The Sound of OM

Listen, Ky, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Listen, Ky, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I heard a sound when I first learned to meditate. Confused, I’d unplug my fingers from my eye and ear openings during meditation to check where the sound was coming from. Was I hearing something outside rumbling in the sky? A big helicopter? Was it the OM I read about? Or, was I imagining strange noises in my head?

OM, or AUM, is considered, by Hindus and Buddhists, the sacred symbol of primordial sound. “OM” is often chanted or used as a mantra to focus the mind during meditation. Six months into my yoga-meditation lessons I was given the OM Technique of meditation so I could practice listening for the AUM sound. My yoga-meditation teacher said the sound could be heard intuitively as an ocean roar.

At first the sound was a faint, distant rumble. As I listened with closed ears it got louder. Sometimes while listening to the sound my jaw vibrated and my teeth chattered. Occasionally the deep rumbling sound would change pitch. Usually though the sound just rolled on and on, pulsating relentlessly. Endlessly the sound.

Brother, Is That Sound OM?

Was this OM? Skeptical, I craved expert opinion to quell my doubts. I remembered that my local Self-Realization Fellowship Temple, which I’d recently become a member, offered spiritual counseling for students. Phoning the Temple, I made an appointment to see the Minister after Sunday Service. It would be my first private counseling with an SRF Minister-Monk.

Loitering in the Temple lobby after the Service, I nervously waited my turn to meet with the Minister-Monk. Finally, a blue-smocked young monk approached me and said, “Brother is ready to see you now”. Into the Chapel nursery door I slid and was warmly greeted by Brother Aumananda [name changed], a gray-bearded, ochre-robbed, Caucasian swami-monk. He was the head-minister of the SRF Temple.

We chatted small talk at first to get acquainted. The sage-like monk frequently closed his eyes, for a second or two between sentences, as if he was gazing into a spiritual world behind his eyelids. It was a little awkward but he demonstrated to me how he reconnected every few minutes with his inner realm. I described to the bearded Brother the booming, pulsating “helicopter” sound I heard while practicing meditation and asked, “Was this sound the OM”? Brother Aumananda immediately blurted “Yes! That’s it!”.

Ian Burt, Meditation - Higher Ground, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Ian Burt, Meditation – Higher Ground, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

OM Sound Continued

During meditations in the decades that followed, I absorbed my mind intently into this OM sound. The interior “vibration” often gently shook my body in meditation. Practicing this technique, taught to me by my guru, yoga-meditation teacher, I assumed what I was hearing was something profound, special, cosmic. But always in the background of my mind I wondered.

Today I hear the “OM” sound whenever I close my ears. Sometimes with open ears, when it’s quiet. Is this the OM or AUM of the Hindus and Buddhists? After stripping away supernatural beliefs and the religious indoctrinations of my yoga-meditation teacher this “OM” is just a strange, inexplicable sound. Like a seashell held up to my ear. It makes an intriguing but mundane ocean-noise.

Questions for readers: Have you had any of these experiences? Do you think there is a sound that is really OM? Or, what natural explanation is there for those who experience the sound of “OM”?

Read my post OM: Sound of Spirit OR of Tinnitus?

38 comments

  1. Pingback: OM: Sound of Spirit OR of Tinnitus? |
  2. SkepticMeditations

    @Researcher: At this website, we respect people and believe a person inherently deserves dignity. Experience is respected. Ideas don’t deserve dignity. There’s nothing sacred here, especially not a silly theory or claims of revelations from realms beyond human comprehension.

    This website is not a platform for disciples or missionaries of gurus and sacred texts. These people and ideas can’t stand to rational scrutiny and are hopelessly stuck in their system of beliefs, until they step outside that system. This website offers these people that opportunity, if they wish. No one is forced to read. Though I will kick out commenters if they disregard our policy (Read stated Policies here).

    This site is a resource and forum for people who can doubt, question, or have abandoned faith, gurus/masters, and holy texts.

  3. Researcher

    Gentlemen, you are going to the Hole.
    Can you accept each other of you? Maybe all we think and know is nonsense too and it´s not the truth.
    Don´t take a position so seriously, nothing is absolutely true.
    Each one is learning according to one´s present experience, if it´s true or false time will show it. Let each other of you be free to experience, even to err, and grow by personal experience.
    Regards.

  4. raj

    Scott,
    There is nothing wrong with humans. It is just that sometimes people become blindfolded to see the oneness among all the religions or even among themselves . Isn’t that the reason for wars, terrorism, people killing other people mercilessly based on religion, race, color of the skin, nationality and so on.
    I won’t force anyone to become spiritual or to practice anything spiritual. It’s their own calling.
    I did quote from gita as i’am more familiar with it. I’am trying to learn others and in time i can quote from them too.
    I see god as my guru. As his son , i think at first i have to understand myself at a deeper level and then proceed from there.

    Thank you for your patience and effort in responding to my comments.
    I sincerely apologize if i have said something to hurt your beliefs. Whatever i said are my own personal views and opinions.
    This would be my last comment here.
    I wish you the best in life and in all your future endeavours.

  5. Sabio Lantz

    Ya know, Scott, I love your last reply to raj. I see Christians doing the same thing on Religion-free sites. There is so little shared in common with these folks that dialogue is fruitless. Both parties might as well separate — and since this is your site (and a damn good one) I agree that Raj may best spend his missionary efforts elsewhere. I too find his practice religious scripts nauseating. This is not a site for sheople – (sheep + people) , even the exotic kind. Smile

  6. SkepticMeditations

    @raj: Glad you are inspired by quotes from mythological characters, gurus and Arjunas, like those in the Bhagavad Gita.

    Our website here is dedicated to people who no longer accept the premises that there is something wrong, broken, or corrupt with humans nor the faulty premise that through meditation humans can achieve some supernatural realm beyond the human mind.

    It’s exhausting trying to reason with you. Your missionary comments about how great the Gita and Arjuna are a turn off. Your devotional writings about the Gita and obedience to your gurus is a turn off here.

    There are plenty of other websites willing to sell you what you want. Feel free to start your own website to evangelize for the Gita or go visit your guru’s website.

    thanks

  7. raj

    Scott,
    There are many ways for achieving self-realization.
    This quote from Gita “As they approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me. ” means the same.
    If you don’t want meditation or if you find it has a negative effect on you, then you are free to choose whichever way you like to achieve your goal.
    I see every religion as the same. I believe that the holy texts are there to remind people of their own divine form and finally lead them to spirituality.

  8. SkepticMeditations

    @raj: Thanks for a sincere explanation. I followed strict celibacy for 14+ years while I was an SRF monk. I meditated for 4 hours per day average during this time, sometimes for 6 hours straight. That doesn’t prove anything. Nor does relying on what some person says prove anything.

    I think I understand your statements–I too was once a sincere devotee and follower of gurus and sacred scriptures (namely Paramahansa Yogananda and Gita, yoga meditation techniques).

    “The meditation practitioner must believe in the reality of the accepted premise, while at the same time the premise is beyond the awareness and the verification of the practitioner. As a result, the meditator actually relies on the given teacher, guru, philosophy or religion to validate the reality of meditation experiences. The conclusion is that the premises held by many meditation practitioners create a dependence on and a hand over of control to the given teacher, guru, philosophy or religion.

    Read my post Duped by Meditation?. What premises have you accepted? I know I used to accept them all.

    This website is for people who question, doubt, or whose “minds are beyond” need for verification of gurus or holy texts. In other words, truly self-realized persons who don’t need gurus to validate their thoughts or experiences.

  9. raj

    @david r
    Samadhi cannot be experienced when the mind is active. Samadhi is something beyond the mind.
    I personally think that level of Samadhi where mind is absent can be achieved.
    There are two saints from India who realized god in their life time : Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Sri Ramana Maharshi. I think both of them told that it is absolutely necessary for spiritual aspirants to follow strict celibacy in thoughts,deeds and actions for a minimum period of 12 years. It demands patience,perseverance and perfection. It is then that the kundalini energy which lies dormant in the base of the spine will fully awaken. When that energy comes up in meditation one can easily attain Samadhi which is the ultimate goal of spiritual aspirants.

  10. david r

    If you have no mind to perceive what the state of samadhi is how are you even supposed to know it? I have come across this nonsense so many times about “stilling” the mind I can’t care to count and it just makes no sense at all.

  11. raj

    Scott,
    Our mind has limitations and it causes hindrance in achieving self-realization.
    In spiritual path, the aspirants are trying to go beyond the five senses. It is this senses that causes desires, attachments and sufferings thereof. So they do yoga meditation and increase their subtle energy levels. I personally think this high pitched sound of aum will mean something else for our subtle energy body than our physical body. It might be a way that the infinite divine energy is communicating with your soul.
    When we encounter this sound physically through our ears , our mind starts to question it. It will suggest to look for possible various explanations behind this. When it reaches a conclusion it will try to stick to it. And if we believe it, then it is fixed. That causes an hindrance in further progress in the spiritual path.

    In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says to Arjuna that ” Know the reality about yourself, who you are and what are you really. Know that you are neither your body nor your mind, but the true self that can neither be slain nor hurt. It is eternal,divine and transcendental. ”
    It says that on the path of yoga do not consider yourself as the body nor the mind. As i said earlier ,it will cause problems if you do so . It is only when the mind ceases to exist can we see the true self. I think that experience of knowing the true self when the mind is absent is Samadhi. I don’t know what the experience feels like . It has to be experienced and not said verbally.

    I don’t know if i have answered your question. What i understood is that i know nothing.
    I’am asking myself the question “Who am I ? “.

  12. SkepticMeditations

    Hi Raj: I don’t doubt tinnitus. I doubt the OM sound, as described by proponents of yoga meditation.

    I agree that human emotions, feelings, and thoughts can not capture the entirety of reality.

    Yet, when a person claims the experience of OM sound is “incomprehensible by our mind” is that not possibly flawed, immature model of reality or thinking?

    1) Some yogis or devotees claim they hear and know what the OM sound is, so it’s not beyond comprehension according to them, no? [I used to be among this group, before I discovered the sounds may be medically symptoms of tinnitus]

    2) How do you know that OM or Samadhi or any other experience is incomprehensible to me? OR, is beyond any human body, mind, intellect? If it is incomprehensible as you claim it to be then it’s probably because there’s not good evidence that OM, Samadhi, or supernatural experiences are what it is claimed to be. Maybe it is. But how would anyone know? Even the gurus? Incomprehensible.

    3) OM of the Gaps – because humans may not have a complete or satisfying explanation for incomprehensible experiences I don’t find it mature or wise to rush to conclusions that claim it is gods, gurus, or OM sounds that did it.

    thanks

  13. raj

    Hi scott ,
    If you are having a doubt that you have Tinnitus then you can certainly get it checked by a ENT Doctor, right?
    I think in spiritual path the rational mind cannot cope up with certain experiences. Some of this experiences are incomprehensible by our mind. Just like Samadhi is indescribable. This are things which are beyond human body,mind,intellect.

  14. SkepticMeditations

    @Amanda J: Thanks for sharing your concern and recommendations.

    Your comment, relating to hearing sounds and tinnitus, should really go under the discussion thread OM: Sound of Spirit OR of Tinnitus?

    To answer your questions, I have no other symptoms when I hear the so-called OM sounds. Hearing the sounds have not bothered me. I only gave them religions attributes from my indoctrinations into yogic beliefs about chakras and astral centers in the spine, Aum technique of meditation taught by gurus and groups like Paramahansa Yogananda and the Self-Realization Fellowship.

  15. Amanda J

    I am not sure on things from a religious standpoint but I will agree that tinnitus is likely the cause. While it may be something with religion and I hope it is, it is worth getting it checked out. While tinnitus can be caused by many things you need a hearing test to start. It can also be a sign of fluid around the brain. I’m only posting this in concern for your health. If you were only asking from a religious standpoint then I can’t help you there. I was wondering if you were having any other symptoms…any pressure behind your eyes, any headaches?

  16. SkepticMeditations

    @David: Some people seem more predisposed to hear sounds, others to see lights or visions, others to feelings or out of body experiences and so on. The list of “mystical” phenomenon is endless.

    I heard of first-hand stories of people who heard or saw “mystical” phenomena before they ever started meditating. A few meditators told me those experiences of sounds or sights is what led them to seek those experiences again in meditation.

  17. david

    Just thought I would add a little here.

    I meditated for over 10 years and didn’t hear any OM sounds.

    Do people hear the OM sound even if they have never meditated?

  18. SkepticMeditations

    Thanks Steve for your comment. I too hear the so-called OM or Aum sounds in and out of silent meditation. The issues are:

    1) How do we verify what these sounds are? Whether they are what we think or hear them as? They could be nerves, imagination, or distorted perceptions? See my post OM: Sound of Spirit OR of Tinnitus?

    2) Now that I no longer interpret the so-called “OM” or Aum sounds as supernatural they seem natural though unusual. I hear them when I am submerged under water too.

    3) Could we be jumping to conclusions, based on some guru-indoctrination or our wishful thinking, that these “perceived” sounds are either extraordinary or come from a higher source? Again, these proclaimed “yogic” sounds all map to the sounds and symptoms documented by medical science as Tinnitus.

    I also get tingling in the back of my head, shivers up my spine, goosebumps and so on. I no longer make these mean that some divine force is blessing me…as special as I wish I was and that my former guru wanted me to believe so that I followed him obediently.

    Keep questioning and developing critical thinking, in addition to meditating. Scott

  19. steve

    Have been praticing mantra for many years now. The last 5 years i am hearing an aum like sound. I concentrate on it during my daily meditation practice.
    Now i notice this sound comes at random it seems. I can be having a cuppa then the aum like sound comes.
    Sometimes the back of my head vibrates and a beautiful experience of peace is enJOYED.
    Keep meditating and best wishes. Steve.

  20. SkepticMeditations

    Hi Jim: Thanks for sharing your personal experience with Tinnitus and sounds you attribute to meditation or OM. I’m not able to follow how you jumped to and concluded that tinnitus and “OM” sounds you hear are NOT connected. Would you kindly help us understand better the thought process for how you came to your conclusion of the OM/Tinnitus sounds being distinctly separate, not caused by the other?

    Great to hear from you and get your experience and thoughts on this.

  21. Jim

    I have had tinnitus for a few years, as a high pitched ringing – 24/7. This was long before I started serious meditation. In meditation with ears closed, I can hear both the tinnitus AND the OM rumble. With ears open in meditation I can now hear a quieter hum as well as the tinnitus. So they do not seem to be connected in my case at least.

  22. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @Ryan: Yes. What you are trying to explain is difficult. Yes, the sounds I hear are real. My feelings are real–to me. Real “Om”? Nah. I don’t rely on Kriya Yoga, sadhana, mudras, or gurus–anymore.

    I agree there is so much more to life. No need to jump to outlandish and extraordinary conclusions when we experience wonder or mystery.

    Cheers

  23. Ryan

    Hey guys, it’s hard for me to explain this to you in a short manner. The sounds you hear are real. They are of the astral and it still is science. Why isn’t listening to om doing anything? Your sadhana, your life journey to do this. Your techniques. Everything has to be put together and you can’t just hear om and be satisfied. Kriya yoga in srf is after year 1. I might point out as well that kriya from srf is not the original, it also lost many of the original techniques. Navi kriya, kechari Mudra, talabya kriya. Srf did what was required, it brought yoga to the west. I can’t prove to you that this is all true and there is so much more beyond the sounds. Look up the techniques and research lahiri Mahasayas kriya. Everything is so much more I promise you.

  24. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @Mike: Yes. I understand and too could practice meditation with more depth. But, this is why meditation is called a “practice”. Always more to explore…

    What do you think the “Roar” sound is? Something supernatural or physical?

    Thanks for your comments.

  25. mike

    i heard a ‘ROAR’ that decreased in intensity not frequency, since then i havent went so deep with my meditations ,im afraid!

  26. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    Thanks, David R, for those possibilities to the sounds.

    What I hear in meditation with closed ears fits descriptions in the Modern Yoga literature, especially in instructions from SRF/Paramahansa Yogananda on the techniques of meditation. The rumble or roar, OM sound, heard in meditation is engrossing. Do I believe or interpret that “OM” sound or others as supernatural or divine? No.

    With “open” or unplugged ears, I hear different sounds. Probably mild tinnitus.

    Are the inner sounds in meditation Tinnitus? Maybe. In my post OM: Sound of Spirit OR of Tinnitus? I present a good case for tinnitus as a possible explanation. I’m OK with no knowing and am open to other explanations. But I’m skeptical of “god of the gaps“-type answers.

  27. David R

    The only thing I can think of is that when you plugged your ears with your fingers and meditated, some internal hum could be heard whether beyond or part of the physiological activities of your body. And you might live in a relatively quiet place like a countryside, where there is very little noise pollution. Hence, “quiet times” in the open air might be linked to your meditating on a sound inside your body that you have only heard when plugging your ears with your fingers for extended periods of time.

  28. Scott at SkepticMeditations.com

    Yeah, Sabio. The HuffPost article author, Dave Green, is totally biased to his yoga practice, and is not a scientist. Mr Green discloses that he’s a Kriya Yoga practitioner in his article. Kriya Yoga is meditation techniques I was taught while I was in the Self-Realization Fellowship.

    When you are trained and indoctrinated (like I was) that hearing sounds or seeing lights is from the Divine, a glimpse of your soul, or a sign you are a spiritual-being you feel special, chosen, gifted by your Spiritual Teacher.

    thanks for your insights

  29. Scott at SkepticMeditations.com

    @Sabio: I agree. OM and chakra sounds and “lights” seem to come from biological or neurological sources, not from some supernatural or spiritual-astral realm. I’ve experimented with these sounds by separating out my interpretations of what I “believe” or “hope” the sounds may be. Meditating with a “secular”, agnostic mind I hear the same sound but I don’t find the sounds to lead to cosmic wisdom or truth.

    Nevertheless, many “unexplained mysteries” of sound or sight can lend credence to yogis and mystics claims of their spiritual hypotheses. I appreciate discussions like this with you and others.

  30. Sabio Lantz

    I just read the HuffPost article — that is a science journal, isn’t it? 🙂

    I love using science to back their claim — heck, doctors said it.

    I wish people would realize that doctors are not scientists! It was just their opinions — no studies (no hypothesis testing).

    Dr Niranjan Seshadri is a cardiologist in Florida — gee, I wonder what his religious bias is. And I wonder if Dr. O Adams is related to Dr. Patch Adams?

    Next they will try to find a psychiatrist who is telling us that the inner voices of schizophrenics is just the voices of angels that the rest of us have not yet tuned into. 😉

  31. Sabio Lantz

    Hey Scott. Yep, I think the sounds and sights (“seeing the light”) are part of our physiology (as you say) and not because our organism has become a receiver of some universal wisdom or truth.

  32. Scott at SkepticMeditations.com

    @Sabio: Yes. I too have seen lights and had other “mysterious spiritual” experiences. Perhaps my brain is “built” and oriented towards sound, as you point out. Since I was a child I’ve been keenly aware of sound, played guitar, keyboards, and sang.

    While I was a member of the Self-Realization Fellowship, devotional chanting and Indian kirtan were an important component of meditations and sadhana (spiritual practice). I lead many group kirtans, often played harmonium, tanpura, and bells. Intense devotional chanting often lead to hypnotic, trance-like, altered-states of mind, especially in group meditations.

    In a future blog post, I will try to share my experiences during many hours of group chanting and kirtans.

    Tinnitus may be an explanation for some of the “OM” or astral chakra sounds. Tinnitus, according to Mayo Clinic website, involves the annoying sensation of hearing sound when no external sound is present. Tinnitus symptoms include these types of phantom noises in your ears: Ringing, Buzzing, Roaring, Clicking, Hissing.

    According to yogic doctrines (and SRF Lesson # 30), our spinal centers, or chakras, emit astral sounds. One such chakra emits the sound of buzzing like a bee. I’ve heard this sound too while meditating. I wonder if many of the lights or sounds some yogis may experience while their awareness is interiorized are manifestations of physical or neurological sounds, such as those symptoms of tinnitus.

    Thanks for your comments

  33. Sabio Lantz

    No, I don’t hear “Om”. I see lights, hear sounds and have feelings. But not a hummming “Om”.
    Brains are built differently.
    Tinnitus?

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