Monday, March 9, 2009

The Meaning of AUM

I initiate the start and end of my practice time with the sound of AUM.  What is the significance of this mantra?  What gems of meaning lie within its vibration?  The AUM mantra is said to be a direct path on the road of spiritual practice.  Chanting the AUM mantra, along with a deep feeling for the meaning of what it represents, brings both the realization of the individual Self and the removal of obstacles that normally block that realization. 

One way to understand this sacred sound is to think of it as the voice and creative source (isvara) of the entire universe (I.27).  The study of physics teaches us that everything, without exception, vibrates and that that vibration has a certain frequency or sound.  AUM is the coalescence of all the sounds in the universe.  According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the AUM mantra is a direct path to samadhi – the eighth limb of the eight-limbed path to Yoga (I.29).  Samadhi is the culmination of the Yoga practice whereby one experiences a total absorption of attention in an object.  In the state of samadhi everything in the field of consciousness falls away except the object in which the attention is absorbed (III.3).  Repetition of AUM is a direct path to samadhi because it leads to the experience of its meaning (I.28) and is away of achieving nirodaha the “cessation of the turnings or fluctuations of consciousness (I.2).”

A more specific way to practice and understand the AUM mantra is contained in the twelve terse verses of the Mandukya Upanishad, which outlines the philosophy and practices of the mantra.  It has been said that the wisdom of the ancient sages is in the four Vedas, that the juice of the Vedas is in the Upanishads, and the juice of the Upanishads is in the Mandukya Upanishad.  The statement that if one understands its teachings, no other teachings are needed is a clear comment on the strength and wisdom of this practice.

There are four main levels of consciousness outlined in the AUM mantra.  Each of these are experienced on the inner journey of meditation and contemplation.  These levels of consciousness exist universally, regardless of whether the practitioner chants the mantra or uses its visual symbol.  In either case, the underlying principles are extremely beneficial for all seekers in purifying and clearing the mind.  When chanting AUM the yogi strives to remember the four parts of the mantra, one after the other, along with their meanings.  Over time this practice brings increasing insight and eventually leads to the ultimate realization of this path – direct experience with Absolute Reality (turiya)– the state of Self Realization.

Each of the three sounds of the AUM mantra (A-U-M) symbolizes a specific state of consciousness.  After these three sounds, there is a distinct silence.  The silence symbolizes the fourth state of consciousness – consciousness or awareness itself.  Not only does the sound vibration of the mantra represent the four levels of consciousness, so too does the visual symbol.

The lower curve of the AUM symbol represents the gross, conscious, waking state called Vaishvaanara and is the “A” of the AUM mantra.  This state is experienced as actions, speech and thoughts of which we are “consciously” aware.  The unconscious processes of deeper states are also present here but generally go unnoticed.

The central curve of the AUM symbol represents the subtle, unconscious, dreaming state called Taijasa and is the “U” of the AUM mantra.  This is the state in which dreaming occurs.  It is the level where the mind can work out the unfulfilled desires, attractions and aversions not allowed to be played out in the waking, conscious state. 

The upper curve of the AUM represents the causal, subconscious, deep sleep state called Prajna and is the “M” of the AUM mantra.  The deep sleep state is where life impressions are stored in their latent form.  It contains the roots of our behavioral and emotional patterns (samskaras) that are the driving force behind actions (karma).  The desires, attractions and aversions that play themselves out in dreams or turn into action and speech originate in this level.  These latent impressions are seeds, waiting for water and fertilizer so they may grow in the field of dreams or waking life.  The Sanskrit word for the third level of consciousness, prajna, translates as supreme knowledge.  Thus, this level of consciousness harbors our inherent supreme knowledge.  It is this level we access in the practice of Yoga Nidra, conscious “yogic” sleep.  Normally, in yoga meditation one remains in the waking state and gradually allows awareness to expand into other states that are usually unconscious.  In Yoga Nidra, one leaves the waking state, descends into deep sleep, and brings waking consciousness along.  Yoga Nidra is a way in which to experience the part of the Self that has never slept a day in its life – the Presence that bears witness to all fluctuating states and levels of consciousness.  Yoga Nidra is also a practice that allows one to experience thought patterns directly and thus be able to reduce their power to play out due to conditioning and habit.  Now energy is freed to mindfully choose new habit patterns.  The power of the practice lies in the ability to burn and attenuate the route causes of self-limiting patterns and in the planting of new seeds.  This is more effective than simply pasting another layer of habits over the top of old ones.  The practice of which only creates inner conflicts and leads to “a fall from the wagon” despite the strongest of intentions. 

The dot represents the fourth state, turiya, which encompasses, permeates and is all the other three states.  This is the silence that follows the “A,” “M,” and “U” of the AUM mantra.  The arc below the dot symbolizes the distinction of the fourth state.  Turiya literally means “the fourth” and stands above, though ever a part of the other three states.  Turiya is technically a non-state as it always bears witness to the other states.  Throughout each day we move in and out of the other three states yet turiya remains.  Turiya is like to standing on the top of a three-story building.  From each of the three levels one can only see out through a window, whereas from the roof you can see panoramic view. 


Yoga Sutra Workbook: The Certainty of Freedom by Vyaas Houston, MA

Mandukya Upanishad and Yoga: Twelve Verses on OM Mantra