"I am the drum, you are the drum, and we are the drum. Because the whole world revolves in rhythm, and rhythm is the soul of life, for everything that we do in life is in rhythm."
—Babatunde Olatunji, Nigerian drummer, educator, social activist, and recording artist
At every drum circle I lead, there’s usually someone who says, "I’m just here to watch." I extend a special welcome to these folks because I believe they’re ripe for transformation: Go ahead. Sit and watch. I bet that by the time we’re wrapping up, you’ll feel differently. I believe that we are all "life drummers" just waiting to join in the rhythm.
I often start out with the heartbeat rhythm—boom boom… boom boom… boom boom—as if we’re unifying our heartbeats in a ritual of sound and vibration. Then the beat gets more complicated: somebody adds a shaker; somebody else jingles a tambourine. It sounds completely different: it’s a conversation with a heartbeat.
In that transformative space, the spectators sitting outside the circle experience change within their own bodies. We forget that we have percussion instruments at our fingertips. We are the drum! We can pat our legs, we can tap our toes, we can move—and the vibration in our bodies gives people permission to try something else.
I encourage people, in between rhythms, to switch instruments, share, and try completely different elements. That kind of encouragement, of everybody mixing it up, might encourage that person sitting behind the circle to decide it’s non-threatening: "I'm not gonna be called out for doing it wrong, and that's what I was really afraid of." When there's no expectation of performance, and it's a communal activity, it’s a completely different experience than they were expecting.
Sometimes we're told we can't do something and we hold onto it—maybe even from childhood. That can hold us back until we’re sitting outside of the circle of community because we're afraid that we can't do it… whatever "it" is.
It takes courage to enter the circle and pick up a drum. It takes self-compassion to try and play it with the group. But the magic often happens: the person who’s been programmed to think before doing suddenly joins in. Our bodies carry that programming just as our minds do, but our bodies can bring us to new spaces that are brave and courageous. Our bodies and spirits move at the speed of trust, and a brave space—like a drum circle—can allow that movement to flourish.
Spirit of Life, Love, and Good Vibrations, I am grateful for the gift of my own heartbeat. I humbly pray that my fear and worry will fall away, that "doing it right or wrong" will no longer be the driving force in my life. May the rhythms of my life meet and merge with others to create the music of beloved community.
Editor's note: This reflection is the final piece in a five-part series called "Embodying Self," reflecting perspectives on the awe, the pain, and the power of living at home in our bodies, and of accessing our bodies' wisdom.