by Michael Drake
The drum has been the guiding force in my life for many years. My journey into rhythm began under the tutelage of Mongolian shaman Jade Wah'oo. Jade's ancient knowledge of drumming and healing rhythms was most influential in putting together my first book, The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming. I had a deep respect for the power of the ceremonial rhythms and drum ways of Jade's tradition, but I had to follow my own path.
Though Jade was my mentor, the drum became my teacher and creative addiction. I developed an insatiable thirst for its rhythms. I became a rhythm seeker, learning new rhythms from other drummers, from Nature, and from dreams and visions. I explored the rhythms of many of the world's shamanic and spiritual traditions. It was only natural, at least from my perspective, that rhythm, as a path, would lead me to the rhythmic roots of all cultures.
As I learned the drum ways of various world cultures, I found the same rhythmic qualities underlying all of them. Like the colors of the rainbow, each culture has its own hue or identity, yet each is a part of the whole. Although the focus or intent differs from culture to culture, rhythmic drumming invariably has the same power and effects in all traditions. The resonant qualities and attributes of these rhythmic phenomena are universal and come into play whenever we drum.
The sound waves produced by the drum impart their energy to the resonating systems of the body, mind, and spirit, making them vibrate in sympathy. When we drum, our living flesh, brain waves, and spiritual energy centers begin to vibrate in response. This sympathetic resonance leaves reverberating effects up to seventy two hours after a drum session. These powerful effects can best be described in terms of their influence on the subtle energy centers known as chakras.
The Seven Chakras
The spiritual traditions of the Hopi, Cherokee, Tibetan, Hindu, and other cultures teach us that there are vibratory centers within the human body. All describe spinning wheels of energy called chakras, lying along the spine. There are seven major chakras situated along the vertical spinal axis from the genital region to the crown of the head. They vary in size, depending on their level of activity. When highly active and energized, they can expand to the size of a small plate. They can shrink to the size of a penny when closed or shut down. When in balance, they are about the size of a silver dollar.
Each vortex of energy is associated with a specific color of the rainbow, distinct parts of the body, and with particular functions of consciousness. Chakras function much like electrical junction boxes, mediating spiritual energy throughout the entire mind-body system. They are the interface among the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of one's being. Imbalances in chakras lead to imbalances in body, mind, and spirit. Drumming creates a vibratory resonance that activates, balances, and aligns the chakra system.
The Base Chakra
The first or base chakra is red in color. It is located at the base of the spine and is associated with issues of basic health and survival. It is related to the anus and the adrenal glands. Resonating the base chakra grounds the spiritual forces in the body to the Earth and the physical realm of reality. When poorly grounded, your spatial understanding is impaired. You may stumble around physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. Grounding enhances your ability to function effectively on a day-to-day basis. Drumming also maintains a grounding Earth connection for those seeking altered states of consciousness or alternate realities. One of the paradoxes of rhythmic stimulation is that it has not only the power to move your awareness out of the confines of the conceptual mind into realms beyond time and space, but also the capacity to ground you firmly in the present moment. It allows you to maintain a portion of ordinary awareness while experiencing non-ordinary awareness. This permits full recall later of the visionary experience.
The base chakra is also known as a storehouse for a fiery energy that, if awakened, rises up the spine, illuminating all the chakras. In the Hindu tradition, this dormant energy is known as the "kundalini" or "serpent fire." This spiritual flame within can be rekindled by drumming, thereby igniting the Rainbow Fire of a fully activated chakra system. With the rising of the kundalini and the activation of succeeding chakras, an individual becomes more highly conscious and spiritually transformed.
The Sacral Chakra
The second or sacral chakra is orange and is located just below the navel in the abdominal area. This chakra affects the sexual organs. The functions associated with this center are emotion, vitality, fertility, reproduction, and sexual energy in general. Likewise, any problems in these functions can be identified and resolved through this chakra. The physical transmission of rhythmic energy to the sacral chakra removes any blockages that may hamper these functions. Drumming is an excellent way of keeping your sexual and creative energy vitalized, a great help in channeling energy into your work and everyday life.
The Navel Chakra
The third chakra is located just above the navel in the solar plexus and is related to the digestive organs. Yellow in color, it is the seat of the will your power center. Its energy expresses personal power, which is called "hiimori" (windhorse) in the Mongolian tradition. It is associated with action, assertion, empowerment, and ego mastery. It is the area where chi or life force is stored. Malfunctions in the navel chakra may leave you feeling tired, powerless, and withdrawn. Shamans tend to believe that this is a very important chakra since the accumulation and maintenance of power are fundamental to shamanic practice. Many shamanic cultures place great emphasis on drumming, for the drum unites masculine and feminine energies, generating the force that weaves the web of life. Drumming cultivates life force energy in the lower energy centers of the body, which is then stored in the area of the solar plexus. This energy can then be directed back to the higher chakras or toward healing and creative endeavors.
The Heart Chakra
The fourth vibratory center is the heart chakra and is located in the center of the chest between the two nipples. Green in color, it influences the heart and is associated with love, compassion, and affection. This chakra forms a bridge, linking the upper three chakras to the lower three. Drumming activates the heart chakra, thereby balancing the descending higher chakra energies against the ascending lower chakra frequencies. From the heart, these harmonious energies resonate outward into the web of life.
Researchers have found that drum rhythms affect the heartbeat. The heart's pulse may speed up, slow down, or gradually entrain with the pulsation of a drum rhythm until they are locked in perfect synchronization. In fact, many shamanic cultures use a healing heartbeat rhythm pulsed at around sixty beats per minute, which is the average heart rate of a person at rest. The heartbeat is one of the reasons that people so strongly and naturally connect to the drum. Each of us, after all, enters the world having spent nine months listening to a heart-drum in the womb. We are imprinted with rhythm from the very start, and rhythm is the heartbeat of life.
Shamans around the world believe that the drum is coming into power again to awaken our hearts, for we must now learn to live from the heart. We have been living from the navel center, using our ego and will power for mastery, control, and conquest. If we focus on the heart center, we can hear divine will. Our actions then spring from divine will rather than the ego. To live from the heart means to walk the "rainbow path," to walk in balance like the colors of the rainbow, to respect all pathways to wholeness. The rainbow symbolizes unity, wholeness, and balance. Mongolian shamans believe that this balance, called "tegsh," is the only thing that is truly worth pursuing in this world. When humans lose it, they create imbalance within the web of life. It then requires the unity of all colors, all cultures, working together to bring the web back into balance.
The Throat Chakra
The fifth energy center is blue and is located at the base of the neck in the nook where the clavicle bones meet. Known as the throat chakra, it is associated with the vocal cords and the thyroid gland. It is the chakra of communication, telepathy, and creative expression. Unexpressed emotions tend to constrict this energy center. Drumming activates the throat chakra, greatly enhancing self-expression, creativity, and telepathic communication with others. More importantly, drumming opens your ability to hear and recognize the truth of your inner voice. Your inner truth is your sense of what is correct your innate tendencies and inclinations. In every situation, we should be humble, open, and receptive, suspending all previous judgments in order to grasp the inner truth of the matter. If we rely on the truth of our inner voice to guide us, our actions will be in accord with the times.
The Brow Chakra
The sixth chakra is that of the brow, third eye, or place of "shamanic seeing." Located between and slightly above the eyebrows, it is indigo in color. This energy center is closely associated with imagination, inner vision, and psychic abilities. It is related to the pituitary gland. It functions as a link between the inner world and the outer world. Malfunctions of the brow chakra commonly manifest as headaches and eye tension. Resonating this chakra remedies any problems in function and opens the door to a reality separate from the ordinary world. Rhythmic drumming enables us to perceive and journey into the inner realms that shape and direct our reality. Vast worlds of extraordinary richness and complexity emerge when the brow chakra is activated. Archetypal figures symbolizing transpersonal and spiritual qualities arise, such as images of Deities, Spirit Guides, or Power Animals.
The Crown Chakra
The seventh, or crown chakra, is located at the top of the head. The Hopi call this energy center kopavi, meaning "the open door" through which higher spiritual knowledge is received. The crown chakra is associated with the pineal gland, the color violet, full enlightenment, and union with the cosmos. Drumming activates this chakra, thereby facilitating a state of unity consciousness. One's sense of being a separate individual gives way to an experience of union, not only with other individuals, but also with the entire universe. The benefits of attaining this state of unity consciousness include relaxation, healing, more energy, better memory, greater mental clarity, enhanced creativity, and communion with the resonating web of life. Feelings of peacefulness, timelessness, and spiritual well-being are common, along with a oneness of feeling and purpose with the totality of a dynamic, interrelated universe.
This experience of mystical union with the cosmos is said, by many of the world's spiritual traditions, to be the final realization. Consciousness rediscovers its true nature and recognizes itself in all things. Drumming is a simple and effective way to induce this profound state of consciousness.
Resonating the Chakras
If we focus our attention on the individual chakras while drumming, we can experience each energy center becoming active, balanced, and aligned with the other chakras. The basic steps are as follows:
- First, select a location where you will not be interrupted. It must be a quiet space, at least for the duration of the exercise. Allow yourself fifteen to thirty minutes for this exercise. It is best to dim the lights and sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor, keeping your spine straight.
- Next, you should smudge the space and yourself with the smoke of an herb. Smudging cleanses the mind and environment in preparation for spiritual or inner work. The sacred smoke dispels any stagnant or unwanted energy, opens the energy channels of your body, and raises your personal power or windhorse. According to Mongolian shamanism, windhorse can be increased through smudging, drumming, and other forms of shamanic practice in order to accomplish significant aims. Sage, cedar, and sweetgrass are traditionally used for smudging, but any dried herb is acceptable. Light the herbs in a fire-resistant receptacle and then blow out the flames. Then use a feather or your hands to draw the smoke over your heart, throat, and face to purify the body, mind, and spirit. Next, smudge your drum by passing it through the smoke. Conclude the smudging by thanking the plant whose body made the cleansing possible.
- The next step is to calm and focus your mind by performing a simple concentration exercise. Close your eyes and focus on the breath as it enters the nose and fills your lungs, then gently exhale any tension you might feel. Continue breathing with a series of even inhalations and exhalations until you are calm and relaxed.
- Once you are fully relaxed, begin drumming the steady lub-dub, lub-dub of a heartbeat rhythm pulsed at around 60 beats a minute (or 30 heartbeats per minute since one heartbeat equals two beats). This slow pulse tempo has a calming and centering effect. Sustain this healing rhythm until the end of the exercise.
- Close your eyes and focus your attention on the physical location of each chakra, one at a time, beginning with the first one at the base of the spine. Visualize a red disc of light, about the size of a silver dollar, at the base of your spine. Imagine this energy center pulsating in sync with the heartbeat of your drum. Feel the sound of the drum vibrating at the base of your spine. As the sound resonates this area, experience the base chakra awakening, balancing, and aligning with the other chakras. Hold your attention on this chakra for a minute or two, and then allow the image to fade.
- Move up to the second chakra and repeat the same focus and imagery. It is located about two inches below the navel and is orange in color.
- Move up to the area above the navel in your solar plexus and focus on the third chakra, which is yellow in color.
- Move up to the center of the chest between the two nipples and focus on your heart chakra, which is green in color.
- Move up to the cleft in your throat and focus on the throat chakra, which is blue in color.
- Move up to the area between and slightly above the eyebrows and focus on your brow chakra, which is indigo in color.
- Move up to the top of your head and focus on the crown chakra, which is violet in color.
- End the exercise with four strong beats.
At the completion of this exercise, sit quietly for several minutes. Sense the rush of sensory input previously blocked out by the sound of the drum. Bathe in the soothing afterglow of physical and spiritual well-being. Take adequate time to process the experience. You may feel very spacey and light-headed. Moving energy up the body from the base chakra to the crown chakra is very powerful. If you would like to ground the energy back down into your body, close your eyes and focus for a few moments on the base chakra. Visualize roots extending downward from your base chakra deep into the Earth. When you feel grounded, open your eyes and jot down your experiences in a journal.
The Rainbow Fire
The Rainbow Fire symbolizes illuminated mind, or clarity of all aspects of consciousness. Metaphorically, it describes the aura of iridescent light that radiates from a fully activated chakra system. This prismatic illumination within allows us to fully integrate the wisdom of all seven centers of consciousness. It clears the mind of illusions and obstructions, transforming thought patterns of confusion to reveal inherent clear mind. The fire of clear mind is ever present within each of us, and to remove any obstruction of its clarity is the duty of all people, so that each may find the way to unity and harmony. Drumming is one way that we can cultivate the fire of clear mind. The drum's beat ignites the Rainbow Fire within, illuminating the path and showing us the way. With clarity of mind, we can readily perceive what aims are in accord with the cosmos, not wasting energy on discordant pursuits. Through the insight and understanding of illuminated mind, we can bring enlightenment to the world!
Michael Drake is a writer, rhythmist, and ceremonial drummer of Cherokee descent. He is a member of the United Lumbee Nation and author of "The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming" and "I Ching: The Tao of Drumming." He has studied with master drummers from the Native American and Mongolian shamanic traditions. Michael lectures and gives workshops around the country. Through his work, he has guided thousands in the healing art of ceremonial drumming.