The Meaning of OM



The little word that packs a whole lot of story, “om” is as ubiquitous in yoga studios as “Amen” is in churches, or “Shalom” in synagogues. The syllable “om” can be chanted to open or close class, as part of a longer chant or on its own, and it is the story of all stories: the beginning, middle and end. Just as Catherine Burns, Artistic Director of “The Moth” Storytelling podcast and hour says in a recent interview in Spirit Magazine, “The process of putting your life in order with a beginning, middle, and end forces you to see cause and effect. And it can actually be empowering to see that you do have more control over your life than you think.”  

Om’s meaning is inextricably tied to its effect. Much like “Amen,” it’s meaning and tone can change depending on context. “Om” in and of itself doesn’t have a referent, like the word “rock” refers to the lump of minerals at your feet.

“Om” when pronounced actually has three syllables: /ah-oh-um/. Try it, out loud, then in a whisper. Notice how your mouth goes from wide open, to smaller and then closed, almost containing the vibration of the sound. Try it again, and notice where you feel the sound during each phase: the “ah” happens at the back of your mouth, toward the throat and the back of the tongue; the “oh” waves the tongue forward, and sits like a gum ball in the middle of the mouth, while the “um” brings the action right up to the front, at the closure of the lips.

This forward motion of the tongue is mirrored by a backward wave of the upper palette: while the roof of the mouth is relaxed and open for the initial “ah,” the middle roof of the mouth tones up just a bit in the “oh” phase, while the “um” lifts the soft palette at the back of the throat as the lips close. This vibration of the soft palette is said to carry upwards to the pineal gland, the human interface with divine consciousness. By vibrating the pineal gland at the bottom of the brain over the soft palette, you are courting clarity and enlightenment and opening the third eye between the brows, the place of wisdom.

These three distinct phases of the sound of “om” are directly related to its story. “Om” represents, in the simplest terms, the beginning, middle and end of time, the universe and everything. The beginning, middle and end of a life, your life; of a story, your story; of a practice, of an epoch, of an age. “Om” stands for the arising, happening and dissolving of occurrences in time.  As events or things come into being, imagine matter coalescing around an essence, or seed. The thing or event grows, serves its purpose and begins the dissolution of all things in time. This is the “om” of existence in time.

“Om” also refers to states of consciousness, specifically waking, dreaming and sleeping. Waking consciousness is both most known and most superficial, while dreaming consciousness is easily confused. Sleeping consciousness is still awareness in time, but not awareness of time or change.  The “Fourth State” or trataka becomes most relevant here: the state of beingness represented by the silence after the sound of the “mmmm” completely dies. This silence is a fourth part of the sound of “om” and represents the substratum of timeless being underlying all of awareness in time, an awareness that is always in the process of arising, occurring and dissolving because time is marked by change.

Desire is the reaching out of consciousness and there are said to be three states of desire: desire can be directed outward toward things in the world, inward toward the objects of consciousness, or can resolve into the pure delight of consciousness being conscious of itself, or “no desire.” “Om” represents these three states: out, in and gone.

Because “Om” represents the beginning, middle and end of every thing and of all things, it is said to be the sound of creation. As the sound of the unlimited becoming limited, it is not only the primordial sound but also contains all other sounds. “Om,” the sound of the universe, is fabled to be the chord of “C.” Gather a few curious friends and chant it together, several times. Sitting in the silence of the dying “mmmmmm....” see if you don’t feel as if you’ve slipped in the crack between the ending of the old story and the beginning of the new one.

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