Sep 27, 2012

What I think about when I 'Om'

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:

Old dog—
listening to the song
of earthworms?

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.


Frances@Lila said...

That's sweet. What an unexpected and yet perfect association for the chanting of OM. :)
And regarding the first half of your piece, I think it's good that you can honestly say you don't "get it" and that you probably won't ever. Me neither! I think it would be arrogant and silly for Western yoga practitioners to think they totally understand the depth of the yogic/vedic/hindu's so far removed from how we were modeled to view the world and ourselves.
Personally, I just try to be respectful of traditions and customs that feel foreign to me, try to connect in with Spirit however I can best, and then be humble and grateful for the experience and opportunity for learning.

JCarr said...

That's beautiful. Thanks.

Rose said...

What a unique way of connecting with Om – you have such a beautiful writerly approach to the world. I wanted you to know that during a recent practice, I had a flash to this post [clearly, tristana doesn’t hold me 100 percent of the time ;-) ]. It was during the urdvha drishti portion of upavistha konasana. I was looking up and trying to be empty about it, but instead thought of that part of the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna appears in form after form to Arjuna. The link to your post being that I am pretty sure urdvha drishti is not supposed to be about, but it’s always interesting to see where we personally make connections. 

Kim A. said...

yeah..I think the personal connections are where a lot of the magic resides. I think of all those connections (really just imagination) as a kind of sister to prana. like another web of energy, a shadow to the subtle body, maybe. it's nice to know you "flashed" on this post. I flash on what was probably the first post i read on your blog about paring back and cleaning out the closets just about every time i look into one big particularly hairy closet we have.... ha. someday... i'll clean it....