Shai Tubali

How to practice Aum meditation

An excerpt from Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Meditation (released on January 8, 2023) which features thirty-five fundamental meditation techniques from traditions around the world.
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Aum, the primordial mantra, has been with us since the dawn of meditation in ancient India.

Historical Background

Aum is first mentioned in the early Upanishads, which date back to the sixth or seventh centuries BCE. The Mandukya Upanishad considers Aum to be the representation of the supreme reality: “a symbol for what was, what is, and what shall be,” the fourth state that transcends the waking, dreaming, and deep sleep states [1]. The Katha Upanishad praises Aum as the “greatest support to all seekers” [2].

Aum is described as the vibration of the cosmic motor, the divine mantra that keeps bringing the universe into existence. In this sense, it is close to the first sentence that the biblical God uttered (“Let there be light”). It is the mantra of manifestation and actualization, the first word, and for this reason, it is sometimes used to enhance one’s power of manifestation. It is fascinating to realize that the Aramaic (and later, Christian) “Amen” is quite similar—especially if the sound is slowed down and made longer: “Aaaaa-mmmmm-ennnnn.” It is the word that validates the prayer and enables its manifestation. “Ameen,” the Arabic equivalent, is also similar in this sense.

In meditation, Aum is the direct representation of the Self (Atman), which is said to dwell in the inner cave of our heart. This means that if we follow this sound all the way to its root, it leads us to Self-realization. Ultimately, Aum is not a mantra to be chanted, but an essential sound to be heard and discovered in the depths of meditative silence, when our mind has become an untainted mirror reflecting the true nature of the Self. In this way, we realize that Aum has always been there, and that it is not a human-made mantra. (Significantly, Aum exists not as a part of any alphabetical language, and it appears only as a symbol in Sanskrit, Pali, and Tibetan.) With that being said, this does not mean that chanting or meditating on this mantra—moving in the reverse direction—cannot be deeply beneficial.

Purpose

Aum is the most fundamental mantra meditation. The term “mantra” translates as “instrument of thought,” and it can be thus considered the one thought that takes us beyond thought. Mantras make use of the principle that “what you focus on, you become”: they are designed to unify our being by focusing our mind and heart on a single thought, drawing our attention from false thoughts to the one thought that represents our true self. Of course, when the mantra fulfills its task by leading you to your true self, it vanishes into the silence of your meditation.

More deeply, mantras like Aum are not just mental tools, but are perceived as sounds that exist prior to human thought and outside the human mind. These are sounds that were gathered by the ancient seers, who seemed to pick up vibrations from nature and the cosmos. When we let these sounds reverberate within our minds and hearts, they communicate directly with our vibrational being, playing the musical instrument that we are. The purpose is clear: if we follow them all the way to the place from which they emerge, they lead us back to our original being, just like a mother’s soft voice that calls us to return home.

Practice

Although Aum is the most widespread mantra in the world, it has been poorly used as a meditation practice in the West. This is because of misconceptions regarding the way we pronounce it and the way we use it.

The Mandukya Upanishad makes it clear that the mantra, though indivisible, consists of three basic sounds: A-U-M [3]. This means that it is not the flat “Om,” as most people know and pronounce it. All sounds are said to be combinations of these three basic sounds or derived from them. They are like the subatomic particles that compose each atom in the universe. Interestingly, these are also the three sounds that someone who has no tongue would be able to utter.

The right pronunciation is as follows: open your mouth and say “A”; gently close your mouth and it becomes “U”; close it fully and it becomes “M.” These are three consecutive sounds that are basically one long sound, uttered as one. All three sounds should be equally uttered. The utterance should be made with a deep, low voice, as if coming from the depths.

As for the ideal way of using the mantra, the Katha Upanishad puts it beautifully: “Aum should reverberate unceasingly within the heart” [4]. Following this advice, we should start by intoning it loudly and outwardly—since it is, after all, a throat chakra meditation—and then internalizing it. Make sure that you intone it slowly and deeply. Be filled with it and forget everything else. Become the Aum; become the sound. Let it vibrate through your body, mind, and nervous system.

When you begin to feel harmonious with it, stop intoning it loudly and start doing so inwardly—but still “loudly” in the sense that the sound spreads all over your body and reaches every part of it. Feel vitalized by it, as if your body is a musical instrument and this is the harmonious melody it needs the most. Remember that we are musical beings, and that that is why we respond so strongly and instantly to harmonious sounds.

Remain alert. Don’t allow yourself to fall asleep. Chanting can easily make you fall asleep because it is mechanically relaxing. Inwardly, let the sound be long and slow. Move the sound to the background and make it your eternal background—an essential sound that has been there since the beginning of time, prior to your existence, and that you only find inside yourself.

Instructions

Preparation: The complete process lasts twenty-five minutes.

Stage I (Ten Minutes)

Intone Aum loudly, deeply, and slowly. Be filled with it and forget everything else. Become the Aum; become the sound. Let it vibrate through your body, mind, and nervous system, and feel that your entire being is filled with it; every cell is vibrating with it.

Stage II (Five Minutes)

Continue to let Aum resonate inside your being, “loudly.” Allow it to reverberate like a strong echo of your previous vocal chanting. Allow the sound to spread all over your body and to reach every part of it (not only the head). Feel vitalized by it, as if new life is entering you.

Stage III (Ten Minutes)

Let Aum move to the background, becoming like a distant echo. You are no longer chanting it. This is not your mantra—it is the universe’s mantra, and you are just listening. It exists outside of you, outside of your mind. You are only experiencing its reflection in your mind. Imagine it as a sound that echoes from the beginning of time, vibrating at the far edges of the cosmos, calling you home. Follow each Aum as if you were holding it by the tail. It is like a magical creature that can take you where it came from: the origin of the universe. It emerges from this source and returns to it over and over again. With every appearance, it creates the universe and sustains it, then returns to emptiness. Thus, creation is flickering constantly. Whenever you follow Aum to its root, let it lead you to the unfathomable depths of the silence from which it emerged. At the end, remain in stillness for a long moment.

After the Meditation: You can walk around, allowing the Aum to resonate slowly in the background all the time. Now, whatever you look at has the eternal background of Aum. Whatever you do, you are connected to the cosmic unknown. Let the Aum be an underlying sound beneath your mundane thoughts and emotions. In this way, even mental activity has a broader cosmic context.

Endnotes

1.  Easwaran, The Upanishads, 203–5.

2.  Easwaran, The Upanishads, 78.

3.  Easwaran, The Upanishads, 204.

4.  Easwaran, The Upanishads, 78.

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