Five days a week, I join in chanting the opening prayer for Ashtanga. It's long and complicated (in Sanskrit), but I've learned most of the words by heart now, and chant them with something close to conviction, yet I'm still not sure what they mean. Of course, it's easy enough to find a translation on the web, but do I really—even metaphorically—"bow to the lotus feet of the guru" or "prostrate before the sage Pantanjali"? I haven't decided. I haven't found that anchoring point, yet—that way of making the prayer real for myself. And yet I chant. Despite the fact that I'm often accused of being too literal: of expecting people—myself included—to mean what they say and say what they mean, I chant words I'm not sure I believe in or even understand. As with almost every other aspect of my practice, I suppose I'm relying on curiosity and imagination to inch me, however slowly, toward some form of comprehension—some way of getting it.
It was like this for me for years with the mantra 'Om.' Frankly, I had no idea what the point of chanting that syllable (or tri-syllable, depending on whose definition you're working with) really was. Still, I OM-ed because I like the way it sounds and feels and the way all the voices in a room lift and surge together into a kind of thing. I also like what people say about the meaning of Om (or Aum)—for instance, that it represents the Trimurti and/or the original vibrational imeptus of the universe and/or the primordial hum of existence... Still, the whole act remained more or less abstract for me until the day I read this haiku by Issa:
listening to the song
Issa, that dog, those worms—they made something finally click. And now OM is, for me, the song of earthworms. And when I chant A-U-M, I think of those great translators—tirelessly changing death back into life. And I think about robins, who, when they cock their heads, are actually listening to the ground, locating worms because apparently they do make some kind of noise as they move through the soil. And I think about Baudelaire and his great white worm. And Basho and his small, silent, chestnut-digging worm. And I think about our dog, Oscar, who—in the months before he died, when he was a very old dog, indeed—used to sit under the blackthorn tree in our yard for hours on end, despite being both blind and deaf. He sat there with perfect posture—as centered as any monk or yogi—front paws crossed, eyes half-closed, black nose lifted, quivering, attentive to the invisible mysteries in and around him.