The following is from a paper on the meditative aspects of playing the tabla, which I wrote while I was briefly a grad student in 2010. I was asked to try a meditative practice for three weeks and report the results. In the account given in these paragraphs, you will find the very definition of “monkey mind” that meditation practitioners speak of so often:
I recently bought a tabla set (a pair of hand drums from India) thinking it would be a good way to calm myself physically and mentally at the end of the day. It also occurred to me that this would be a good way for me to attempt to use each side of my brain for different things, as one of the drums is a “bass” drum and one is higher pitched. Generally the bass drum, the dayan is used for background sound, while the higher-pitched drum, the bayan, is used to color the sound.
So that was my initial goal going into this. To train the two sides of my brain to think independently. First, I just did repetitive patterns on each drum individually, trying to get comfortable and get them memorized. I found myself stopping and smiling periodically at how relaxed I felt. The rest of my day is so scripted, this felt good. Even though it felt like I was conforming to a repetitive pattern, as I went along I was able to add things to the pattern and go in any direction I wanted to with it.
By the second session I was managing to tie together the simplistic beat I was laying down on the dayan with the complex bayan work. By the end of this session I was able to get one good two-handed pattern going, and then switch it up, nimbly transitioning. I found myself closing my eyes and trying to split my mind’s focus between the two drums. As I am already a meditator, this became a great practice for me.
With St. Patrick’s Day was coming up, I thought “What better way to celebrate my new-found love for this Indian drum set than figuring out how to play along with ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.'” I quickly figured out that the tabla is not really that type of instrument. I felt I had made great progress in my second session, but by the third, I found myself getting a little carried away, losing sight of my goal of relaxation. To the point that my wife asked me “Are you going to bang those drums all night?: I was just having so much fun creating patterns and layering on new sounds.
As I went into my second week, I made it my goal to create some patterns and just let my imagination go, while still focusing on what each drumming hand was doing. Not to make this exercise more complex than it needed to be, but I also began to consciously focus on keeping my back straight because when playing the tabla, you sit on the floor with legs crossed, with no back support. This was helpful for me because I had recently entered physical therapy for my back. I have spina bifida and have long had trouble with my back. So now, I started with meditation, then meditating on keeping my back straight, and then began to drum.
As the second week unfolded, I began to accept the fact that that patterns I created on the drum did not have to be so complex. Having grounded myself in this way, I began having more fun. Once again though, I began to delve a little deeper into the playing and I felt my mind opening up to feelings and sounds that I had usually ignored, or never noticed. I was still frustrated at this point though, because I would still have times when my rhythm collapsed upon itself and devolved into general chaos and a cacophony of noise.
Oh well, though. All things must pass, and you keep going, I’ve learned.
My third week found me relaxing a bit, and tinkering around with how to play along with songs like “Imagine” by John Lennon (which became a quasi-spiritual experience itself) and the long, spooky drum intro to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, which I thought was played on a tabla, but it seems I am mistaken. To be able to take part in some of the music that I love in that way was a reinforcing experience. I always found playing guitar to be so difficult. My playing never sounded like the real thing. But with drumming, it doesn’t have to. It just has to fit with the basic rhythm and you can become a part of the song. Another kind of “transcendental” experience I suppose.
Though I did not accomplish the goals I set out to accomplish in this three-week-long experiment, and I was a little haphazard in my direction and progress, overall I hope this effort has made me more whole-minded, ambidextrous. It has certainly reinforced my love for the tabla.