Drumming is an ancient art that has played a ritualistic and spiritual role in different cultures all over the world. Drumming practitioners today may be most familiar with West African and Native American traditions, but there are many others – for example, Taiko drumming techniques from Japan. Why does drumming have a spiritual role in the lives of so many diverse cultures, and what role might it have for naturalists?
In the West at least, new spiritual movements have come to incorporate drumming methods and understandings from a variety of ‘mix-and-match’ influences. These customized ritual cocktails may vary in their accuracy and allegiance to historically accurate understandings; sometimes intentionally so. In many of these cases, members of the original cultures from which these practices sprang may find offense. So, as we proceed, we should do so with respect for original cultures and be careful that we don’t misrepresent them. Even with this approach, however, it should be noted that no amount of respect will prevent offense to some cultures that resent any appropriation of their customs. This is a more general concern with any perennial path such as ours, but we proceed as respectfully as possible while learning from others what we can. The format of drumming rituals varies, but we will primarily look at drumming circles, which have been popularly forming at events and in groups for many years.
Another concern for us, as naturalists, is that one will find a variety of interpretations as to the nature of spiritual drumming in literal terms. That is, there are many beliefs about what is happening with ‘energy’, healing, bodily centers, and so on. We should not get too hung up on these particulars, as there will always be those with a variety of beliefs. Agreement on these matters is not essential and we should approach them with tolerance while staying true to our own path, which includes a humble approach to knowledge and claims; without the need to force that discipline on others. Mainly, just as we do when reading ancient philosophy, we must be capable of seeing past differences to connect with underlying themes and wisdom, rather than being reactionary to anything we may not agree with and miss an entire area of human activity and its potential benefits. So, some charity is advisable. This would be true even for non-naturalists, each of whom will have their own differences of belief. The famous physicist Richard Feynman is one example of a naturalist who saw great benefits in drumming. So, let us consider these benefits.
At the simplest level, drumming is fun. This alone can justify it for anyone, naturalist or not. And, there is additionally an argument to be made for simple fun activity as a healthy part of a spiritual life. But considering some further aspects of drumming beyond simple fun can be intriguing and helpful.
The National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) conducted a series of interviews and collected practitioner journal reports to get a sense of what Aboriginal women practitioners experienced in hand drumming rituals. The general consensus was positive, as one might expect. Some reported their heart rates affected by the rhythm, helping them deal with stress, relaxing and releasing tension. Some even reported finding the activity helpful in dealing with addictions. They generally reported that it helped them maintain a positive outlook on life.
Of course, more research can only help illuminate these effects, but Spiritual Naturalists are encouraged to do their own first-person research, seeing for themselves the effects of participation. Practice, as we have stated, is about more than academic third-person study.
Obviously, the communal nature of drum circles tends to help participants learn to be in synch with one another in their drumming. This synchronicity can lead to a greater sense of cooperation. Indeed, many armies from all over the world have, prior to modern communications, used drumming to coordinate soldiers on the battlefield and in training. Not only does the rhythm indicate a pace and type of action, but the emotional nature of hearing the drums helped to coordinate their emotions, adrenalin, and attitudes. This concept has carried on into marching bands used to rally fans and players in sports games.
Obviously, this kind of alignment of neural activity can benefit more than a group of soldiers for purposes of war. It can also be used positively to engender a sense of close community for other constructive purposes. In a drum circle, all players are considered equal, regardless of ability and this too has a psychological effect on our relationship with the whole.
All of the preceding has been rather utilitarian or even dry so far; speaking of entertainment, physical effects, and community building. These are worthy things in their own right, but for many, drumming is much deeper and more profound than these dry descriptions can do justice. As even a basic practitioner, I can attest to this, as well as the fact that such is the case even within a purely naturalistic path.
Watching a self-conscious drummer attempt the art is telling. Here, we see that successful drumming requires a kind of ‘handing over’ of some control and self-consciousness. The analytical side of us, when attempting to helm the ship in drumming, can’t pull it off. This is because drumming requires a real-time response. The analytical mind is thinking to itself, “ok, is it time for the next beat now? Now? Now? –ok Now!” and by the time the hand moves to hit the drum, it is already too late. The conscious judgmental mind is getting in the way. It’s too busy thinking about the beat. This is not unlike the folk tale about the centipede, when asked how it manages to coordinate all those legs to walk, suddenly loses the ability when it stops to think about it.
This is significant because the ‘uptight person’ must go through a kind of learning process to ‘let go’ in order to really enjoy the spiritual benefits of drumming. Here, the hand must already be moving to the drum and must strike it confidently at the right moment, without the conscious pre-confirmed knowledge that everyone else will, in fact, follow through with a strike. The dilemma might remind us of the funny example of the person who yells something embarrassing to a friend in the middle of a loud party, just as everyone happens to go silent, making their statement far more noticeable than intended. For all we know, everyone might place the beat in some other place or stop drumming, leaving the self-conscious person whacking a loud drum all by themselves – the horror!
This is somewhat like those exercises in trust, where someone falls backward letting another catch them. We must have a kind of faith that others (or the music) will go along with us in this beat we feel – we can’t wait for confirmation before proceeding or we will fail. It is not difficult to imagine what this might have to teach naturalists who are used to relying on their intellects and on evidence. It says something about the nature of dealing with reality as it is; often messy, incomplete, and often requiring action without all the answers.
It forces us to get to know ourselves – to learn to trust our instincts, our ways of sensing and acting in a complex environment intuitively and skillfully. This, in fact, could be considered an apt metaphor for what Taoists refer to as ‘skillful means’ in life. It is this kind of internalization and alteration of our direct responses that we seek in living more consistently with nature and our nature as rational/moral beings. This can potentially shift our attitude in ways that enable us to apply this perspective in other places in our life.
And as we become more accustomed to entering this state of mind, we learn to free ourselves from self consciousness, which could be an aspect of being constrained by the delusions of the ego. We enter that trancelike state of pure experience; without labels; without judgments, and the fictions they often impose upon us. This is, of course, a meditative state, with similar (though not identical) benefits and uses in our spiritual practice. It is also an example of flow which is being more appreciated lately as a source of contentment and happiness in life.
And, it is in this altered state of consciousness, that we can become perceptive to things we often overlook. As we give up part of that control, and we trust others to fill in the beats alongside us simultaneously, a network activity builds between these coordinated nervous systems. We begin to operate as a single neurological system, in every way that matters from an information-processing standpoint. This creates a profound sense of shared interconnectedness with others in the group. Importantly, this is not just a ‘feeling’, but it is a deep perception of an external truth: that we are, in fact, interconnected with one another in deeper ways than we are typically conditioned to appreciate or capable of directly perceiving.
As the famous jazz musician John Coltrane said, “All a musician can do is get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws”. Drumming, like any practice, may not be for everyone, but it is this very real and very natural enhanced perception that makes drumming a potential source of spiritual transformation.
It is not, then, too far a stretch for our minds to begin extending this perception of interconnectedness toward other people beyond the drum circle, toward all beings, and toward the universe as a whole. This has implications for cultivation of empathy and compassion and for our value systems, and for the actions that result from them.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Special thanks to Donna Alldredge, Lisa Fischer, Tom Brucia, and Ellis Arseneau for directing me toward resources and for their input, to Lisa Marie Bytheway for the photos, and to NAHO for their paper on hand drumming, and to the Drumming in the Spirit of Harmony Facebook group for their support.