Music, Mantra, and Sound in Practice
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali places a lot of importance on sound:
PYS I.27 Tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ
The best expression of Īśvara is oṁ.
According to Sri O.P. Tiwariji, Patanjali’s message, even when written, should resonate like a timeless tune within us. Cognition depends on language, how it is expressed, which is to say, it originates from the principle of sound. Sound is OM.
Patanjali is trying to teach something, which depends on language and, therefore, sound. He is dealing with the mind, with psychology, and he is very much dealing with the behavioral reality, that which we create, that which is dependent on sound. As opposed to the absolute/ultimate reality, which cannot be changed or denied. The fact that we are all Brahman/Divine is an inherent and absolute truth. But our understanding of this ultimate reality is very much influenced by our behavioral reality.
And that behavioral reality is greatly influenced by sound. In fact, as Tiwariji puts it, “sound is the ultimate behavioral reality.” Patanjali never says that he believes in God, but he says that sound is Isvara, our personal connection to the ultimate reality. Without sound there would be no behavioral reality, nothing would exist in this physical world.
From a single sound, the first sound of creation, come infinite other sounds. From the prime sound come countless mantras, endless types of music, myriad languages.
If used properly, that music and language have the ability to channel our behavior on all levels. It can help bring us to a state of Yoga, to a state of chitta vritti nirodhah, stilling and channelizing the mind. It can help us overcome all obstacles on the path. And it can help us understand our true nature and the true nature of reality.
Sound, however, when perverted or misused, can lead to endless suffering. The sound itself is not to blame, and in its primal state the sound is beyond the kleshas, beyond misunderstanding, attachment, prejudice, and fear. In itself, sound has no karma to live out, nor is it affected by the results of karma.
It is only when the sound gets clouded by our own misunderstandings, our own behavioral reality, that it turns into something else. But we can also use it as a way to understand this ultimate reality. The same tool that leads us out, further into this physical reality, further enmeshed in Maya, can also help us retract and draw the mind back in on itself. So it all depends on how we use the tool.
As Richard Freeman recently explained, “Language is the creative principle.” So if we are free from the language game we can understand that language itself — sound itself — is beautiful, “complete joy.” When we suspend the language game, intuition arises, and we see things as they truly are, rather than “what we reduce them to.” We are then no longer trapped by language but see everything as part of the Lila/divine play. We discover “the entire universe in all objects.”
Are all Sounds Created Equal?
Do we have to be repeating OM, or some other specific mantra? Can we receive the same mental effect through singing in general, or listening to pop music?
PYS I.29 Tataḥ pratyak-cetanādhigamo ‘pyantarāyābhāvaś ca
From repeated utterance of oṁ there is the awareness of the internal self and also the absence of all obstacles.
Patanjali gives many methods/techniques to help focus the mind. He is extremely liberal and only hopes that we will find something that works for us. This is the one condition, that it works. That it helps to draw our awareness inwards. That it helps to channelize the chitta vritti, the mind and thoughts. That it starts to change us on a behavioral level.
Music is wonderful and there are of course countless mental, physical, and spiritual benefits to singing and listening to music. But in terms of a practice, not all forms of singing or chanting are created equal. Any concentration technique we are using must have an internalizing effect and help channel the mind.
So is the music or chanting helping to draw us inwards, focusing the mind? Or is it pulling our senses out in some way? Can we lose our small sense of self in the music or does it amplify our ego and make us identify more with ourselves as the ones singing? Does it distract us from and cover up what is happening on a mental level, or does it help to uplift and channel the chitta vritti?
Different forms of sound can be cathartic and can help to inspire and elevate us and sublimate lower emotions. But they can also become overindulgent and make us get further caught up in the senses and different states of the mind. Not that that is always bad, but again it depends on what we are using the sound for.
So which one is it? These are all questions to ask ourselves when using any form of music, mantra or devotional song as a part of our practice.
And nothing in practice can be done mechanically:
PYS I.28 Taj-japas tad-artha-bhāvanam
The repeated utterance of oṁ means the contemplation on (and feeling of) its meaning.
Remember Paul’s words: “Just do it . . . With awareness!” Whatever we do, we cannot zone out. This has been made very clear by Patanjali. Whatever we are practicing we have to do it with feeling, respect and full awareness of what we are repeating.
We must know what we are doing, know who has given the practice to us, know why we are doing it. And we must do it sincerely, whole-heartedly, with an educated trust, and with complete mindfulness. Otherwise, as Paul would say, we get “no points.” Our time will be wasted.
Let’s not waste time!