Getting Into Sound
Sound, like breath, is infinitely interesting. Think of how much music of all types is being played and broadcast around the earth at this moment. On every continent music is being played, live and pre-recorded, because human beings like to listen to melodic sounds. People are making sounds with every kind of instrument, with stringed instruments, breath instruments such as the flute, percussion instruments, electronic instruments that can imitate anything, and the human voice.
To use sound in meditation, start from where you are with sound, then learn to listen to progressively quieter sounds until you are listening to silence. At that moment you often have a brief moment of mental silence also, which is immensely refreshing even if brief. The world does not have to become still for you to experience this. There is a stillness underneath sound that’s there for anyone to partake in.
If you are in nature right now, there may be sounds you can use as a focus: a waterfall, a brook, the wind in the trees. If you are in your home or at work, there may be all sorts of sounds around you in the background. The hum of electrical motors, refrigerators, computers, fans and heaters or air conditioners may permeate the environment. What we think of as silence may in fact be quite noisy. People rarely complain about how noisy the ocean is, but waves make a lot of sound. Leaves on trees make a tremendous sound as they rustle. And if you are in a sensory deprivation chamber, the sound of your heart beating and the air flowing in and out can seem very loud. So noise is not an obstacle to meditation, it is something you make use of. There is never complete silence as long as you are alive to hear, because the sound of the blood rushing through your body and through your ears makes a hum.
Sound is a wonderful medium of expression and exploration in meditation. There are sounds that have been used for thousands of years as tools of thought, and you may want to explore some of these.
Meditation-sounds, or mantras, often sound like the sounds people make when they sigh and exclaim, in surprise, wonder, awe, or pleasure: AH! Ooooh! Eeeeeee! Mmmmmm . . . . These sounds are often soothing and awakening at the same time.
Make a list of all the yawning, sighing with relief, exclamation and orgasm sounds you can think of. Hum them a bit and notice how they feel in your body. Do this now.
Hoo. Whew. Aiee. Oy. Oooooh.
What sounds do you associate with relief?
What sounds do you associate with surprise?
What sounds do you associate with wonder?
What sounds do you associate with delight?
What sounds do you associate with orgasm?
What sounds do you associate with joy?
What sounds do you associate with peacefulness?
Make your own list of favorites right now, before going further with sound. Survey what your favorite sounds are, sounds you sometimes make naturally. Become intimate with the sounds you love. This will be your foundation for the explorations with sound on the following pages.
You could also set yourself the task of listening to the sounds people make and making note of them. As you go to work, watch TV, see movies, talk to friends, play with kids, notice the sounds. Comic books often have wonderful descriptions of the sounds of action — “KerPOW!”
Exploring The Vowels of Your Mother Tongue
Time: Twenty minutes.
Where: You need uninterrupted conditions for this.
On Sesame Street (an educational TV show for children), sometimes one of the puppets will walk out waving a sign saying, “This portion of the show is brought to you by the Letter E.” Mantras are self-generated sounds that can be used in meditation and all mantras are brought to you by the Letters Of The Alphabet.
When you are exploring the use of sound in meditation, one way to approach it is to re-learn the alphabet. This time around you are concerned not with how to write the letters and say them, but with recognizing how the sounds resonate in your body. Once upon a time you may have done this, as you were first learning to speak. Recently I was visiting a friend who has a two-year old daughter, Sabrina. The little girl was trotting around the room singing vowel sounds: “Ah — Eeeee — Ah — Eeeee — Ohhhhh —- Eeeee. She was clearly delighted by the sounds themselves, and I was too. It was beautiful. She kept improvising and playing with the sound quality of words she was learning: “mmmmMmmmmmOmmmmeeeee” (Mommy).
What Sabrina was doing was playing with the mantric quality of speech, meaning the vibration itself and how it feels in the human body. The main difference between her playing and meditating with a mantra is that in meditation, you let the mantra fade away and then follow it into the silence, and Sabrina was much more interested in dancing with the sound. One thing I learned from her that day was how much OM there is in MOM and MOMY, something I’d never realized before. OM, as you may know, is one of the great mantras used in yoga and all the Himalayan meditation traditions, including the Tibetan.
In meditation, one tool or technique you can use is listen to the sounds of the alphabet in a special way. Basically, you think a sound, and let your attention synchronize with its rhythms; then you listen to it fade away. The sound gives you something to focus on that is pleasing in the way that music is pleasing, and then you are more alert to the silence that comes afterwards. In this way, you learn to be alert to emptiness and silence.
Sound is handy for setting up the condition of “delicious under-loading of the senses” that is so enjoyable in meditation. You can hum or think a sound at any level, then sit back as it fades. The next couple of pages show you how to do that. Letting a sound remind you of silence is one of those things that’s easier done than said.
Quietly and with leisure, say the vowels and let yourself become comfortable with them. You use them constantly in speaking and thinking, but take a moment to get used to them in a meditative mood. Explore the different ways of saying and thinking the vowel sounds. Notice you can think a sound, then listen, and there is the feeling of the echo or afterglow of the sound.
Note which sounds you feel the best with and make a note of them, for that is what you will construct your mantras out of. When you think in words, the sound is there but you usually are not listening to it, you are aware of the meaning of the words. In meditation, you use the ability to think in words, and the auditory sensory pathway as a focus for attention.
As with music, there is also a strong kinesthetic component of feeling subtle sensations and vibrations in the body.
1. Sing or hum any vowel sound in any language you know, perhaps your mother tongue if you are bilingual.
2. If you find yourself singing, you can also hold on one note and then glide through the vowels, noticing which ones give you the most pleasure.
If you are saying the vowels, just notice which ones you feel attracted to or enjoy the most.
3. Glide around, because the vowels are mixed anyway -- in English, for example, a, e, and i all have the eee sound. Make up variations of the vowel sounds. Play with them as a child would. Take an “O” sound and let it shift to “ou” as in “you.” Take the “A” sound and notice how it feels to say “Ah.”
Notice the way you shape your lips and where you position your tongue.
4. Select one and hum it, with the lips closed, to sense the vibration in your mouth. Do this for several minutes.
5. Then say it quietly, barely mouthing the sound.
6. Listen inside yourself as the sound shifts from being something you make in your throat and mouth to one that is echoing inside you.
7. Take the attitude of not caring whether the sound is there or not, and simply pay attention to your bodily feelings.
Do this for five minutes or so.
This exercise will help you appreciate poetry as well as vocal music because poets and singers use many exquisite techniques in placing and shaping vowels. The more you explore vowels in meditation, the more your body will open to take pleasure in poetry and music.
Chant The Vowels
Time: A minute to five minutes.
Where: Anywhere you don’t mind being heard.
Chant the vowels of any language you know, in any order. Have an attitude of curious exploration and simple pleasure. It helps to give yourself permission to feel childlike and mischievous.
After you get some vowels going, begin to pay attention to the roundness of the sounds, and to the movement in your mouth as you shape the sounds. It’s fun.
Each vowel resonates in a different place in your skull and in your body.
Stay with one pitch and slide through the vowels.
Then let the tone change, like a song, and play with going up and down.
If you are playful, you will probably make up your own variations. Experiment with chanting softly, then really belting it out.
Add any consonants you like. For example, if you are chanting “Ah” notice what happens if you add “Y” to get a “Yah” sound. If you are chanting “E” sounds or “I” sounds, feel what happens when you add “MMMM” or “N”.
In English, -ing is added to many verbs to indicate action. Chant-ing, breath-ing, sing-ing, play-ing. Check out what happens to your chant when you add the sound, “ing” to any vowel.
Many people find chanting the vowels to be very refreshing, and that it clears the head in just a minute. It is energizing and relaxing. It lets the voice relax, and helps make ordinary speaking seem more pleasurable.
Say you find a vowel combination you particularly enjoy, such as AH – EE.
Take the time to find the consonants that really spice up the sound for you.
For example, with AH — EE, if you add SH at the beginning, a N and a T sound, you have Shanti, the Sanskrit word for peace.
Shanti is pronounced SHAN – TEEEE.
Sanskrit is onomatopoeic, it sounds like what it means. Chant Shanti for ten minutes and see how you feel. This works both ways; if you find a vowel combination that seems to produce a certain effect in your body, you are in a way making up your own Sanskrit. It is good for everyone who uses spoken language to have a feeling for how sound resonates in the body.
Other sounds with AH — EE are Shakti, which is the female aspect of divinity. A woman I know loves to chant Shiva — Shakti, meaning, the union of male and female divinity. Shiva is pronounced SHEE – VAH and Shakti is pronounced SHAK – TEE.
In the Sanskrit world-view, everything is divine, including every sound of every letter, including the ones you use all the time without thinking about it.
At different times of day, or when in different moods, different sounds may call you.
Ma is the word for mother, of course, in Sanskrit, and is part of many chants and mantras. You can make up combinations of sounds with Ma: MA EEEEE MA.
Ram is a wonderful, masculine, radiant and solar sound, often said as Rama or Ra-Ma. So the sound has male and female integrated in it. It is used in many chants and mantras.
Yah is a fantastic sound. The Germans use it for Yes, singers and the backup singers use it as a generally affirming filler sound, as in, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” It combines with everything.
Definition of MELLIFLUOUS
1- having a smooth rich flow
2 - filled with something (as honey) that sweetens
— mel·lif·lu·ous·ly adverb
— mel·lif·lu·ous·ness noun
Origin of MELLIFLUOUS: Middle English mellyfluous, from Late Latin mellifluus, from Latin mell-, mel honey + fluere to flow; akin to Gothic milith honey, Greek melit-, meli
First Known Use: 15th century
mellifluous [muh-lif-loo-uhs] - Part of Speech: adjective - Definition: - smooth and sweet sounding - Synonyms - agreeable, dulcet, euphonic, fluid, harmonic, honeyed, mellifluent, mellow, pleasing, resonant, songful, soothing, symphonious, tuned, tuneful
Main Entry: melodious/melodic
Part of Speech: adjective
Definition: harmonious, musical
Synonyms: accordant, agreeable, assonant, canorous, clear, concordant, dulcet, euphonic, euphonious, harmonic, in tune, mellifluous , mellow, pleasing, resonant, silvery, soft, songful, sweet, sweet-sounding, symphonic, symphonious, tuned, tuneful, well-tuned
Antonyms: cacophonous, discordant, grating, harsh, inharmonious, unmelodic, unmusical
Main Entry: rich
Part of Speech: adjective
Definition: full in color or sound
Synonyms: bright, canorous, deep, dulcet, eloquent, expressive, intense, mellifluous , mellow, resonant, rotund, significant, silvery, sonorous, strong, vibrant, vivid, warm
Antonyms: low, weak
Meditating with a mantra is not japa, but it is related. Note the differences.
By V.K.Ahluwala & Krishan Kumar Suman