What’s your idea of a spiritual practice?
We may think of prayer, meditation, yoga, Kirtan and many other things, but what about drumming?
Back to the Healing Energy
During the 1990’s, I played in drum circles in NYC and Chicago. I had studied and played drums as a kid, so I was a natural, even though I’d never had a lesson on Conga or Djembe. When we all hit the groove together, call it “being in the zone.” “flow,” “synchronicity”—whatever—I felt a tremendous positive energy and euphoria. Even with the amazing energy and all that good “juju,” I had no qualms about having some beers or sharing a joint to enhance the drumming. For some people, it helps them relax and they feel connected. But, just because you’re buzzed doesn’t mean you’re playing well or really connecting to anything.
“The very awareness of what I am brings about transformation and the freedom of understanding.”
~ Jiddu Krishnamurti
I didn’t go back to a drum circle until 2009, and when I did, I was quite anxious.
For starters, I was sober and we were in a yoga studio, I was used to drumming outside in a park or rocking with a band in a club. Drinking and partying had been my social lubricant; it helped me feel relaxed and free. But I gave all that up and there was nothing to hide behind now. In that yoga studio, I made a conscious choice to remain open and present. I remembered something that my Zen teacher would often say:
“Whatever arises, meet it with relaxation.”
The people in the circle were friendly and welcoming. Someone started a rhythm, and as it began to build, I felt the positive healing energy just as I had all those years ago—except I was sober and fully present. As with sitting meditation or doing an asana, I focused on my breath, alignment, and intention. I waited for awhile, eyes closed, then jumped in when I felt the groove in my gut. Something immediate and amazing manifested in the voice of my drum—yes, I still had it!
I had been drumming in indie rock bands for years, so all the practice, recording and touring had kept up my skills, but hand drumming with other people is not all about volume and showing off, or at least it shouldn’t be. At this point, and for months to follow as I kept coming back, I still separated meditation from drumming.
Listening as a Spiritual Practice
“In a drum circle, you should listen just as much as you play; it should be a conversation—not an argument.”
~ Baba Jubal Harris
Zen Master Dae Gak has said:
“Listening is the fundamental practice of any spiritual path. Listening can be practiced whether sitting in a temple or riding on a bus, while at the most sacred ceremony or in the midst of a frenzied office. It is a practice that returns us to our true way—the way of human beings, the way of compassion.”
Whether we meditate, pray, do yoga or chant at a Kirtan, the energy works on several levels. We practice with ourselves, with everyone around us, and with the entire universe.
It is the same when we drum with others:
“There is power in drumming alone, but that power recombines and multiplies on many simultaneous levels in a group of drummers. The drums draw individual energies together, unifying them into a consolidated force.”
So, listening and focusing are important. All I can do is be aware of the energy and respond accordingly. Sometimes, drummers lose the groove, or they take a break and just soak up the rhythm, or they stop to check their phone. No worries. There is ebb and flow, people arrive, people leave, a song gets louder, faster, then slower, softer, maybe it ends. Or it may fade and come back as a different rhythm altogether with new energy. Choice-less awareness.
All compounded things are impermanent, all phenomena are inherently empty, nirvana is beyond extremes.
Drumming indoors has its own challenges, but being outdoors in a park is pure sensory overload with a lot of distractions. The entire field of awareness is altered—even the wind affects hearing and therefore, group cohesion. There are dancers (or hoopers) in the middle of the circle, kids jumping in and joining us—beaming with joy as they hit the drums and played shakers and tambourines, the leaves on the trees, darting birds, boomboxes, jet planes zooming overhead, the smell of barbeque—just like observing the thoughts in my mind. Choice-less awareness.
I shared this with my Zen teacher, his response was quite matter of fact,
“So the drumming is another form of meditation practice?”
And it finally clicked: the intense yet relaxed concentration I felt while drumming was the same as samadhi on the cushion, duh.
Drumming as Complimentary Therapy
There are some well-known drummers (Mickey Hart~The Grateful Dead, Rick Allen~Def Leppard, Jim Donovan~Rusted Root) who have played in famous bands and subsequently found the peace and healing power in hand drumming. They present workshops all over the U.S. and the world. There are research articles documenting the healing effects of drumming for children with autism, people recovering from addiction, PTSD, cancer patients, general anxiety and depression. I know how it makes me feel, and I see the effect rhythm has on people whether they are participating or just listening.
In the 1980s, Arthur Hull, father of the modern day drum circle, noted that “when we drum together, it changes our relationships and helps us cope with life. It tames stress and creates a group version of the so-called ‘runner’s high.’ Energy swells as drummers share joyful bliss conversing through sound and rhythm. There is a natural high produced by a drum circle that you simply need to experience to believe.”
Eric Vogt practices Buddhist meditation and studies Vajrayana, Soto Zen, & Theravada. He is a musician, drum circle facilitator, Kirtan enthusiast, songwriter, and ASCAP member. He has lived in London, New York City, Chicago, and Cleveland. He enjoys yoga, Tai Chi, reading (real books), quote-mongering (“A smattering of everything, and a knowledge of nothing.” ~Charles Dickens), reverent irreverence, voluntary simplicity, poetry, biking, being walked by my dog, food, especially all things curry. He likes this quote from Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field, I will meet you there—but I don’t have GPS, so I might be late…or I might not even find it. And there might be sheep in the field because I understand it’s somewhere in Wales…but anyway, save me a cookie.”
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