By Austine Duru, MDiv, MA, BCC
At the 2013 NACC national conference held in Pittsburgh, PA, the drums were rolled out for a powerful afternoon of recreational hand drumming. More than 50 chaplains and healthcare professionals participated in the first drum circle workshop offered at the NACC national conference, to drum, pray, reflect, and dance, because in the words of one participant, “the beat of the drum is my center. It grounds me and renews my spirit.”
The setting was picturesque. The hotel at which we met was on the south shore of the great Monongahela River that flows into the Ohio at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers. Lush mountains overlook the steel city, the city of bridges, where these three great rivers converge. In the distance there was a grand view of Mount Washington and one could see the scenic Monongahela incline. Across from it stood the historic 52-acre station square complex; a surrounding vibrantly diverse cultural district lent charm to the event. The image was peaceful, creating a certain awareness of oneness with nature that often seeks to bask in the freedom of being. A sense of being that is freeing, rejuvenating and often an antidote to our busy lives, our incessant doing. This site is also unique in another way. It is home to the Shawnee and several other settled tribes of Native Americans, for whom drumming means much more than a pastime and in whose footsteps we now walk.
Drums are among the oldest musical instrument in history. Drumming is practiced universally; it is versatile, evocative, and dynamic. From ancient traditions to our present day, drums have played and continue to play significant roles in peoples’ lives and have been used for musical and non-musical purposes that reveal the great power of the drum. Current literature points to the healing effects of this ancient practice. Shi-Hoang Loh, MD, director of the complementary therapy program at Bon Secours New York Health System, states, “The major deficiency of modern medicine is that it recognizes only the physical part of a human body, whereas the driving force – mind, soul and spirit – is generally neglected” (Friedman, 2000, p. xvi). He observed that the drum can be a powerful tool in healing because it facilitates communication with another being, and “to be able to communicate with another being is required for self-recognition, and self-recognition is essential for healing to take place” (Friedman, 2000).
Robert Lawrence Friedman, a psychotherapist and life-long student of music, acknowledged that the relationship between drumming and healing is not new; what is relatively new is the “merging of science with the healing qualities of the hand drum” (Friedman, 2000, p. 3). In the last few years, researchers and scientists have started to confirm what ancient traditions have long believed about drumming and its benefits. A fairly recent groundbreaking study by Barry Bittman, MD, and his colleagues supports the health value of recreational drumming. Bitman et al (2002) found that one hour of group drumming with a group of 111 adult participants who had no previous drumming experience, following a specific protocol called group empowerment drumming, reversed the stress response by increasing NK (Natural Killer) cells (Bittman et al, 2002).
This workshop at the NACC conference was an invitation to explore recreational drumming as a way to experience the transformative narrative in the heartbeat of the drum. By going back to the Latin roots of the term recreation – re-creatio (restoration to health) participants are called to a deeper awareness of the healing resources within, and learn how to draw these out. Drumming is also an invitation to re-connect with the source of all creation – God. One participant captured this poetically in her reflection, “my heart beats with joy, the awe of God present in the beating of the drums, I am love again.” Another participant would write about the experience, “for me, this drumming session was freeing, helped me to connect with others in the group. I felt a deep connection with God who I felt was with us and drumming alongside us.”
It was clear that workshop participants did not come just to drum, but to pray, learn, reflect and find the music within. It became a powerful gift-sharing exercise in which we shared in each other’s gifts of music and, in turn, blessed others with our own music. Participants felt empowered, creative and energized. The following are excerpts from participants’ reflections:
- “She who plants herself roots herself, beside the living waters… She who finds her own rhythm plants herself, drumming in community, for community, with community.”
- “I became totally involved in the drumming and the world disappeared. It was just me and the drum circle in the presence of God. No cares, no stress, just peace.”
- “From the beating of my heart to the beating of my soul. I felt the connectedness of my first heartbeat in my mother’s womb.”
- “Joy, delight, health, healing and hope – lifting and letting go of concerns to be brought to a space of joy, connection, community, sacred space.”
- “Great inspiration, I feel blessed to have learned another language of expression through the drums. I hope to suggest that we use drums in our hospital in group setting.”
- “There can be calm; it moved me to a different place. Unity in diversity, everyone giving from the heart, promotes a sense of well-being.”
As the trend of drum circles in healthcare, community and corporate settings continues to pick up steam, certain programs have successfully integrated drumming in treating Alzheimer’s patients, autistic children, and emotionally disturbed teens. It is not farfetched to conclude that chaplains would be well-suited to lead the effort to integrate drumming as a dimension of holistic spiritual care and self-care practices, as we continue to answer the call to faith, identity and action.
Austine Duru, staff chaplain at Franciscan St. Margaret Health in Dyer IN, is a member of the NACC’s Editorial Advisory Panel.