Effective Core Shamanic Drumming Circles

By Susan Mokelke
© "Shamanism," Spring/Summer 2007, Vol. 20, No. 1

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A shamanic drumming circle can be a powerful way to deepen in the knowledge and practice of shamanism. Once you have learned the basic method of journeying taught in Michael Harner’s Basic Workshop, it is important to practice to strengthen your personal connection to the helping spirits. This personal connection is crucial to the practice of shamanism. A drumming circle provides a consistent, supportive structure for this practice. Further knowledge can be gained by taking one of our advanced workshops.

This article provides a few guidelines for anyone considering starting a drumming circle. For established drumming circles, the guidelines can help to make your circle more effective. For people looking for a drumming circle, this article can help you determine which drumming circle is right for you.

These guidelines are directed to circles focused on Core Shamanism, shamanic methods not bound to any specific culture or perspective, as originated and developed by Michael Harner.

Most people will consider joining or starting a drumming circle after attending the FSS Basic Workshop. As a service, a listing of existing Core Shamanism Drumming Circles can be found on the Foundation’s website.

Drumming circles serve many purposes. Primary among them are:

  1. A supportive place to practice shamanism, especially journeying;
  2. Providing a consistent, regular structure for practice;
  3. Increasing shamanic knowledge by sharing with each other and through direct revelation from the spirits;
  4. Strengthening the participants’ connections to their helping spirits through practice;
  5. Healing for individuals and for the community.

Information about drumming circles can always be obtained through the classic shamanic method of journeying on it. If you are starting a drumming circle, your first sessions together might be focused on journeying to determine the focus, format, and guidelines for your drumming circle. However, that being said, we have found that the following principles help to create effective shamanic drumming circles.

When starting or joining a drumming circle, consideration should be given to:

  1. Who will participate in the drumming circle? What level of experience is desired? Will the circle be open or closed to new members once it has started? If closed, when will new members be considered?
  2. How will the circle be facilitated? A consistent, experienced leader? Rotating leadership?
  3. Is the focus and purpose of the circle clear and agreed upon by the members of the circle?
  4. What is the format of the circle? When, where, and how often will the circle meet? Will the circle have a fee? Will there be a general consistent format/flow for each session?
  5. How is the content of the circle determined?
  6. Does the circle make the ethics of shamanic work explicit? Does it abide by these ethics? Is the circle harmonious?

Participants in the Drumming Circle

Drumming circles can be completely open, allowing anyone who is interested to attend. Others are closed, meaning either participants have a certain level of experience or once the circle begins, it is closed to new members for a time to be determined by the members. Some closed circles require both a certain level of experience and allow new members only at certain times. Consider the options and decide which is right for you.

The advantages of open circles are:

  • Accessible to new members at any time;
  • Flexible and changeable (less likely to become rigid in format and content);
  • More members;
  • Inexperienced participants have access to more experienced participants.

The disadvantages of open circles are:

  • Differing levels of experience make it harder to create content that works for everyone;
  • More experienced members may find it difficult to deepen in the practices out of consideration for the inexperienced participants;
  • The less practiced members may feel insecure sharing their experiences in relationship to others with greater understanding;
  • It is harder to build a sense of trust and community when membership is constantly changing.

The advantages of closed circles are:

  • Content that works for all members is much easier to determine;
  • Consistent level of experience allows the group to go deeper each session;
  • Participants can get to know each other well, building trust and community;
  • Members can practice more advanced methods without concern that the practices will be out of context, inappropriate, or confidential.

The disadvantages of closed circles are:

  • Fewer members;
  • Not accessible to new participants and the variety and interests they may bring;
  • It is easier to become rigid in terms of circle format and content.

An issue related to membership is the importance of each member’s commitment to attending the drumming circle, except in rare circumstances. Especially in closed circles, if members miss too many sessions it can make it harder to have an effective circle. It is best to make explicit from the beginning what commitment is required regarding attendance – and have each participant’s agreement.

Facilitation of the Circle

Many circles, particularly beginning circles where members have had the FSS Basic Workshop, find it very advantageous to have their group facilitated, at least for a time, by an experienced shamanic practitioner. An experienced leader can clarify the methods for journeying, helping individuals to learn to access the Upper and Lower Worlds and make contact with their helping spirits successfully and with confidence. Once this consistent contact can be made, you will obtain direct knowledge and the helping spirits will teach you.

Often, even experienced groups prefer having a consistent facilitator so they can focus attention on deepening their own knowledge and experience. The group leader can also create content that builds, that takes the circle participants step-by-step deeper into the practices.

Other drumming circles find it most satisfying to rotate the leadership of the group. There can be a different facilitator each session, or a rotation schedule can be determined by the members. Rotating leadership has many advantages. There is a greater variety of experience available; responsibility for the group is shared; members gain practice teaching and facilitating; participants can test methods they have received from their helping spirits in a group setting.

Focus & Purpose of the Circle

For a shamanic drumming circle to be effective, it is important to establish a focus and purpose for the circle from the beginning. When inviting members, they should have a clear understanding about what is being offered, and they should explicitly agree to it. To gain the most shamanic knowledge through a shamanic drumming circle, it is important to discipline yourself and to focus upon and use shamanic methods. Many members will have extensive skills in other disciplines: psychology, astrology, psychic work, body work, healing, energy and light work, etc. The presence of skilled people within your circle is a wonderful asset. But, it is important to agree that this drumming circle is focused upon practicing and gaining shamanic knowledge and that shamanic methods will be used during your time together.

Format of the Circle

There are many ways to format a shamanic drumming circle. There are two basic aspects to the format:

  1. Considerations of place, start time and length, frequency, and fee;
  2. General flow or ingredients of each meeting: Will format be consistent each meeting or will it change each meeting?

The great majority of drumming circles find it most effective to have, at minimum, a consistent time and frequency for the drumming circle to meet. Most of us already lead very full lives. Most people find it possible to plan and adjust their schedules for a regular session, but very difficult to do so otherwise. Having a consistent central location for your circle is also helpful. Many groups, however, also like to rotate the meeting place, especially when the members may have some distance to travel. An issue for the first meeting of your drumming circle might be to journey on these important details. What kind of schedule and place would be most helpful to gain to gain shamanic knowledge from your drumming circle? Do you want to rent a facility? Will there be a fee for your sessions? What will the fee cover?

Another consideration and subject for a journey at your first meetings together might be the general flow for each meeting of your drumming circle. For example, how will you open the circle? How will you invite the spirits? Will you use candles? Scent? Drumming or rattling?

Will you have a time for introducing new practices? Will you have a time for practicing methods already learned? Will there be a time for personal sharing? Will time be set aside for healing (with express permission of the person to be healed)? How will you close your circle?

Most circles find it most effective to have, at minimum, a general flow for each session, consisting of, for example, opening the circle, checking in, practicing the methods, healing requests, closing the circle. This kind of general format usually provides a greater sense of security for members and makes it to possible to get to the practices more efficiently to gain the most knowledge and depth.

Content for the Drumming Circle Sessions

If your drumming circle is led by a consistent facilitator, then that person will probably determine the content of each meeting. If leadership is rotated, then the leader of a particular session will most likely propose the content.

There are many other ways to determine the content. You can journey before each session. The group can journey when the drumming circle first starts (or annually, monthly, or as often as desired) to determine what content you will include in each meeting.

Considerations about content should include the level of experience of the members (it is most helpful to include content which is at or just beyond the level of experience of the participants). Too much too soon can overwhelm a person; material presented without the proper context can be counter-productive and interfere with a participant’s own timing and process. Keep in mind that something new does not have to be introduced with each session. Many very experienced shamanic practitioners take the FSS Basic Workshop many times – each time taking it to a deeper level and giving themselves a solid foundation. Don’t be concerned about repeating an exercise until people really feel they have gained the most from it. Be aware of the needs of the members of your circle and respect their process.

The Ethics of Shamanic Work

Before doing any healing work in your circle for anyone, you must have their express and informed consent to do shamanic (spiritual) healing. In shamanic work, we are privileged to deal with matters of the soul. It is every person’s right to determine what can and should be done for his or her own soul. Before doing any healing, get consent from the person. If the person is a child, get the consent of the parents or primary caregivers. If the person is in a coma, you must have the permission of their family or guardian. And, you should still journey to that person to ask their permission and what it is they want. When dealing with the spirit of a deceased person, permission from his or her family or guardian is still desirable. And, again, you should also ask the spirit of the person what they want. If in doubt, don’t do the work.

In cases of natural and national disasters, it is still important to ask permission from the spirits of the land and the spirits or people involved before trying to help. Remember, we don’t know the ways of different cultures or peoples or the needs of another’s soul.

A circle of shamanic practitioners can offer powerful healing for individuals and for communities. Use it wisely, humbly, respectfully, and compassionately.

Within your circle, keep in mind that it is important for people to have their own direct experience. Try to resist the impulse to analyze or fix each other. Keep in mind that a person’s experience is perfect for him or her; the experiences in the journey were given to the person making the journey. You do not need to try to interpret it. When someone has a powerful emotional experience, there is no need to rush to comfort or congratulate them. Accept each other and let each other be. Do not compare your experience with anyone else’s experience. One great gift you can give to your circle is the power of your listening and acceptance.

Remember that what happens in your circle is confidential. This is essential to building a sense of trust and safety, without which you cannot have an effective drumming circle.

Within your circle, keep in mind that the helping spirits are attracted to harmony. Remember that you are a circle and a circle is one, whole. To be healed is to be made whole. When you are of one heart as a drumming circle, the spirits will support you with all of their power, wisdom, and love.