is the earth, that’s a bird, that’s bird poop, this is my head,” and so on. But if I wanted to look at the big picture—all of those things mixing together in this dynamic moment—I couldn’t tie it all up with a precise label. So instead of a sticky word, we have OM.
OM isn’t just found in Vedanta, it also kicks off a lot of Buddhist Suttas and mantras. 10 years after I practiced with and let go of OM, I was awestruck to see it again while studying Buddhism. It was like traveling to a land you’ve never been to before only to run into an old friend from high school. “Hey OM! How’ve you been? Wow, I didn’t expect to meet you out here! You’ve got three kids? That’s awesome! Me? No, I’m just kinda, ya know, wandering around.”
There’s something beautiful about using OM as an object in meditation.
Even if we cast aside all the meanings behind it, the sound itself seems to lift us up into a spacious state of mind. It’s also astounding to chant OM in groups. A glimmering, mysterious connection seems to form between the chanters. Even if I only chant it with one other person, there’s that sense of sharing something together that isn’t quite tainted by our personal projections.
I still feel wistful as I remember sitting with friends in the middle of a cornfield. The moon was shining at its zenith; the crickets, toads and frogs formed a nocturnal choir.
There we were, amidst all of this, connecting with the moment through OM.
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”
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