The Sound of Silence
When I was younger, I used to fall asleep to the hush of a sound machine. It smoothed over all the nighttime noises: my brother breathing in the bed next to me; my parents walking around in the kitchen, maybe arguing; cars passing by outside; the creaking of the house, the rush of water through the plumbing.
Sometimes, I would dream of sound. There were always two sounds: a large, powerful sound, angry and overwhelming. It surrounded the smaller sound, which was delicate, tender, and wavering. I felt this dynamic between the sounds, less than actually heard it. I would wake up to realize that the two sounds had receded back into my subconsciousness, but the feeling of helplessness against an overwhelming force would linger. I can still feel the echoes of those dreams so many years later.
A bit older, I noticed I could hear the high pitched whine of our CRT television. During summer camp I was hearing outbursts from bats in the night sky - so high pitched it was a feeling in the ear more than a hearing, a knowing that something was there, yet unable to decipher it in detail.
At some point I started to hear, in only the most silent moments, a high pitched tone. I felt more than heard this sound, like the sounds in my dream, but as soon as any external noise came, it would recede. I realized if I focused in the right way, I could bring about the sound whenever I wanted to listen to it, when things were quiet.
I wondered if it was tinnitus, but it wasn’t incessant or even bothersome. In addition, I would have moments of tinnitus, a whine coming into my ears out of the blue, in or out of silence, that would slowly fade - distinct from the sound I heard only in silence. I ignored the intermittent tinnitus, and unsure what the other sound was, I simply enjoyed the presence of that sound, knowing it would be there when I checked. I never told anyone about it.
A couple years ago at a Yoga retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains, I found myself speaking with a Sanskrit teacher, telling him about a dream I had. In particular, there had been a word on a map, a destination, and the image of a door. He told me the imagery of a door is powerful and can mean a portal to other dimensions or a transition between life chapters or relationships. He had shared his story:
He had been in a downward spiral, just before a trip to India. He had met a psychic who said he would meet someone special in New York exactly 6 months later, and that this person would change his life. He’d forgotten about this message, but 6 months later was on a farm in upstate New York and met that person, who did changed his life and set him on the path of studying Sanskrit and unlocking the power of that language. Immediately, he was struck with a vision of the psychic, rocking in his chair, gesturing to his watch, as if saying ‘told you’.
He told me that his mind was a racetrack, running around and around, and that for him, Sanskrit was a door to get out of his mind. A door like the one that was in my dream. Then, seemingly out of the blue, he asked me: “Do you hear that high-pitched sound in your head?”
I immediately felt shivers run through my body. It was a question so unexpected and intimate, I was at a loss for words. I breathed “yes!” with wide eyes. “What is it?”
He called it the nada. He said: “Follow that sound. It’s the opening to the sound currents of the Divine.”
Nada, in Sanskrit, means “sound” or “tone.” The Vedas write of 4 levels of sound: Vaikhari vani, Madhyama vani, Pashyanti vani, and Para vani, which form the entirety of eternal reality called Ishvara.
Para vani is the sound of Om, the unstruck sound, Anahata, the sound of the unmanifested thought, formless, transcendent, divine. Pashyanti vani, from the root pashyat, meaning “one who sees,” is the visible sound, seen with the inner vision. Madhyama vani is an intermediate, subtle sound, sometimes called the “cosmic hiss.” Finally, vaikhari vani is the struck, articulated sound, the words and noises that travel to our ears from the material world. It is the least subtle form of sound.
Are you familiar with these sounds? Of course, most people are able to hear vaikhari vani, we speak and sing and laugh. But madhyama vani? Think of the sound we make when calming a discomforted child: Shhh. It is a hissing release of air, like the pouring of sand, full bodied yet high-pitched. It is an audible sound. And when it finishes, silence fills in its wake, and if noticed, silence itself becomes filled with the cosmic hiss. I believe this is the sound that fills my head when my mind and the world are quiet. I wonder how many out there, too, hold this sacred sound in their hearts.
And pashyanti vani? From a recent trip to Peru, I have testament to the visible sound. Ayahuasqueros, shamans learned in the art of plant medicine, spend hours weaving what are known as icaros. Literally, icaro translates into “magic” or “alchemy”, but I first heard the word used to describe the eerie melodies sung by the ayahuasqueros during plant ceremony. Beautiful melodies that range in rhythm, key, and tone, sung solo or duet. In one ceremony, before my inner eye emerged flowers, blossoming, curling and rising upwards, in a perpetual state of unfolding, seemingly driven by the song. The woven icaro captures the essential pattern of the sound, which is a reflection of the pattern of the cosmos, which is a reflection of divinity. In this way, it is the third and closest sound to para vani, the divine sound.
I’ve taken the Sanskrit teacher’s guidance and have continued to explore my soundscapes, both internal and external. As I’ve begun to bring madhyama vani into meditative moments throughout my day (savasana during my practice), I also have explored the treasures of the spoken word, the sung tune, and the struck chord.
Across many different religions, Yoga and the old testament included, in the beginning is the word (or Om in Yoga). Whatever your denomination, our daily lives are proof of the power of the word. From the non-violent communication we try to foster with our loved ones, to the often venomous and fear filled words written or spoken across the internet and media, words can bring about great effects.
Word, song, sound ... remember the power they have, both to create and destroy, heal and divide. Most importantly, remember that whether they are noticed or not, they are all contained within you. The infinite within the finite. And you within the universe. The finite within the infinite.
I met Kula's Coby and Ananda on a surf trip to Troncones. They held my first cacao ceremony, but not my last. I returned to my job in San Francisco, but later after quitting, I'd meet back up with them in Peru for more ceremony. I help the Kula market their life-changing trainings and retreats - it's a perfect way to promote openness in the world and follow my internal compass towards the nomadic life.
On this journey, I've been learning about community living, natural building, permaculture, and present moment living. In personal relationships, I adopt Don Miguel Ruiz's 4 Agreements. In making any risky decision, I try to remember: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.” -Noam Chomsky