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Reflections on (and of) a foreign word

We must be back in Sunday school. I’m sitting on my blanket on the floor, obediently falling silent and closing my eyes when the teacher instructs me to. I intone quietly along with my classmates and wait for the calm feeling to arrive….

OK, maybe chanting “om” actually will make me feel good in this yoga class today, like saying a prayer did when I was six. But maybe not. These days I don’t feel much like reciting magical nonsense syllables with a bunch of people I barely know. It feels silly – maybe a little bit hypocritical. Really, I need an explanation. Why should I use my precious time chanting it today? What did the word mean to the people who first used it?

The second question is easy to answer.  Since the first millenium BCE, and probably way earlier than that, people in India have used the word to signify the primordial energy of the universe. In its early history India hosted a motley froth of local gods and religions; when it settled into the major formations of Indian religion, the syllable “om” kept a more or less common meaning. For Jains, Buddhists, Vaishnavites, Shaivites, Smartas and Shaktas, om signifies the hum of creation, the sound of divinity breathing.

To me it feels beautiful and mystical that a word symbolizes the same thing in such different religious contexts. But I don’t believe in any of these religions, at least, not in the way I used to believe in the prayers as a six year old.  So to find my own meaning, I look at the sounds of the word.  I count four sounds: on the inhale, ah, oo, and mm; on the exhale, the sound of silence.  What do they mean to me?

“Ah” is the first phoneme, the operative vowel in my earliest words: mama, and father. I hear it in the most familiar names of the divine – “Jahweh”, “Allah”, “God”, and even in  “awe”.  The sound begins deep in the throat diving down toward the vocal chords to speak, as when the doctor puts the tongue depressor in. Emanating from my core, “ah” signifies the ultimate beginning, the first letter in the Sanskrit, Greek, and Roman alphabets.  I express it involuntarily in moments of epiphany (aha!) and release (ahhhh….)

If “ah” is the beginner, “oo” sustains.  The sound is liquid, luminous, soothing, my mother’s coo.  In Sanskrit the letter symbolizes formlessness, suggesting a smooth fluid without inherent shape.  “Ooo” is an instinctive vocal response to beauty, the sound we make when a fashion model dazzles us from the catwalk.

For me, chanting “mmm..” has a simple and practical effect: humming feels good.  I know this from my experience as a singer and from researching yogic breathing techniques.  The buzz of a good hum shakes loose molecules of nitric oxide in my nasal passages, that then travel through the body doing all kinds of good. “Mmmm…” is the sound I naturally make when I’m pausing to reflect, or when I wordlessly savor a pleasing sensation. It’s yummmmy, connotes satisfaction, closure, sealing the gate of my lips.

Which leads to the emptiness at the end of om.  It’s hard to find words to express the beauty of this silence – like matter and anti-matter, truthful language and silences can’t coexist in the same place. I describe the feeling for myself by allusion: it’s a glimpse of the beautiful void; a child viewing the cloudless night sky, endlessly deep.  Listening and hearing nothing, I’m remineded that a mysterious emptiness always envelops me. Paradoxically, the void is my most common ground with the rest of creation. Here, with my body stiller than sleep, I may sense vibrations of the truth in Paramahansa Yogananda’s words.

“From Om the music of the spheres!
From Om the mist of nature’s tears!

All things of earth and heaven declare,
Om! Om! Resounding everywhere!”


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