Jane Alexander is shocked to discover the simple act of making a drum could reassure her that she deserves her place in the world
It’s well-known that activities such as knitting, colouring in, crochet, pottery and needlework are powerful mindfulness tools. They allow us to drop into the focused, yet calm state psychologist Mihaly Czikszentimihalyi described as ‘flow’ and, as many studies have shown, can help reduce stress and anxiety and increas feelings of wellbeing. But could they do more? Might crafting open the gates of the psyche? We tend to imagine we need talking therapy for insights into our emotional wellness – but might a simple craft activity unlock awareness and release locked-in emotions?
I recently went on a Back to Nurture retreat with Fiona Arrigo, the psychologist and psychotherapist renowned for her award-winning emotional healing retreats (thearrigoprogramme.com). Fiona uses a broad mix of therapies and techniques to heal body, mind and soul but I was surprised to find crafts on the menu at her latest retreat. “In this age of busyness it’s vital that we return to simplicity,” she explained. “Crafting is an ancient tradition – by using our brains and hands together it calms the nervous system. We come out of the intellect, away from all that thinking and judging, and drop into pure experience.”
I thought I’d left crafts behind in my Girl Guide days, so I was surprised to discover just how lovely it was to sit in a circle as we took it in turns to weave fabrics on a simple peg loom. Painting pebbles to the crackle of a fire was equally entrancing. Dropping into doing something repetitive is balm to the stressed mind and, with no phones to distract us (this was a digital detox, too) it was blissful to relax and just be. So when we were offered the chance to make our own drums, I was excited. I practice shamanism, in which you travel to spirit realms on the beat of a drum, so the idea of having my very own drum, was thrilling.
Dorrie, who led the workshop, has been making drums for 20 years, since she was 15. “The oldest drum found is 165,000 years old,” she told us. “Every culture across the world has a drum culture – they belong to all the people of the earth.” A drum can take a year to make from scratch but we were taking a shortcut, using frames and skins that had already been prepared. Even so, the process was so deep it took me by surprise.
Dorrie insisted it didn’t require any skills or experience. “Tune in, find your way,” she said. “Think of the drum as a body – the frame is the bones and the deerskin is… the skin. Trust the instinctive way your hands move – as if you were giving a massage, as if you were approaching a lover.” She explained that we weren’t just ‘making’ our drums, but rather ‘birthing’ them. We were pulling them into life – a metaphysical, as well as a physical process.
Everyone else seemed to be taking to the task of pulling the skin over the oak frame with ease but I was so clumsy I just couldn’t seem to get it right.
My mind started panicking (quite the opposite of mindful!) and I felt like an awkward child again, not quite at home in my body. In fact, my drum seemed to be a mirror of my own body – stiff, uncomfortable, ill at ease, stretched too thin.
“Help!” I begged Dorrie and she sat down beside me, calmly taking over and making the whole process look simple. “Hey, don’t worry,” she said, with a gentle smile. “It’s tough to incarnate.” Suddenly I was gulping down tears as a huge sorrow rose up in my heart. I’ve been on countless retreats, including many specifically designed to bring about emotional release; I thought I’d uncovered all my angst. Yet this simple process and Dorrie’s gentle kindness blindsided me. I was catapulted back to old feelings that I didn’t deserve to be here, that I shouldn’t even have been born. My mother had several miscarriages before me and I often wondered why it was I that had survived; why had I had the chance to live when my potential siblings hadn’t?
I watched Dorrie work on my drum; seeing it turn from a ragged mess into something balanced and beautiful. “This one will be deep, soulful and full of meaning,” she said, and it felt like a benediction. Every tug, every stretch, seemed to pull me back into being, affirming that I did have a place in this world, that my voice could be heard. Yes, my body might be getting older but I could take care of it; the way we rubbed oil into the frames of our drums. I also realised that I don’t have to do it all alone. I doubt the drum-making, and all the crafting, would have had anywhere near the same resonance if I’d been sitting at home on my own. Being part of a group, a little tribe, gave me a sense of belonging; it bestowed a further healing on the process. We started off as strangers but parted as soul sisters, having supported each other, cheered one another on, held one another as we wept. We shared our joys and our sorrows, equally. A retreat is a container, a cooking pot – but it’s the people in it who create the delicious soup. I’m a firm believer in the power of group therapy and this confirmed it.
“Just sitting with people is part of the process,” said Fiona. “It’s about kindness and generosity, about returning to yourself. We’re all so overloaded and overwhelmed; we’re sad, lonely and anxious. Yet we have the capacity to soothe each other’s nervous systems. It’s the ancient way. We’re born to engage, to connect, to touch, to be together yet we’ve lost our instinctual nature.” Crafting, she said, is part of that neglected nature and coming together, even if only for a short time, can help us remember who we really are; it can plug us back in to our communal roots. “This is about the natural innocence of simple things,” she said.
“There is nothing like connecting with our hands – whether it’s painting, weaving, making drums – that ignites our souls and invites us back to our true, free, wild nature. When we craft, we create our own medicine.”
For more information on Back to Nurture by Arrigo retreats see thearrigoprogramme.com. Fiona Arrigo will also be offering drum making workshops in London at A Place to Heal (aplacetoheal.co.uk).
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