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. 

One thought on “Reflections on Resilience: Lessons from a Drum

  1. WHOA….. whoa. [phew]
    That’s a gorgeous one, Kate. Beautifully written and resonating on so many levels within me. Thank you for another amazing read.


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