Will the Real Om Please Stand Up - Umberto Tosi

I've always loved the story that Groucho Marx quit the New York Friar's Club - famous for its celebrity membership, but packed with "barbers and dentists" according to Groucho - with a telegram that read: "Please accept my resignation. I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member." I experienced de ja Groucho about that the other day when read an article about meditation during one of my habitual sorties of self-distraction - sometimes framed as research - while trying to write. I had just viewed a droll, You Tube clip from a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode in which Larry David "gives" his old mantra to comic Richard Lewis then asks "maybe I can get it back" just when Lewis had it working. Then the two bicker absurdly about the propriety of "splitting a mantra."

The article on a more serious note, was about a Buddhist spinning mantra ring. I visualized such a ring on the hand of a short story character who accessorizes with various religious symbols and amulets - an antique gold crucifix necklace, for example - believing in their protective power without much thought about specific religious details - becoming involved with someone of faith. The piece detailed the history and designs of spinning mantra rings and their relationship to sacred prayer wheels... 

Pretty soon I fell into the research rabbit hole removed from my original intentions, but often wonderland of odd discoveries in any case. The piece delved into the sacred inscription generally inscribed on such a ring's spinner - "Om Ma-Ni Pad-Me Hum" - the six syllables of mantra said to create and purify ritual spaces, protect against evil spirits, sickness and misfortune and invite peace into the soul. Specifically: 

  • Om (ohm) - overcomes ego and fosters generosity.
  • Ma (Mah) - dissolves envy and promotes ethics.
  • Ni (nee) - replaces desire with patience.
  • Pad (pahd) - eliminates prejudice and strengthens perseverance.
  • Me (meh) - releases possessiveness in favor of concentration.
  • Hum (hum) - banishes anger and hatred in favor of wisdom. 

The list reminded me of my first experiences with meditation in the 1960s when the Beatles went to India, intellectuals and rich kids were visiting ashrams and gurus were lecturing all over the states inspiring American interest in - if not full comprehension of - Eastern philosophies and spiritual teachings. 

I remembered "Om Ma-Ni Pad-Me Hum" as the mantra given me privately by a touring Indian guru after attending his lecture on "The Laughing Buddha" at the Self-Realization Center on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles back in 1967 or so. I had no idea what the mantra meant. My understanding was that such mantras have no literal meaning and are only meant to focus the mind and let go of the material world of names and objects. According nobody told me directly, I had also understood - from the then-popularized write-ups of Transcendental Meditation (TM) that each person's mantra is given uniquely and not to be divulged to others. 

The Laughing Buddha lecturer, however, had no connection to the Transcendental Meditation movement led by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that was mushrooming during that decade. My mantra provider, moreover, didn't charge me the going mantra price of a hundred bucks either - not really affordable to me as a working father with small children at the time.

I did try to meditate often, and found it sporadically rewarding. Often as not, I found it difficult to escape my chattering "monkey mind." Plus, I realized much later, that I took my difficulties to the penalty box of wrong ideas. Namely, I started to suspect that my mantra wasn't "good enough," or wasn't authentic in some way. After all, I hadn't earned or paid for it, I thought. 

Enter Groucho Marx. I wouldn't want a guru who would have me as a disciple. I go there a lot. It's right there in the Standard Neurotic Playbook under "I'm not good enough" and Imposter Syndrome. Like, if I wrote it, how could it possibly be any good? One just has to look and see. Yes, writers must "kill their darlings" and know when to cut and rewrite, but also not fear recognizing the good.

Set aside the precept that a mantra isn't meant to be understood as much as repeated to get beyond language and meanings. Perhaps if I had learned more about Buddhism, Indian and Tibetan culture instead of bouncing around in my own house of mirrors I would have understood the profound meanings of "Om Ma-Ni Pad-Me Hum" in a way that benefited me more and widening my horizons sooner. Of course, one must beware of pop philosophy and commercialized cultural traditions of all stripes - from East and West. 

Like all classic comic ironies, Groucho's line about club membership sprouts from a seed of wisdom as well. 


Shameless shout: Vote! Vote! Vote!

It might be unnecessary to say this. I hope so, but here goes: My next blog posting is scheduled for U.S. election day, November 3, and be written well before we know the outcome. I will have already voted and I urge every qualified American voter to do the same - i.e. "Vote like your life depends on it, because it probably does." Trump will surely lose the popular vote by a margin even bigger than his nearly 3-million vote loss in 2016. The volume will make a difference, however. America's unique, undemocratic, antiquated, slave-era Electoral College system that put #HairHitler in the White House in the first place, still holds, unfortunately. That archaic obstacle, plus massive ongoing, race-targeted Republican voter suppression in key swing states and Russian meddling make it imperative that progressive-minded and independent voters turn out in record numbers to overcome Trump's advantage and end his corrupt, deadly misrule. As of this writing, I have received my mail-in ballot, courtesy of the US Postal Service (which also is under Trump's siege). Some things still work in America. Being particularly at COVID_19 risk I will vote remotely. I will fill it out and deposit my ballot at an authorized drop-box (or mail it) post-haste. Fortunately, there are many reputable sources of reliable information on ways to vote early -- pandemic be damned -- e.g. - Plan Your Vote. States differ, but they can't stop a voter tsunami if we make one.Vote early, up and down ballot! Make it count. Every friend and family member within reach is doing the same, by the way, a good way to form a small, but potent voter bloc. Together we are strong.


Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago.



Bill Kirton said…
A rich contribution (yet again) Umberto. Lots to think about in that far more important world beyond the trivia of the everyday. Thanks.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Umberto, this took me back to when I was trying to find out what exactly the claimed unique quality of TM was - I was writing a book about relaxation techniques in managing anxiety. In the end, anything that quietens our over-anxious and self-destructive ruminations turned out to be worth a go, whether it revolved around a religious or quasi-religious belief or not. So easy to write about, so g=hard to put into practice!
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks for this Umberto. I so well remember that 60s time with the Beatles and everybody else into transcendental meditation. Two of my more adventurous Liverpool schoolfriends went to India looking for answers. One got hepatitis.

I am hopefully always aware of the humour in life. Your list of the six syllables of mantra is really useful. We may not achieve wisdom in those terms, however, and Groucho's wisdom will have to suffice.

This leads me to Trump. Three years ago I stayed with an old friend in NY and could not understand why he supported the man. He had acquired some fundamental Christian beliefs. I suppose this was his wisdom and who was I to argue?

I hope your election goes well and that Trump is not re-elected. Look forward to your next post.

Unknown said…
Moi aussi j’ai bien aimé votre article ! Et si vous voulez que je vous envoie un mantra, ce sera gratuit mais ce sera aussi bidon..... Mais on ne sait jamais, ça peut marcher si vous croisez les doigts très fort !
Marie Christine Garcin de Paris
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Umberto,

Great piece! So much to absorb. :) I've always loved that quote by Marx because it applies to life in so many unique ways. I've been a meditator for decades, so I see great value for being part of this club. ;)

As it stands now, being part of the 'club of humans' is becoming less and less desirable. Somedays, I'm astounded we haven't already become extinct.

Here's hoping for humour to push us through the remainder of 2020.

Be well,
Eleanor S-F said…
As usual, with insight and humor, you have entertained, informed and inspired. Eleanor

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