It seems fitting that the first of our Bible readings for the year is about the creation of the universe. “In the beginning was the Word.” (John 1:1)
“The Word,” as Paramhansa Yogananda explained it, means the AUM vibration. It’s interpreted very differently in Christian traditions, but the truth is that the Word is the divine vibration that creates and sustains the universe, and that we can merge with in meditation.
In our practice of Kriya Yoga, one of the first techniques we learn is how to listen inwardly to the sound of AUM. In this path we also give tremendous attention to engaging with music that expresses the uplifting vibration of AUM.
There are paths of Self-realization that don’t employ music and chanting to the extent we do. But the twin practices of listening to AUM and singing uplifting music are fundamental to the way Paramhansa Yogananda brought the ancient teachings to the West.
He said that in the spiritual path “chanting is half the battle.” Meaning that if you sing his chants with devotion, you will be attuning yourself with the vibration of AUM, and it will greatly aid your efforts to meditate and draw closer to God.
There have been a number of interesting studies on how music can help Alzheimer’s patients who’ve become disconnected from the world.
It’s important to understand that the physical brain is a vehicle through which consciousness expresses itself, and that even if the physical vehicle is impaired, it doesn’t mean that the person’s essential soul consciousness has changed. It simply means that they can no longer communicate in outward ways.
Music touches different areas of the brain than verbal communication and speech. And when they’ve played music that was important to the patients earlier in their lives, they’ve seen that a doorway will open, and these unresponsive people will be singing or dancing and even interacting in astonishing ways, because that part of their brains was never broken.
A subtle factor is also involved, which is that all creation is an emanation of AUM, including our own essential consciousness, which is untouched by whatever happens to the body.
The Bible tells us that in the beginning there was silence, until “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2) As Paramhansa Yogananda explained, it means that God made the physical universe by initiating the creative vibration of AUM. And when we commune with AUM in meditation we are gradually turning our attention away from the noises of our thoughts and the world outside, and replacing them with the quintessential sound of AUM at the center of our being. We are merging our consciousness with the source of all thoughts and sounds. “In the beginning was the Word.” And the Word was AUM.
There was a sound healer named Sherry Edwards who spent some time at Ananda Village. She had true psychic abilities, but whereas many psychic people can see the energy of the spinal chakras and tell you what’s happening, Sherry had the ability to feel people’s essential sounds.
She would look at people and hear the unique expression of AUM that defined them. She said that everybody has their own melody, just as people will have a unique aura of astral light. She was able to hear any dissonances in the melody, and then she would tone what was missing, and in that way she would bring you back into harmony with the AUM.
She discovered her ability when she and her young daughter were driving in a remote rural area and had an accident. They were a long way from the nearest hospital, and the daughter was bleeding profusely, so it was clear that her life was in danger. But then Sherry received an intuitive inspiration to begin toning, and she realized that she was able to stop the bleeding when she held the right tone, so she toned her daughter all the way to the hospital and saved her from bleeding to death.
And then, of course, she began to follow through and see what was possible. By the time she came to us, she had developed a sound healing machine that she would program with your tones, and you would lie down at night and listen to them, and it would gradually put you in order.
Swami Kriyananda was extremely interested in anything that was innovative, consistent with Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings, and that might help us move into a higher reality. So he invited her to come to Ananda Village. We were living in Palo Alto at the time, and Swami invited us to come up and be part of it, because he was so intrigued by the whole thing.
Sherry is a lovely lady and completely sincere, and we all worked with these things for a time, but in the end it didn’t prove as effective as we had hoped. And because Sherry had been able to go to our satsangs and listen to the chanting and the choir, and hear Swami sing, she very casually said, “Oh, you all don’t need this, because your chanting and your music does it for you much better.”
With her expanded perception she could see that whenever we would chant and sing Swami’s music, our auras would shift toward being more in harmony with the AUM.
Our consciousness is defined by the particular vibration of AUM that we are attuned to. And if by our spiritual practices we can align ourselves with that highest sound, all of our perceptions and responses will be increasingly in harmony with the pure vibration of God.
“Chanting is half the battle.” Because it’s extremely helpful to you spiritually when you can match your unique melody to the most central part of the vibration of AUM, instead of some more distant and dissonant aspects.
Narayani Ajaya met Swami in 2003, when she was twenty-four. She had become dedicated to this path, and then she suddenly began having severe physical symptoms. She was diagnosed with an extremely serious form of thyroid cancer. It was so serious that the doctor said that if they didn’t operate immediately she was in danger of losing her voice forever.
It was very confusing to her to understand why, just when she had entered the path in earnest, this would be happening to her. And as she was trying to understand how to deal with this enormous challenge, someone persuaded her to write to Swamiji about it. She had only just met Swami, and she was reluctant to trouble him, but when she told him what was happening, he wrote back and said, “Listen to my music. It will heal you.”
She was living with her father in her hometown in Spain, and when I visited her, she showed me her father’s meditation room which had become her bedroom for the duration of the medical treatments.
It was a small bedroom with pictures of the Masters. Her father was a disciple, and it was he who had introduced her to this path. They had made a little bed for her at the side, and she told me how she had lain there during the weeks of difficult cancer treatment, listening to Swami’s music twenty-four hours a day, because he had told her to.
She said that she could feel the sound vibrations reorganizing her physical body, and in the end she was completely healed. Of course, the doctors thought it was their treatments, but in her heart she knew it was because of the healing vibrations of the music. There had been a cancer dissonance in her aura, and everything on the physical plane begins on subtler levels. And this is the basis of vibrational medicine.
Connie Hernandez and her husband Mahavir call themselves the “paradox” – “pair of docs.” When they came to visit me when I was ill, they said, “The paradox is here.” They practice vibrational medicine as well as physical medicine, because if you can fix it at the source, the manifestation in the body will naturally be repaired.
Now, lots of people try to do that, but the energy at the source is more subtle than the physical, and it takes a great deal of energy to touch into that deep vibrational level and effect a change there.
These bodies are amazing, but they aren’t designed to last, and there are all kinds of ways they can get broken and their energy can be dissipated. And that’s one reason why in the path of yoga there’s a lot of emphasis on conserving and raising our energy.
When we do the fire ceremony on Sunday, we throw grains of rice into the fire as a symbol of our own energy, which is represented by the energetic potential of the grains of rice.
And where does that energy come from? You put the seeds in the ground and you give them sunlight and water and the right conditions of soil and weather, and from the tiny seed another plant will sprout, and then it can nourish other life potentials. There are enormous forces behind what we are able to see with our physical eyes in this world, and those subtle forces are moving in deeply important ways in our lives.
The fundamental principle of Kriya Yoga is that you interiorize all of your energy, and you intensify and elevate it, and it confers divine illumination.
This is what makes yogis so extraordinarily powerful. In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda tells the story of a pair of policemen in a town in the Himalayas who were looking for a murderer. They had heard that the murderer had disguised himself as a holy man, a wandering sadhu, and while they were searching along the river bank they saw a person dressed as a sadhu who fit the description. So they chased after him, shouting at him to stop. But he wouldn’t stop, and one of the policeman took out his axe and cut off the man’s arm.
The sadhu showed no signs of a reaction to having his arm cut off. He simply reached down and picked up the arm and reattached it. And then he turned to the policemen and said, “I am not the murderer you are seeking.”
Of course they felt terrible about what they’d done. The sadhu consoled them, “Come to me in a week. I’ll meet you under that tree. It was an understandable mistake.”
When they came back and saw him a week later, he was perfectly fine. And just think of the power that man was holding. When we consider political power and financial power, that kind of inner spiritual power makes a mockery of those superficial things.
But, you see, what we are doing as yogis is opening the doorway to that power. “Into our hands have been delivered the sacred keys of awakening,” as it says in the Festival of Light. Kriya Yoga, and attuning our consciousness to the AUM, gradually awakens our awareness of the source of our life and our truest happiness.
It’s teaching us the process of tapping into the cosmic energy itself, because we are awakening the kundalini energy, the powerful life force that was implanted in us by the AUM. We have committed that energy to wrong behavior, wrong thoughts, and wrong values. Wrong, because we’ve misdirected that energy in ways that prevent us from perceiving our highest reality and knowing who we truly are.
The Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And again it says, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (John 1:1,5).
Looking out at the infinitely varied world around us, we need to plumb the most fundamental level of our being and ask, “What do I really want to be looking at? What do I want to be bringing into my consciousness? In what ways do I want to change?” And then we need to recognize that everything we do will make a difference.
The most immediate aspect of AUM with which we are always having to deal is the vibrations of our own thoughts. This is why Master gave us scientific healing affirmations to help us keep our thoughts in alignment with the uplifting light of AUM.
Our Sunday services, and in particular the Festival of Light, offer us the story of the spiritual life in a highly condensed form. We begin by chanting, and we end our brief meditation with an affirmation in which we focus our attention on using the power of words to bring us into a greater awareness of who we are and what we are trying to be.
Swami added the mental element of spoken words because it can be very helpful to us. We listen to a reading from Whispers From Eternity. And in Master’s introduction to that book, which is subtitled, “Answered Prayers,” he encourages the reader to “penetrate behind the ink and the paper” to the vibratory power he planted there.
As soon as Swamiji finished reading Autobiography of a Yogi in 1948, he took a bus from New York to Los Angeles to meet Paramhansa Yogananda. When Master asked him, at that first meeting, “How did you like the book?” Swami, who had thrown away everything to become his disciple because of the book, said that it was the most magnificent book he’d ever read. And Master said, “That’s because it has my vibrations in it.”
Swamiji said that when he heard the word “vibrations,” all he could think of, as a young American in 1948, was something that you would stand on that would made your body shake. The term was completely foreign to him. But it simply meant that Master had impregnated the words of the book with the vibrations of the silent roar of AUM, and of the perfect stillness of the Spirit beyond creation.
When the cosmos emerges from that state of blissful silence, the first thing that happens is movement. And movement implies duality – a movement in one direction needs its opposite movement. Everything that was created was created from the heart of Spirit, by Spirit vibrating itself into the illusion of these outward forms.
Swami said that it’s like the propeller on an airplane. When it spins, it looks like a solid disk, but once it slows down you can see that it was something else.
And so the Spirit vibrates and is hidden behind its outward creation. And in everything that Master did, he was manifesting the vibration of Spirit at a level that people could understand. This is why Autobiography of a Yogi is filled with the vibration of his consciousness, which is one with the Spirit behind creation. And those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see, and hearts to receive, will be able to commune with that vibration. “But as many as received Him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John 1:12) And here, too, “his name” refers to the sound of AUM.
In the early years of Ananda, when Swami was doing a great deal of lecturing, he, too, was speaking from his own oneness with Spirit. From the creation of the Ananda in 1968 until the 1980s, but especially in the 1970s, he was teaching mostly to a small crowd of absolute newcomers to this way of life.
In those days there was so much information that he wanted to give to us, because there was, literally, no mature spiritual energy in the room except that which was emanating from him. We were complete newborns on this path, and everything had to be explained to us. I remember how I would feel, during Swami’s talks, that he was aware of how very much he needed to explain, and that it was why he would talk almost as fast as it was humanly possible.
If you listen to those talks today, the recording technology is primitive and the pitch is a little high, but his voice was also higher and his delivery was entirely different. He was pouring out great waves of information about the teachings – chakras, kundalini, discipleship, and on and on – because he wanted, by the force of his energy, to wrest us away from the melodies of delusion that we were singing so desperately, and he was trying to waft us into a more true and powerful melody.
Later, when I had a firmer grasp of the teachings and didn’t have to work so hard to understand the concepts, I began to listen to him in a different way.
When I made the audio version of the book Swami Kriyananda: As We Have Known Him, it was an interesting experience, because I realized that every word needed to have its own strong magnetism.
When you’re reading a book aloud, your eyes are always glancing a little ahead, but my experience of recording that book was very different. I was reading my own words, and they were extremely familiar to me because I had edited them so many times, and I had to make a deliberate effort to pretend that I couldn’t see past the word I was saying, so that I could give each word the magnetism it needed. Because, otherwise, there would be words that wouldn’t be infused with the proper magnetism.
This is an important point for anybody who has to read aloud. If you listen to the recording of Swamiji reading Whispers From Eternity, it’s an entirely different expression of the book than when you’re reading it silently to yourself.
The words in Whispers tumble so gloriously across the page that they sweep you along as you read them. Yet while Swami read them aloud he never got ahead of himself – every word had the vibration it needed.
When I began listening to Swami in a different way, focusing on the vibration that he was putting into each word, I began to feel the deeper vibrations of which the words were mere symbols. When he would read the word “love,” for example, it was the pure vibration of the concept of love that I would feel.
If we want to be able to communicate clearly, we must bring each word as close as possible to the AUM sound behind the word and the consciousness for which it stands. Words are stand-ins for AUM, and when we listen deeply to inspired words that come straight from that source we can learn to hear the AUM a little better, which is to say, we can hear the truth behind each word.
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Sri Yukteswar tells the young monk Yogananda, “Try to feel the thoughts behind the confusion of men’s verbiage.” (Chapter 12)
You can listen to their spoken thoughts, but when you can hear the AUM behind the words, you can feel the true consciousness behind what they’re saying.
I had an amusing experience recently, after I gave a talk at Spiritual Renewal Week. The talk apparently went well, because a number of people were waiting to tell me how much they enjoyed it. And among them was a man who had a curmudgeonly nature – he had a very good heart, but he’d been raised to question everything, and he wasn’t about to change. So he waited until he could come up and tell me all the mistakes I had made. And beneath his words I could tell that he was trying to say “Thank you so much, I loved your talk.”
There was nothing in me that resisted, because I could feel behind the confusion of his verbiage that it was how he was accustomed to express his appreciation and love. He was trying to be helpful to me, because he’d enjoyed the talk, and he wanted to help me make it better. And, thank God, I perceived what he was actually meaning.
Chanting is half the battle on the spiritual path, because you get in tune with the AUM that creates and sustains the universe, and then you can walk through the world and actually know what’s going on around you, and it’s a marvelous experience.
I’ll end with a story. Swamiji was always very careful in the way he supported us. He was utterly honest, but he was careful to encourage and support us without flattering us, so that we would become strong in the soul but not strong in the ego. He would tell you the truth, but always in a way that was supportive and never critical. He didn’t say negative things, because he simply saw no value in it. But his compliments were chosen with care.
For example, when I would write, he would say things like, “This is okay. This is good. This is excellent.” He would be positive, but always in exactly the right way, and I would understand what he meant.
One day, for some reason, he happened to be saying some specific positive things to some of the people in the room, and I was eager to be noticed, because if he was passing out compliments, I wanted one, too. Which was, of course, not a terribly noble motive, but nonetheless, there I was. Swami could read my thoughts, and he could feel that he’d gotten himself in a pickle because he needed to say something to me or I was going to be upset.
So he said, “Well, Asha, you’re a lot less confused than you used to be.”
It was a compliment – but oh so subtle! And the more I thought about it, I realized that it was high praise, because I was a lot less confused than I had been. And that’s the whole path, isn’t it, from delusion to truth. The less confused we are, and the more we’re able to listen to the AUM, and the more we are hearing the chants in our mind instead of the confusion of our own misinterpretations of reality, the more free and powerful we will be. In the beginning was the Word, and let’s make the best use of it.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on January 7, 2018.)