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The Sound of Silence

The Sound of Silence

‘If one listens with undivided attention to the sounds of string instruments … which are played successively and are prolonged, then one becomes absorbed in the supreme ether of consciousness at the end.’

Vijñana Bhairava ~ Verse 41

How do we make sound?

We probably know, but rarely consider, that sound is created when something vibrates and sends waves of energy (vibrations) into our ears. The stronger the vibrations, the louder the sound. However, in animal bodies, oceans, air, plants and planets there is an underlying vibration or subtle sound to all of being – an unstruck sound, inaudible … or is it? In Yogic thought, this vibration was signified in the silence after Oṁ or aum, which is often said to be three and a half syllables. The half syllable being the vibration in the silence after sound. 

In this sense scientists might agree with Hindu and Christian thought regarding the primacy of sound -that ‘in the beginning was the word’. Musica universalis or the music of the spheres is an ancient philosophical concept suggesting that the movements of the sun, moon, and planets create music. More recently, physicists have found there is a resonant sound to all planets in orbit. To listen to the sound of the sun there is a Youtube link below. Also, musicians like Cosmo Sheldrake sample sounds like that of the sun recorded by scientists and use them in their music, also in the links below. Hence, scientists, musicians, spiritual and philosophical thinkers and practitioners have all been interested in ‘the sound of silence’ so to speak.

A few crumbs of history around the sacred nature of sound and silence in India:

One of the oldest sound traditions in India is that of orthodox Vedic chanting, in which long devotional scriptures are chanted (traditionally by Brahmin priests), whose transmissions are said to have originally been heard (śruti) through divine revelation. These were orally passed through Brahmin families and are still chanted in temples, at yajña (sacred fire ceremonies), in ashrams and Brahmin households, unchanged for thousands of years. The sounds underpinning the Sanskrit alphabet (the language of these chants) are called mātṝkā (divine mothers) and Hinduism, like Christianity, holds vāc (the word) as primordial. Vāc is also the Goddess of words in Hindu thought. Therefore, the notion that certain sounds (vibrations) are sacred is fundamental to much Indian thought.

However, the importance of words (sacred or otherwise) is that they form the structure of thought. So when mendicants left orthodox Brahmin society and its religious practices to head for the jungles and caves to engage in more mystical and thought-stilling meditative practices, it is unsurprising there was a shift toward quietness. These wandering ascetics were known as śramana (meaning exertion, toil or austerity). They were renunciate seekers and latterly included Buddhists and Jains as well as Hindus. Japa (from the root jap meaning to mutter or repeat in a low voice), was central to these traditions. Japa is the many repetitions of short mantra and Om chanted by muttering or in the mind. This can be seen to reflect a turn toward a more somatic internalised experience of vibration or silent sounding and away from the longer ritualised social chanting practices. 

Lallā or Lal Ded a female mystical poet of India suggests even OM should finally be given away as the penultimate step before the final, emancipatory “worship of the divine with the mantra called Silence” (Lallāvākyāni 2.40)

ACTIVITY: Before we can connect to subtle inner sound after external sound,, we might first do the grounding practice of sitting for meditation and listening to the sounds in the space; what do you hear in the room? Rustling clothes, the buzz of a device, a clock maybe. Notice any sounds outside; road traffic, birds or wind outside the room. Some sounds focus us, others distract. Variously, in practice, listen for all the sounds. Then notice any inner sounds, breath, heart beat or any other sound. If you hear no inner sounds, place your fingers in your ears and listen again.

Consider using a gong or singing bowl to trace the subtlety of vibration, listening first to the gross sound and then seeing how long you can hear the sound or feel the vibration after. Might part of what is relaxing or comforting about the sound be its vibration or how it resonates in the body? 

The unstruck sound

The Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā states that samādhi or complete meditative absorption is achieved when we hear the anāhata nādam (the unstruck sound)- (Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā 78-101). Nāda means “sound” and where you see references to  Nāda Yoga, this means Sound Yoga. It often refers to listening for this, usually unheard, inner vibration or sound after a more obvious external sound.

The sound that takes us into the silence after sound in yoga is Oṃ or Aum. It is pronounced differently in various practices and traditions. Oṃ predates Aum and sometimes the o is held for three or more beats, notated as o3ṃ. In this version there is little shift in the sound, rather one single sound. In the “humming” (praṇava) the focus is often on the mmm, which resonates in the upper palate and the skull. Sometimes this hum in om is nasal – created by sending the tongue to the upper palate  to make the ‘m’ into ‘ṃ’ ; other times it is om̐ , so the ‘m’ is made with the lips. Other times there are three continuous sounds aum

ACTIVITY: Try making all of the sounds above and notice they have a very vibrational quality about them – we might call this a hum. If we chant for long enough then we feel the vibration after our o3ṃ, oṃ, om̐ or aum is over.

Many traditions have a similar primordial sacred sound, the hum sound is there in the language of turning inward in European languages ‘one’ (in Latin ‘Un’, ‘una’, ‘uno’) and ‘in’. Om is present in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, just as ‘amen’ hums in Christianity and Judaism, or the vibratory qualities of the Islamic ‘ameen’, Zoroastrians called this ‘ahura mazada’. Again make the sounds above linger and notice their similar vibrational qualities and when repeated or protracted feel or hear the vibration after sound. In ‘The Emerald’ podcast Joshua Schrei explains that the Kalahari San people make a click sound (said to pop open consciousness) followed by an om-ish sound which vibrates in the palate and skull. In a parallel to the visualisations of the Indian hum, they use honeycomb and bees to represent their trance states in cave art. 

In the Nāda-Bindu Upanishad it states:

 ‘The syllable A is …(the bird Om’s) right wing, U, its left: M , its tail; and the ardhamātrā (half-metre) or silence after is … its head. The yogin … should always hear the internal sound through the right ear. The sound which he thus practises makes him deaf to all external sounds…

At first, the sounds are like those proceeding from- the ocean…At the last stage … from … bees. 

The Nāda-Bindu Upanishad has the three sounds, but the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad  is where A-U-M as three phonemes is more elaborated. It suggests the sounds correspond to the three oldest Hindu texts – Veda, three states of consciousness, three loka or worlds. A is related to the deity Brahma and the creative, generative state; U to Vishnu and the maintenance, steady state and M to Shiva and the destruction of the ego when the sound becomes a resonance in the skull. 

ACTIVITY: Place a hand on the solar plexus and sound an A(h) with mouth open and the tongue low in the mouth (if you have a high pitch, use a lower pitch to begin). Can you feel the resonance at the diaphragm? Place a hand on the heart and sound U with the tongue in the centre of the mouth. Can you feel the resonance at the heart? Bring hands to the skin above the mouth, which covers top teeth or to the sides of the nose or to the brow. Sound a regular M, then do the same with the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth. Do you feel the resonance in the upper palate and skull? After, sit in silence and notice if you feel the vibration after more strongly. If there is no sense of the sound after or vibration, place your fingers in your ears and feel/listen again.

This silence after sound is represented in the Om symbol itself, the three A-U-M states are the 3 curves in the main shape, the silence after is the high dot at the top, a bindu, representative of the universal principle; the unstruck sound, a vibration that unites everything in the universe. 

To hear this of course we must first cultivate the ability to deeply listen. In sutra 3.35 of the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, he suggests yogic adepts have super sensory capabilities and śravana (deep listening) is of utmost importance. Also, in 1.27 Patanjali states,

Tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ’ – 1.27 

The sutra shares that Om is the sacred or divine energy. Suggesting that the hum of the om and the silence after are a way of connecting to this resonance in all beings. This is a rare hint of non-dual oneness or suggestion of a universal consciousness vibrating in all of Being in the sutras.

Listening to the sound of silence cannot be understood theoretically, as with all yoga it is best understood experientially as a somatic experience. The practitioner seeks to experience that their vibration or inner sound is that of the universe. Yoga practices provide techniques for rendering our bodies into instruments for this vibration.

Milarepa, a Tibetan yogi and poet was said to have lived immersed in this universal sound – depicted with hand to right ear listening to the ringing of the sky, which he translated into 100,000 songs. It is said that as all thought focuses into one focused thought before we can desist thinking, so all sounds become one sound before we can hear the silence.

Of course, to little trained folk like myself this might feel impossible, but I have heard the sound of the ocean when I place my fingers in my ears or after much humming or Om-ing I feel the vibration after the sound. So, I have hope that where I now hear silence, one day I may, “By fixing the thumbs on the ears … listen to the sound in the space within the heart” (6.22) Maitri Upaniṣad 

Some Further Reading and Listening

The sound of the sun: (2nd piece is the sun at 8 min, 1st is owls) and 

Lal Ded, Lallāvākyāni 

The Emerald Podcast especially the episode on the purple hum: 

Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā 

Nāda-Bindu Upanishad

Yoga Sutras of Patañjali 

Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad Maitri Upaniṣad