Reflections on Resilience: Lessons from a Drum

You know that the Equinox is approaching when you start seeing monks buzzing about on their motor scooters in formal regalia, off to pray with families in temples, at homes or beside graves. These seasonal markers are moments in time about which many cultures acknowledge a thinning of the veils between the worlds. Traditionally, at these times, the Japanese undertake grave-tending and other family duties in honour of their own ‘cloud of witnesses’. As I am reflecting on veils, I am thinking also of edges, the liminal spaces between, that might seem invisible, or empty, but without whose presence real life reverberations and reflections would be absent.


I’ve been musing on the term ‘resilience’ in the sense that Mags Blackie shared a week or two ago in a conversation on this blog. Mags’ concept, influenced by Brene Brown, describes resilience as ‘building one’s capacity to allow pain or in this case perhaps chaos to flow through us.’ In this sense, cultivating resilience is tending one’s own (psycho-spiritual) edges. This, and Staretz Silouan’s maxim, ‘Keep your mind in hell, but despair not’ (the epigraph to Gillian Rose’s autobiography “Love’s Work”), were rattling through my heart-mind as I went to the annual spring performance of a local taiko drumming group for the equivalent of an energy ‘schwitz’ .

Drumming is wonderful therapy: a potent, wordless, purifying realm. It, like ritual, does not translate well into other media. Physical presence is everything. I am taken to the edge of places I am seldom able to visit in daily life. Drumming, which serves as a graphic metaphor for resilience, is, at this level, a matter of life and death. In the performances there is always an intense erotic* energy.

On the skin of the principal drum is the three-part symbol designating spiralling dynamism which marks it as a sacred surface, an edge crammed with meaning; one that allows (if momentary) experiences of breakthrough and the overcoming of separation. This is an edge that connects; as much as the veil between the worlds connects. The drummer and the drum; the dancer and the dance. There is permission here (and possibility) for ecstasy via the tension raised in the rhythmic beats. There is the feeling of being the drum, being beat; the vibrations of the drums enter your body and ascend through you from your base. You vibrate. You cannot not. There is, as well, the feeling of doing the beating (‘your mind in hell’) and there is the release of sound and rhythm (order = ‘despair not’).

An old man beats the drum** and is transfigured, in the shadow of the raised instrument, into a child. A kind of a tantrum–a concentrated frenzy–ensues that encompasses LIFE, writ large: human rage, sadness, abandonment, bravery and determination to stand up. It seems to dramatise humanity falling into consciousness, fighting the separation essential to maturation.

Lone Drummer

Energy gathers in high intensity in the torsos of these lean muscular drumming bodies. Every now and then, according to no discernible pattern, a shout, a kind of soul cry is emitted that punctuates the other flurrying beats (sometimes, in martial arts, this shout is called the ‘ki-ai’). I was particularly fascinated that even the youngest children in the troupe, not more than 6 years old, appeared to know just what to do with this collected energy and were giving voice to it just as lustily as the more experienced members.

The performance of a single drummer I have always found to be an opportunity to get in touch with duality, all the while one is being brought closer to the overcoming of it. Grace and power are mixed with our real weaknesses, with suffering, with the struggle, with the will to fight — for life. The thundering beat opens all your channels: it moves you as it paralyses you; you expand, even as you come to realize your smallness in the great, mysterious scheme of things; it is spine-tingling in the most profound ways.

The focused concentration of the drummers and the absorption of the audience releases at its close a particular kind of climax; a most miraculous species of joy. One does not see any conventional joy in the drummers while they are absorbed in playing, anymore than one sees the glass when looking out of the window. They are like icons in this way, representing something beyond the surface. That noted, however, I did catch a cool, quiet smile that momentarily peeped out on the face one of the young men lost in the rhythmic flick and flash of his small cymbals. It was (and it was not) just for me. The fellow was playing from that plane of bliss musicians sometimes reach. Nevertheless, it was a delight to witness. I took it as blessing.

Recently, on a show about rhythm [hereI happened upon this very satisfying description: “rhythm is how we experience change in the world.” Take a moment. Take that in. Tune in with your breath, your heart beat, the rhythms you have been endowed with by creation. And be here, at this still point, this point of balance between the seasons. Notice the quality of vibrations within and around you. Here in the north, spring energies are quickening, rising. Natural resilience is still fragile, emergent, strengthening. We are facing as well as great beauty, the Unknown, which is just coming to light as we awaken from our winter dreaming. In the south, autumnal energies are now fully ripened, flavours deepening gradually into fullness. Resilience thrives here on reminiscence: fruits enjoyed, lessons learned, work well underway or coming to completion. Dreaming begins. Each hemisphere is experiencing a loosening, an on-the-brink kind of quivering, as the world enters that ordinarily pleasant spell betwixt the powerful heights of winter and summer.

Resilience, too, I reckon, has its own rhythm and I’d like to think that any progress we make in building resilience (the acceptance of life as it is) never loses its essential power of holding our hearts true and safe and in Love. As long as we commit to keeping our hearts tender and our edges well-tended, our natural pulses can, will and do keep us moving in the right direction.

*’eros’ here is used in the Freudian sense of ‘life-instinct.’

** I have decided on this (quirky?) formulation: The older the player, the better the umami. 


Aside: From the Hospital

To the dungeons of the MRI again where I encounter, to my delight, the same old nurse who took care of me last time. She is a warm, kind and down-to-earth person. This time I need a dye-job to show up all my inner glories in technicolour. Despite her grandmotherliness and long years of service, her needlework is less than stellar. It’s a worry when you see someone with a needle squinting at your veins. Are those bifocals or trifocals she’s wearing, I wondered? How can it be the veins seem to her shy? She gives a tourniquet tie Schwarzenegger would admire and a good many sharp slaps to the desired area before the s-s-s-stab. I flinch.

‘Are you OK?’ she manages in English.

‘Oh, yes, yes,’ I politely fib in Japanese.

It is a pain, however, soon forgotten. On we chatter. I am fully at ease.

Just before I go in to meet the Machine, the nurse declares me (as Representative of all her patients) her ‘idol’ – as close to a declaration of love and/or high praise as two strangers can get. (i.e. ‘You are as good and as deserving of my care and attention as my favourite pop star!’) This was a most amusing, strangely affectionate remark, and to my startled ears quite, quite original. (Have YOU ever been called somebody’s idol?).

She is a dear, sweet, old thing whose company and service I was very grateful to have enjoyed.

To be free

writes J.D.Garvey,

‘is not to be unaffected and uninfluenced by others; it is rather to choose among influences . . . [You have] no choice as to whether [you] will form part of a community in internal as well as external acts; there is no alternative. [Your] only choice is whether [you] will do so consciously and selectively, or without awareness.’

[slightly edited for gender inclusive language]

Why a Church Catholic? (23)

Spring Fires

Lent is bracketed by fire in my neck of the woods. At around the beginning of Lent comes the annual ritual burn of the golden winter lawn at the nearby Garden*. Instead of green or gold, the space is carpeted in a breathtaking black just as the narcissus begin to bloom and the canopy of the plum grove pinkens signalling, if not a warm up, then consolation for the lingering cold. The bloom resembles an orchestral tune up: the early seasonal blush turns rhapsodic, symphonic even, as the blossoms go from pop-corn twangs, parps and plucks into something deep, mature, energetic and dignified. All this beauty assails the senses! The trees seem frozen in dance moves, attended by soft, improbably bright neon green moss. On ground level, our feet are in contact with the sooty, bronzed earth. Remember: this is what you have come from, these ashes, this darkness, it says; this is your destiny. The burned grass has its own characteristic smell: shaggy, acrid and uncultivated, contrasting with the light, fleeting, delicate perfume of the plum blossoms.

The black is framed by pathways. Sauntering through the garden in this state one cannot help but be humbled.**

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This ritual burn is for the health of the lawn, to rid it of creepy crawlies, large and small, that could do it and the surrounding trees harm. As Mags Blackie has noted in her reflections on the recent fires in Cape Town [here and here], there is a psycho-spiritual corollary to the (hopefully) regular practice of the controlled, or ‘prescribed’, burn. How do we best contain potentials for (ecological & personal***) devastation? Mags lists things like taking time-outs for retreats, receiving spiritual direction and engaging with therapies that allow for the figuring out of things, say, for allowing time and space for inner-outer pattern recognition, and the pursuit of deeper integration. I would add to that list the need for ritual practice.

Certainly, it is wise to try to limit the damage that can be done by life being life; but I can’t help thinking that devastation seems an almost necessary madness from time to time. It seems to me that we need to be reminded that we are human, to have our addictions and arrogance checked by something uncontrollable, disproportionate and utterly wild. Something that returns us to the basics; that makes us to slow down, review and examine our lives and relationships, and jump-starts the care for strangers that often erodes in the workaday world.

I make this claim from amid a culture that prides itself on control–beginning with the self in community and stretching through many venues and expressions. Japan has a special attachment to technology (don’t we all, nowadays?)–the logic of the tekhnē–the Japanese are master systems-makers and managers. It is a country well-versed in (natural) disaster which has, in turn, developed an almost obsessive focus on rules and ‘safety’ in the face of its vulnerabilities.

We are days away from the 4th anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami disaster; if ever there was, a sharp reminder of human limitation. And yet, also a reminder of the power and beauty in the very humanity of humans: their heroism, their selflessness, their boundless generosity, empathy and compassion.

Something deep in the human psyche, mythical and (thus) recurrent, is at play here. And here are a few pieces that came to me as I reflected on those Cape fires there, the Earthquake-Tsunami disaster here, and the spring fires of my Lenten journey.


  • The black burned lawn and the narcissus (narcissi?) made me see death and life entwined and to recollect the story of the abduction of Persephone [Beautifully told here by Helen Luke in The Way of Woman in the chapter ‘Mother Daughter Mysteries’ in Part III]. How else, I wonder, are we to make contact with the Dark Goddess, the Black Madonna, the Ground of Being, except by way of chaos and walking through the fires?
  • I thought also of Annie Dillard’s dizzying and paradoxical book For the Time Being which is a strangely comforting mooring place for me in the wake of disaster. The book (and the author, I’d bet) has a mordant yet compassionate tone. What I most appreciate is Dillard’s cool, calm willingness to look at and weigh what emerges before her. [Reviews, here and here]
  • I suddenly had a desire to give the music of the Stabat Mater some attention [there are plenty of renditions online. I am fond of the Dvorak only because it is most familiar]. Yes, the sorrowing mother – a bit early, liturgically speaking, but why not? Fires, dark goddesses, (extreme) suffering and the aftermath: we need company along the way. We are quite vividly (perhaps it is ever-so?) in the throes of dying and birthing in/on/through many layers of our life together on the planet.
  • And finally, today’s serendipitous find (and only because I could not be asked to venture out into the relentless pouring rain to my office to collect the book), a video (80” in length) of the Jungian analyst, whose work has enriched and illuminated my world immeasurably, Marion Woodman. The documentary is called (aptly enough) ‘Dancing in the Flames and I commend it wholeheartedly, friends.

Walking in the Garden on a recent morning past the tea plantation I looked back toward the east. The sun had risen over the bamboo forest and seemed trained on the small, old ornamental maple positioned on the banks of a smoking stream, at the side of a stone bridge and a stone lantern. I was instantly struck by the look of electrification the tree had taken on in that moment, a hundred red tips of the leafless branches stuck out: a moving, wordless morning invocation. These are the fires on my mind presently, the ones traveling with the rising sap. Soon, before the end of the month, perhaps, more blossoms will come, the leaves will peel out to feast upon the fires of the sun, the giver of life. Then will our celebrations of the Paschal mystery begin.

Until then, keep on keeping watch and tending your fires.

* Okayama’s Korakuen

** Where humus, the root of humble, is the earth.

*** The ecological and the personal are reflections of each other. I do not see them as separate realms; they are mutually informing.

Tea, Dolls & the Sacred Marriage

March 3rd is Doll’s Day (Hello, Dolly!) or hina matsuri in Japan. In its earliest version (adapted from China) dolls were offered to the imperial family, the princesses in particular, to preserve them from illness and bad luck. The dolls were said to (magically) contain bad energies and the festival used to include the dolls being ritually released on a river. Now, though, it has become more of a decorative phenomenon. These ritual aspects have all but been removed (in most parts of the country). The skills of the doll crafts-makers are, however, (and perhaps have become moreso?) deeply impressive: the forms are meticulously rendered; there’s a rich and varied use of textiles and the faces, oh the faces, are really something to behold! [Read more about the festival, here]

Visiting a very impressive local collection recently with some dear friends I was delighted anew by the displays and particularly by the evolution of the forms over time. It was a Sunday and we were there to celebrate spring and the marvellous doll collection. First we enjoyed tea in the traditional old way, formally and with great beauty.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Maybe because I was never much of a player with dolls as a child, I confess, as cute as they are, the dolls in child form do nothing for me. I read the infantilisation of this solemnity as a bit dodgy actually. What catches my adult attention, however, is that there seems to be some rather more primal and archetypal force in the depiction of the hierarchy of the imperial household all laid out in order in a celebration of the marriage of the Emperor & Empress (or King & Queen, in archetypal language).

The mythic sacred marriage is part of the archetypal structure of the human psyche and is found in various guises in different cultures throughout the ages. There is in human nature, it appears, a desire or drive to unite the physical and spiritual worlds, to understand, experience and overcome duality, and all this in order to engender the fertility that brings forth life. At the beginning of all life there is this primal syzygy of the one appearing to be two. As Freke and Gandy write: “The mystical marriage at the fulfilment of creation is the two knowing themselves to be one.”


While most Western representations of the sacred marriage depict duality, I find it noteworthy that the figures at the top of the hierarchy in these Japanese doll sets feature 3 (King, Queen, Senior Lady Courtesan) or 5 (King & Queen on the uppermost layer and 3 female courtesans, two younger on either side of the Senior Lady in Waiting on the next layer down). In the Yin-Yang symbol you may be used to seeing you will remember the black and white parts, each of which contains the seed of the opposite. In a Japanese rendition of this energetic principle we often see a more trinitarian arrangement, a kind of triskelion, with three parts rather than two, in apparent motion (e.g. mitsudomoe). The above diagram from alchemical texts shows the presence of a third, a bird, to represent, perhaps the Holy Spirit?

The woman figure in the Sacred Marriage myth is said to represent the incarnate, physical, ‘earth-ed’ aspect of divinity in the world while the man is purported to represent the transcendent spirit. I like the emphasis of the doll-set on the feminine powers; the emphasis on, as we say, ‘this side of Eden’. Of course, each of us bears the energies of both masculine and feminine in varying measures, and the task of what Jung called ‘individuation’ is to learn to work in balance with both sets of energy so that we might be whole.

Overcoming duality is a metaphor, too, for resurrection and happens, serendipitously, to be central to the Christian story we are preparing for during Lent.  A fascinating and timely find as a bit of an etymology nut and an admirer of Chinese ideographs, occurred when I went and looked up the (Chinese) kanji character for hina and to my surprise the translation of it was not doll (ningyou = ‘shape of a person’) but ‘chick’. First my eyes found the ‘radical’ OLD BIRD (and I was greatly amused by that!) and then my mind flashed on the candies sold in American shops around Easter called ‘Peeps’! The egg and its emerging inhabitant is an old symbol of Easter and the resurrection, of course, of Christ coming out of his tomb. I found this a fascinating reminder of the deep stories at play in the world and expressed in the seasonal celebrations I enjoy here.