This is an essay originally written in 2005 and published in Gaian Voices. It is still relevant 10 years later.
A few weeks ago, the local city daily newspaper ran an article about drumming. Titled “How They Beat Stress,” the article was full of information about the relaxing, stress-reducing effects of drumming, and touched upon a host of health benefits connected to this activity. Readers were encouraged to consider drumming as a tool for increasing their personal well-being, much like regular exercise or yoga classes. They were even told about Earth Drum Council.
My husband Jimi and I, co-founders of Earth Drum Council, have been organizing a monthly drum and dance circle in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the last 14 years. [Now in 2015, Drum and Dance happens in Concord, MA.] This is an open, public event where anyone can walk in, and over these years we have seen many, many people come and go. They come for many reasons: curiosity, chance exposure, because a friend suggested or insisted, sometimes because they read an article. Some check it out once and never come back. Those who stay, who return again and again, discover that while drumming is indeed relaxing and fun, it also taps into something deeper. They discover the magic of rhythm.
What do I mean by magic? There are a lot of definitions of magic out there ranging from “the art of illusion” to “action of the supernatural,” but to me, magic is a simple principle arising from the acknowledgment that there are more levels of reality than we commonly sense. Once we understand that there are multiple levels of reality and that they are interconnected, we can begin to expand our perceptual abilities and learn to work with the subtle energies that weave the levels together, thereby learning to manifest vision from the unseen world into the world of shared perceptual reality. That, my friends, is magic.
I’ve found rhythm, both drumming and body-based rhythmic stimulation such as dance or the Taketina rhythm method, to be a reliable way to access the realm of consciousness that perceives beyond the ordinary. Drumming itself alters consciousness and weaves a web of energy as it brings the body’s systems into synchronization. This insight is utilized by the field of music therapy, which has embraced rhythm-based therapy and drumming as a healing modality.
The effect of rhythm on the individual human is amplified in ensemble, as drummers entrain to a common pulse. When a group of drummers is “locked in,” there is an individual sensation of being carried by the group, of being merged with a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In my experience this sense of being carried frees the mind to expand and deepen its awareness. Add a little creative visualization to the mix, and soon you find that you can ride the rhythm anywhere you like.
At the social level, the repeated experience of group rhythmic synchronization leads to bonding, and the formation of community and tribe. I’ve watched this happen over and over again, as people who barely know each other are transformed by the experience of drumming and dancing together from a random collection of individuals into a self-defined community.
It’s possible to have this experience indoors, with attention to creating a safe container for people to express themselves rhythmically; indeed, we do this regularly at Drum and Dance. But something really special happens when we gather outdoors around a fire, with the Earth under our feet and the Sky above. Now Nature is a participant in the circle and we dance not just with each other but with the rhythms of the fire, the wind, the trees and rocks that witness, the creatures that receive us into their world, the heavenly bodies that move across the sky. In this space, which we call the Fire Circle, the deepest magic happens – the kind of magic that has the power to change not just our lives, but the very world.
Many people who love Gaia are distressed by the political landscape in the U.S. and around the world, and alarmed at events taking place in our country that have eaten away at hard-earned gains in social justice and environmental protection, not to mention civil liberties. When we gather around the fire to do our rhythm magic, when we claim that this experience can change the world, are we escaping into fantasy? I don’t think so. The feeling of connection that is generated by drumming and dancing together is real, and in cities and towns throughout the country (and around the world), communities have formed and are sustained by these Fire Circle gatherings.
On a basic level, those community members support each other’s work, share values, and work actively towards a cultural paradigm shift. These are the Cultural Creatives who make real change in many practical ways by taking home the lessons of the Fire Circle and applying them in their lives.
On another level – well, I believe in magic. I see that energy generated by the entrainment of joyous, harmonious community rhythm-making is infused with the intention of the circle. That energy ripples out and, because everything is connected, changes the world. Of course this is true of everything we do. But how much more impact has it when we focus our intention and energy in a group? Rhythm is the most powerful method I know of focusing group intention. As a tool for Earth Magic, its effects reach far beyond relieving stress. Try it and see!