In the Beginning, There Was the Beat
When you came into this life, your first felt experience was the sensation of rhythm. Not the sound, but the sensation of rhythm. Before you could hear, see, or think, you were unadulterated physicality—pure instinctual and primal substance, a human animal in its infancy, animated by the spark of life that foretold of a human being. You sensed your being as only slightly distinct from your mother’s body, intimately connected to her physical and emotional rhythms, yet very gradually emerging into a sense of your own self.
Take yourself back to those first few weeks in her womb . . . Listen closely . . . Hear the “lub-dub—lub-dub—lub-dub”. . . . It’s your mother’s heartbeat, massaging what is to become you with its consistency and power, accompanied by the steady undulation of her breathing. If you were fortunate, most of the time the sensations generated by her heartbeat and breathing would lull and rock you.
So your initiation into life is first sensed completely through rhythm. It didn’t register consciously—at least not in the usual sense—or even through the usual senses. Instead, it registered as a non-localized physicality when you were just a tiny fetus, permeating every cell in your organismic self, responding not only to your mother’s rhythms but to the rhythms that were emerging in your evolving body, especially at the center of your physical self: your pulsating heart.
Throughout our lives we continue to come in contact with innumerable internal and external rhythms. We are so intimately familiar with these physical sensations created by rhythm that whenever we’re exposed to any kind of percussion, these earliest, primal sensations are once again activated, particularly to the degree that our bodies are open to these sensations.
Our sense of rhythm can be thrown off kilter in the earliest stages of life. Some recent studies suggest that prenatal stress can affect the baby’s temperament and neurological functioning. Infants whose mothers experienced consistently high levels of stress during pregnancy, especially in the first trimester, showed signs of depression and irritability. While in the womb fetuses were considerably more reactive and slower to tune out repeated stimuli, seemingly unable to readily habituate to that stimuli (more info).
Further, one study has suggested that a mother’s stress can contribute to her child’s ADHD. One of the symptoms of ADHD is that the individual typically has difficulty with rhythm perception, evidenced by difficulty in detecting a change in the duration of a rhythm sequence. In other words, difficulty in tracking a beat. Though requiring further study, researchers have speculated that “. . . rhythmic auditory stimulation may serve as a remediation strategy in ADHD.” (Serrallach, B. et al. Neural biomarkers for dyslexia, ADHD, and ADD in the auditory cortex of children. Front. Neurosci. 10, 324 (2016).) In other words, drumming can help mitigate ADHD. As you’ll see, not only does drumming have the potential to help those with ADHD, it can help with other conditions.
Rhythm and Community
When we’re exposed to any rhythmic music or percussion, what typically happens—even if only temporarily—is that parts of the body that have remained frozen or dormant and whose life force has become diminished are stirred once again, filling up with renewed vitality. Drumming and rattling in a group of any size can only enhance this experience. After all, when you’re in the midst of good percussion, who can resist moving at least some part of their body, even if it’s only tapping your finger or your toes?
When rhythmic play is brought into a group or community, such as in a drumming circle, a gathering of friends, or a tribal ceremony, this adds other layers of richness and texture to the healing quality of this kind of experience. Healing takes place at the physical, emotional, instinctual, and communal level, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly, in ways that are beyond our meager human consciousness and understanding.
When the body experiences the sensations generated by rhythmic percussion, such as drumming, rattling, didgeridoo, or other rhythm instruments, especially in the context of community, the life force, or vitality, begins to blossom again, not only in our most basic physical selves, but in those areas of our hearts and minds that have been closed off and locked away. Anyone who is involved in a shared percussion experience on a regular basis, such as a drumming circle, knows the healing power of rhythm, power that not only positively affects the participants, but often extends into the field of the larger community.
One such story is related to one of my drums. It’s a small Djembe, a drum that has a circular top about nine inches diameter, tapering slightly to the bottom where there is an opening. I found it when I was wandering around during a local musical festival, checking out the various vendors’ booths. I came upon a fellow who was selling African drums, as well as some other goods. He introduced himself as I was surveying the drums. He told me all of his drums and other articles were imported from Senegal, where a brother who lives there acquires the items that he then sells at his booth.
There was one drum that caught my eye. I notice the carvings on either side, one side being the head of a jaguar, and the other being what looked like a tree. I started playing this one, and soon the owner of the booth picked up another drum and played along with me. Gradually three others joined us for a spontaneous drumming session that lasted several minutes.
When we finished, I knew that I wanted the drum I was playing. I asked the fellow who ran the booth about the carvings. He explained that the jaguar was an animal common to Senegal and that this particular drum was imbued with the spirit of Jaguar. Then he told me about the story of the carving of the tree that was on the drum.
“In the village in Senegal where this drum was made, every Saturday night just after sunset, the villagers gather around this very large, very special tree at the edge of the village. It is called the Peace Tree. They bring with them their drums and rattles and sticks, and as they form a circle around the tree, randomly playing their various instruments, the sound becomes very noisy and chaotic.
“After a while, once everyone finds their place in the circle, a magical thing happens. The drums and rattles and sticks start to coordinate in a beautiful symphony of rhythm, where the various sounds of the instruments weave in and around one another. It’s quite amazing. This goes on for a couple of hours. Everyone holds the intention while drumming to generate peace through this process. It is hoped that by drumming in this way not only will there be continued peace in the village, but that this peace will spread throughout the entire world.
“And so, my friend, the carving on your drum is the Peace Tree. May it bring you peace and happiness whenever you play it.”
Benefits of Drumming
Not only are there a number of anecdotal experiences that tell of the immense healing power of percussion, there is increasing scientific evidence that drumming, especially drumming in the context of community, actually reduces stress, boosts our immune system, and increases the Alpha rhythms of the brain (more info).
In his book, The Healing Power of the Drum (White Cliffs Media Co: 2000) Robert Lawrence Friedman cites several studies demonstrating this power of drumming, such as veterans releasing some of their post-traumatic emotional pain, “at-risk” adolescents discharging their anger and negative emotions, and corporate executives letting go of some of their day-to-day stress. Drumming has also been shown to help Alzheimer’s patients improve their short-term memory and increase their social interactions, autistic children increase their attention span, and aid Parkinson’s patients and stroke victims regain control of their movements. Drumming can relax the tense, energize the tired, and heal the emotionally wounded.
As author Natalie Goldberg said about stress, “Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath…. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important.” Drumming can help us know that of most things that we stress ourselves about are really not that important.
As Friedman notes, “It’s hard to be having fun, playing, and be stressed at the same time. Some of our stress is created from past or future thoughts of fear, worry, or regret, but it is very difficult to be stressed and be in the present moment. When one hits the drum, he or she is placed squarely in the here and now . . . (the) drum creates states of euphoria, induces light trance, promotes play, releases anger and promotes feelings of community and unity.” Quite a lot of positive effects for such a simple instrument!
One measure of relaxation is when our brainwaves slow down from the normal alert activity level of a Beta rhythm, which is 14-20+ cycles per second (cps), to an Alpha rhythm, which is 7-14 cps. When most people relax, their brainwaves slow to this level. When in an Alpha state, your mind can be idle when not on task. Alpha is associated with a general feeling of well-being and sometimes euphoria. People who practice Transcendental Meditation (TM) for 30 minutes will generally be in Alpha for 20 minutes, and another 10 minutes in an even deeper state of relaxation, a Theta rhythm of 4-7 cps (which as we’ll see is also achieved with shamanic drumming).
A study by Barry Quinn, PhD., a clinical psychologist who operates a neuro-biofeedback clinic specializing in stress management and who has studied a variety of techniques that affect brainwaves, shows that drumming for brief periods can actually shift a person’s brainwave pattern to Alpha, thus dramatically reducing stress. Dr. Quinn estimates that as much as 30-40% of the population is unable to achieve Alpha, and although over an eight year period he has experimented with a number of stress reduction techniques, drumming for 30-40 minutes has been the only method to achieve a significant return of the Alpha state on a number of highly-stressed individuals.
Dr. Quinn calls the results of drumming for the highest-stress clients “by far the most amazing results I’ve encountered thus far in my research.” One of Dr. Quinn’s clients, a Vietnam veteran who has long suffered from high stress, hypervigilance and chronic sleep problems, regularly produced almost no Alpha. During a single 30-minute session of slow, gentle drumming, this client nearly doubled his Alpha brainwaves. No other techniques in a series of 15 stress-reduction sessions had been able to produce any Alpha in this client.
Drumming, Stress, and the Immune Response
Barry Bittman, M.D., neurologist, author, and Medical Director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pennsylvania, has researched how drumming affects the immune system. A number of leading scientific investigations have shown that the perception of stress negatively impacts a person’s immune system. Chronic stress particularly has a very damaging effect on a person’s ability to ward off disease, doing so by suppressing many components of the natural immune response. For instance, the perception of stress has been shown to substantially diminish the activity of Natural Killer (NK) cells, which are specialized white blood cells that seek out and destroy certain cancer cells and viruses. In contrast, a heightened sense of control, nurturing, laughter and moderate exercise has been shown to boost key immune system components.
Dr. Bittman discovered that drumming tended to increase the activity of these NK cells. However, he found that while listening to relaxing music while watching nature imagery clearly reverses the classic stress response, what he calls “basic drumming” did not. Adding things that enhanced relaxation, plus camaraderie and support within a group affected positive immune system changes. He experimented with four different types of one-hour group drumming sessions, as follows:
- Basic—instructor spends half the time discussing drumming and half the time leading the group in the actual activity
- Impact—same drumming technique, but was increased to 80%
- Shamanic—Mayan shaman led the group and punctuated the drumming with a presentation of spiritual and cultural elements
- Composite—Began session by passing hand to hand hollow, bead-filled “shaker eggs” around a circle, faster and faster until inevitably they would drop to the floor. The levity that this produced was followed with an activity in which participants played their drums in rhythm with the syllables of their own names. After periods in which all participants drummed together varying tempo and rhythm, they spent a half-hour drumming along with two “guided imagery” themes.
The “Composite” drumming group showed the best results in the reversal of the stress response and the increase in the immune system response, evidenced by the increase in various immune system components, especially the increase in NK cells. This suggests the healing power of drumming in a community, especially when it is combined with play, laughter, and perhaps guided imagery meditations.
Shamanism and Drumming
With shamanism one of the most common ways to achieve the altered state of consciousness required to journey to non-ordinary reality is through a specific pattern of drumming. In her research, Melinda Maxfield discovered that when subjects listened to a steady rhythmic beat of the drum at 4.5 beats per second for 13-15 minutes, their brain activity synchronized to this rhythm. As in deep meditative states through other means, such as Transcendental Meditation or Kirtan chanting, the drumming elicited a Theta cycle, which again is 4-7 cps.
It’s no coincidence that 4.5 beats per second corresponds to the 4-7 cps of the Theta brain wave activity that induce a very deep trance. It’s in this deep trance that the shamanic practitioner can then transport her consciousness into non-ordinary reality. Based on archeological and anthropological evidence this way of inducing the trance state with drumming appears to have been used by shamans throughout history, stemming back to the Paleolithic era.
Healing in a Group Drumming Ceremony
Shamanic drumming at this rate is not only used by shamans for their work but can be used for other purposes with surprising and sometimes profound effects, especially with groups. A few years ago I facilitated a ceremony with about 120 people that was part of a week-long workshop. The drumming was the first part of a release ceremony for which the participants had prepared over a 24-hour period. The intention was to release some aspect of themselves that inhibited their spiritual growth and their soul’s purpose. In this type of ceremony there are sometimes deep and spontaneous healings.
Everyone had been asked to bring a drum, rattle, or something that would create a rhythm. A few who didn’t have a drum or rattle brought vitamin bottles that served as an impromptu rattle. We began with the shamanic drumming of 4-7 beats per second, and everyone quickly joined in. We drummed and rattled for several minutes as many in the group danced around the circle.
Following is a story of a spontaneous healing that took place:
After some preparation and instructions, we started the ceremony by drumming and rattling, and before long nearly every one of the 120 students had spontaneously stood up and were dancing around the room.
As sometimes happens in sacred ceremony, there was some unexpected healing that occurred. One of the participants, Paddy Orr, described her experience as she drummed and danced with the group:
Suddenly, with a quiet firmness, a voice whispered into my consciousness, “Keep moving. It’s important that you keep moving.” So I moved, feet trying to go in one direction and my drum pulling me in another. It was so much like the battles I’d been waging with depression and my life purpose for many years. I was again instructed, “Concentrate on the beat. Move into the drum beat.” I felt no fear whatsoever—a most unusual thing for me—only a very positive energy, as intense as anything I’d ever experienced.
Abruptly, Steven gave the signal to stop drumming. The quiet was palpable. The group had gathered in the center of the room as if following instructions, yet none had been given. Steven said that if anyone felt the need for healing, let someone nearby place their hands on you for support.
Just before he said this, I realized that I’d become very, very, hot. I actually felt as though I was the fire! I sought someone out and asked them to place their hands on my shoulders.
I lost track of time at this point. My singular focus was to remain standing, which was becoming more and more difficult. “Hold on!” I told myself. I feared that if I didn’t hold on for dear life, as I’d done for so many years, I’d lose control.
Suddenly, there were two voices speaking to me. The first one was from Steven, who instinctively had come to my side. He assured me that it was all right to fall, that he’d catch me and I would be safe. I hesitated for only a few moments, desperately trying to discern the difference between falling and falling apart.
Then I heard the second voice. Was it Holy Spirit, ancestors, or my guardian angel? It didn’t matter. Filled with the wisdom and love of the entire universe, it gently but firmly whispered. “You’ve been holding on far too long. What you really need to do is let go.”
At this point, I was on the floor.
I have no idea if I was on the floor for two minutes or two hours. I saw gray, depression-filled clouds leaving my body, emerging from my head, my heart, and my solar plexus. Some of the gray puffy clouds had pictures in them; one of the pictures was me when I was three years old. When this cloud left, I heard my voice saying, “No one should have done this to a three year old child!”
I felt as though I was both above my body and inside my body as the clouds were leaving. I felt no emotional attachment to what was happening. It was all so beautiful, peaceful, and divinely orchestrated.
Abruptly, the whole event was over. The clouds disappeared, and I was suddenly aware of many people surrounding me, gently touching me with their hands. For the rest of eternity, I can close my eyes at any time and picture those beautiful faces around me and feel the love that replaced the departed gray energies from my past.
Although I literally lost two pounds of emotional garbage, I gained my life. I know there are wonderful things coming to me in my future, since I now have a very expectant, productive mind-set. I’ve been happy and filled with wonderment and awe as to how each of us is helped in our earthly journey by the supportive love of Spirit.
Although this story is dramatic and life-altering, more often the healing that takes place by drumming in a group is subtler. No matter what form the healing takes, you will come away from drumming in a group feeling differently, and your instinctual self will come to know and remember the place where you came from, as if for the first time.