Seeking the unstruck sound
Ancient teachings and modern science agree: you, I, all living things, all things in existence are made up at their most essential level of vibrating, pulsing energy.
For millennia, mystics have recounted their experience of this energy, which is said to manifest in our hearing awareness as a humming vibration around and within everything else.
In the Sanskrit tradition, this sound is called "Anahata Nada," the "Unstruck Sound." Literally, this means "the sound that is not made by two things striking together." The point of this particular distinction is that all ordinary audible sounds are made by at least two elements: bow and string; drum and stick; two vocal cords; two lips against the mouthpiece of the trumpet; the double reed of the oboe; waves against the shore; wind against the leaves. All sounds within our range of hearing are created by things visible or invisible, striking each other or vibrating together, creating pulsing waves of air molecules which our ears and brain interpret as sound.
So, sound that is not made of two things striking together is the sound of primal energy, the sound of the universe itself. Joseph Campbell likens this unstruck vibration to the humming of an electrical transformer, or the (to our ears) unheard hummings of atoms and molecules.
And the ancients say that the audible sound which most resembles this unstruck sound is the syllable OM. Tradition has it that this ancient mantra is composed of four elements: the first three are vocal sounds: A, U, and M. The fourth sound, unheard, is the silence which begins and ends the audible sound, the silence which surrounds it.
There are several traditional and allegorical interpretations of this ancient sound.
One ancient tradition of AUM
The lovliest explanation of OM is found within the ancient Vedic and Sanskrit traditions. We can read about AUM in the marvelous Manduka Upanishad, which explains the four elements of AUM as an allegory of the four planes of consciousness.
"A" (pronounced "AH" as in "father") resonates in the center of the mouth. It represents normal waking consciousness, in which subject and object exist as separate entities. This is the level of mechanics, science, logical reason, the lower three chakras. Matter exists on a gross level, is stable and slow to change.
Then the sound "U" (pronounced as in "who") transfers the sense of vibration to the back of the mouth, and shifts the allegory to the level of dream consciousness. Here, object and subject become intertwined in awareness. Both are contained within us. Matter becomes subtle, more fluid, rapidly changing. This is the realm of dreams, divinities, imagination, the inner world.
"M" is the third element, humming with lips gently closed. This sound resonates forward in the mouth and buzzes throughout the head. (Try it.) This sound represents the realm of deep, dreamless sleep. There is neither observing subject nor observed object. All are one, and nothing. Only pure consciousness exists, unseen, pristine, latent, covered with darkness. This is the cosmic night, the interval between cycles of creation, the womb of the divine Mother.
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The Yoga of AUM
It might be said that the ultimate aim of Yoga is to enter this third dreamless realm while awake. Yoga means "yoke" or "join." Through yoga we "join" our waking consciousness to its "source" in the world of pure, qualitiless unconsciousness.
Which brings us to the fourth sound of AUM, the primal "unstruck" sound within the silence at the end of the sacred syllable. In fact, the word "silence" itself can be understood only in reference to "sound." We hear this silence best when listening to sound, any sound at all, without interpreting or judging the sound. Listening fully, openly, without preconceptions or expectations. The sound of music, the sound of the city, the sound of the wind in the forest. All can give us the opportunity to follow the path of sound into the awareness of the sound behind the sound.
When one really "listens" to this silent sound, this unstruck vibration, one comes inevitably to stillness, to pure and open existence. The poet Gerhart Hauptmann says the aim of all poetry is "to let the Word be heard resounding behind words." The sound behind the sound. And, in making the sound of AUM, we hear this unstruck sound most clearly in the instant when the last humming vibrations of the "M" fade away. At that moment, that instant separating audible sound and silence, the veil is thinnest, and our listening awareness is most expansive.
At that moment of silence, to use William Blake's words, the "doors of perception" are cleansed, and "everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
Another way to make the AUM sound
One of my favorite exercises with the sacred AUM sound involves a more modern interpretation of its elements. In short: "A" is the sound of infinite expanding energy in the universe, the energy of unity consciousness and Divine Love; "U" is the sound of that very energy manifesting and materializing in our waking reality; with the sound of "M" we absorb and integrate that energy into our own being. In the silence after the sound we give thanks and allow the process to resonate within us.
Try this: stand comfortably, feet shoulder width apart, hands and arms hanging easily at your sides. Prepare to make the "AUM" sound, all three vowels in one seamless breath. Inhale gently, easily, expanding into your belly as you breathe. Open your mouth fully as you inhale, as if to "inhale" the "A" sound itself, creating the intention of the sound before the sound actually begins.
Then, as you begin to make the "A" sound, raise your arms out to the side, as if opening to embrace all the universe. Than as your voice transitions seamlessly to the "U" sound, extend your arms to the front, as if to hold something precious and powerful in your hands. You might wish to visualize some shape, round and energetic, manifesting between the palms of your hands. Then, gliding from "U" to the "M" sound, bring your hands, and whatever they may contain, to your heart center. Finally, in the echo of the silence, bring your palms to your chest, pressing them lovingly to your heart. Breathe gently.
Repeat this exercise several times. It is remarkably centering and relaxing.
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Find your own way
The most important aspect of this second form of AUM is the combination of sound and movement. It really doesn't matter what "images" you create in your mind as you do this exercise, or what specific significance you choose to attribute to each of the individual vowel sounds. The mere fact that you are intoning this ancient sound, and combining it with gentle intuitive movements of the upper body, will have a naturally gentle and balancing effect on your body, mind, emotions, and spirit.
In that state, we can best hear the the Anahata Nada, the unstruck sound behind the sound, the very Sound of the Self.
OM SHANTI SHANTI SHANTI
- David Gordon
a singer and vocal coach who lives in southern Oregon. Learn more about David here.