Drums

Photo: Natalie Shattuck, Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Observer

I parked at the Stanford stadium at 6 a.m. and set out for a run. Six miles from the campus I entered the foothills where Corte Madera Creek flowed full under leaves that shimmered in the rising sun.

After the climb to the ridge, I turned north and jogged the undulating trail to Windy Hill. Two minutes along, a helicopter passed loudly and set a den of coyotes a‑howling in the bushes, not more than a dozen feet off the trail.

I tried unsuccessfully to wrap my head around a spiritual practice. I talked to Divine Mother and chanted repetitive prayers. I’d been feeling depressed and lonely, finding little healing in my meditations. Clearly something was wrong.

My mood improved when I began my new job, thanks to Ishani. Passing her in the store my heart would fill. I released these feelings by praying for her. I felt happy in her presence, even more so in praying for her happiness. I considered that we were far too different to have a relationship.

Still, something was ripping me apart, as if I had been gravely injured and couldn’t find the wound.

I ended the six-hour run at the stadium. Rather than drive home, I walked to the eucalyptus grove where the annual Native American Pow-Wow was underway. I sat under an awning, in a section reserved by one of the Dineh families. An older man seated nearby struck up a conversation. After a while, a young Dineh joined us. He turned, a mild challenge in his eyes, as if to say “What are you doing sitting in our section?” We talked for a bit, and by way of building bridges I mentioned that I had read all of Tony Hillerman’s books several times, and that I had followed a meditative spiritual practice for forty-plus years. He seemed mollified – also, I suspect, by my t-shirt from the “What, Mi-Wok Trail 100K” that showed a Native American dancer. He became cordial and friendly.

At an appropriate point I put my arm around the older man and said, “Our friend here was born in Newfoundland of a Native American father and a Scottish mother, and he’s not terribly happy about inheriting his mother’s coloring.” He looked thoroughly Scottish with red hair, light skin, and freckles.

I watched the dancers for a time but was simply too tired to stay longer.

The next morning I went to Sunday service at Ananda Sangha. I found the service inspiring, but afterward my heart once again felt bruised and sore.

Looking for something to do, I drove toward the Pow-Wow. Fearing that it might be tawdry, with crowds and heat and brain-frying noise, I considered going home instead. But a gentle intuition seemed to prod me to drive on. After parking at the stadium I walked toward the Pow-Wow, curious to see what lay in store.

I was deeply tired from the previous day’s run, but I found that by sitting quietly and breathing deeply I could recover enough inner poise and energy to vibrate good feelings.

I love Tony Hillerman’s books that show the beautiful path of  the Dineh culture: its dignity, modesty, and harmony. The books present an appealing picture of a simpler way of life.

As I sat among the Dineh, I noticed that the mood was very different from the usual outdoor fair where beer flows, the music is a blunt insult, and the atmosphere is heavy with materialism. (“Maybe if we spend a few dollars more we’ll find happiness this time.”)

The Pow-Wow wasn’t like that at all. The Dineh sat in family groups, quietly enjoying the day and talking together beneath their awnings, and despite the crowds the air was soft with harmony.

The announcer introduced the Pow-Wow staff and tallied the accomplishments of the chief male dancer whose name was George Bearskin. Mr. Bearskin stood in the arena with bowed head while his kudos were read then walked off to the enthusiastic applause of the crowd, his face completely dispassionate, as if to say “Oh heck, I forgot to get a new battery for the truck.” I saw no sign of personal pride or false humility in his face or demeanor; he simply blended. I felt it was a beautiful demonstration of hozro – the harmonious merging of personal self with nature and community that the Dineh consider the pinnacle of happiness and the right spiritual way to live.

Seated two rows ahead of me, a woman braided her young daughter’s long black hair. I glanced at them from time to time when my attention drifted from the dancers, admiring their quiet communion.

The dancers’ costumes were wonderful – colorful “fancy dancer” outfits of modern materials, and older traditional buffalo dance and warrior costumes of animal skins and feathers. The women dancers moved with dignity and calmness. I found their dancing style initially boring and laborious, their slow movements seeming to lack energy and inspiration. At home later, I picked up a wonderful book of poetry and stories by Luci Tapahonso, The Women Are Singing, and opened it to a passage where she explained that the women dancers tap the earth lightly in blessing. What a difference that explanation made!

The dancers seemed relaxed, faithful to Hillerman’s portrayal of Indian spirituality as a comfortable part of their lives. You could see this harmony even in the children. Brats will be brats in all cultures, but I was touched by the Dineh boys and girls. One chanting group included a thin, dark-skinned girl of perhaps fifteen or sixteen. (There were eight groups of six or seven chanter-drummers.) She was the only woman among all the drummers, and she was deeply focused on the chanting, which was very loud and forceful, and required great vocal power and mental concentration. There wasn’t the slightest possibility of resting or of dropping the rhythm, as the least variation would have been immediately apparent.

I watched a small group of children talking quietly nearby. One of the young girls touched my heart. She was perhaps twelve or thirteen and wore a blue dancer’s costume. Her black hair was arranged traditionally, swept up in braided rows with feathers between the braids. It touched me that she was so obviously a child. Nowadays, it’s very unusual to see children who haven’t been shriveled and stunted by rock music and TV and the relentless addiction to things by their early teens. She seemed as innocently sweet as nature had made her, like a fawn, and she was as lovable for her innocence as the young of all species are. As she talked or listened, her little round face was grave behind her glasses. I was grateful to be reminded of the goodness and wisdom of native cultures. It was a small vignette, yet I thought it spoke volumes about her parents and her people.

The announcer said that in the early 1900s the U.S. Government had banned Indian chanting and dancing, considering it “heathen” and “devil-worship.” I was reminded of Pat Robertson’s views on Hindu art and culture. I imagine he’ll seem gravely uninformed a hundred years from now.

I walked over and stood very close to the drums, wanting to see if the drumming could heal my discontent and loneliness. In the 1980s, I chanted for an hour and a half daily for five years without missing a day. The experience healed my heart and opened a world of many beauties. My meditations soared.

Standing as close to the drums as possible, I turned my attention away from the milling crowds and opened my heart to receive the healing power of the chant. Yogananda said that devotional drumming “loosens up the karma in the spine.” The drummers who included the young girl were amazing. There was a great power of harmony in their chanting and drumming. I was riveted. Glancing up, my eyes met those of one of the Dineh judges – a young man, he smiled briefly in shared understanding, then our attention was irresistibly drawn back to the chant.

I had expected to leave the Pow-Wow feeling thoroughly frazzled, but as I strolled to my truck I noticed that I was feeling cheerful for the first time in weeks.

Photo by Walter Larrimore

Two days later, I walked up to Ishani at the store and said, “I’ve been having wonderful experiences in nature. I wonder if you’d like to come and see some of those places with me.” She didn’t answer but stood blushing and looking as if she’d been hit by something large and bright. Her cheeks flushed and she stammered hoarsely, “Yes…” I fell in love with her very much at that moment.

It was so natural to ask her to visit nature’s beauty with me. I wasn’t at all nervous that she might decline. Nor was there a sense of going behind my Guru’s back and evading his guidance to get something that I wanted. Several years later, at a time when we were struggling, Asha told us that Swami Kriyananda had said, during a call from India,“I’m so glad that Rambhakta and Ishani are together. Ishani is a wonderful woman.”

Our relationship has been spiritually blessed. The keynote that we return to is God. The care of our relationship is very much in His hands; but it requires that we feed it, like a small and delicate child, by keeping channels open to its source.

My experience at the Pow-Wow brought me other blessings, not the least of which was a fresh appreciation that my guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, will use any and all means in his efforts to help us find happiness. In a little over fifty years as his disciple, I’ve found him to be never dogmatic or doctrinaire, but always creative and original in adapting his guidance to the devotee’s specific needs. When church services won’t do the job, he’s quite willing to use Native American drums.

3 thoughts on “Drums

  1. This is an important statement about what it is, at essence, we need in our lives. Not dogmatic sectarianism, but openness to God’s flow, wherever we find it. Focus, loyalty, persistence on our own path–absolutely. But always listening, listening for where is God hiding from us right now. She’s always here, if we can get ourselves into the right space in consciousness, if we can let down our mental blinders and open our hearts. God is omnipresent. Where could there be that she is NOT? Thank you, dear friend, for this lovely reminder. Beautifully written. You touch our hearts.

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