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.
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.
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.
Excerpt from Article A-U-M Silence: The Ancient Sound of Om by David Gordon