Shamanism and the Benefits of Drumming

Following on from last month’s look at the importance of rhythm, in this article I take a look at how shamans use the power of drumming to promote healing.

Veterans releasing some of their post-traumatic emotional pain. “At-risk” adolescents discharging their anger and negative emotions. Corporate executives letting go of some of their day-to-day stress. These are some of the studies cited in Robert Lawrence Friedman’s book The Healing Power of the Drum that demonstrate the power of drumming.

There’s plenty more scientific evidence showing that drumming, especially drumming in the context of community, actually reduces stress, boosts our immune system, and increases the Alpha rhythms of the brain.

Friedman cites studies showing how drumming helps Alzheimer’s patients improve their short-term memory and increase their social interactions. Drums also help autistic children increase their attention span, and they aid Parkinsons patients and stroke victims, helping them regain control of their movements.

Drumming can relax the tense, energize the tired, and heal the emotionally wounded. It can also help us realize that most of the things 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!

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 paper, Melinda Maxfield discovered that when subjects listened to a steady rhythmic beat of a drum at 4.5 beats per second for 13-15 minutes, their brain activity synchronized to this rhythm[1].

It’s no coincidence that 4.5 beats per second corresponds to the 4-7 cps of the Theta brain wave activity that induces a very deep trance. It’s in this deep trance that the shamanic practitioner can then transport their 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 also be used for other purposes with surprising and sometimes profound effects, especially within 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.

The following is a story of the 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 started dancing around the room.

As sometimes happens in a sacred ceremony, some unexpected healing occurred. One of the participants 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 mindset. 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.

[1] Cited in research paper Psychology of Shamanism: The Transformative and Restorative by T. Whitley, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology

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