Om Activism

Black and white photo of a crowd watching poet Allen Ginsburg

Crowd Watching Allen Ginsberg Chanting (2018), The Allen Ginsberg Project


Dear Reader,

My family doesn’t do very much for Chinese New Year, so I got to spend the long weekend doing absolutely nothing, which was fantastic! I finally found the time to watch The Trial of the Chicago 7. In it, the infamous “Chicago 7” led swathes of Americans in protesting the Vietnam War. There is a very, very brief scene where a mob is marching and yelling outside the police station, and poet Allen Ginsberg is in the front row, chanting “om” into a loudhailer. It’s framed as a funny little moment, where the leaders of the protest have no idea what he’s doing. But it struck me, and I went searching for whether there was any truth to that scene in history.

It resonated with my own interest in yoga, though it’s always been a very physical practice for me. True yoga practice encompasses the mental and spiritual, the meditation and the philosophies. I had the impression that people who truly embody meditative practice of yoga are very calm and level-headed people. So I had never considered that activists might use meditation to fight for their cause. In my mind I had always separated yoga from the “real” world: the real world is terrible, and you’ve got to fight with it to survive. Yoga happens in the peace and quiet, I thought. You can’t do yoga while the world is on fire. But perhaps I was wrong.

I found transcripts of the trial, in which Ginsberg is questioned as a witness. He talks about his research into meditation and chanting. He recounts leading meditation sessions during the protests, sometimes chanting for up to seven hours. He did all this amid a revolution trying to happen, while the world around him was on fire, with the belief that it would help others. “Ten people humming o-m can calm down one himself. One hundred people humming o-m can regulate the metabolism of a thousand. A thousand bodies vibrating o-m can immobilize an entire downtown Chicago street full of scared humans, uniformed or naked.”

And by “immobilize”, he meant to bring the demonstrators and police alike to “A completely peaceful realization of the fact that we were all stuck in the same street, place, terrified of each other, and reacting in panic and hysteria rather than reacting with awareness of each other as human beings, as people with bodies that actually feel, can chant and pray and have a certain sense of vibration to each other or tenderness to each other which is basically what everybody wants, rather than fear.”

I sometimes feel like a sham when I participate in the anti-capitalist side of Twitter discourse (it’s so bad for one’s mental health), then go right out and spend money on a fancy, Insta-worthy yoga studio. To walk around constantly angry with the world, then stop for an hour to ignore all that and focus on the mat in front of me. Surely I wasn’t at all qualified to even think about practicing meditation? But Ginsberg’s words, this small, almost insignificant slice of a much larger history of revolution, inspired me. Maybe it’s possible to turn inward and find peace amongst fear, and in doing so hold space for others to do the same. To meditate in the middle of chaos. To stop and breathe while the world is on fire.

Till next time,

(From February 20, 2021)