OM: The Sacred Syllable

I had been in the saddle of a Harley all weekend, and it had been a long one. Miles and miles of the sound and silence that is generated on the back of a motorcycle, alone with your thoughts on a black stretch of road. 

The journey’s punctuation marks had been short stopovers with very little food, even less sleep, and a mind and heart troubled by the kind of “bad medicine” that life throws our way consistently.

As I had done so often before, I began to intone a word, over and over, as the highway stretched out ahead of me as endless as time.

As most who know me or my writing are aware, I’ve struggled my whole life with anxiety, depression, anger and despair- in other words, I’m a human being with flaws to spare, just looking to navigate them and learn the highways and backroads of my own mind and psyche. 

This journey has been one of trial and error, victory and abject failure- but the only true failure is when we surrender, so even those have been teaching experiences, albeit often costly ones.

In some cases, I have traversed dark frontiers and explored them to their edges, coming back with a deepened understanding of who I am, or have come to be, and with the self, as in life, knowledge is power. Finding ourselves on the wild borderlands of our inner selves, we do battle with devils and gods there, and return changed, more aware, more holy. 

These internal pilgrimages are ventures into the Great Unknown, as the reality within is a dark and vast cosmos unto itself, studded with stars and worlds beyond our reckoning. The work of the human being with a war-like heart is to fight there, to explore, to document and chronicle, and become acquainted with those joyous and awful pathways that exist unknown to the ones who live an unexamined life. 

On these expeditions, one is needful of tools and weapons, because he walks a dangerous and potentially deadly terrain if he is intrepid, and goes where he fears most. 

One of these weapons that has served me well is the sacred syllable, OM. 

More than likely, all who read this will have heard this syllable before, and have their own hang-ups or experiences with it. When I was young, I associated it with a sort of effeminate and passive practice, sung by yoga enthusiasts in saffron robes with soft voices. The kind of people who would talk about using crystals bought at a Renaissance Faire to align their chakras, or someone 50 pounds overweight talking about “the discipline of Yoga.”

Because of this judgmental viewpoint, it was not until my twenties that I began doing my own studies into what is often termed “Hinduism,” reading the Upanishads, and intoning the sound for myself.

I still believe direct experience to be the highest guru there is, and have learned more about things by doing them than by reading about them, but in the following paragraphs, I will do my best to distill many of the things I have read, experienced, felt or believe about the sacred syllable “OM,” with the intention that you begin using it, to discover its deeper nature for yourself.

The word first appears in the Upanishads, a body of work that is a later part of the “Vedas,” a series of ancient Sanskrit texts that discuss and describe creation, the nature of reality and the universe, and the philosophies and spiritual practices of the people who wrote them. The oldest of the Upanishads are believed to have been compiled sometime around 1,000 years before the Common Era began, placing them at the very least, a few thousand years old.

As with many of these old texts, it is likely that they were written down from a previously existing oral tradition, and  were created in that format before the written works that survived and are still available to us. Suffice it to say, the practice of reciting or singing the syllable “OM,” is very, very old.

In the Katha Upanishad, it is said that, “this syllable is Brahman (the Absolute), this syllable is the highest, he who knows that syllable, whatever he desires, is his.”

In Chandogya Upanishad, the work opens with the following: “let a man meditate on OM, the essence of all.”

The word is formed of three different phonetic parts, A, U and M, representing, respectively, Creation, Being/Becoming, and Destruction, or ending.

The Upanishads say that the world was not formed by a big bang, but, similarly to Norse mythology, within a great void that contained all potential within itself, consciousness arose and created friction as it experienced itself. This friction created a sound, and that sound was OM.

Even in the book of John, from the Christian New Testament, we see the verse,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The cosmos, and all of reality, all of time and experience, is that sound, ongoing, as it expands, ultimately sustains itself, and then contracts, and finally, ends. For this reason, the silence that comes at the end of the intonation of the syllable is seen as part of the mantra.

A+U+M+the indefinable/silence/void.

The nature of reality in these texts, again, much like the Norse myths, is cyclical, and rooted in a series of destructions and rebirths of the world, of the cosmos, of reality, much like one can hear when he sings the syllable again and again, in this way understanding the nature of time itself. Not one linear expression with a beginning and ultimate ending, but a cycle of rising and falling, creation and destruction, the endless dance of Shiva. 

By chanting the OM, we create a sympathetic, or harmonic vibration with the nature of reality itself. We bring ourself to the center of all that is, and find ourselves there, exactly where we are. 

In a way, singing OM is like a kind of spiritual sonar, using it to re-locate yourself and find your place in everything. In my runic drawing of OM, I place the MANNAZ rune, to signify self, the intellect, the mind, the psyche, all that we are, inside OTHALA, the world, the cosmos, ultimate reality, Brahman, the absolute. Man, the self, the soul, inside, and a part of the infinite, the imperishable, perfectly placed within it.

This bind rune is meant to represent the following verses from Mandukya Upanishad:

“That which is flaming, which is subtler than the subtle,

on which the worlds are set, and their inhabitants –

That is the indestructible Brahman.

It is life, it is speech, it is mind. That is the real. It is immortal.

It is a mark to be penetrated. Penetrate It, my friend.

Taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanishad,

one should put upon it an arrow sharpened by meditation,

Stretching it with a thought directed to the essence of That,

Penetrate that Imperishable as the mark, my friend.

Om is the bow, the arrow is the Soul, Brahman the mark,

By the undistracted man is It to be penetrated,

One should come to be in It,

as the arrow becomes one with the mark.”

The highest goal of our existence should be to exist within that higher reality at all times, undistracted, without succumbing to the many illusions cast in our way by life itself.

In the Chandogya Upanishad, the gods take the word to themselves to use, saying,  “with this song, we shall overcome demons.”

This allegorical statement has been true for me, as I have used the song myself to combat the demons of despair, isolation, frustration and sorrow.

By intoning the syllable out loud, a practice called in Sanskrit pranava, or in Old Norse, galdr, but both holding the same meaning, we drive all other thoughts and vibrations out of our consciousness by sustaining this singular one.

The breath regulates and forms a smooth, strong pattern and rhythm. Our mind does not “empty,” but finds focus on the sacred syllable, and all that entails for us. We center ourselves within its strengthening field, as our note finds a harmonic with nature and the consciousness of true reality. 

This great, powerful bow fires our spirit as an arrow deep into the heart of the imperishable, and we exist there, aflame with a calm strength.

The holy sound is like a magneto, first creating a field around us as we sing the “O” or “A” portion of the mantra. As we reach the “U,” we sustain the field, and it expands to its fullest point. When we reach the “M” sound, we close the field, it collapses, and from that collapse, a spark is created that feeds the inner fire within, moving the pistons of our being. 

The energy rises all around us like flames, and then as we finish each singing of it, we pull that fire inside, straight into the heart, and we sing the mantra both from our heart, and into it.

It shows us the way to ourselves. 

We see the universe beyond the sun, that energy source which is mysterious and imperishable, and we know that the generator within us is powered by the same source, and is infinite, and this produces a knowledge that we are capable of overcoming, of enduring, of outlasting these temporal issues, these transient sorrows and problems and worries.

We are made of breath, fire and the sun, and we burn away all that chains us to the wheel of causality, regret, and care.

There is a war within us between heaven and hell, and “with this song, we shall overcome demons.”