“By sound one becomes liberated (Anavrittih shabdai)” is the concluding verse of the Brahma Sutras (4.4.22)
Why do we use sound in meditation? Why not use one of the other senses or faculties, since touch, sight, taste, and smell must also possess increasingly subtler forms until they reach the point of their emerging? It is true that these four faculties do have subtle forms, but only sound reaches to the ultimate point of emergence.
The five senses correspond to the five elements of which all things consist. Those elements are ether, air, fire, water, and earth. That is, their grossest forms are those of sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell as perceived by the bodily senses. Because of this we use these terms to refer to them. But the water element is not just the liquid we call “water.” It is much more, having roots in the astral and causal planes. The same is true of the other elements.
When relative existence, individual or cosmic, begins, there is a chain of manifestation. First there is the out-turning of the consciousness itself. This modification on the cosmic level is the emerging of the Mahat Tattwa, the Great Element, that is the Personal or Saguna Brahman, spoken of in Christianity as “the Only-begotten of the Father” or “Son” of God. In the individual this is the sense of asmita: I-am-ness. Then the Pradhana [Prakriti] modifies itself into the five elements, beginning with ether, and each succeeding element contains within itself some of the preceding elements. That is, air is not “pure” but is air mixed with some ether. Fire possesses some of the ether and air element. Water has some fire, air, and ether. Earth has some water, fire, air, and ether. So only ether is unmixed, and only ether is “touching” the principle of individualized consciousness. In other words, only ether is in direct contact with the spirit. Yet ether [akasha] pervades all the other elements as their prime constituent–actually as their source and core element. Sound is the quality (or faculty) of ether; touch is the quality of air; sight is the quality of fire; taste is the quality of water; and smell is the quality of earth. Sound, then, is the only thing that reaches back to the principle of consciousness. The other elements stop somewhere along the way.
There is more. The other four elements have only one faculty or power, but akasha has two faculties or powers: Vak and Shabda–Speaking and Hearing. The faculties of the four other elements are all passive. The faculty of smell cannot generate smells, the faculty of taste cannot generate tastes, etc., though the memory or imagination of them is possible. Ether, on the other hand, has the capacity to both generate and hear sound on the mental levels. The etheric faculty both speaks and hears what it speaks, is both active and passive. This is unique among the elements. Akasha alone possesses creative power.
When we inwardly intone Om and become absorbed in that sound, by centering our awareness in the act of intoning Om and listening to It, we become thoroughly centered in the Chidakasha, the Infinite Consciousness that is our only Self.
The five elements also correspond to the five levels or bodies known as koshas: the anandamaya, jnanamaya, manomaya, pranamaya, and annamaya bodies. These are the intelligence, intellectual, mental (sensory), biomagnetic, and physical bodies. The highest (most subtle) body is the etheric body (anandamaya kosha) which is the seat of sound or speech.
Sound, then, is the direct means to return our awareness to the inmost level of our being and put us into touch with consciousness itself. In fact, consciousness is innate in sound. At the same time, sound rules all the levels of our being and has the ability to infuse all those levels with the highest spiritual consciousness. Sound has the power to “spiritualize” every bit of us. And the essence, the root, of all sound is Om.
A special form of sound
“So it is not just thought in general that we need, but a special kind of thought–one that turns the awareness back upon itself and eventually dissolves itself into the pure consciousness that is spirit.”
We say that we use sound in Om Yoga–in meditation especially. But it is not just any form of sound. Rather, it is sound that is produced (generated) in the mind–not sound that is passively heard either through the ears or through the memory of auditory sound. This generation of sound is the process known as thinking. So yoga is accomplished by the generation and observation of a thought in the mind. This is why Shankara, commenting on Yoga Sutra 2:20, says that the activity of pure consciousness in the individual is “observation of thoughts in the mind.…Purusha, looking on at thought in the mind alone, sees only that, and never fails to see thought which is his object.…To witness is natural to him, in the sense that his essence is awareness of the mind’s ideas.” “Mind is by definition the object of purusha” according to Vyasa. Now this is extremely profound. The only thing we ever do in our real nature as pure consciousness is to observe thoughts in the intellect (buddhi). Sense impressions are perceived a step away from that in the lower mind (manas). Perceiving thought is the sole activity of the spirit-consciousness. Perception of thought is also a perpetual–truly an inescapable–activity of the purusha. It is only reasonable then to conclude that to discover the true self or to cause the self to become established in its real nature we must employ the faculty of thought. Yet it is thought that is tangling us up all the time in false identities. So it is not just thought in general that we need, but a special kind of thought–one that turns the awareness back upon itself and eventually dissolves itself into the pure consciousness that is spirit. That unique thought is Om. “Its japa and bhavanam is the way.” Our eternal nature ensures our success. “Liberation is absence of bondage.” (Vyasa) “Nor is liberation something that has to be brought about apart from the absence of bondage, and this is why it is always accepted that liberation is eternal.” (Shankara)
The “genealogy” of sound
The cosmos and the individual are manifested by the same process: ever-expanding sound-vibration, Spanda. First there comes the most subtle expansion-movement or vibration on the causal level where rather than an objective sound it is a bhava, the slightest differentiation of primal consciousness. This is known as dhvani. Dhvani then expands and mutates into nada, which is sound, but in such a subtle form that it is more an idea of sound rather than actual sound. Nada develops into nirodhika, a kind of focussing of the energy so it becomes potential sound. This expands and becomes ardha-indu (ardhendu), the “half-moon” which is the crescent shape seen on the Om symbol and on the head of Shiva. This is both thought and sound, but sound that can only be heard as the faintest of inner mental sounds. Ardhendu then expands and becomes bindu, the vibratory source-point that is depicted in the Om symbol as a point or dot. This bindu is fully sound, but on the interior level only. It cannot be spoken aloud. It cannot be spoken at all, but only perceived and entered into as the first step back to the source consciousness that is Spirit. Yet, from bindu comes all the permutations that are the various sounds which are combined to form words–including mantras. As we enter into relative consciousness through the expansion of sound, just so can we enter back into transcendent Consciousness through the intentional contraction of sound that occurs in meditation.
According to the yoga scriptures there are three basic forms of sound or speech: 1) pashyanti, that which can only be intuited or felt rather than heard–even within; 2) madhyama, that which can be heard in the mind as thought; and 3) vaikhari, that which is physically spoken and heard outwardly through the vibration of the air. But beyond even these is the transcendental sound, para-vak or “supreme speech” which is soundless sound, consciousness itself.
“When men sent out Vak’s [Speech’s] first and earliest utterances, all that was excellent and spotless, treasured within them, was disclosed.…the trace of Vak they followed, and found her harboring within.” (Rig Veda 10.71.1, 2) This hymn of the Rig Veda speaks of Vak, the creative Sound from which all things came. This Sound both manifested all things and revealed them–that is, produced the consciousness capable of perceiving them. The sages, the hymn tells us, traced Vak (Om) back to the source and discovered It was within themselves as both Power and Consciousness.
Meditation is the process of tracing discovered by the sages, the procedure by which the yogi enters into the inner levels of Om, tracing it to its very source which is consciousness. As he does so, he experiences within the depths of his awareness the subtle states of consciousness (bhava) inherent in Om. Meditation leads us right into the heart of Om as we trace the “thread” of Its sound back through Its many permutations to Its original bhava or impulse of consciousness that expanded outward to manifest as Its outermost form of the spoken Om.
Out of the labyrinth
Theseus, an ancient epic hero, was condemned to die in a Cretan labyrinth. He survived because he had a thread which was anchored at the entrance of the maze. By following the thread he escaped. Sound is the thread, the following of which in meditation will lead us out of the deadly labyrinth of samsara. Specifically, Om is the sound-thread that leads us out since It is the first Sound that arises in Eternity. Thus It leads back to the Origin of all things: Divine Consciousness.
Or we could put is this way: The subtle thread of Om is extending from the Center of Reality outward into/as all things. Through Om Yoga meditation we ascend back to the center with every breath. This ascent also evolves us. So we sit, incubate, grow, and ascend.
This being so, it is crucial for us to continually remember throughout our meditation that the sound and effects of Om should be the objects of our attention. Throughout meditation keep hold of the thread of Om and you will be led to freedom from all bonds.
I.K. Taimni on japa and meditation
In The Science of Yoga I.K. Taimni says this regarding japa and meditation:
“Japa begins in a mechanical repetition but it should pass by stages into a form of meditation and unfoldment of the deeper layers of consciousness.
“The efficacy of japa is based upon the fact that every jivatma is a microcosm thus having within himself the potentialities of developing all states of consciousness and all powers which are present in the active form in the macrocosm. All the forces which can help this Divine spark within each human heart to become a roaring fire are to be applied. And the unfoldment of consciousness takes place as a result of the combined action of all these forces.…A mantra is a sound combination and thus represents a physical vibration which is perceptible to the physical ear. But this physical vibration is its outermost expression, and hidden behind the physical vibration and connected with it are subtler vibrations much in the same way as the dense physical body of man is his outermost expression and is connected with his subtler vehicles. These different aspects of Vak or ‘speech’ are called Vaikhari, Madhyama, Pashyanti and Para. Vaikhari is the audible sound which can lead through the intermediate stages to the subtlest form of Para Vak. It is really through the agency of these subtler forms of ‘sound’ that the unfoldment of consciousness takes place and the hidden potentialities become active powers. This release of powers takes a definite course according to the specific nature of the mantra just as a seed grows into a tree, but into a particular kind of tree according to the nature of the seed.”
And Om being the seed of the Totality of Consciousness, of Brahman Itself, the Om Yogi grows into Perfect Divinity by means of Its japa and meditation.