A Meditation on Drumming and the Rhythms of Life
A Meditation on Drumming and the Rhythms of Life
1. A Universe of Rhythm
Take a deep breath, then relax as you let it out. Then another. Notice the rhythm of your breathing. Like the breath that keeps us alive, the universe is full of rhythm like the sky is full of blue. From the ocean tides, to the turning of the earth that causes day and night, the seasons, the chirping of crickets and the howling of coyotes, to our own breath and heartbeat, our our sleeping and waking, our tears and laughter, our yawning and walking and talking and thinking and blinking—in all these things, life is full of rhythm. Existence implies motion, and motion implies rhythm, and rhythm implies life.
Even the very earth we stand on spins on its axis, wobbling slightly. In its volcanic eruptions, its floods and droughts, our planet has its rhythms. Its waters rise in swelling brooks and creeks and rivers in the spring, to flow into larger rivers, to flow into the ocean that is “never full,”1 yet always in motion, and whose waters evaporate to become clouds that turn to rain and snow to melt and feed the streams and repeat the cycle. In all these rhythms, the earth sings its glorious song of life.
Overhead, even the seemingly eternal stars are born, grow, mature, wane, and die, each a stream of rhythms lasting billions of years. Over the millennia, the shapes of the constellations change. The great far-flung galaxies of billions of stars whirl and dance, develop and change, begin and end. Stars known as pulsars flash radio waves like a lighthouse flashes a beam of light. The protons, neutrons, and electrons of the atoms of every molecule in our bodies, in the leaves of trees, in the fur of polar bears and the bones of kangaroos, in the rocks beneath our feet, in the cirrus clouds above, and in every star in the sky, all spin a wondrous celebration dance at the speed of light.
Sound itself is composed of rhythmic waves of energy traveling through the air; the size and frequency of the wave determines the volume and pitch of the sound you hear. Light is also a much smaller wave form perceived by the eyes; the waves a surfer rides are the ocean version. Earthquakes are waves of energy large enough to shake the earth; those who have been in a major earthquake know earthquakes have their own terrifying rhythm. These four types of waves are four entirely different physical phenomena; a fifth is our own brain wave patterns. Aside from being wave forms, what they have in common is rhythm—“an ordered recurrent alternation of strong and weak elements in the flow of sound and silence…” as one dictionary so eloquently defines it. 2
And all the rhythms of the universe are created and sustained, played and sung and drummed eternally by God, who, the Bible tells us, is unchanging. The Uncreated Creator, the Unchanging One who changes all things, has all rhythms, and no rhythm. It is to this God of the changeless silence, this maker and possessor of infinite beauty, this unfathomable dream-weaving wonder called God, that we sing and pray to.
2. The Rhythms of Humanity
The constant inhalation and exhalation of breath is one of the primary rhythms of life, reminiscent of other pairings and dichotomies in life, each of which provides its own rhythmic accompaniment to our time on earth. These include: new and old, true and false, fast and slow, large and small, up and down, hot and cold, rich and poor, work and play, male and female, happiness and sadness, beginning and ending. Each dichotomy has a rhythm, and each shows two sides of the same coin. They work together in the unity of life.
The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us:
To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die…
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance…
A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away…
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace. 3
And like the silent pause between exhalation and inhalation, there is something undefinable between the two parts of each of these dichotomies. In that place is where the presence of God can be known.
3. Rhythm in Music: More than Timing
Rhythm is such a basic part of music that it’s often taken for granted; for most people rhythm plays second fiddle to melody and harmony. But because I’ve been playing drums since age ten, I see music the other way around. I’m a professional drummer and teacher of drums and percussion, and I often think of music as rhythm accompanied by melody. Rhythm is the skeleton, the bones, the framework of music as well as its heartbeat. Drumming is a fascinating myriad of rhythms, ever-changing; each drum rhythm can be reduced to sharp sounds and the silence in between the sounds, like the ones and zeros of binary code, the most basic of all computer languages.4 The greatest music in the world can be seen as simple and complex rhythms, and combinations of rhythms. From Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, to a Japanese Taiko drumming performance, to an African call-and-response song, to a Bolivian flute ensemble, to a Grateful Dead concert, all music—like life itself—can be seen as layer upon layer of rhythm.
Perhaps partly because of the immediacy, intensity of sound, and immensity of focus a drum stroke contains, combined with the tiny yet vast silence between drum strokes, drumming can easily lead to meditation. In fact, due to the combination of sound and the physicality of drumming—it tends to involve more bodily motion than most other musical instruments—drummers quite commonly fall into what’s known as a “drum trance.” In other words, the simple act of drumming has a hypnotic effect on the mind. At any rock or jazz performance—or even a classical concert—the drummer may seem to be off in the ozone a bit. That’s because drumming actually alters a person’s brain wave patterns. The drum trance tends to be a deeply pleasurable experience in which a person can forget that anything exists but himself or herself and the drum and the rhythm—and eventually, just the rhythm, nothing else. A similar effect can occur in the listener as well.
4. The Percussive Rhythms of Language
There’s also a strongly percussive quality to our speech. The drum-like pops of T’s and P’s and K’s,5 the guttural grunts of B’s and D’s and G’s, the windy sigh of H’s and F’s, the sand-through-the-hourglass sound of S’s and SH’s, and the melodic emotion-and-rhythm meld of L’s, R’s, W’s, and M’s, all combined with the simple musicality of vowel sounds, can easily bring us into meditative states. Times of listening in rapt attention to our own vocal sounds are the first meditative states many of us become aware of as children; as we grow older, we miss the wonder of such times. This sense of loss drives some to drugs, or to seeking God, at some point in life.
So chanting and drumming can literally be a wonder-full form of meditation. When drumming and chanting are combined, the result is a powerful way to focus on God and some simple aspect of your relationship to God. (As with many types of meditation, one comes to recognize that what seems simple is remarkably complex, leading to a state of quiet amazement. And, yes, it’s quite possible to reach a place of interior silence in the midst of a barrage of drumming sounds.)
5. Paradox Chants
The chants I create and use are often based on a paradox of some sort—usually from the Bible or from nature. I find that meditation on a paradox often leads into a dance-like encounter with God like a moth before a flame; it serves to open our eyes in wondrous ways. Paradox was the door Jesus used to open people’s minds to God-reality. Combinations of paradox and drumming can help people open up to the presence of God. It’s been done that way all over the world for thousands of years, and God still uses simple forms of worship, simple rhythms and words, to break into our hearts and minds.
So start beating a simple rhythm on your leg, or tap your foot on the floor. Then, choose a short, simple verse or phrase—ones from the Bible work well7—and begin to chant it, drumming or tapping along. Drum away, chant away, and may God lead you to hear, feel, and dance to the rhythm of His own heartbeat.
- Ecclesiastes 1:7 (New Living Translation).
- Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, ©1983 by Merriam-Webster Inc.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (New King James Version).
- My friend and fellow contemplative Rick Randall has pointed out that this is an oversimplification. I’ll let him say it: “The analogy is only partly correct, in my opinion. If one studies the specifics of any percussion strike, one probably finds patterns of variable frequency and amplitude – not just on and off.” And, of course, he’s right. Rick, an engineer, also contributed other interesting points which are incorporated in this essay, including the rhythms of sound waves and pulsars. Thanks, Rick!
- In these examples, think in terms of the sound of the letter as spoken within a word, not the letter itself. Not “tee,” but the whispered “tuh.”
- The shorter, the better. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) or “Your Kingdom come, your will be done (Matthew 6:10), or one of my favorites, “I find shelter in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 57:7)—these are excellent examples, but there are thousands of sayings in the Bible and other great spiritual books to use for meditational chanting.