Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation
Sunday, October 2nd
We were standing in a wide circle, feeling the grass beneath our bare feet. It was one of the first warm days of Spring semester, and cartoon clouds meandered across a perfectly blue sky. At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, days like this were incredibly rare. Our professor took advantage of the opportunity to take the group of eight students enrolled in “Voice for the Actor” out to the quad for our lesson that day. We were asked to hoot, howl, and shriek, to growl and moan as we stomped our feet, undulated, and trembled— this was all fairly routine for theater majors. We were regularly asked to do things that would make most people uncomfortable, and I didn’t mind creating a bit of a spectacle. Today, though, I looked around the circle and saw my classmates giving in to the collective consciousness with a whimsical abandon that I could not summon. I grew increasingly frustrated with each instruction, which seemed to land in the bodies and voices of my friends, but left me bewildered and struggling to keep pace. I could not even begin to comprehend what I was being asked to do. I grew increasingly insecure with each suggestion that we were tapping into something primal that lived deep within us. Whatever universal aspect of humanity was being called forth, it did not appear to exist within me. For the first time in an educational setting, I felt utterly incompetent. But even more grave was the sinking feeling that I was somehow deficient as a human being.
I suffered through the remainder of the course, hoping to put the growing sense of helplessness behind me. But at the end of the semester, I had my review with another professor, who was the head of the theater department and my academic advisor. She advised that I change my major and insisted that I would never work as an actress because of the sound of my voice. Not my projection, or enunciation, or pace, or patterns of speaking, or anything that I could reasonably affect or change— the actual quality of my voice was unpleasant and unfit for hearing. Of course, I was devastated to hear any criticism from someone I respected and hoped to impress, but her comments were far more damaging than she intended: I was terrified to speak, to sing, to be heard at all.
But the nature of the cosmos is not to contract.
After college I began practicing yoga. Over months and years my relationship to voice began to change. My teacher encouraged me to listen to my intuition and treated me kindly when that proved difficult, painful, and confusing. As I learned to trust my inner voice, I became more confident and contented. I grew to understand that speaking with substance simply required living my truth; authenticity began to replace insecurity, ever so slowly. Within my body, I became aware of the subtle sensations of muscles contracting and expanding with every breath. Chanting became a sacred transmission of knowledge— joining in a lineage that has extended for over 5,000 years. And sound itself took on greater depth of meaning.
Sanskrit was developed in a way unlike any other language known to me. The ancients meditated on an object in order to reveal its essential nature. The word for each object is a reference to its pure, vibrational quality. When we create the sound within our body to speak a Sanskrit word, we resonate with the vibrations of the object itself.
‘Aum’ is the oldest and most sacred mantra. Aum is God as sound. Rather than a moment of creation, it is believed that there is continuous creation, contained within aum. The first syllable ‘a’ represents creative force, ‘o’ represents sustaining force, and ‘m’ represents transcending force. The fourth syllable is silence, before and after aum is pronounced. Silence is non-being, and aum is being. Both exist, together, all the time. All that we can perceive and all that is beyond our perception is contained within aum. Aum is the mystery of the cosmos.
We can see sound as creation in the Bible. John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Genesis describes God commanding light in the darkness. It’s a vivid image, but first there was the sound of God speaking “Let there be light.”
The Big Bang theory conjures up images of a massive explosion and the rapid expansion of the universe from nothingness. Or maybe, from sound.
Modern physicists have developed a new class of theories called ‘Quantum Field Theories’ which recognize sub-atomic particles as being localized vibrations in a field. Throughout the cosmos are different fields, in the way that a particular place might have a color, smell, and a sound simultaneously. What we think of as electrons, photons, and quarks are simply vibrations in their associated fields.
These theories depict the cosmos as a sort of grand symphony, where sound can transform energy into matter, compose form from formlessness. And it is through sound that we are able to contemplate the cosmos— to make the infinite more intimate. When we are born, we transition to breathing air through crying out. Throughout our lives, as long as the spirit of the breath remains in the body, we are able to produce sound. We use our mouth, our face, jaw, tongue, throat, neck, diaphragm, our ribs, abdominals, and countless smaller muscles in order to speak and sing. The physical aspects of self, tissues that grow, change, fatigue, tear, break, age, and eventually die.
Whether the cause is structural, developmental, or environmental, we can become cut off from our voices. In countless ways we have been told to diminish ourselves. We have been punished for sharing our stories when they inconvenience or implicate others. Simply to speak— as a woman, as a person of color, as an LGBTQ person, as a muslim, as a Syrian refugee, as any oppressed population— is still an act of dissent. But this disruption is our greatest creative act. We must find our voice, we must speak our truth, we must take up space.
The nature of the cosmos is to expand.