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Shamanic Drumming & Consciousness

Altered States © Martyn Carruthers

For thousands of years, drums and rattles have been used to communicate, to accompany dances and to change the consciousness of individuals and groups. Drumming can rouse soldiers into battle, and soothe an angry mob. Some shamans referred to a drum as a "horse", since it could carry them to other states of consciousness, where they could communicate with ancestral and nature spirits.

Many tribal and traditional societies used drums and rattles in rituals and celebrations, to call spirits and to help people directly connect with the cosmos. Drums had a "voice" and could "talk" through different tempo and tones. Through drum language people could send and receive messages. In parts of Africa and India drums were esteemed so highly that they were given their own throne next to the ruler! In old Hawaii most temples (heiau) had a sacred drum house.

Vibrations from rhythmic sounds affect brain activity, studies have shown. Since the dawn of history, shamans have used rhythmic drumming to attain non-ordinary states of consciousness. A constant rhythm affects consciousness in specific ways, allowing a shaman to achieve well-defined altered states of consciousness. This helps meditation, out of body journeying and ecstatic experiences.

Rhythmic beats seems to pulse through all that lives. The heartbeat in each of us began before we were born and ends as our bodies die. This rhythmic pulse can connect us with humanity, with all living things and with the cosmos.

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In any exploration of shamanic practices, drums and rattles are essential tools. The use of drumming to effect conscious change is certain, but the questions concern how to drum, and what size and beat and patterns of rhythm can induce which states of consciousness and with what consequences.

Studies of brain patterns by researcher Dr. Melinda Maxfield found that a steady 4.5 Hertz (Hz or cycles per second) for at least 15 minutes can transport shamans into altered states of consciousness. This 4.5 cycles per second corresponds to a trance like state of theta brainwave activity.

We experienced similar effects in Buddhist temples in Katmandu, which can be attained with the constant rhythmic drone of Tibetan chants, which Buddhist monks use for certain meditations. Other pulsating rhythms can act in a similar way and some rhythms, when dominant in the brain, can support unusual experiences.

Although we have experimented with the precise, consistent (boring) computer generated rhythms, which some claim can target specific states of consciousness, we find that this techno approach seems to miss the human to human connection. The resulting altered states are ... not very altered.

Brain Waves

Brain frequencies can be described in four general groups, known as Delta, Theta, Beta and Alpha:

  1. Delta waves (0-4 Hz). Delta is associated with deep sleep. In addition, certain frequencies in the delta range may trigger the release of a growth hormone beneficial for healing and regeneration. This may be one reason why deep restorative sleep supports healing.
  2. Theta waves (4-7 Hz). Theta is more elusive and extraordinary. Also called the twilight state which we normally only experience fleetingly as we awake from delta, or when drifting off to sleep. In theta we can better experience lucid, waking dreams, vivid imagery and we are receptive to information beyond our normal awareness. During the Theta state many people find that they can comprehend advanced concepts and relationships that are incomprehensible when in Alpha or Beta states. Theta has also been identified as the gateway to learning and memory. Theta meditation increases creativity, enhances learning, reduces stress and awakens intuition and other extrasensory perception skills. When the brain is in Theta it appears to balance sodium/potassium ratios which are responsible for the transport of chemicals through brain cell membranes. Theta appears to play a role in rejuvenating a fatigued brain.
  3. Beta waves (13-40 Hz). Beta state is associated with peak concentration, heightened alertness and visual acuity. Nobel Prize Winner, Sir Francis Crick and other scientists believe that the 40Hz beta frequency may be key to cognition.
  4. Alpha waves (7-12 Hz). This is deep relaxation, but not quite meditation. In Alpha, we can access a creativity that lies below our conscious awareness - a gateway, an entry point that leads into deeper states of consciousness. Alpha frequency is also called the Schumann Resonance, the resonant frequency of the earth's electromagnetic field.

Even infants who cannot yet speak are affected by music in ways that alter their consciousness, supporting their happiness or melancholy or other emotional states. A frequency range of 4-7 hertz induces theta brain waves, brain wave patterns that arise during dreaming and deep meditation.

According to Dr. Jeffrey D. Thompson, “Theta brain states are associated with out of body meditation". In these states, one may experience seeing the guru, experiencing places of beauty or peace, and sometimes receiving spiritual insights with associated visions and sounds. These Theta states are also associated with classic shamanic 'journeying'.

Shamans may use these rhythmic patterns and resulting states of consciousness and intentionally use specific rhythms to alter brain wave patterns to experience altered states of consciousness.

This might explain why drumming is used in shamanic rituals. Many stories of shamanic rituals we often see that the shaman is yawning and sleepy at the beginning of the ceremony, and also at the end of the ceremony. This is consistent for people experiencing Theta activity while awake.

Theta Shopping List

When we escort people into theta consciousness (shamanic consciousness, or hakalau in Hawaiian) they have many possibilities. The problem is that it is easy to forget your agenda, and instead goof off into daydreams, ego trips, playful hallucinations or other mind games.

The possibilities include communicating or connecting with other-world entities such as dead people, angels, ancestors, demons, power animals and nature spirits. This is a great time to do exorcism - kicking out discarnates - or spirit retrieval - finding lost parts of you - IF you can remain focused and deal calmly with whatever emotional images or traumatic memories are presented for assimilation. These can be wild rides.

During our dream coaching (we call it Dreamwork), we often use guided meditations to help people stay on track and to fulfill the goals that they defined when in ordinary reality.

Shamanic Reading

  • Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam, ed. Shamanic Worlds: Rituals and Lore of Siberia
    and Central Asia Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.
  • Kenin-Lopsan, Mongush B. Shamanic Songs and Myths of Tuva
    Budapest, Hungary. Akademiai Nyomda, 1997.
  • Dioszegi, Vilmos and Hoppal, Mihaly, ed. Shamanism in Siberia
    Budapest, Hungary. Akademiai Kiado, 1996.
  • Maxfield, Melinda. “Effects of Rhythmic Drumming on EEG and Subjective Experience.”
  • Thompson, Jeffrey D. “Epsilon, Gamma, HyperGamma, Lambda Brainwave Activity and Ecstatic States of Consciousness”
  • Pilch, J.J. “Music and Trance.” Music Therapy Today (online) Vol. V, Issue 2
  • Kalweit, Holger. Dreamtime & Inner Space
    Boston, Massachusetts. Shambhala, 1984
  • Rouget, Gilbert. Music and trance: a theory of the relations between music and possession
    University of Chicago Press, IL. 1985

I thought you were just another therapist - but you were not just. Not even. Not only.

Plagiarism is theft. Copyright © Martyn Carruthers 2006-2018
All rights reserved.

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Have You Suffered Enough?

 Where are you now? Understand your emotions, fixations and enmeshments
What do you hope for? Know your goals and stop sabotaging yourself
Do you feel resourceful? Learn to develop your inner resources
Do emotions block you? Relationship problems and mentor damage
Do your beliefs limit you? Change limiting beliefs and end dependence
Do you feel connected? Resolve identity issues to recover lost resources
Is your partner happy? Build healthy partnership (or separate peacefully)
Are your children healthy? Happy parents better manage family problems
Do you want team success? Team leaders and their teams develop together
Do you have complex goals? Specialty coaching, counseling & therapy

Plagiarism is theft. Copyright © Martyn Carruthers 1996-2018  All rights reserved. Soulwork Systemic Coaching was primarily developed by Martyn Carruthers to help people solve emotional problems and relationship conflicts to achieve their goals. These concepts and strategies are for general knowledge only. Consult a physician about medical conditions and before changing medical treatment. Don't steal intellectual property ... get permission to post, publish or teach Martyn's work - email