I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Rachel Regenold’s wisdom about the power of rhythm to bring more presence to life:
Drumming Myself into the Present Moment
I have frequently read about the power of being present as a means to live a more peaceful, contemplative life. Yet, I find myself whining, “Isn’t there an easier way?” While on retreat in the fall I succumbed to the beauty of being present when I didn’t have to worry about the details of everyday life. But when I returned to my regular life and its demands I wondered how to continue being present.
A few weeks after my retreat I invited my friend Becky to join me at an African drumming class held at a local shop. The sound of drums calls to something deep within my soul. As we stepped into the classroom, I tried to tuck away my fears about the fact that I have absolutely no rhythm, can’t dance, and can’t play an instrument.
We joined a group of seven women who had apparently been meeting regularly and drumming for years. Years. We were the only beginners, having drummed only once before on a retreat where we became friends four years ago. Everyone was kind and welcoming, but as Linda, the instructor, brought out the drums I began to sweat. She placed a Djembe drum in front of me. “This is Hairy Dragon,” she said. Hairy Dragon was aptly named as there was a dragon carved in the dark wood of its base and a ring of coarse hair just below the lip of the graying goat skin stretched across the top.
Linda advised us to take off all watches, rings, and bracelets so as not to damage the drums, and began by showing us the three different hand placements we would use – bass, slap, and tone. The bass was a flat palm to the center of the drum with the fingers touching each other – BOOM. I quickly lost track of the difference between a slap and a tone, knowingly only that my fingertips struck closer to the edge of the drum for both.
The other women began playing easily as the instructor taught us four different rhythms. Me and Hairy Dragon got off to a rocky start. I struggled to follow, feeling like I’d just been plopped into the middle of a foreign country and didn’t know a word of the local language. The instructor saw me stumbling and tried different ways of encouraging me, even telling me a mnemonic about elephants running to help me remember one of the rhythms. Usually a person who clings to words, I couldn’t keep the “elephants running” mnemonic in my head; the words would not align themselves with the motions my hands were supposed to be making.
After a few minutes of gentle attempts at instructing me, Linda wisely asked, “Would it be easier if I just shut up?”
I nodded “yes” gratefully.
I shook out my hands at my sides and closed my eyes, hoping that just listening to the others drumming for a bit would help me catch the rhythms. Instead, my brain began downloading every bad memory connected to my rhythm deficiency. There was the time my best friend – a drummer in the school band – snapped at me because I couldn’t march in time to “Pomp & Circumstance” at our high school graduation. And my drill sergeant’s frequent display of disgust at my inability to march in time with everyone else in basic training. Why did I sign up for this hour and a half of torture?
But then I opened my eyes, put my hands on Hairy Dragon, and somewhere in that first hour I started to get it. Just a little bit. By giving a name to the hand movement in my head as I made the movement, I was better able to keep up. I just ignored “slaps” all together; everything became a “tone” or “BOOM” in my mind. I particularly relished the “BOOM” of my flat palm striking the center of the drum.
After the instructor taught us all four rhythms, she broke us up into twos or threes so that each pair or trio was playing one rhythm as the other pairs and trios played the other three rhythms. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Linda started my trio off with the only rhythm I had sort of figured out.
Tone-Tone BOOM Tone-Tone Tone-Tone BOOM-BOOM.
As we rotated the rhythms each pair or trio was drumming, they began to come to me more easily. I also discovered that the moment my mind flickered away for just a second I lost the rhythm and struggled to get back into it. Ditto with questioning myself – “Do my booms and tones sound like everyone else’s?” – and criticizing myself – “I will never be good at this.” Instantly, I lost track of where I was and had to pause to regroup, watch someone next to me for a bit, and then slowly work my way back into the rhythm. I even tested my theory, thinking about what I’d do after class just to see what happened. Yep, rhythm lost.
Being fully present was the only way to keep my rhythm going. I turned off my chattering monkey mind and focused solely on my hands touching Hairy Dragon’s hide. In the final rotation of rhythms, my trio got the fourth one – the “elephants running” one – and my heart sank.
BOOM-BOOM BOOM Tone-Tone BOOM BOOM BOOM. Slowly, I got it.
I only fell out of rhythm a few times, straining to remain present so I could actually drum the rhythm, hugging Hairy Dragon between my knees and booming with relish.
When we finished Linda looked at me, “Wow, when you get it, you get it.”
Yes, I finally get it. Being present is the only way I can stay in rhythm, both in drumming and in life. The moment I dwell on the past, fret about the future, or allow self-doubt or criticism to creep in, the rhythm of my life is lost.
Rachel Regenold is a seeker, writer, and yoga practitioner in Iowa, where she lives with her four-legged children. She enjoys blogging about finding meaning in everyday life at www.iowaseeker.com.
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Thank you Rachel for sharing! My daughter drums too and I will not forget the day my husband picked her drum up. He was innate! I have since bought him two — you have inspired me with an idea. :-)
Very helpful and appreciated Dancing Monk Rachel. Any help in being present is precious gift! Catherine from Canada
Thank you, Catherine. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I so understand this, Rachel–I drum regularly with a group of women and we have added didgeridoo (for those of us brazen enough to try to “encourage an aboriginal outback moment within)!
The longer one drums with others the more the present is all there is and the awake trance of sound and heartbeat fill me/us and you also, it seems!
Thanks for this!
It is a very monk activity, me thinks!!
Yes, I think it’s a very monk activity, too. The one other time I drummed with my friend Becky was on a women’s retreat where many of us had just met, but under the instruction of a great teacher, we coalesced as a group very early in our week together.
I recently drug my drum out of the closet, and like you my rhythm is lacking. But you have inspired me to give it a try again, especially since I’m focusing on mindfulness this year. Thanks for the great post. Now what is a “tone?”
How wonderful that my post inspired you to drum again! Drumming does call to something deep within us, doesn’t it? As for the explanation of “tone” – at least that’s what I thought it was called in my frantic-must-get-this-right state – I will hope that the more musically inclined in this community can answer your question
I’m so glad this piece resonated for you, Joy. A friend shared with me that when she plays the piano, even if she thinks for a moment that it sounds good, she misses notes. Life is so short, I really don’t want to miss any notes!
Wonderful article Rachel. I have become more centered on being in the present moment but interference does challenge me some days. I love your last paragraph of wisdom. I am going to write that in my journal. The last sentence has great meaning for me. It’s like a recipe I can follow to remind myself to preserve the rhythms of my life. Never thought of it that way! I am grateful for your sharing.
Rachel, Thank you so much for the insight. Being present is definitely something I must be intentional with also. I will remember your blog when I find myself getting “out of rhythm” with life.
Yes, it’s a reminder we all need, isn’t it, Deb? The challenge of learning something new and out of my comfort zone was the reminder that I needed.
It is such a joy to read this, Rachel! I am a music teacher and it is very easy to get heady, wordy and full of instructions when you’re trying to help someone learn something new. But often all that happens is that panic and self-consciousness set in and people have that feeling re-enforced that they just won’t ever get it or do it. It’s so exciting that through your regular life practice of trying to stay present you managed to get past all that fear and be fully part of the group experience.
Thank you, Jacqui! And bless you for having the patience to teach even the rhythmically challenged, like myself. :-)