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Exploring Shamanic Drumming

October 24, 2016

The drum has been used throughout various indigenous and shamanic cultures as a tool to alter consciousness or to enter a trance state for various reasons. Shamans or healers enter into a trance states to travel to different realms to aid in healing, finding lost items or to find food, and to explore their own inner world/psyche. This ancient, yet, simple tool has aided in self-exploration and healing for thousands of years and for good reason.

Why use the drum as a tool for self-exploration and healing?  As Roger Walsh points out, the drum is a tool that acts as a concentration device, and the drum helps to block out any external stimuli that might cause distraction. Practicing mindfulness meditation is great for stress and anxiety reduction, but it is sometimes hard to stay focused if one is a beginner.  A research study by Gingras, Pohler, and Fitch demonstrated that 15 minutes of drumming can help lower cortisol (a stress response hormone) levels in the body.  The study also pointed out that participants experienced a decrease in heart-rate, a feeling of heaviness, and also experienced a dream-like state from shamanic drumming versus drumming with guided relaxation instructions. Shamanic drumming is an effective technique for lowering stress and achieving relaxation.  Drumming, along with other techniques such as fasting, chanting, dancing, and psychical stressors can stimulate the release of endogenous opioids, which can stimulate the immune system, produce feelings of euphoria, and increase tolerance to stress.

Are you convinced of the benefits of shamanic drumming yet?

I spent time working in the mental health field as a residential counselor. I worked at a crisis stabilization program that offered services to at-risk teenagers. Most of the clients or residents I worked with carried some form of trauma, anxiety, or depression. During therapeutic groups, I often offered them an opportunity to partake in a shamanic journey. I would sometimes use the word meditation instead of journey.

Before drumming, I would give the residents instruction on how to get to the lower world. I always gave a brief talk beforehand and mentioned that it is important to set an intention – “think about why you are here, or a current problem in your life. Think about something in your life that you are trying to find an answer to or an area where you might need support. Maybe you want to explore the root of your depression or anxiety. It could be anything.” After explaining the instructions, I would drum for about ten minutes.

Upon returning from the lower world, some residents hated it, while others fully enjoyed it. Regardless of their experiences, mostly all of the residents said it made them sleepy and they did not want to sit up. They always mentioned how they wanted to go to bed afterwards – a plus for the residential counselors, especially on the days when the residents were high energy!

Sometimes I would get some interesting reactions, “I went down the tunnel and saw all these angels or God. They mentioned that I would get the help I am looking for at this program if I put the work into it.” A younger resident made a comment that made me laugh, ‘I don’t know what drugs feel like, but I feel really funny.” I guess the drum does put you in a non-ordinary state of consciousness.

One of my favorite reactions was when a resident set the intention about why they were being bullied in school. They made this statement after their journey to the lower world:

I went down the hole that you told me to find. Once I got down there, I walked around and noticed a squirrel. I wasn’t sure if the squirrel was my spirit animal or not, but I asked squirrel a question. I asked, “Why are the kids in school bullying me?” Squirrel just looked at me and said, “People are not bullying you because they do not like you, they are bullying you because they are deeply hurting inside and they are hurting just as much as you are.”  I guess I’ve never thought of it that way before.

The drum has been part of my life for the past few years and I always call on it for support when I am feeling overwhelmed or when I need some guidance. Shamanic journeying can help elicit relaxation, stress reduction, as well as self-exploration into one’s own inner work. If you are interested in feeling the power of the drum’s vibration, find a practitioner who facilitates circles, download a shamanic drumming track, or even buy a drum for your own personal practice to improve or enhance your meditation.

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