The Power of Om: A Simple, Sacred Syllable to Aid Meditation and Mindfulness Practice
Our minds can be hectic places, under constant bombardment from external stimuli and with thoughts endlessly babbling away inside our own heads. Growing numbers of people are embracing mindfulness and meditation practice as a way of finding stillness and tranquility amid all that noise, but when we do make a moment to relax and switch off, it can often be difficult to silence all the chattering thoughts that are swirling around in our brains. By using the simple but powerful mantra, Om, we can give our mind an alternative point of focus, while still creating a space of peace and mental quietude.
You may already be familiar with the symbol pictured above. Even if you aren’t, I’m sure you will have seen it many times, as it is a very popular symbol the world over. This symbol represents the Sanskrit syllable “Om”, or “Aum”, first found in the ancient sacred texts of Hinduism, the Vedas, which were passed down orally by Indian sages before being committed to writing around c. 1500 — c. 500 BCE.
Om is a “seed”, or bija, mantra (from the Sanskrit root manas “mind” and tra “tool”) and is believed to be “the most important of all mantras, whether for meditation, worship of deities, energizing prana (breath, or life-giving force) or for healing purposes”. It has variously been described as the vibration of the Universe, the sound of the higher self, the sound of the void, and the representation “of the whole world and all of its sounds, thus noting our connection to the universe”.
Regardless of how you understand or interpret it, the simple, single syllable “Om”, whether chanted out loud or repeated inside one’s own head, is a powerful tool for stilling and focussing the mind during meditative practice.
Frequently, when we approach meditation with the goal of completely silencing the mind, we fail to shut off our brains for much more than a few seconds (if at all) before suddenly realising that our train of thought has picked up steam again and is racing along the tracks, stopping here, there and everywhere on its travels.
The trouble is, we’re so used to thinking all the time! Thought has become such a habit for us that we don’t even recognise that we’re doing it. If you’ve ever sat down with the intention of turning off your thoughts and silencing your mind, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the experience of hearing your internal monologue saying, “Oh my god, I’m actually doing it! I’m not thinking anymore!”
Really? Where exactly is this self-congratulatory thought coming from then? Oh, yeah….
Therein lies the obstacle that many of us face when we try to tame what Buddha called our “monkey minds”. As though filled with scores of drunken, screeching primates, our minds zoom about in all directions as a barrage of thoughts clamour for our attention. By introducing “Om” as point of focus upon which to anchor our restless mind, it becomes easier to deflect those monkeys when they try to disturb our concentration. Repeating “Om”, steadily and in synchronicity with our breath, means that even when our mind starts to wander, we’ve got something simple and effective to attact it away from those noisy monkeys and back to its quieter, more focussed state.
Chanting “Om” aloud is a great tool for mindfulness practice, too, as it provides a focal point for attentively watching the sensations of our body. Try it now, and notice what happens.
- First, close your eyes, take a gentle breath in through your nose, and focus on the sensation of your lungs filling, your chest expanding, the feeling of the air being drawn into your nostrils.
- Hold that breath for a moment, then as you slowly start to release the breath, open your mouth and start pronouncing the syllable as a long “Aaauuuuummmmm” sound.
- As the sound begins and your mouth is open on the “Aaauuuu-”, notice the vibration in your jaw, your throat, your chest. Where else can you feel it? Your temples, perhaps? Inside your ears? Just notice it- there is no need to remain focused on it; you are simply observing.
- As the “Aaauuuu-” naturally moves into the close-mouthed “mmmmmm” sound, observe where and how the sensation changes. Observe how the vibration now moves into your lips, your septum, your teeth. Again, don’t linger on the sensation, just watch.
- Let the mantra trail off naturally as your exhalation ends. Allow yourself to contemplate the moment of stillness in between exhaling and inhaling, then start again with another inward breath, and repeat the “Aaauuuuummmmm” once more. Notice some of the other sensations that arise this time- the shape and movement of your mouth and lips as it forms the syllable, for example,- but endeavour to remain a detached observer.
As you continue to chant this mantra, you will still find that your mind spirals off from time to time, and it may take a little while for you to realise that it has wandered. When you notice that this has happened, don’t get frustrated or dwell on your distractedness; just bring your mind back to the “Om” and continue as before, detached, and simply observing.
With continued practice, you will gradually find that by using the “Om” mantra as your “mind tool”, you are better able to retain your focus during your meditation and/or mindfulness sessions, and to silence those pesky primates.
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