Om Mani Padme Hum.
Or, in its original ancient language of Sanskrit – ॐ मणिपद्मे हूँ
If you’ve done any yoga in the past, this chant might be familiar to you. There are debates about its meaning, but “Mani Padme” is often translated as “jewel in the Lotus.” The Lotus flower is ubiquitous across India, East and South-East Asia. Growing in flood plains and slow-moving rivers, the seeds settle on the bottom of a water puddle or pond and can remain dormant for a long time. The oldest known germination is from 1300-year-old seeds that were found in a dry lake in north-eastern China; probably why it’s seen as a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. Its reputation is also helped along by the fact the Lotus has been cultivated for over 3,000 years for its edible seeds, which are often used as a paste in Chinese pastries and in Japanese desserts.
As the Lotus flower grows up through the mud, it opens its pale white and pink petals to reveal an unblemished centre. Buddhism teaches that everyone has the potential to become enlightened; the way the Lotus grows in dirty ponds symbolises our own opportunity for purity and awakening. It is why the Buddha is sometimes depicted sitting on a Lotus flower. Overcoming pain and hardship in life to become enlightened, just as the flower grows in muddy water yet isn’t soiled by the mud. Many Hindu gods are also shown sitting or standing on Lotus flowers for just the same reason.
As a chant Om Mani Padme Hum has been around a while – probably since the fourth or fifth centuries. It is the most widely used mantra in Tibetan Buddhism and it is also used in Chinese Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. Try chanting it out loud slowly and carefully…. Ommm… M-an-i… Pad-me… Hu-umm – and you’ll find it takes around five to six seconds to say. This is important – more on this in a moment.
James Nestor is an author and science journalist and his latest book is “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” which was published in 2020. It has been so popular that twelve months later it has been translated into thirty languages. Nestor says his book explores the “million-year-long history of how the human species has lost the ability to breathe properly.” Not breathing in the right way is creating huge problems for many of us – from snoring, to sleep apnea and asthma, through to autoimmune disease and allergies.
Nestor travelled the world to explore breathing, not only to share his research with us, but also to support himself. He was interested on a personal level because he suffered from respiratory problems. Having joined a breathing class he learnt techniques that gave him real relief, discovering that sometimes breathing the right way can create better outcomes than diets, inhalers, or even drugs can do.
Science is starting to back up the idea that sound and rhythm can enhance our thoughts and feelings. It can help us to rest and relax and can also support our immune system. Nestor says that “the most efficient breathing rhythm occurs when both the length of respirations and the total breaths per minute are locked into a spooky symmetry – 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute.”
Christina Rawls is professor of philosophy at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, USA. She has written this really interesting long-form essay: The universal forces of sound and rhythm enhance thought and feeling. She is intrigued by the backdrop of music and sounds in our lives and how they can provide “a scaffold for thought when logic and imagery elude us.”
Rawls is also drawn in by Nestor’s research. She outlines his idea that breathing techniques which balance in-breaths and out-breaths have the same rhythm as prayer. She quotes him here: “when Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds … The traditional chant of Om … takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale.”
This natural rhythm is found across the world. Here is Nestor again: “Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian – these cultures and religions all had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, requiring the same breathing patterns. And they all likely benefited from the same calming effect.”
The wisdom of the ancients is therefore coming full circle… in six seconds. The new science of a lost art. Here are three ways you can improve your life in seconds:
- Navy SEALs are not the first people who come to mind when we think about mediation and breathing. If you’re unfamiliar with them, SEALS are a special operations force, part of the USA’s Naval Special Warfare Command. They form into small units who operate covert missions, often behind enemy lines. Despite this, we can learn something from them: box breathing, or sometimes called square breathing. This is a technique they use to slow down their breathing and we can do this too – distracting our minds and decreasing our levels of stress. Simply count to four as you breathe in, then hold for four seconds, then count to four seconds as you breathe out. Hold there for four seconds and then repeat.
- Belly breathing is another exercise that can help you relax or relieve stress. Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position. Put one hand on your stomach just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and let your stomach push your hand out. Try to isolate the movement here and stop your chest from moving. Breathe out through pursed lips and feel your hand on your stomach go back down. You can even use your hand on your belly to push all the air out. Breathe like this for three to ten times. Take your time with each breath.
- You can read more about breathing in one of my previous posts “four simple things we need to thrive” along with three other things you can do to flourish – eating, drinking (water not alcohol…sorry) and sleeping.
Of course, you could also imagine yourself sitting on a Lotus pad, chanting Om Mani Padme Hum.
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan