Your Brain on Drums: The Practical Application of Meditation in Drumming

I sit in the meditation hall, propped up with various blue beanbags, but this doesn’t stop the pain. It’s pretty much the same every time I sit. After some amount of time, my right hip develops a dull ache through the inner thigh, radiating to my big leg muscle and then down to the knee, up and over then down the inside of my shin and then to the group of nerves that pool beneath my inner ankle. I’m here to watch, not react. I am just a witness, a witness to pain, a witness to lack of pain. I’m to keep an equanimity towards either. Eventually, the point is to discover that this equanimity translates to every situation in my life. I have already seen it happen.

But as I sit here, the pain gets stronger. Just observe, just observe. It’s one of the three one-hour sits per day in which I’m to have a strong determination not to move a muscle. I’m putting my awareness at the top of my head and then following it down through my body to my toes and then back up. I’m observing the sensations on my body, good and bad, pain and no pain. Just observe, don’t react. Next time I come back to this thigh muscle the sensation may be totally different. Maybe next time it will be a throbbing, or shooting, or burning pain. Not this tight ache.

I can’t hope that next time there will be no pain, because that’s another reaction, a desire for things to be different. Life’s misery is caused by the constant desire for things to be different. If I am adverse to the pain and wish it away, that creates misery when it doesn’t go away. If I am craving a pain-free leg, I am miserable when I return to witness what’s happening and I find pain.

This is the moment I’m in, right now. I am observing that my leg is throbbing and making it hard to move my mind anywhere else. It has to be near the end of the hour.

Waves of anger roll through me about this hip of mine. Why is it so tight, endlessly? I flash to my drum stool, lifting and slamming that leg down, trying my hardest to put that pedal through that drum head over and over and over for years and years, 20 years plus now. Always that lifting of the leg with this hip and slamming it down. Poor tendons. Watching my body like this I anthropomorphize my body parts. Poor knee joint, getting the shock of that kick pedal strike, and poor ankle, wanting to flutter triplets and double strokes and work in a nuanced way and there I go again, the hip lifting that leg up and slamming it through the floor. I’ve always played this way. My arms go way back, my legs go way up. I see it as a way of counting time, of creating the space between the notes that is the mark of a settled timekeeper.

My ears strain for the little noise at the front of the hall that indicates the teacher is turning on the recording of Pali chanting that will signal the end of the sit. I hear little clicks and rustlings and can’t keep track of my body anymore. I’m drawn into all the sounds of the room, feel each vibration ripple through my tendons. The sneezing and coughing of the other meditators intensifies.

People always get so sick at these things, a combination of detox, stress release, and the fact that I know these little beanbags don’t get washed after each of the 10-day sessions, which happen twice a month here. I’ve become a complete germaphobe, washing my hands after any encounter with public surfaces. But then, it’s easy to obsess about minutia here. I’ve taken a vow of silence for nine days, Noble Silence, which means gesturing and writing are out too. My teeth are ridiculously clean right now. Not speaking or writing leaves a great deal of time to take care of small chores, even when meditating for 12 hours a day. I am going to clip my toenails on day eight. I could never really explain how that one little deviation from schedule has become a glacier event in a sea of time.

I am a hard-rock drummer, a one-trick pony. I need to play music I feel in my bones to do it any justice. As my father was a Classic Rock (or in his day, Rock) lover, this is the music that is in my DNA. I love to play funk and R&B, but really those are all the same beats, just with different feels. Hitting hard is in my nature. I want to draw people in to the stage, to make sure the guy at the back of the room can feel that kick drum in his chest.

Meditation is a big part of what fuels my drumming. I’m on stage for two hours, and for every second of it I want each drum hit to be felt in each chest in the room. How to play consistently, and with power and energy no matter what the tempo and dynamic? Learning to be in the moment helps. Scanning my body helps.

A double-time part of the song starts, and by doing a scan I see that my foot is on auto-pilot. I focus on making those quick hits punchier. There is some pain in my shoulder, so I engage my core and sit up a little straighter. If I whip my wrist as my arm comes down there is less impact on that shoulder. If I lean back and loosen the muscles in my back my body begins to pivot at the tail bone and that sends energy to the limbs. Now I’m dancing, and when I’m aware of my breath I can channel it to the outer extremities. Now there’s a flow of energy, from my head to my feet, and I can hear the other instruments and let the melodies carry me away.

This is what it’s like to fly, sitting down.

When I’m in the moment, there is no sense of the passing of time. I can play all night without fatigue. My mind is clear and I can watch my thoughts flow through my head like a river and I hear them but I don’t react.

When I started playing drums for audiences, my mind would spill endless voices:

“what about the left foot!

“You fucked up that change into the chorus!

“That fill is coming, does it start with the right or left hand?

“What song is next? Oh look! Chris came to the show after all. Who’s that girl he’s with? It seems like the crowd is lighter than last time. I knew I should have put up some flyers by the venue. I totally had time to do that and was goofing around even though I knew I should have been walking around promoting the show….”

Follow that river of thought and although I’m on stage, I am in the middle of last week, beating myself up about everything that led to this point. I’m in the middle of next month, putting up flyers for the next show. I’m everywhere BUT on this stage, playing my drums, which I love to do. I’m listening to anything EXCEPT the song I’m playing. So everything I’ve done leading to this point has been for naught. The one thing unequivocally I love doing in my life has been usurped by this monkey mind, by this barrage of thoughts that keep me in misery. The misery of should and would and could have.

Our thoughts are percolating noise, a physiological process the same as the process that tells our body to move our blood through our veins, or our heart to spark, or our stomach to break down that chicken salad.[1] Pay too much attention to those thoughts, and it’s misery for sure. We follow our mind down the road of the past and wish for things to go back to the way they were, or we worry about the repercussions of what happened. We follow our thoughts out ahead of us to the future, and fantasize about what is to come, or dread it. Regret, regret, worry, worry. A moment comes at every 10-day meditation retreat when my internal chatter clears out and there is ONE voice talking at me in my head, a big endless megaphone of thought.

At this particular retreat, when the megaphone turns on I see that pretty much every thought that bubbles up is based in fear. Fear of things not being the same as they were, fear of things happening differently than I wanted. I would never say I’m a fearful person, and yet here I am, a shining example of the human condition. If the main thing my body wants is to preserve itself, and my thoughts are a physiological process created by experience and my DNA, then in the interest of self-preservation it makes sense that my mind is trying to constantly terrify me. If I don’t react? I get to be right here, right now.

When I’m on stage, playing my drums, I want to live every moment. I love this instrument: the world’s first, language that existed before words. I get to ignore all those thoughts streaming through my head and just communicate by hitting these drums. By making this pile of wood and metal and fiberskin resonate, I can lift you up or slam you down. I get to communicate with the other women on the stage and we get to become one sound together, like the strings on a guitar resonating as one chord. Four become one instrument. When I don’t react to my mind it gets quieter and quieter, until what’s left behind is the gorgeous guitar line and the full, round bass in counter to it, the pulse and push and pull together as we merge. And then the voice, that wonderful voice soaring above the pedestal of sound that we’ve created for it.

When time is no longer relevant, we live in the moment of the song. When I look down at the set list and am surprised at how quickly two hours went, when I finish playing and feel like I could play another two hours with such ease, then I truly appreciate this meditation practice.

I found drumming in my 20s and I found meditation around the same time. My first Vipassana sit was 19 years ago. That was right before my father passed away, unexpectedly and much too young. This was the first time I experienced that deep grief and the misery of longing for things to be different. How better to recover from such sadness than this fortuitous coincidence of having just learned how to witness all the moments in life and realize that between those unbearably sad ones lie many seconds of peace and quiet, and that by seeing those seconds add up and up and up the sadness thins out and transforms. The way the pain in my leg is different every time I visit it, so the pain in my heart that will never leave, and yet I watch it transform to something I accept and carry on with.

Speaking of the pain in my leg, I see it’s stemming from a point under my right butt cheek and it feels like I’m sitting on a metal rod. Okay, lesson learned. Next sit, maybe I start off sitting more forward. But now, I don’t move a muscle. I lower my attention to observe that pain, and as I give it my full attention, it starts to move. My first thought is that my mind is making the pain move but I remember I’m just here to observe it, so I watch this strange sensation that is independent of me. It feels like a thumb is pressing on my tendons and traveling down my body. It pushes down my IT band and I swear if I looked I would see the indentation of someone pressing hard on my skin. I feel the tendons stretch out as it moves down my leg, taking its time and ending up at my knee. The pressure lies heavy there for a while, and I break my equanimity and sort of will it over the knee. It feels so good to have this weight there as it pushes into the soft area below the kneecap. I watch as it travels down the inside of my shin and I realize how good this is feeling. It ends up in that pool of nerves at my inner ankle, and I have a sense that somebody is showing me how every strand of fiber in my leg is attached at that one point. I feel myself giving over and relaxing all through the movement, the way I relax when getting a deep tissue massage. Trust. I’m trusting my mind to work through this pain. I am amazed at being shown how to heal myself. I realize fully that this is what is happening in this moment only. I don’t expect for it ever to happen again.

At the end of this hour, I don’t even hear the little noise of the push of the button that starts the chanting. I’m so transfixed by the massage of the leg tendons that I actually have a moment of regret that the sit is ending. The chanting is in Pali, the language of the Buddha. From what I can tell, most of what is chanted has to do with celebrating this moment, celebrating the clear mind and the karma that brought us right here, to this place and time. I know the last thing the chanter says, he always says three times. May all beings be Happy. May all beings be Happy. May all beings be Happy. The me who sits here, I get to play drums. I wish that everyone had something that made them so happy and taught them so much.


[1] A perfect description of this idea: From Here to Here, Gary Crowley.

6 thoughts on “Your Brain on Drums: The Practical Application of Meditation in Drumming

  1. Clementine,
    There is a mediation for pain that I have been taught. In the mediation you focus on a particular pain and give it a shape, whatever shape feels right, then slowly visualize that shape getting rounder and rounder into a circle or sphere. Then shrink the circle or sphere until you cannot shrink it anymore, then visualize it passing out of your body. Repeat this over the course of many meditations until the pain is gone. Just thought that I would share this. By the way, really like your style of writing and enjoy your blog.

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