The Tree, the Drum, and the River:

Cultivating Transpersonal Unity from the Seeds of Our Diversity.

Joshua S. Levin1

Copyright 2002. All Rights Reserved


My drum speaks to me, as dreams speak, as animals speak, as lovers speak with their eyes. My drum began to speak when I began to listen. The more I listen, the more it speaks. My lover is the same. It is magical because it is simple. It is super because it is natural. It is simply a drum, and I am simply listening.

The following word dance describes the harvest and the toil of a drummer's deep play in the microcosm of the community drum circle. The second age of the reawakening of the drum has begun and it is time to gather for the telling of our stories. The tale that is contained within these pages can be heard night after night from rim to center in the circle of sound and movement that I call drum and dance meditations. Let us remember together...

The River...

The drummer lives between here and eternity. We float on the coils of the great river of time, and it is us who count the measures with lives that hardly span the breadth of a dream. For there is no moment like this moment, and still this instant knows no end save the veils of thought that we draw down upon it. The river, at once changing and changeless, rushes out from a wellspring of cosmic fire, a single beat exploding in a pool of endless silence. From within these waters of light, the children of the river draw handfuls of liquid time up unto the Sun and declare, "behold this stream that flows within us, that is us. See how it seems to dance in and between these hands. We are as this wave rolling out from the one stone in the one pool at the center of the one thing. Our hands strike like that stone and the heads of our drums open like that pool. We echo in the reflection of these waters and our hearts pound with gladness."


So it is that all rhythm begins in the silence of the ever present, ever flowing river of time. At the moment that the second beat is played at the community circle, we have drawn our selves up from these undifferentiated waters and planted a seed on the bank of the river. This first seed is the flash of consciousness, the awakening of a new life. It is the self that has emerged from the selfless and that will ultimately grow back towards its unspeakable source. The first seed is the pulse; the fundamental abstraction that subdivides eternity so that it may take fruit in the present. As the life's blood of the drum, the pulse defines segments of consciousness that are just long enough to contain all the primary beats of what may grow into a sublime tree of rhythm. Although it is defined by fixing a duration, a specific quantity of liquid time, its count is both one and infinity. It is the measure of the eternal now. It laps upon the shore in endless waves, a cosmic heart beat that echoes into the abyss.


In order for the tree that is contained within the pulse to flourish, the seed must produce roots that can secure and sustain life's ascent. The roots of a healthy rhythm are nurtured with skill, trust, and love. They are grown out of united action, in the motions of the body, and united thought, in the shared intentions and focus of the mind. In turn, we feel the loving spirit of each other's support as we mirror one another's expression. When we all play the same pulse together, our roots grow deep and numerous. We transcend our self-consciousness and become a part of the larger circle. We are all doing the same thing so we are not given to question our place in relationship to others. In fact, our own voice is magnified the very instant that we empower the voice of our brothers and sisters in the circle. Because it is the nature of the pulse that it may be subdivided and multiplied infinitely, there is always a tempo and corresponding layer of entrainment that is accessible to any level of skill and experience. All participants have access, all are welcome, and all mindful energies contribute to the strength and vitality of this foundation at the shores of time.

These roots of rhythm are fashioned out of cooperation and positive regard. Together, we weave these nurturing emotions around shared intentions of solidarity and community. Our security is physically embodied and sonically reflected in the experiential unity of a healthy pulse. We feel it in our bones and begin to sense liberation in the dissolution of our linear anxieties. The mystery awakens and Colliope's radiant sisters, potential and opportunity, make their way into the circle.

If, on the other hand, we have not first entrained in this way, our roots remain shallow and weak. Instead of a supportive foundation, we have a tangle of independent voices. Without empowering reflection and entrainment, a drummer nurtures a weed. Enamored with his own voice, and insecure in his own place at the bank of the river, the weed wrestles for a greater share of the light. As weeds suffocate the roots that struggle beside them, the seed that was planted cannot sprout, and for a time, the bank of the river remains a fermenting morass of hunger, distrust, and confusion.

A weed is by no means unskilled or out of time, it is simply self absorbed. A "traditional rhythm" played with finesse and enthusiasm is nevertheless a weed if it does not first embrace the other players and draw them into the comfort, safety, and power of the collective groove. In traditional contexts, these rhythms are already rooted. They are anchored in the community. In North America, however, tremendous cultural and experiential diversity inhibits this shared foundation. In this emerging context, we converge upon the circle to embrace a kaleidoscope of differences. It is through cultivating strong supportive roots in the foundation of the pulse, that we are able to nurture a healthy vital rhythm that will bridge our differences and carry us higher than any one individual can grow alone. When there is a sufficient number of strong supportive drummers, the seed of the circle takes root and a sprout of rhythm emerges from these fertile energies.


The rhythmic seedling finally bursts forth when the first distinct cycle repeats and is sustained. This moment defines the character of a new musical life. The seedling expresses the number of beats in the cycle (the time signature), as well as the order and quality of the fundamental beats in the rhythm. A seedling can emerge from any tradition as well as from a spontaneous expression of life within the empowering pulse of the circle. This life, like the fire that often illuminates it, will grow as long as it is nurtured and cared for.


As the drummers shift from the root of the pulse to the fundamental rhythm of the seedling, they must sustain the vitality of their supportive role while also nurturing the stem of what will become the trunk of a great tree. The transition from root to stem, initiates the archetypal pattern of all growing things: a continual cycle of balance, transformation, and illumination. Through balanced transformation we are enlightened by new relationships to self and other within the emerging mandala of the circle. This is growth, and it begins in the stability and balance of the pulse. From this secure foundation the drummer is empowered to face the instant of creativity and the unknown moment of transition. The beats that are played are new and uncertain. They are inspired currents that flow through the individual as she travels in the space between the root, where she began, and the stem that she is playing towards.

Like a child learning to walk, many falter in these first steps, but a supportive circle will raise the drummer up and draw her back to the security of the pulse. When a drummer makes a successful transition, she joins her brothers and sisters on the stem, and together they begin to weave the xylem and phloem, the bark of a hearty trunk. This is the moment of illumination as new mysteries and patterns are revealed. New relationships are discovered and new potential is unveiled. It is a time of hearing, and as the rhythm speaks, balance is restored. With renewed balance, vitality is sustained, energy flows, safety is reinforced, and our young life begins preparations for the next transition.

The trunk of the rhythmic tree grows from inside to outside. Its core is the hardwood of the first shoot, and it carries the identity of the seedling. As drummers wrap their rhythms around this living axis of time, they begin the dialogue of theme and variations. Each chooses a part that weaves an inspired line between supportive reflection and provocative improvisation. As increasing layers of variation find their balanced cycles around the axis of the trunk, the young tree begins to mature. Its bark of accents and rhythmic innuendoes acquires the sublime textures of age. All the while, the drummers and the circle are growing together: cell to cell, breath to breath, heart beat to heart beat.

To hold center in the trunk of the tree is to harmonize the tension between self and society, between freedom and family. The drummer must assert her individual voice without being destabilized or dominated by the sometimes forceful counterpoint of other rhythmic lines. This means cultivating the self confidence and social dexterity to speak one's truth while still listening to the diverse views of others. In the trunk, she must not relinquish her individual part on the one hand, or ignore the group mind on the other. Learning to play, or to speak, in such a way that others can hear, understand, and relate to, are essential to growth and stability. Playing the trunk of the tree means holding center, tempo, time, and rhythm, while making flexible choices from deep in the embrace of mindful relationship.


With the support of strong roots and a sturdy trunk, our living breathing rhythm begins to branch out as our own limbs explore and express the spirit of the circle. Still traveling around the wheel of balance, transformation, and illumination, we begin to hear the long cycles of the rhythm and their inflections upon our growing consciousness. As the measures stretch into bars, and the bars echo with melodies, the song and the stories of our relationships ring out from the healthiest branches to the tangles of knotted suffering limbs. For it is these tales of soul to soul reflection, this dialogue of call and response, of the beat and the step, of the smile and the howl- it is these wordless tales of truth that form the very substance of the tree. As long as we inspire one another with new rhythmic discoveries and empowering emotional reflections, a branch will rush up and out from its sturdy trunk to disclose a unique current of the infinite mystery that pulses within. With humor and passion, tragedy and triumph, fear and courage, we energize our fingers so that they may at last yield a rainbow canopy of leafy transformation beneath the starry heavens. Reaching ever higher, we carry these stories to the wind and the sky, and we rock from root to leaf in the energizing rhythm of life.


To hear such a tree is to hear the river as it flows within, between, and beyond us. The tree sounds as we do, and in that sound we hear the truth of the lives we have nurtured. Where there was once the challenge of diversity, there is instead the united miracle of our interdependent existence. In this creativity we discover and experience our unity; we hear one another joined inseparably in the living substance of our rhythmic ecstasy. In that moment there is only one life and one love. The tree is body, mind, and spirit made audible. It is the awesome perfection of life celebrating and affirming itself. And it is within the living embrace of this perfect love and perfect trust that a drummer or a dancer will find the strength and the freedom to burst forth in a blossoming expression of the river's deepest mysteries. The divine light that drops from the lofty branches of this tree of life could not possibly be a solo, for it is truly the sweet fruit and brilliant flower of life's shared labors.


Some trees may live through many seasons. Over the course of an instant, an hour, an evening, a few days, or even years and decades, a tree may blossom and decay numerous times before it is finally laid to rest. Indeed, there are some trees with roots that are so deep and seeds that are so hearty and plentiful that their lineage stretches back to a time before memory. Yet, most of the trees that are planted on a given night will wither and die within a few hours. It is in this autumn, when the leaves begin to fall, that some of the most sensitive relationships emerge in a gentle cascade of color and sound. At other times, winter comes like an unexpected frost, like a bolt of lightning. In the pressing stillness, the drummers shiver with a chill of discontinuity as their eyes survey an icy river bank. There is a struggle to cope with the abrupt loss of the living connections that once thrived in the tree's comforting branches. It is not uncommon for the returning silence to be met with a mixture of fear and anxiety. The gap is filled with hungry words, nervous commentary, and the chatter of lonely drums seeking a playmate.

On the other hand, when a tree has lived a long healthy life, there is a clarity in this period of release that reflects the mutual love and respect that nurtured the rhythm throughout. In place of the risk and excitement of discovery and transformation, there is now a deep sense of trust, familiarity, and mutual admiration. Having long since transcended the isolating questions of relative skill and worth, the drummers withdraw from their embrace in expressions of tireless patience and boundless delight. When these relationships are true and complete, autumn can outlast memory and the rhythm may sway for hours in peaceful reflection of the river at its roots. But all things must eventually return to their source. When these final moments are at last produced, every touch on the surface of the drum is a whisper in a child's ear. As the spaces between the beats increase in number, the gentle but persistent pulse resurfaces like bubbles in an eddy. At last there are only the bubbles, and the seedling is once again absorbed in the eternal flow.

If, over the course of an evening of drumming, the banks of the river remain fertile with the energies of a mindful circle, the drummers may stay connected, sustaining, subdividing, or multiplying the pulse to discover a new seed. The longer that a circle can retain this focus and sense of interrelationship, the more likely it is to produce trees of unimaginable beauty and wonder. South Asian percussionists, for example, cultivate the ability to sustain and explore a single rhythm for six or more hours. This can only be achieved by a complete commitment to discover the mystery that is contained within growing rhythmic relationships. It is a practice of staying focused and attuned to the convergence of all energies on the present moment. This kind of awareness is characterized by the effort to listen with one's whole being. The drummer becomes the nexus- an open channel between perception and expression. To listen in this way is to be in rhythm, to act in harmony, to embody the tree and the unfolding flower of the river.


To mirror the expression of another, as we do in planting the seeds and nurturing the roots of rhythm, is to do the work of sacrifice. We relinquish a part our individual selves, our personal expression, in loving service to one or many others. To join in planting the seeds of the pulse is to set aside immediate individual desires. As we transcend our personal concerns and limitations, we discover a new multifaceted self that grows beyond the boundaries of individual egos: there is only one drum; all hands are our own hands; the tree is one and each cell is essential to its nature. As we offer the gifts of our energies, our sacrifice of time, we create the endless fruits of meaningful relationship. In place of personal desire, we sow the seeds of our collective harvest.

There are many seeds of time that never manage to grow beyond the effort to develop roots. For hours, little pockets of support will try to gather strength and momentum, only to be devastated by conflicting bursts from disconnected outcrops at the other side of the circle, or to be torn asunder by a particularly strong smelling weed that's shooting up in the midst of the chaos. When this has gone on for a time, the seed of the once promising pulse begins to rot away. The players stop listening or even seeing one another. Instead of reaching out to each other, they disappear into the rush of sound, losing themselves in the cascade of uneven 64th notes, static and chaos, crashing down in a white torrent of time.

On occasion, however, a single player can channel this waterfall by intentionally and mindfully drawing the drummers together around a simple yet powerful expression of the pulse. Such a player is an enthusiastic and supportive mirror. She climbs into the rhythm with the drummers around her. She reawakens them from their slumber, reaching out to them with her joy and her love. She reconnects them to the circle, and hand for hand, motion for motion, she supports their movements by aligning, encouraging, and empowering them with her own inspiring beats.

While skilled mindful facilitators have the power to nurture and revive a troubled circle, the actual growth of the tree is self regulating according to the will of its individual members. As participants discover that their own interests are bound to the interests of the group, they become increasingly conscious of their relationships to their playmates. Growing awareness of their interdependence encourages a desire to nurture these essential relationships. Committed mindful participants eventually cross over a threshold and experience the revelation of their own ability to inspire and empower others.

This process of self-regulation, mutual discovery, and synergistic empowerment, contrasts with creative work that is defined by the imposition of numerous rules and external limitations. The tree is not pruned from without, but empowered from within. While a script can provide the scaffolding around which the tree may grow, this device is just as likely to inhibit its blossoming. The effort to control the experience, to shape it with plans and facilitation, to fix moments in time, can diminish the scope of consciousness by attaching awareness to predetermined outcomes and a limited range of human diversity. In spite of the best of intentions, the structures of scripts and facilitation encourage dualistic and hierarchical thinking. Participants cannot help but find themselves caught in a net of expectations. At the extremes, they either self-consciously align with spoken and implied guidelines, or they self-consciously rebel against them. Either way, motivation is external, and awareness is drawn away from intuitive discovery and towards linear analysis and judgment: how to play, what to play, when to play, where to play, etc.. This paradox is overcome when each participant discovers their own internal motivation for engaging with the group, and takes personal responsibility for the health and welfare of the garden, the tree, the life, and the relationships that they are helping to nurture.

The effort to facilitate non-facilitation, or self regulation, is a subtle and inexact art. It can only be gestured to indirectly, and there is always the risk of confusing the gesture for the tree itself. A circle that utilizes this alternative approach copes with the paradox of structure and spontaneity through the practical method of "theme on variations."2 In other words, the participants discover shared themes and boundaries out of a mixture of their many cultural and technical differences. The usual formula of variations on a theme is turned on its head. Discovery is exchanged for control, artistic induction replaces modernist deduction. As the patterns of culture and tradition are increasingly fragmented it must be so, for we have no choice but to discover new avenues of relationship within the endless permutations of our diverse lives.

Similarly, the validity and beauty of the tree is not to be found in external criteria and standards. Its meaning is produced in the experience. It simply cannot be judged by those who do not participate in its creation. To do so is to confuse the drum for the drummer and the song for the circle. There is only the drummer and the relationships of the circle. The tree cannot offer its support, its fruits, or its shade to those who will not stand beneath its sheltering canopy. One either participates or not. There is no in-between. To stand outside is to remain a tourist. The line is transcended at the moment that an individual contributes his or her energy to the tree.

We give our love through our time and our energy. This is the meaning of the phrase, "work is love made visible." Our gifts of inspiration and empowerment are brought to life as we focus our energies on each other. When we drum we channel this love through rhythm and sound to produce a musical reflection of our thriving relationships. Every person at the circle absorbs a quantity of this work/love/energy. Every person at the circle has the potential to give. Not all give and receive equally, and not all are mindful of how they radiate within the group. When mindful giving predominates at a circle, the redistribution and circulation of energy produces a self-sustaining, self-magnifying synergy. It is quite literally, the operation of the Sun as it collapses upon itself in the most radiant of radiant lights.

The River...

My lover speaks to me as drums speak, as the circle speaks. My lover began to speak when I began to listen. The more I listen, the more she speaks. My friends and my community are the same. It is magical because it is simple. It is super because it is natural. It is life, and I am listening. It begins, and it ends in the river.



1Joshua S. Levin, Ph.D. was introduced to the drum and dance circle at fourteen. His explorations into the worlds of percussion have included study, teaching, recording, performance, ritual, and sacred circles, in regions as diverse as Honduras, Mongolia, Nepal, and the United States. With his partner, Deborah Nervig, Joshua practices the arts of rhythm, dance, and song as vehicles for building community and understanding and enhancing relationships. These musical investigations have also been an important component of his work as a cultural anthropologist. He is currently a faculty member in the department of human behavior at the Community College of Southern Nevada.

2 This perfect turn of phrase was conjured by Jeff McBride during a casual discussion at Firedance 2001.


Copyright 2002. All Rights Reserved