By John Lee Pendall
I didn’t start contemplative life with Buddhism; I started with OM.
Sometimes, prolonged stress can push us back into a self that we thought was long gone. Out on my own, trying my best to survive my grandma’s Alzheimer’s, and staring through a window covered in October frost, I touched base with a simpler version of myself.
Long before I got on board with the, “Nothing to attain,” creed of Mahayana Buddhism, I was all about attaining a holistic, peaceful state of mind. I was searching for meaning, purpose and joy. That’s where I was when I first practiced with OM, and that’s where I am now when I’ve returned to it.
There’s a truckload of metaphysics behind OM, but I think that’s all irrelevant when we’re just starting out with it. What matters is the feeling. How does OM make you feel? What does chanting it do to your body and mind? It feel good to me. It’s comforting and expansive. It seems to bring me back to a time before I was born, to the ancient people’s who first uttered that sound.
It gives me strength and hope.
OM does take a little hootzpah to practice with, because we do have to chant it aloud (the louder the better) for the full effect. If you can’t find time to be alone, then that means you’ll have to do it within earshot of other people. They might judge you or ask, “What the fuck are you doing?”
There’s a huge stigma around expressing ourselves.
Take singing, which is pure self-expression. Why don’t we sing when we want to sing? There’s no law against singing “Thriller” while we’re pawing through cucumbers at Walmart. It’s even worse if we don’t have a decent singing voice, or if we’re singing something spiritual.
OM asks us to toss all that into the fuck-it-bucket. Being able to be ourselves more is an unintentional byproduct of that.
Before ya cop a squat and start droning, I recommend trying out different pitches until you find the tone that’s right for you. A lot of people give up on OM early because they don’t feel it, but odds are we don’t feel it because we’re not chanting it at “our” pitch. Your tone should make you feel like you’re a tuning fork, like your whole body is an instrument. That makes the session more engaging.
Once you’ve found your tone, take a deep breath and sing a long OM, starting with the Ah sound a bit lower, then gliding up to your pitch when you’re on the Oh sound. When you get to the humming M, you’re where you need to be. Let it ride for the rest of your breath and then start again. Then it’s kind of like breathwork; just focus on the sound you’re making and how it affects your mind.
Our goal is one-pointed concentration, where there’s only OM and nothing else. Then, finally, there’s no sense of separation between us and it.
Instead of dragging my mind back to it whenever I get distracted, I like to give everything that distracts to OM. I kinda let the sound wrap around it, like rain falling on a lake. There’s no point in pushing things away. It’s better to incorporate our whole experience into the method.
Two things that happen to me a lot are:
1) My body will disappear
2) I’ll experience everything as matter and energy.
The body is 100% liquids, solids, gases, energy and space. That’s an old teaching, but it’s simply science as well. Whenever I can, I try to ground my practice in modern science rather than ancient wisdom. Fortunately, they often agree with each other. Then—just like distractions—this matter, energy and space are all folded into OM.
That isn’t just a willy-nilly thing. OM actually means rise and fall, it represents the beginning, middle and end of all things and how things interact as one. Even though OM precedes Buddhism, it coincidentally expresses all the Buddhist teachings.
What Buddha disagreed with is that OM represents a universal essence, a kind of God or True Self. I’m an agnostic when it comes to the self vs. not-self issue. That said, it’s been helpful to me to treat OM the same way an AA member would their “higher power.” Because, I need a higher power. Looking back, I think I’ve always needed that—always have been searching for it.
I don’t know what that power is (John Lennon called it magic), so I’ll just call it the mystery. OM gets me in touch with that mystery, whether it’s Self or selflessness, god, nature, euphoria or the void, is mostly irrelevant. The feeling is what’s important, and how that feeling helps me to live my life in a healthier, more genuine way.
I spent six years practicing Zen in an almost monk-ish environment. Now, in the city and juggling a dozen different responsibilities, it didn’t hold up for me. Buddhism in general hasn’t held up all that well. So I went back to where I started, all those years ago as a troubled high school freshman.
I went back to OM.
Editor: Dana Gornall