“For it to have its effect, the sound of AUM is remembered with deep feeling for the meaning of what it represents.” (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1.28).
“Om,” in the yogic tradition, is chanted at the beginning and end of class or practice. It’s one of those things that’s often assumed as universally understood yet it’s rarely explained properly, if at all, by yoga instructors.
Om is an ancient sound used by various Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Hinduisim, Sikhism, Jainism, to denote the beginning and end of sacred scriptures, texts, and prayers. Many of the world’s religions indicate that creation began with sound, the vibrations of which are said to be contained within om. Each time we chant om, we connect with the eternal vibration of being that has been in existence since the beginning of all things and is the creative source of energy behind all existence.
The Om symbol consists of 3 curves, a semicircle, and a dot. The curves represent mind, body, and soul, and the semicircle at the top is maya, understood as an obstacle to achieving the highest form of enlightenment. Om is sometimes spelled “aum,” a more accurate phonetic spelling which divides the chant into its three individual sounds of a-u-m. “Aum” encompasses all possible combinations of sounds and lies at the root of all potential or pre-existing sounds. In linguistics, all sound is said to be produced between the root of the tongue and the entrance of the lips, the throat sound being “a,” the lip sound being “m,” and “u” representing the rolling forwards of all sounds until they stop at the lips. Like the letters of the alphabet, which in all possible combinations give rise to every word ever spoken, the sounds of a-u-m pass through every formation in the mouth necessary for vocalising language, making it a magnificently meaningful sound.
Om allows us to tap into the existing energy which always surrounds us but which modern distractions and lifestyles have shifted from our immediate awareness. For millennia, various names and personifications have been used by religions to represent a single all-powerful being. This placement of belief in a deity instead of in our immediate environment ignores the connection between the individual and that which surrounds us. We chant om to not only honor the beginning of all things but to appreciate all of creation that still surrounds us. The Upanishads refer to this state of collective consciousness and universal awareness as ishvara. Om is our key to accessing it.
We do not create om simply by chanting it. Instead, om serves as a medium through which we connect to these vibrations. Physically, chanting om creates a pranava or humming sound, as Patanjali describes, which stimulates the body into a meditational state, increases relaxation, and is said to stimulate the body to remove toxins and increase our capacity for self healing. Mentally, speaking om allows us to focus, shifting our attention outwards, away from internal struggles and helping us tune in to that which can provide us harmony in mind, body, and soul.
It’s common to hear the word “shanti” included after a final expression of om. Shanti means “peace” in Sanskrit and is intended as a parting wish for peace and happiness within the universe at large and within everything around us. Shanti is commonly used throughout India to express a light-hearted and peaceful state of being in casual conversation and descriptions of everyday occurrences, while om is reserved for more spiritual practices such as yoga practice or religious ceremony.
A young Buddhist monk clad in orange robes and flimsy, thin sandals holds up a smartphone. I quickly stow mine away. Who knows where he’s had it hidden, those robes look fairly impractical when it comes to storage and safe keeping of things. All of a sudden the tables have turned, and now I am the subject of interest; the main attraction; the pale, ginger alien from afar. For some reason all I can think of is how violently those orange robes would clash with my hair if I ever had to wear them.
I glance around the vast grounds of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, uncomfortably in search of the tour group I’d wandered away from. The young monks, (the eldest can’t be older than about 13) have started giggling amongst themselves now, as my anxiety spikes higher and I grow visibly flustered. Or maybe it’s just the heat?
They clearly don’t know how to put the camera switch on silent mode either, I grumble internally, as I hear the phone make the ‘click’ and ‘click’ and ‘click’ noises of this impromptu photo shoot.
Surely this is against some religious code or regulations, surely they’re not allowed to do things like this? What happened to empathy, understanding, treating fellow humans with respect and privacy??
As my frustration builds I realise that I’ve been guilty of all those things I just listed as being ‘out-of-bounds’ for the monks. Me and the thousands of other tourists who pass through their home everyday and gawp in awe at their clothes, their houses and schools – their entire world. It hardly seems fair that they should have to put up with it, but then again, Cambodia has many aspects to it that Westerners would consider unjust. The Khmer people just accept things as they are.
The grandeur of the Palace in Phnom Penh is testament to that, as I consider the riches and perfectly preened gardens and hedgerows in comparison to the wildness, the go-karting, free-wheeling adventures of the city streets beyond. Somehow everything in here seems calmer, as if the Playstation game has been put on pause and everything moves in slow motion until you’re ready to go again.
I eventually spot the gaggle of excited Chinese tourists who were part of my group by the submarine-pipe heads of their selfie-sticks bobbing above the crowds. Glancing behind me, I notice that the monks have fallen back, now sullen in their observation of the mass of tourists and my re-assimilation into it after a brief escapade into their camera-range.
How odd it must feel to be a stationary figure in the middle of such a steady, ferocious stream of people passing through. The orange robes to us are just about as fascinating as orange hair is to them, yet their desire to express their interest and marvel at things unaccustomed to them is met with questioning, staring, and judgement. My own reaction to their interest shamed me.
As I reach the outer gates of the palace, I lighten up at what’s just occurred, and manage to laugh off the irony of it. I steady myself to prepare for the tuk-tuk games to begin again, reflecting softly that Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole is truly a beautiful, chaotic celebration of the old world and the new coming together in a frenzied rush of confusion, odd smells, and exhaust-pipe dust.
Days 3 -5 in Cambodia and Why I’m Going to Stop Numbering Them
It’s funny that as soon as I finally have something and somewhere to write about regularly and keep people updated with that I find it difficult to get the right headspace and time to sit and actually write it. I think the main and most important difference is that I’ve been so busy, no longer having the time to spend thinking about travelling and being elsewhere and doing something different, seeing new things – I am now finally living those thoughts and wishes, and no longer stuck in the repetitive cycles and mindset of not being in the moment – because I am all here. I am doing the something different, I am seeing the new things.
I’ve never been so fully engrossed in a place or trip or country as I have been this past week, and it’s only starting to hit me that this is actually my new home until Christmas. As the ‘holiday’ mode wears off and we begin to settle in to our new surroundings, there’s a sense of identity and self-sufficiency that comes along with it unlike any I’ve experienced before.
The confusion over tuk-tuk prices, haggling at the markets, getting lost down unfamiliar streets and tasting all kinds of new and strange foods I swore I’d never even take a whiff of before is all part of the excitement of learning to live a new lifestyle, and accepting and appreciating things as they are in the moment. I’ve come so far out here – travelled over 16 hours, saved up the money and challenged myself so I have time to spend growing accustomed to and experiencing a new way of life, to shake up my own and prove to myself that there are other ways of being, thinking, and living than the stagnancy I had become so accustomed to. Even though it’s different, and I’m enjoying every second, I’m not going to limit myself to it either – we must always keep moving.
There are so many things to experience, so many places, people, and routes to take, that has made me realise that ultimately the only thing keeping my head clouded and in the darkness before was my own negativity and inability to appreciate the light in the world. That’s easy to say as I sit in the shade from a glorious 34 degree ray of sunshine in South East Asia, but I’m talking figuratively here aswell as literally!
Our visit to the Genocide Museum of Phnom Penh was eye-opening to say the least, and shed some light on the dreary history of Cambodia which we’d heard about, yet failed to understand in detail before. The rows of cells and torture mechanisms still in existence (some fully furnished) and barbed wire on the outside of the buildings to prevent suicide attempts as the innocent prisoners suffered under the Khmer Rouge really shook me to the core and reminded me that all is never what it seems.
The “Land of Smiles” which we’d been introduced to the country as suddenly seemed all the more powerful as a title, as we considered the hardships the Cambodian people have been through in such a short space of time (it has been a mere 40 years since the prison was in use). To have the resilience and strength as a population and city to recover from such horrors and progress onwards after any growth of the sort being stunted for years is admirable, and even though they seem to struggle still with poverty and wellbeing, the general standard of living around here seems to be simple, yet sustainable.
In the end, isn’t that all we want? To be able to sustain ourselves, in an uncomplicated and easygoing way, without getting too caught up in trivialities and superficial worries that are ultimately damaging to our beings and make things harder on all around us?
The young monks we observed around the Royal Palace of Cambodia and Wat Phnom on our final day as ‘tourists’ before starting teaching placements embodied this peace of mind and simpicity of lifestyle, their brightly coloured orange robes informing the world of their devout nature.
I found it interesting to discover that there are 3 main reasons a young Buddhist enters the monkhood, the first being an obvious devotion to the religion, and need to shorten the distance between himself an The Buddha in a personal vocation to search for Enlightenment. The second occurs only if a family is too poor to send the son to school, or to afford to keep providing for all children in the family. Any young boys who find themselves at an age suitable to entering the practice are morally required to do so, to lessen the strain upon the family and expand potential for their own futures. The third and probably most surprising reason a monk enters into the practice is as an element of the recovery process from addiction, mostly drug-related in Cambodia, but also involving alcohol and other ‘soul-damaging’ practices within the Buddhist community. While all young monks have the choice to enter into the practice, not all monastic undertakings are definitive, with a ‘temporary’ Bhikku (young monk) merely taking the robe for a few weeks, months or years of his life to dedicate some time to a monastic and detached life.
I tried taking a picture of a small group of monks from a distance, and was taken aback as one laughed, raising his own iPhone in response to take a picture of me!
It really just proved in a very peaceful and lighthearted way that our cultures have so much to learn about one another, and that exposing ourselves to them can only lead to a further understanding and acception not only of ourselves, but of the world around us and our space within it.
The traditional meals of Cambodian Banh Cheo, a sort of flour pancake served filled with broad beans and a peanut sauce, and another containing tofu and stir fried vegetables were interesting to experience, and really added to the shift in our mindsets from being mere backpackers and tourists to working ‘citizens’. It’s strange to think that from today onwards we will be contributing to society and sharing knowledge necessary for our young students to expand their own horizons in the future, and hopefully understand a bit more about Western culture.
While the main tourist attractions served as a great way to further our knowledge of the city we are about to take up a lengthy residence in, there is a certain reassurance in being on the way to a more settled environment and day-to-day structure, even if it will be interspersed with various national holidays and days off! We’re excited for the next stage of the journey and to meet the students and staff of our school.
Today I was faced with this image. ‘The Buddha of Our Times’.
It really got me thinking about our values and influences as human beings, and how we have allowed them to shape our current personas, situations, and everyday lives in general.
The Buddha – a figurhead of mindful awareness that has (somewhat ironically) shaped people’s beliefs for millenia, in which a lot of faith and trust is placed, has been transformed in this picture into a representation of 21st century compartmentalized life and chaos.
Maybe ‘allowed’ is a bit too strong a word. Growing up it is rare that we have any sort of control over our external environment and relationships, and so often we find ourselves answering for the actions of others that have unfortunately become intertwined with our own experiences. Parental influences in particular are things that people find difficult to differentiate themselves from, as exposure from an early age is one of the key issues when it comes to shaking off unhealthy practices – children learn only what they are presented with, and so a negative habit or notion of a parent will ultimately affect them more strongly than it would were it coming from another aspect in their life.
But there are influences coming at us from all angles. The aeroplanes, helicoptors, and various other air vessels prove that it’s not just the obvious and visual aspects of life that can influence us. Things we wouldn’t expect, things that aren’t planned. They all impact on our inner peace and even more interesting is when we consider that they themselves have their own journey and personal goals and destinations they are trying to reach. We all get in each others way at some point.
The important and most difficult part is staying grounded and within your own two feet on the ground when this happens. Though this image is at first somewhat unsettling to observe, and would even evoke a sense of dystopian loss of identity and independence, on the whole I feel that after a time of considering the different elements here (and of our world), the overall form of the Buddha stays true to his original message, and is strong and accepting of the challenges posed by the world around it.