Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Mindfulness meditation, "The Power of OM," Richard Coles

The Rev Richard Coles, increasingly one of my favourite broadcasters, excelled himself with "The Power of Om," last Sunday at 13:30 on BBC Radio 4. (You can find it on iPlayer if you wish.) I won't attempt to summarise the whole programme, but I will say that it is not about "hippy cult nonsense." Not sure why I keep apologising, and saying "look, this meditation stuff isn't just for hippies and toke-heads." maybe I know too many reductive control freaks, benevolent fascists etc (other than myself, of course.) So: these are the things that made me look google-eyed and slack-jawed, just like Bertie Wooster when Jeeves tells him that he has safely disposed of the violet waistcoat and the yellow spats...


1. Chanting, especially in the company of other chanters, effectively helps the brain to move into a meditative state (you know, calm, in the present moment, awake but relaxed etc.) Eastern religious contexts make something holy of a syllable, such as OM, that hits the spot, and the name of God also is, naturally enough, given that sacred definition. Hare Krishna etc. The "Mother Note" in Gregorian plainchant may have that same quality, and pitchwise, there may be a sort of "middle C" which is common ground for inducing meditative states of mind. (Big echoey cathedrals also help.) A kind of holy pitchpipe, as it were (sorry, that's me not Rev RC) But outside of those beliefs, it's as much the wavelength as the actual word that does the job.
Thus far, well known. Read on, O seeker...

2. When trained and skilled meditators sit together and make these sounds, something called "entrainment" happens in their brains, similar to the phenomenon that helps birds in flocks, or fish on shoals, move together. Because:

3. The heart's electrical signals (our hearts, not just those of starlings or sardines) can be picked up beyond the boundary of our skins, so sitting or standing close together will enhance this common purpose and create powerful feelings of unity. (No doubt a lot of other signals are also given off to help.)

4. Thus do we sync with each other, in football crowds (one reason why the so-called Beautiful Game is so addicitive?), and.... at Nuremburg Rallies. What? yes, of course, this sense of togetherness and unity can be manipulated for good or evil. But it also helps choirs to sing, orchestras to orch, etc. Anyone who sings in a choir will tell you how inexplicably good it makes you feel.

5. And a kind of entrainment is also part of why four women living in the same house will tend to synchronise their monthly cycles after a while. Yes, they really do, I can vouch for that!

(Look, all this is science, it owes nothing to cannabis sativa, OK?)

6. If you take about six breaths per minute, whilst you're sitting quietly, it will help your mind to slip into an energised but calm mental state well suited to meditation. (And of course most schools of meditation place great emphasis on using, observing, following, the breath.)

7. When Mathieu Ricard, ex-celebrated scientist and now Buddhist monk who helps interpret Tibetan Buddhism to the scientific community, was wired up to observe his brain states whilst he meditated, he was found to be in a particularly energised yet calm mental state. Skilled meditators can use these states to explore, to research, as it were, their own mental states. (see "Ten Zen Questions," by Susan Blackmore)

And there's an ex-Pogue who has set up computers using the sound of Tibetan singing bowls (more holy, or "holy" wavelengths) to create Longplayer, a sound system that will continue to generate, without repetition, his composition (not a recording - it's being composed as it goes along) for the next 1000 years. (Minus the ten or so it's been going already.)

I mean, like, wow, you know, maybe there is a music of the spheres?
All I can say is: OM.

So now will you give mindfulness meditation a go?

ps it also sounds lovely, all that plainchant and OM stuff!


  1. Ah, all very spellbinding. To take a really sceptical view of this might be to observe that it exemplifies humankind's self-importance: elaborate and elegant self-delusion. But that we don't settle for being a molecular accident not waiting to happen but, instead, strive to glimpse higher meaning, is peculiarly brave and beautiful and, to use a word no longer current, noble. So it's right OM from me. The beauty of holiness is experienced in many ways, the aspiration to peer into mystery somewhat of a moral duty.

  2. Wow! Or should I say 'OM'? How very interesting. And I love the idea of entrainment. What a beautiful thought.
    The thing is GM, you'd already convinced me to give mindfulness meditation a go before I'd even read this post. It's not that I don't see the benefits – which are clearly wonderful and innumerable – it's that I haven't set aside the time to do it! You know what it's like, you read something uplifting and inspirational, think to yourself "I'm going to give that a go", then you put the book down/keyboard away/radio off and life carries you away again.
    However, since mindfulness meditation is going to add to my life (I have no doubt, after a while, I'll be saying "I wish I'd done this years ago"), I'd better get on with it!
    Thanks for the enlightenment...

  3. "...the aspiration to peer into mystery somewhat of a moral duty..." beautifully put. Especially for celebrants, one might add, Charles. Which is why some (please note, only some) of the BHA people I encounter get me down with their denigration of anything that suggests mystery, unknowableness etc. What I liked so much about the programme was that its basis was scientific, so for people who think OM etc in its cultural setting is elegant self-delusion, it should be possible to fall back on the rational science of it - it's observable, explicable, we can now see how it works. And for those with a less stringently rationalist outlook, who can accept it without seeing how it works,it also works, and has a certain beauty for both camps.

    Ah, CB (welcome back to M&M)I do indeed know how it is. I have three books one-third read...I'm delighted you want to give mindfulness a go. I'm hoping there'll be an evening class near you, then it's "just" a matter of finding an evening a week for two months!And I hope it won't irritate you if I say that one of the effects of mindfulness meditation is often, people say, to moderate that feeling of life running you off your feet.