In addition to Himalayan art and artifacts, the Rubin Museum is currently in the business of collecting OMs. Now through May 8, OM LAB, their latest interactive feature, offers visitors a chance to step into a private recording studio and and lay down their very Om, which will be combined with those of other participants' to create a collective chant. This mix becomes part of an audio installation in the upcoming exhibition, The World is Sound, opening June 16, 2017.
What could be more simple—or complex—than chanting Om? Rubin Museum Exhibitions Curator Risha Lee’s job is to come up with strategies to make complex ideas fun and engaging. “Om is so simple and flexible,” she says. “Collaboration with my colleagues—everything from the seed of the idea through the final visuals of the exhibit poster—can be seen as a metaphor for Om itself. The effort was organically interconnected and interrelated, always connecting with a group wider than the individual.”
I arrived on opening day to check it out and learn more about the origins and meaning of the sacred sound. I tend to think of Om as a yoga class coming-to-order, a way to center and focus while becoming one with the energy of the room. I admit to a bit of anxiety about my Oms, usually waiting to hear what pitch the yoga instructor hits and then trying to blend in.
Om is often described as the sound of the universe in a single syllable. Over 3,000 years ago, Indian philosophers pondered that notion while performing rituals involving mantras. Their conclusion was that all letters of the Sanskrit alphabet could be condensed into one syllable composed of three sounds, A-U-M (in Sanskrit, the vowels a and u combine to become o)—or Om. To this day, it remains the most important expression of sacred sound in Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist tradition, as well as Jainism and Sikhism. Om also permeates the Tantric Buddhist traditions of Tibet and Japan.
In Hindu culture Om represents several divine trinities: the three worlds (earth, atmosphere, and heaven), three major gods (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva), and three sacred Vedic scriptures (Rg, Yajur, and Sama). Om also embodies the division of Time into: A (the waking state), U (the dream state), and M (the state of deep sleep). At the end of the mantra, the silent pause represents the state known as Turiya, or Infinite Consciousness.
Today, largely on the merits of its vibratory calming benefits, Om has also moved into the popular world of yoga and meditation not connected with traditional religious roots. Reducing stress, improving focus, calibrating mood, and helping to detoxify the body are all reasons to include Om in our day.
At the Rubin, small screens are posted along the spiral staircase depicting recorded Oms with images of mouths and vibration graphs—intriguing signposts to keep us heading up. The sixth floor is devoted entirely to the OM LAB. The intimately scaled white recording booth is designed in a minimalist way that diametrically opposes the traditional aesthetics of another big draw, the museum’s Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room. (The museum continually strikes perfect balances between modern sensibility and ancient spirituality.) When I arrived, several people were waiting on line, and another was already in the booth. The only indication of the Oms being chanted inside was the wavering yellow beam on the wall that charted the sound vibrations cast into the microphone.
Then it was my turn to settle in front of the mic and follow the screen prompts. There are three vocal ranges to test and choose from, each with an accompaniment supplied by three chanting monks from the Palyul Retreat Center in upstate New York. Choosing the range that felt like a good fit, I hit “Next.” And I was off!
“Aaaa”—I tried to draw deeply from the well of my diaphragm and up to my throat . . .“uuuu”—brought the vibration into my mouth as I closed my lips . . . “mmmm,” until the breath and vibration came to a natural expiration. A bar on the screen indicates the suggested length of the Om (fifteen seconds), which was plenty of time for mine to end organically.
Sure enough, captured was the moment I felt myself really let loose, at one with my Om. And with the universe.
Part of this exhibit is the two-day “OM-In” Friday and Saturday, February 24th and 25th. Various special events and performances start at 6pm Friday with Sonam Rinzin’s “Color Your Mantra” and end at 3:30pm Saturday with an immersive, meditative sound bath experience in the lobby, created by Atonal Meditationfounder Alex Falk.
Illustration and story by Sharon Watts; photo of Watts in the Rubin OM booth